I’m not really interested in ‘recording for posterity.’ That’s an incidental, or accidental value or interest that any of my films might have (not what I’m making it for). I make my films for audiences who are there at the time – for a response at the time. ((Margaret Tait: Filmmaker, 1983.))
On The Idea of Permanence
In my introduction, I stated that I believe it is the Archivist’s job to be able to offer an alternative understanding of the ‘ravages of time’. I also began this paper by wanting to highlight both the philosophical and ethical nature of the profession, concentrating on our idea of permanence which I believe to be at the heart of this ethic. At every stage, our conceptualisation of ‘permanence’ informs how we approach collecting, restoring, preserving and presenting moving images. Prior to collecting, we tend to classify. That is, we prioritise, in a hermeneutic sense, certain objects based on our location in history. Thus, what we choose to classify are “truly the mirror of our thoughts, its changes through time are the best guide to the history of human perception.” ((Purcell & Gould, Illuminations: A Bestiary, 1986, 14. Quoted in Elsner & Cardinal, The Cultures of Collecting, 1994, 2.)) Collecting, as the material embodiment of classifying, presumes the possibility of a degree of permanence in that which is being collected. The truly ephemeral escapes us, the fragile demands our attention and excitement, the enduring provides us comfort. In all, the objects we collect and the way in which we collect them are extending the knowledge that we have inherited to contribute towards a persisting social order. In reality, that is where our idea of permanence tends to be fulfilled; not in the relatively fleeting existence of the object itself (nor the fleeting pleasure found in the object) but in the continuing social order to which its classification and collecting has contributed.
Archives tend to be distributed according to place: usually national, regional, local or individual. These terms themselves are based on classifying people into collectives such as British, Scottish or Orcadian, like Margaret Tait. As Gould noted, what we collect is a mirror of ourselves (or for the individual collector, her Self) and that may reflect an inherited inclination towards certain things or, if we choose to distinguish ourselves from the past, we might collect to assert our independence. The Scottish Film and Television Archive fulfills both these roles by collecting moving images which emphasise the collective cultural inheritance/heritage of the Scottish people and also images which are unique to Scotland, (i.e. their significance might be that they are not images of/by the English, Welsh or Irish).
Margaret Tait’s work has been classified by the Archive to be of the highest historical importance (grade one out of three). The reasons for this are obvious: the films are technically and aesthetically unique, the collection is extensive and quite complete, the biographical details of the filmmaker contribute to national, regional and local historical narratives. The films clearly identify the film maker as Scottish, not in a stereotypical way, but rather they add to the diversity of the Archive’s collection which mirrors the image of the diversity of the Scottish themselves. By preserving Tait’s films (which might outlive us but are not permanent), the Archive and its Archivists are engaged in preserving a social order (also called ‘our heritage’) which in one form or another is as old as our idea of permanence itself. I hope this goes some way to explaining my earlier comment about Archiving being a profession which attempts to extend the life of a culture, society, institution or individual by extending the life of the image or representation of these entities. It is not as foolish an enterprise as it might first appear as it shows an acceptance of the inevitable mortality of mankind but an understanding that social order can and must continue.
As Archivists, our idea of permanence should not be restricted to primarily the physical permanence of the object but more towards the collective social sense which we derive from the images we consume daily. The Archivist’s responsibility to society is that we are able to duly classify this overwhelming number of images and justify our decision to collect them for the continuing benefit of others. Ideally, it is a selfless profession that offers people opportunities for pleasure and learning today while ensuring that limited economic resources are invested in preserving over time information that is of benefit and use to society. In the end, it comes down to the apparently unavoidable conflict between preserving moving images and providing adequate public access to them. The answer, I suppose, is to be pragmatic and treat each instance of conflict separately.
So what of Margaret Tait and her five hand-painted films? I have already offered some of my own thoughts on why I think they are worth investing in and I’m sure the SFTVA could offer more of their own. Yet returning to the more practical aspects of restoration and preservation, I have indicated that the possible cost of full restoration separations or a digital restoration would be very high. How is the spending of public money, usually received in the form of grants, justified in this instance? Ironically, funding would also be needed to promote to the public how their money is being well spent. This is where the biographical details of Tait’s fascinating life are useful; to show that these unusual films are more than just dancing colours on a screen. We can show that they were the life’s work of a woman who gave up medicine because of the feeling “that it was necessary to do something more than just simply bringing people back to bodily health.” ((Margaret Tait: Filmmaker, 1983.)) That these films have a personal history, a personality even, is not only vital in justifying their preservation but also important to the new status they have attained as social documents. Although Tait may not have been interested in recording for posterity, we have seen that when closely observed, the films document the labours of an artist who, throughout her life, was an exception in Scotland. The technical and the biographical are no more intimately interwoven than when we see how she painted with ‘medical dyes’. To emphasise this holistic nature of her method would show that they are not only film-poems, sometimes funny, quite often serious, but innovations that stretch beyond the usual boundaries of film making.