Re-store, Re-mix, Re-play: Moving Image Culture in the Digital Era

By Julia Knight


The way we access and consume moving image work is changing. That’s not to say that we don’t still go to the cinema or rent a film for home viewing, but rather that we now have access to a far greater amount of material. With the spread of broadband internet access the number of videos available online has, according to most estimates, reached the tens of millions and probably spilled over the 100 million mark. Much of this work is user-generated, uploaded to sites such as YouTube or to producers’ own websites, but traditional film archives (such as the North West Film Archive) and museums with film collections (such as the British Empire and Commonwealth Museum) are also making their collections at least partly available online.

This has fuelled a so-called ‘remix’ culture, with an increasing number of people – media professionals and amateurs alike – appropriating and re-editing the footage now accessed so easily online (and actively supported by the Creative Commons copyright licence). ‘Remixing’ as a cultural practice is of course not new – there is a long history of found footage films – nor is it necessarily radical. However, in the digital era it has facilitated a more widespread participatory approach to moving image culture. While film theorists have long argued that viewers are far from passive consumers, access to online moving image collections and archival material has allowed a greater degree of interaction between the two. Unsurprisingly therefore, what we think of as an ‘archive’ is changing.

According to Rick Prelinger, film archives were becoming more visible from the 1970s on, but traditionally they have been fairly invisible and more concerned with preservation than with making their collections particularly accessible. Hence ‘archive’ has been a loaded term which effectively consigned work to a burial chamber and was quite distinct from a ‘distribution’ collection. The latter was work that was in active circulation, promoted, exhibited and available to be watched. But this distinction is starting to collapse. As soon as material is placed on the internet, it becomes available for (in theory) anyone to view and (increasingly) download – whether it has been placed there by an archive, a distributor, a DIY practitioner or anyone else.

I recently gave a talk to some students about my experience of developing a film and video digital research resource within the context of a session on working with archives. In talking about doing archival research, I realised that I was using the term far more loosely than I would have done ten years ago. In as much as an archive collects and preserves material, the internet can be viewed as one massive archive which also conveniently makes its material widely available. While the role of the traditional distributor will not necessarily disappear, the expectations ‘audiences’ have in relation to moving image culture are certainly changing. People now expect material will and should be readily available online.

The issue of how film and video material now circulates online, how we interrogate it and interact with it, together with the implications this has for the histories we write, was the subject of a conference – aptly entitled Future Histories of the Moving Image – held at the University of Sunderland last November. While the impetus for the conference came from a network of artists’ film and video e-resource projects, it provided an illuminating discussion of the implications of digitalisation for our moving image culture more generally and attracted practitioners, archivists, programmers and arts funders, as well as academics.


Both Prelinger and Patricia Zimmermann (Ithaca College, USA) gave highly stimulating keynote addresses about our perceptions of moving image archives, their changing role and the potential they offer. Prelinger told the gathered delegates that since the Prelinger Library and Archives ‘gave almost 2000 of our own films to the Internet Archive for unrestricted access and reuse, we’ve seen around eight million downloads in seven years’ and he estimated that over ten thousand derivative works had been made from them. While Prelinger’s archive is still exceptional, Zimmermann explored some of the emerging artistic practices that are making use of such readily available material. She gave examples of at least four kinds of practice that she saw developing – which she termed live performance remix (e.g. the live video mixes of Art Jones), locative media (e.g. Zapped! by Preemptive Media), ambient media (e.g. Tony Cokes’ work) and collaborative systems digital interfaces (e.g. Vectors Journal/Women in Prison project) – that enabled ‘alternative’ or ‘oppositional’ viewpoints to be articulated.

At the same time, Holly Aylett, the third keynote speaker, reminded the conference of the offline real world context where we still cannot take the availability of a diverse range of moving image material for granted. Although she readily acknowledged that digital distribution has certainly transformed certain aspects of our moving image culture, she argued that many of the issues remain the same and a diversity of expression in moving image will still need to be fought for. While ‘alternative’ voices utilise the internet, there is no guarantee they will be heard unless actively promoted both on- and offline, and accessed out of context there is no guarantee they will be understood.

Through her involvement with the UK Coalition for Cultural Diversity, Aylett has been tracking the UNESCO Convention for the Protection and Promotion of Diversity of Expression. The Convention is an international instrument which came onto the statute books in March 2007 and recognises that culture is not a commodity and that national governments should have a right to determine their own cultural policy. While there is an unavoidable tension between dealing with national governments offline and a global community online, Aylett likened the Convention to a room which we all have to agree to enter in order to ensure that a pluralistic moving image culture will continue to exist.

A number of other speakers at the conference also acted as a very forceful reminder of Michael Chanan’s observation in Vertigo’s Autumn 2007 issue that ‘digitalisation is not a solution to anything but a challenge’ (no. 7, p. 12). While it is tempting to view digitalisation as a solution in particular to accessibility, a number of factors often function instead to impede accessibility. Copyright legislation has meant that putting material online is often far from straightforward and can require a lengthy digital rights clearance process. Even then, many rights holders will often only permit limited access – either in the form of taster clips or via restricted access (e.g. for educational use only, as with film footage on the Arts on Film Archive ). Thus as both Annamaria Motrescu and Heather Norris Nicholson argued, not all online collections are equally accessible, with some films still difficult to see in their entirety. And even if they were, with so much material now available, merely making it accessible does not necessarily mean it will actually be accessed.

Similarly, part of the appeal of digitising material originated on older formats has been the desire to preserve them so they continue to be accessible. As Adam Lockhart of the REWIND project outlined, much early video material has become virtually unplayable due either to obsolescence or deterioration and has literally been saved through digitisation. However, the technology can be incredibly vulnerable. Computers crash, data can be lost, some file formats are unstable and, as Steven Ball of the British Artists’ Film and Video Study Collection observed, their database became unavailable when their consultant’s host server was stolen. Furthermore, as Lockhart went on to stress, some artists do not want their work put online because it is not the context for which it was made.


While copyright laws may change and technology improve, the conference also highlighted the key issue that accessibility is also fundamentally tied up with the long-term sustainability of online collections and resources. A significant number of online film and video archives/collections and related database resources in the UK have been brought into existence through funded research projects based in universities: such as the REWIND project (Dundee), the British Artists’ Film and Video Study Collection (UAL), Arts on Film Archive (Westminster) and the soon to be launched Film and Video Distribution Database (Sunderland/UAL). All of them have been faced with the problem of securing their continued existence after project funding comes to an end.

Most digitisation projects need ongoing maintenance and updating in terms of both their content and the technology. Several conference delegates stressed the importance of this for establishing such projects as resources that could be trusted by their potential users – trusted to provide accurate information and ongoing accessibility. Some projects are fortunate enough to become embedded within museums or libraries who take long-term responsibility for the resource, including migrating it to new platforms as technology develops. However, the majority of projects originating as University-led research projects are not so fortunate. Many of these – and others originating outside of the academy, such as LuxOnline – only continue to exist through a combination of goodwill and minimal financial resources.

Like diversity of expression, the sustainability and importantly the visibility of such resources – ensuring we maximise the benefits that digitalisation has to offer – will also have to be fought for. What the conference demonstrated was the need to collaborate and build partnerships, especially between academic institutions and other organisations and across their respective projects. Although the conference presented a range of fascinating papers which explored the potential of digitalisation for our moving image culture, in a way the most valuable thing was the mix of people it brought together since it provided an initial step in facilitating that activity.

Julia Knight is a Reader in Moving Image at the University of Sunderland and co-editor of Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies ( The Future Histories of the Moving Image conference was organised in conjunction with the AHRC-funded Future Histories of the Moving Image Research Network ( and details of the conference, including recordings of the keynote addresses, are available via their website (