Archive Fever: From Celluloid to Digital Body

The silver screen—from the liquidated remains of the celluloid of cinema’s past—beckons us to consider the archival form through a slew of concerns that inform related fields of art and conservation. Celluloid film was the original vessel for photography and cinema; a living, breathing medium—one that deteriorates with every viewing.

Celluloid is almost organic through its wear, similar to an aging body. This decay is familiar to us, in how it mirrors the human condition of an omnipresent interplay between life and death, use and futility. Paradoxically, it is decay that determines how we assign the organic. Melting celluloid into silver was a common enough practice in India, since the 60s and 70s, which is telling in how we have valued our filmic, and ultimately, artistic and cultural heritage—from industry to institution.

The traditional form of the archive involves the imposition of overriding structures and systems of classification for organisation and ultimately, knowledge production. The archive seeks to be external to the object-form. However, there is an existential crisis, inextricably linked to the form of the archive; by its very nature the archive is self-defeating to its purpose, as it seeks to document experience(s) of the whole, to represent. French deconstructionist Jacques Derrida posited the archive as fueled and sustained, by the death drive, the Freudian bug that exists within nature and the human psyche, of the destructive drive to return to a state before the fact of birth. Vice versa, the death drive is said to be anarchic and refusing archivisation, inducing forgetfulness, gaps in memory and ultimately, destruction of its own traces—according to Derrida, it “devours it even before producing it on the outside”, a constant tension concurrent.

Derrida says that the consequence of the need for an external for an archive to exist, is “what permits and conditions archivisation” is that we will “never find anything other than what exposes to destruction.” There, the archive only works against itself.

Observed through the finitudes we experience and perceive, creates the archival impulse. Derrida characterised the archival impulse as a “fever” or perhaps more accurately, “feverish”, to express the erratic energy, a compulsivity, that directs itself towards achieving a “completeness”, to command and structure, and ultimately consume, by defining the whole.

Walter Benjamin spoke of a “foreboding” of an age where the impulse to collect only grows expontentially. The digital as form is a priori, in and of itself, an archival form–self-referential in nature. This in itself becomes the ultimate archival form in one sense, where it is alive as a repository and an interpretive space, that film scholar, Ashish Rajadhyaksha posits as the archive.

The digital form is seen as the truly archival image, according to cultural theorist, Okwui Enweazor. The digital file and form is its own archivisation, not relying on an external, i.e. separate from itself. With the fact of digital bootlegging, the digital file constantly undergoes replication and decentralised distribution, from institute/company to a worldwide userbase. The digital file exists in the multiples, against the singular source in analogue, and distribution networks are such that they are difficult to wipe out, being replicated ad infinitum. This becomes an interesting dimension, as it essentially has the capacity to resuscitate lost and endangered film material. Benjamin, in his canonical text “Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, emphasises the shift through the reproducible image, as not only technical or indexical, but temporal. This is where I propose the consideration of the digital file as cyborg body—one that corrupts at random and is aligned with the chaos of the inorganic. The digital can be endlessly replicated in theory, not requiring re-production. The almost primitive nature of digital distribution challenges and circumvents established channels of distribution in the “material” aspect, and the very form of the archive itself.

With the digital age, came the subsequent decentralisation of information, and subsequently film, creating networks of peer-to-peer sharing and communities that rallied to archive. This was easier to achieve in the digital form through torrenting, online streaming, peer-to-peer filesharing (remember MediaFire?) and other forms of digital bootlegging and hoarding. The early 2000s to mid-2010s was the era of digital accumulation. This was until the final blow to the global network of web piracy, in 2014, when the PirateBay headquarters, and subsequently other major sites were raided and servers seized.

These forms of dissemination allowed for rich repositories – personal in form – and restricted to thousands of hard drives across the world – a strange digital utopia. Of especially music and film, they served well especially, previously having been bound tightly by the distribution channels. Now through platforms like Mubi and Criterion Channel are now building archives of restored and rare films, for past and contemporary, though again limited by distribution channels and licenses—titles vary from country to country.

Preservation of films in the Indian context shows us a haphazard body of uneven preservation and conservation, where value is not met with the archival impulse. Beyond institutionalisation of our collective cinematic body, beyond internationally recognised directors like Satyajit Ray and Mani Kaul (whose films have been painstakingly restored, but at the same time, original material has faced decay and loss) and Bollywood, how do we keep attempts to preserve and circulate film alive? The Bazaar method of conservation refers to the material, unstructured, unorganised systems of circulation that exist in a decentralised form, which Rajadhyaksha talks about. He mentions the original print of Kannada actor Rajkumar’s first film Bedara Kannappa, that was thought to be lost, but was eventually found being regularly screened at a temple in Old Delhi, with the copy attained from Chor Bazaar. This seemingly antithetical form of conservation, that takes from the un-organised modes of circulation and eventual discard, presents a chaotic, almost anarchic form of consumption outside of the institutional space. These are fugitive responses to national and subsequently global knowledge suprastructures.

The Bazaar Conservation method, as termed by Rajadhyaksha, subverts the singularity of authorial intention in film conservation strategy. As with the expensive process of digitisation, there are constant questions that arise of value and the “canon” in Indian (and to extend, world) cinema, and the parameters to be drawn around what is to be salvaged for future generations and cultural history at large, and what we can “allow” to deteriorate and eventually disappear. The English word “archive” is traced to have been in use from early 17th century onwards, but its verb form has only been dated back to the late 19th century, which could lend an insight into the evolving form of the archive, and our conception of it, from simply meaning “public” or government records. Rajadhyaksha speaks of the archive not only as a repository, but also an “interpreative space”, i.e. a site for the production of knowledge.

The late PK Nair, obsessive film archivist and former director of National Film Archives of India, Pune, shared an anecdote in the documentary film Celluloid Man, of instances where Russian films, celluloid at the time, would be sent to the NFAI in exchange for Indian films the reel cases harbouring secret exchanges between the institutes and countries, a fugitive strategy of conservation, beyond established international (and legal) systems of trade. He would be fondly remembered by students at FTII for the open screenings, where he’d freely show films from the archive. This is commendable in relation to what Rajadhyaksha says about the Bazaar method. Beyond this, he is said to have singlehandedly spearheaded the mission of Indian film conservation at NFAI (to the extent of seemingly disrupting his own private life at times). Such strategies in play produce disruptions to the organising systems of power. In the digital age, the figure of the collector and archivist is shifting—presenting a “chaos of memories” in unorganised collections over several hard drives, as P.P Sneha, digital humanities scholar, writes.

In contrast, “prearchiving” in anticipation, according to Derrida, becomes an archival violence, where overriding structures are imposed, falsely, beforehand. This is opposed to “allowing” the archive to grow “organically”, unorganised. This is where he draws on notions of archival violence. The pre-emptive nature of this imposes an institutional violence in a underlying expectation of hierarchical considerations. The archival problem arises here—where does the outside (of the archive) commence?

The fast-evolving nature of technologies, paired with their past forced obsolescence, made the format of video up until the digital, unreliable. Problems range from preservation of analogue material that already exists, to interpreting, tagging, categorising and allocating other forms of signifiers so as to assure a future of the organised digital archive. Another problem being battled is the exponential increase in storage required for a present that is digitally conscious/self-aware. Archival digital material also needs to be in good condition in order to assure good digital copies that will continue to mark the file(s).

Even with the digital, we lament the quick random deaths of files, vastly different from the wear and tear of the celluloid body, to a erratic, random corruption of files. This chaotic impulse of the digital to destroy itself, so to speak, can be seen in comparison to the preservation of celluloid and other analogue forms of data storage. Digital film also needs constant restoration wherein there lies the problem of expense, again, along with suitable knowledge, skill, and strategies in consignation.

The Getty Research Institute uses a digital preservation software, that generates a “checksum”, which they compare to a fingerprint of a file, or a unique code, where a numerical value is assigned based on the weight of the file, which they intermittently use to compare and generate constantly, to prevent from decay, and restore from a backup copy. Though the backup copy is an infinite archival process as well, backup copies distributed across various servers hints at some hope.

The route to conservation and preservation lies outside of the institutional superstructures of knowledge-to-peer is a radical shift from the global scale of things, where the “local” becomes the antidote.


Sukanya Deb is an art writer and micro-curator online/ IRL. At The Foundation for Indian Contemporary Art (FICA), her work lies in developing public programmes and publications, and thinking alongside a live archive via Project_Space, and the Reading Room collection + material. She finds herself currently dwelling on/in disruption as technique, {memory, utterance, articulation} and re-thinking exhibitory formats.