“O what we ben! And what we come to …How cud any 1 not want to get that shining Power back from time back way back? How cud any 1 not want to be like them what had boats in the air and picters on the wind? How cud any 1 not want to see them shining weals terning?” – excerpt from Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban
The above lament is taken from Russell Hoban”s post-apocalyptic sci-fi novel, Riddley Walker – a story set in a future England, in which society is living through a new iron age. Fragments of the previous world are dug up from the dirt, or passed down the generations in broken english, to form the myths that underpin there current ”civilisation”. The main character, Riddley, is haunted by the evidence of a previous society that was far more technologically advanced, and yet sewed the seeds of its own destruction in the “1Big1”. A similar kind of post-apocalytic shamanism forms the basis for Dave Griffith”s Babel Fiche film, currently showing at the Castlefield Gallery, Manchester.
“What can be said then when history is scribed in the throes of its own collapse?” – excerpt from Babel Fiche
Set in a future / alternative now, the film follows two archivists attempting to interpret a collection of images that have survived some kind of global catastrophe (no explicit cause is given, though it is strongly hinted that it may have been some kind of flood – Griffiths also references Hurricane Katrina in his exhibition notes). The archive itself is on microfiche – a medium associated with genealogy, technical diagrams, newspapers and public records. In this case however, the microfilms contain thousands of sequential frames from numerous films. It is a clever device, at once opening up a discussion on the difficulty in preserving moving image and digital media through the use of an analogue archival medium, but also enabling us to see intriguing animated glimpses of the world as it was back in the 21st Century. And what an odd society we were! Pigs, dancers, crowds, teacups, snails, building demolitions and more, are analysed for meaning, scoured for correlations. The ”archivists” are surveyors of a nonsensical variety of scenes, stripped of any context: a disconnected collection. It is an idea that poet Nathan Jones also touched on in my film Noahs Ark – “the archive that holds only dismembered memories” – his words suggesting that any archive will become increasingly fragmented and ultimately lose its sense of context, should it survive long enough to see the apocalypse.
The Babel Fiche archivists seem at once annoyed by the old world”s arrogance, and baffled by its humour, its variety and colour. It is somehow both familiar and alien. As they pore over the images, they search for clues about how the previous society brought about its demise, and how the current one came to pass.
“At first I look for any glimpse of knowing that all faith wasn”t lost in the way we were told. That my world could rise from the ashes of yours, in another time.”
The film reinforces up this sense of future / past through the combination of the two very different styles of filmmaking – the stop frame animation of micro films as seen through the microfiche reader, and the sleek cinematography of the archivists and the city below, with its steady glides and patient manipulation of depth of field to reveal / obscure details. The ”discovered” microfilms, regardless of how they were originally shot, all posses a mysterious quality for having gone through this obscure analogue process. The re-animation of their frames, back from the dead, the gridlines clearly visible as they are arranged on the microfilm, reminds us that this is not the film itself we are seeing, but simply what the film looked like.
“Did you panic, about how your truths would survive the coming storms?”
Griffiths sourced his films via submissions to the project website, and I was lucky enough to have one of my clips archived in this fashion. The clip chosen was that of crowds gathered in Liverpool awaiting the giant spider La Machine, which then appears briefly. A strange clip for those archivist looking back to ponder our society, but no stranger than any of the others. The range of events, people, symbols, methods and indeed authors, make this a bizarre collection, but one that you could happily believe might ascend into mythological status, inspiring wonder and bemusement, should they be the last remaining images of our time. The Babel Fiche film and installation on at the Castlefield Gallery, Deansgate, Manchester until 30th September.