Future of the BFI: Moving Towards the Millennium... Visual Culture in the Digital Age

By Graham Murdoch

Commercial cinema formally arrived in Britain on a February day in 1896 when the first paying customers filed in to watch a film show at the Regent Street Polytechnic. At the time, almost nobody grasped the far-reaching implications of these modest beginnings to the modern age of the moving image. The Daily Mail, the country’s first mass daily newspaper, also launched in 1896, was unimpressed. Its special edition, printed ‘To Commemorate the Dawn of the Twentieth Century’, contained no mention of cinema, though it did speculate that wireless telegraphy might become a significant force in the future.

It was a stab in the dark, but a prescient one and, by an odd quirk of fortune, the citadel of the public medium that eventually emerged – the BBC’s headquarters at Broadcasting House – was built only a few yards from the Polytechnic, at the top of Regent Street. It was a suitably modernist edifice, a white stone tower that dominated the surrounding buildings and drew the eye inexorably towards it.

When, a few decades later, the coronation of the present Queen installed the fledging medium of TV at the centre of national life, it ended half a century of monopoly control over the culture of the moving image. Film was no longer the only way of organising a dynamic visual culture, and a night at the cinema no longer the only chance to engage with it at first hand. Visual experience became a continuous flow that entered into everyday life more insistently and more intimately than ever before.

The British Film Institute was founded on the cusp of this transition. Although it belatedly added a sustained engagement with TV to its remit, its imaginative and aesthetic heart lay with the big screen. Its activities were powered by a fascination with film and cinema. Its present Royal Charter requires it ‘to encourage the development of the art of film’ and to ‘foster study and appreciation of films for television’, adding ‘and television programmes generally’ almost as an afterthought.

Now we stand on the edge of another, altogether more fundamental, shift in the organisation of visual culture – the arrival of the digital age. Because digital technologies allow all forms of information – moving images, photographs, paintings, text, data, sound, music, the human voice – to be translated into the universal language of 0s and 1s, and to be stored, transmitted and worked on using common technological systems, such as digital discs and broadband telecommunication networks, they open up a range of new possibilities and challenges. We are witnessing an unprecedented convergence of previously separate cultural domains both industrially, as powerful new alliances of computer, image and telecommunications interests start to coalesce, and aesthetically, as the first multimedia forms begin to emerge. If we are to arrive at a workable contemporary conception of the public interest in a visual landscape increasingly commandeered by promotion and sectional interests, we will need a new national institution to act as a focus and provocation. Not one that starts with film and works outwards, but one centred on the mutating culture of the moving image and the forces that are reshaping it. We need a National Institute for the Moving Image (NIMI).

This is not to say that film and cinema are spent forces. Like the book, reports of their deaths have been greatly exaggerated. But their role in visual culture will certainly change as they are incorporated into a digitalised field of vision in which new modes of production, distribution and audience activity are laid over the top of existing forms, detonating novel collisions, convergences and combinations. An imaginative encounter with the emerging culture of the moving image and its possible trajectories requires us to look long and hard at a whole series of innovations that are on the outer edges or beyond the BFI’s remit – computer games, virtual reality systems, multimedia CD-ROMs, digital image manipulation, interactive broadband networks.

The Museum of the Moving Image is a partial exception. In its range of interests and styles of presentation it has reached out into the wider culture of the moving image in ways that are creative and accessible. Its well-deserved success and popularity stands in marked contrast to the uneven record of the National Film Theatre. Better to close this auditorium, dissolve the host institution and incorporate its core resources into a new body with a remit designed with the requirements of the next century firmly in mind.

If we want a millennial project of the pictorial imagination, that celebrates a century of achievement and engages creatively with the future of visual culture, constructing a National Institute of the Moving Image for the digital age, which addresses people as citizens and members of moral communities and not as simply consumers, is an ideal candidate. The scale and significance of the innovations now in train require an ambitious response, but it cannot be planned in splendid isolation. It necessarily touches on a number of other areas of social and cultural policy. Four suggest themselves immediately: the future organisation of education; securing public access to the ‘information superhighway’; the structure and regulation of digital TV facilities; and the long-term future of the Millennial site at Greenwich. Debates around these issues provide the immediate contexts for thinking about NIMI’s organisation and role. As a modest beginning we need to tackle five basic aspects of its constitution: funding, archiving, analysis, access and innovation.

Public funding, set at an appropriate initial level and index-linked, is essential to sustain and develop a core infrastructure but, in increasingly straitened fiscal times, it will never be sufficient to support the full range of NIMI’s activities. Other sources of finance will be needed. The Lottery Fund may back individual projects, but there can be no guarantee of this. Partnerships with commercial and other organisations offer ways of funding some innovations, but the quid pro quos will need to be looked at carefully. So where might stable, supplementary funds for basic initiatives come from? One obvious source is transfers from the taxable profits of major commercial players in the moving image business. Traditionally, earmarked payments are deeply unpopular in Whitehall and Westminster, but without them, there will be little chance of establishing a dynamic and forceful public presence in the digital image environment.

One of NIMI’s core tasks will be to establish a comprehensive archive of the moving image that is readily accessible and easy to use. Because the BFI’s current collections rely on purchases and voluntary deposits, they are inevitably patchy and incomplete. The British Library Board’s recent call for the 1911 Copyright Act’s requirements for legal deposit to be extended to film, digital publications and other non-print materials is an essential first step. NIMI would be the library of deposit for the moving image, legally entitled to a copy of all productions intended for public circulation, from films and video tapes and discs to computer games. Broadcasting, however, presents a special case. Recording and logging the continuous flow of material on every one of the rapidly proliferating array of channels would require an enormous outlay of time and resources. But we do urgently need a comprehensive national archive of TV. This requirement could be satisfied if every terrestrial, satellite and cable company serving British audiences deposited a copy of all original news, current affairs, documentary and drama productions, together with recordings of the entire output of each of their channels on an agreed day every month.

Because these innovations would produce a vast mountain of material, it is essential that storage be digitalised from the outset. This would not only make best use of the valuable library space but also open up a range of new possibilities for distribution, access, commentary and analysis.

One of NIMI’s basic aims would be to establish itself as a major node in the national and international broadband networks currently under construction, and to play a central role in providing and developing on-line databases, electronic journals and magazines, and Internet information and discussion sites. These facilities would provide novel ways of linking the metropolis to the regions, professional expertise to amateur enthusiasm, and practitioners, critics, fans, students and other interested individuals to each other. Schools, colleges and community centres, for example, would have access to an unparalleled resource base, enabling them to participate in on-line seminars and discussions, or to contribute their own materials (and oral and pictorial history of local cinema, for example) to the archive.

NIMI would also take a leading role in exploring the potential of hypertext systems – both on-line and on CD-ROM – for developing moving image literacy. The immense possibilities opened up by CD technology are already evident. Being able to offer the final cut of film, for example, alongside out-takes, various versions of the shooting script, interviews with those involved in the production, publicity packs, reviews and critical commentaries, allows for an open-ended investigation that continually suggests unexpected connections. And as popular simulations like Sim City have shown, computer games in which the player has to launch and sustain a project offer rich new ways of exploring the intersections of creative and commercial logic in the moving image business. However, without a sustained project that is educational in the widest and best sense, these technologies will be comprehensively annexed solely by promotional, marketing and commercial interests. NIMI’s task is to use them to launch creative, public interventions that combine pleasure with critique.

Developing digital re-sources is only a first step, however. We also need to ensure that they are accessible to the widest possible range of people. Despite the more optimistic forecasts, a substantial section of the population is never likely to have the full range of digital facilities at home. NIMI’s success as a creative force in public life will, therefore, depend on their general availability. The Labour Party’s projected agreement, whereby BT is allowed to enter the market early for interactive entertainment services in return for providing broadband connections to every school, library and community centre in the country, is a promising first step. But, having a link is of limited value if it can’t be used effectively. There is a case for requiring BT (which is already the largest corporation in the economy, and stands to be a major player in the future of home entertainment) to provide free connection time and free equipment to public sites, possibly in partnership with other major companies.

Although these new technologies allow users to link into existing networks of exchange and collaboration, they are designed to be used by individuals or small groups. But NIMI also needs to explore more general forms of distribution. TV has long been the primary source of most people’s film experience, but opportunities to make full use of the medium have been limited by channel scarcity. Digital compression offers the prospect of abundance. At least one of these new channels should be operated by NIMI, in partnership, as a celebration and exploration of the culture of the moving image in all its variety. As the major moving image institution with a public service remit, the BBC is the obvious partner. An unscrambled, non-subscription channel would be a logical extension of its national role, and could be funded out of profits from its expanding commercial activities.

Wide-screen, high-definition domestic screens will move TV viewing closer to the cinematic experience, but they will never be a substitute for it. Film culture needs to preserve the exhilaration of being in a large audience. Not by creating venues fenced off from the mainstream, but by re-entering its flow of pleasures. NIMI should seek to capitalise on the success of the multiplex movement by securing rights to control the programming of one screen in every existing and future complex on a rent-free basis. Such rights should be written into the planning process as a public amenity.

Digital technologies will allow NIMI to operate less as a physical centre and more as the primary node in a national network. But there are several core elements of its overall project that cannot be accomplished on-line or at a distance. These need a substantial integrated site. The South Bank, which currently houses MOMI and NFT, is already cramped and presents only limited prospects for future development. The designated site for the millennial celebrations, down-river at Greenwich, offers much more potential. A building on this site, once the turn-of-the-century celebrations are over, would be a wager on the future vitality of visual culture. In addition to housing the administration and the archive it would provide space for two major new installations. The first would be a Digital Image Laboratory that would launch a major programme of research and development in the educational, social and artistic applications of emerging moving-image systems. Given the country’s wealth of creative talent and the exponential growth in demand for software and services in these areas, such an intervention has the potential to become a major force for developing cultural innovations and economic initiatives. The second would be an extension of MOMI, part interactive museum, part exhibition and conference space, part theme park, offering access to and commentary on every major aspect of the culture of the moving image, from the magic lantern show to virtual reality systems. Both of these initiatives offer opportunities for partnerships with commercial companies both would raise additional revenues.

Whether they knew it or not, when they opened the doors of the Regent Street Polytechnic in 1896, the organisers of the first commercial cinema show established potent connections between education, pleasure and the moving image. NIMI’s role is to celebrate the arts of the moving image in all their proliferating forms and to forge new links between critical citizenship, enjoyment and creativity. As Bertolt Brecht knew very well: ‘Even when there is talk of higher and lower forms of amusement, art keeps a straight face, because it wishes to move both high and low…as long as it can entertain people by doing so.’

Graham Murdoch, is Reader in Sociology of Culture at Loughborough University and Professor of Communications at the University of Bergen, Norway