A Restoration – Reviewed

I’m currently sitting in the cafe beneath The Ashmolean in Oxford. It’s bustling with tourists, seniors and families taking a break from the collections above and the rain outside. I’ve taken refuge from the museum above because my mind has just been completely overloaded – and I haven’t even visited a single exhibition space yet. I’ve just come straight from seeing Elizabeth Price’s ‘A Restoration’: a video-art installation based on the archives of Sir Arthur Evans, the English archaeologist who excavated Crete’s Knossos in 1900. It’s a stunning artwork. Literally. Set in a dedicated dark space, surrounded by speakers and flashing phrenetically across two screens, the viewer is bombarded with successive layers of poetic narration (of a synthetic disembodied collective voice of imaginary administartors), percussive electronic music (think Yann Tiersen’s ‘Amelie’ soundtrack crossed with Jamie XX), and cleverly edited archival images (historical and modern photographs of artefacts, drawings, maps, graphics and clever animations bring to life both Minoan iconography as well as computer archival icons). In this way, like Alice through the rabbit hole, or Theseus in the labyrinth, ‘A Restoration’ takes you ever deeper into the world of the mysterious administrators.

Screen Shot 2016-05-10 at 13.48.53

‘A Restoration’ is not a politically or culturally critical artwork – especially compared to some of the recent video-art installation works disentangling (post)-colonialism, museology and repatriation which I saw attached to the joint British Museum – National Museum of Australia exhibit (how I wish that exhibit had toured to the UK! I may have to write about that exhibit and its use of art and video too actually…). Instead, ‘A Restoration’ is a playful, gentle, exploratory, and softly satirical work, commenting more on the limitations of our ways of knowing and envisioning the past, and our possibly naïve attempts to reconstruct the past in some ideal form. It has a very European sensibility to it: testing but also ultimately propagating the notion of Knossos as the fount of European civilization, constructed seed by seed, brick by brick, person by person – as illustrated in the fragments composed together like a giant jigsaw puzzle of the past. It concludes somewhat ambiguously – which to me is a reminding that in the end our attempts to preserve the remains of the past can only be at best, temporary.

You can see a trailer of ‘A Reconstruction’ on the Guardian website, and on Elizabeth Price’s website. The exhibit continues for 5 more days until 15th March.

Marina Warner wrote a lovely essay on the exhibit, which was available on site as a pamphlet. Hopefully it will be published after the exhibit. Keep an eye out.

 

The debut of Stonehenge on the silver screen

It’s just been brought to my attention that the BFI has finally made their footage of Stonehenge from 1900 publicly available online (until now you needed to visit their mediatheque in person or log in via an institution to see it). I’ve been trying to chase details on the background and life of this footage for a while now, so I’m glad it’s now officially in the public domain so I can share the love.

My question is: could this be the oldest surviving footage of an archaeological site on film?

The cool thing about such material is it raises interesting possibilities about using old footage as an alternative form of evidence for interpreting archaeological sites – and if you’re interested in that then you might be interested in Amara Thornton’s research and UCL’s Filming Antiquity project. There is so material much on shelves, in private homes and in public institutions, trapped on celluloid and slowly rotting away, so it’s great to see action being taken in this field. Very cool stuff.

Check it out and let us know what you think! Happy Monday!

Going Deeper: 6 Tips for Filming at Archaeology Excavations

Well, I’ve just arrived back from a month’s field work and filming in Greece and while the field directors gets on with the data processing and report writing, I’m chasing a couple of final permits and getting ready to crack into the edit. I haven’t even sat through most of the footage yet so I don’t want to discuss the production too closely and prematurely (that is, afterall, what the thesis is for). But I was very pleased to get some feedback on my blog from readers the other day – apparently there are a few of you who regularly visit this blog for tips and discussion on archaeology documentary filmmaking! Thus validating my procrastination – I mean, public outreach – so bless you (and supervisors please take note). So whilst this last project is fresh on my mind, here are a 6 quick technical tips that I’ve picked up along the way and plan to apply to my filming practice next time, which might also be useful to others. A lot of this is basic stuff you’ll find in any documentary textbook or masterclass on youtube, but here I’ve tailored it to shooting on terrestrial archaeological excavations:

1. White balance! Do not trust automatic white balancing – everything will be blue. Archaeology sites change colour completely over the course of a day as the sun hits the soil and the weather turns, and depending on where and how hard the shade is. So if you want to capture things like soil contexts you have to be constantly checking that your white balance matches as close as possible to what your eye is actually seeing, especially if you plan to shoot the same context over different days.

2. Check your lens. Every 5 minutes. Not kidding. There is so much dirt and grass flying around. Aim at the sky and see if there’s specks showing up. Keep your lens cap, tissues and fluid on you. When not filming, but needing the camera available and ready to go, I also took to sitting my camera on a nifty stool and throwing a towel over it to try and minimise the dirt and dust getting on/into it.

3. Check your switches and settings regularly. Handheld shooting means cameras get knocked about a lot, and I know there was at least one morning where I must have accidentally knocked my sound input channel switch so I had the weaker mic running to both channels and didn’t notice in time, despite wearing cans religiously. You can use camera tape to fix switches make sure this doesn’t happen.

4. Shoot entire takes with a beginning, middle and end – nicely paced – don’t shoot to cut. This was a really hard lesson for me as I shoot to cut by instinct (based on my training), and had to keep pulling myself up on it. You see, there’s so much intrusive noise at archaeology sites (multiple conversations, music, farming machinery, road traffic, air traffic, animals, wind) that takes of full “scenes” might be the only way to actually capture narrative-friendly footage – I dread to think how I’m going to go about cutting some of the material I have. You can ask people nearby to lower their voices when shooting, and turn off music, you can use radio-mics – but that’s approaching “set dressing” in some ways, it’s a step away from “actualité”, so that’s something you’ll have to decide for yourself, depending on your mode, how strict you are about it, and where you want to take the final film. Ideally of course, have a skilled sound recordist on the boom.

5. Pick your moments. Deciding when it was appropriate to ask questions or to initiate discussions was very difficult, sometimes it worked nicely, sometimes it was forced for both myself and the participants and that left a bad taste in people’s mouths (although my participants were extraordinarily good humored and patient with me). Obviously the archaeological work must have priority, but there’s no point being there at all and putting people through the demands of a shoot if you don’t do your job properly as well. You cannot go back for pick ups – you literally have one shot. At the same time, you can’t film everything, especially if you have limited battery or storage space. So you have to be strategic and get a feel for and play to the dynamics on site, and strike the right balance between going with the flow and pushing enough to get beyond superficial observation. You can arrange for a formal time to discuss what’s happening on site, eg. 5 minutes at the beginning and end of each day – which I didn’t do (I did this in a more ad-hoc fashion), and I regret not doing it as a back up, but again, that can force a performance or even worse, send people into lecture mode and waste everyone’s time and energy. So it depends on your style and your participants. It’s something to be negotiated and trialed.

6. I didn’t use a tripod or body rig at all – a deliberate decision, following verité conventions after filmmakers like Dineen and Churchill – and I’m still not sure if it was worth it. My wrist was quite damaged by the end of the dig, affecting my ability to maneuver the camera, and even a week later typing this blog entry hurts. Also, it’s hard to pull focus and remain steady on distance shots and close ups on artefacts when filming hand held. On the other hand (heh), I could follow the action much more easily than if I was locked into a tripod or rig, I could move across sensitive areas of the site quickly, and I’d rather all the shots match in terms of feel and movement. So… I’m still considering what’s best here.

These notes are just scratching the surface of course, and what I haven’t discussed here is the relationship between filmmakers and participants which is the real key to a successful shoot. Now, I’m prepping to enter the logging, transcribing and edit of the film, along with more thesis writing and consultations with my participants which I hope will continue through the rest of post-production and the larger research project. So, stay tuned for more details as the edit progresses, as well as more film reviews, news and debate about archaeology documentary filmmaking.

Photo: St Clair-Smith 2015.

And don’t forget to press record!

Archdox is going to be on hiatus for a month as I’ll be out putting my money where my mouth typing is by filming a 4-week archaeological excavation in Greece. Stay tuned though, because if all goes to plan, I’ll be writing about the experience for months to come as one of my PhD case studies. Expect much reflecting on dumb mistakes the getting of archaeological wisdom. There might even be a real, broadcast-able documentary in it. Might be.

In the meantime you can still follow me @archdox on twitter and on facebook!

“No input, no output. Man.”

These wise words by The Clash frontman Joe Strummer pretty much sums up my weekend, during which I put the books down and headed to London to meet friends for birthdays and farewells, and to sneak in a few cultural activities to feed the thesis inspiration dragon.


The British Museum Virtual Reality Weekend

I must admit, after being completely spoiled at Sheffield Doc/Fest I was surprised by the modesty of the British Museum’s Sumsung Digital Discovery Centre’s VR set up, even though it was in fact accurately described in the Guardian article which had drawn me to it in the first place (here’s the official spiel). The display was composed of an “fulldome” tent between the main staircases, and off to the side a couple of lengths of tables blocked off by portable walls, with one table for VR headsets and one for tablet displays – all set out within the hot, stuffy and noisy flurry of the BM’s foyer. It really was not the best location for what’s supposed to be a personal and immersive experience (there’s a reason cinemas are dark and soundproofed), but as with all forays into VR looks can be deceiving, and with patience and a little digging I found there was a lot more here than meets the eye.

In the fulldome VR Bronze Age village.
In the fulldome’s VR Bronze Age village by Soluis Heritage.

The BM’s VR showcase began with physical entry into the fulldome, a tent which could hold about 6 people at a time (say a family and a technician), which planetarium-style guided visitors through a reconstructed 3D Bronze Age village and round house for about 5 minutes. The next step was to then ‘walk’ through the same virtual space via the VR headsets. Using a touchpad built into the side of the headset you could direct your speed and pace as you navigated the virtual hut, and also select up to three objects to digitally explore (through rotation and audio description) from the BM’s collection. These artefacts have been accurately 3D scanned for open source replication by the Micropasts team, and including the Beaune dirk (a ceremonial sword), the Woolaston bracelets and the Sussex Loops. The final part of the virtual experience was a Samsung Galaxy 10.1 tablet app with which you could further manipulate the 3D objects and read up about them in greater detail.

Yours truly, modelling the Sumsung VR Headset, portal into the past.
Yours truly, modelling the Sumsung VR Headset, portal into the past.

The negatives: the reconstructed village and roundhouse aesthetically seemed satisfactory to this VR novice, but it wouldn’t surprise me if some VR buffs found it disappointingly still too video-game like, given the current high standard of competition in VR. Movement was frustrating, especially with the strict 5 minute schedule that was imposed on the day, as it took a little time to learn how to control ones speed and stopping (causing a disorientation described as “the opposite of seasickness” by one visitor beside me). When combined with the buffering delay when you selected objects – watching the “loading” wheel spin is a sure way to kill any sense of being in another reality – the chance of feeling a genuine immersion was undermined. Also the audio descriptions given within the VR space were very slim, kind of like someone had just read a museum label to you, so that felt like a missed opportunity to be creative. The tablet app, too seemed pretty basic, with a page of written description for each object which you could also manipulate in 3D digital form.

At one point I found myself distracted by asking myself why the objects in presented were in their current 21st century aged state, when the roundhouse itself was as-new. Linking the old and new forms of the objects through some interactive transition could have been an interesting exercise. I now understand the overall aim of the project was to reveal the current version of objects within their past context, but I doubt that precious funerary swords and jewellery would have been left lying around on the floor of a mostly bare looking hut. I also understand the whole thing was a trial, a test screening if you will, tailored to children as an educational tool. But this seems a bit odd as most of the audience I saw present were adults, and also seems a bit contradictory as under 13 year olds were not allowed to use the headset (health and safety? seriously?) – but the over 13 year olds (and adults) who could, would probably find the experience a bit too limited, more of a novelty than a challenge. Which is another great pity – why do museums so often assume sensory experiences are best for kids, and not equally powerful ways of learning and knowing for the rest of us?

The Samsung Galaxy 10.1 tablet displaying the BM VR app.
The Samsung Galaxy 10.1 tablet displaying the Sussex loops page in the BM’s VR app.

The positives: Although initially feeling less than blown away, I didn’t want my visit to the BM to be a waste, so I cornered staff member Jennifer Wexler to talk shop. And suddenly my whole experience turned 180˚! Jennifer showed me the actual 3D replicas of the objects from the VR world, in what I would consider the forth component of the exhibit. Now, through touch, I felt I could really know these objects: the subtle colours and surprising size of the beautiful 3D printed dirk, the weightiness and shifting golden sheen of the hand crafted replica loops. Now the VR experience succeeded, now I could indeed mentally situate the objects in my hands in the world that they came from (more or less), having just “been” there. Jennifer’s enthusiasm for the objects and their VR context was infectious – I now found myself hooked and wanted to know more. She invited me to join the curator Dr Neil Wilkin for a short tour of the Bronze Age gallery, the final component of the day. Into the labyrinth of the BM we went and Neil introduced our small group (again, adults and teens) to see two particular objects that represented life and death in Bronze Age Britain, taking his time to weave an accurate and sophisticated vision of the past world in our minds through a friendly, open ended and intimate discussion. Joining us was replica artisan Roland Williamson who had made the replica Sussex Loops, and archaeologist Dr Tessa Machling, who together further explained the fine craftsmanship of the objects and their relevance today. If only this level of testimony and expertise had been included in the VR world through a sort of layering of information from the beginning, we could have taken the conversation even further!

Jennifer present the 3D model of the sword.
Jennifer presents the 3D model of the sword.
And Neil took us to see the original in the Bronze Age gallery.
And Neil took us to see the original in the Bronze Age gallery.

I think VR has the potential to be a powerful form of archaeological storytelling in future if done right, and ultimately I think the BM’s VR exhibit is a nice example of how this can work in practice, through the combination of cross-platform discovery and in-person expert guidance. Despite the technical quibbles (which are more to do with logistics and technology), and the limited information due to the narrow audience scope (which is part of a broader problematic museum trend of catering chiefly to families and children rather than to mixed audiences), there’s still a lot to be admired and learned from here. I really liked the dedicated attention of the entire VR team who personalised the experience and made it an genuine dialogue, and I also liked the cross-platform nature of the VR world (across the fulldome, VR headset, tablet, and even via Micropasts out of the museum to twitter and the online 3D printing community). Most of all I loved the real-world linking of VR with the tangible replicas and originals back in the gallery. It’s almost like a three act story structure, wherein you set up your world (through VR), you introduce your objects/characters (through replicas), then you develop and explore the complexity of those objects/characters (via the originals/experts). I understand the VR headsets and displays will be used by the BM in school outreach activities and may be set up in the Samsung Digital Discovery Centre under the BM’s foyer, so I look forward to seeing the next stage of this project.

Cinehooligans unite!

Before there was VR there was film, and sometimes you have to remember where you came from in order to know where you’re going. This July the BFI re-released a digitally restored version of Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (Chelovek’s kinoapparatom) (1929), and I was fortunate enough to catch it on the big screen (at BFI Southbank) before it inevitably gets shelved again. With a frenetic new soundtrack composed by the Alloy Orchestra (following the original instructions by Vertov), you could be forgiven for mistaking this film as a recent creation – Vertov was certainly a man ahead of his time. Tragically so in fact – he was widely dismissed and ridiculed during his life by film figureheads Grierson and Eisenstein, the latter even labelled his work “cinehooliganism”. It was not until the 1970s through the efforts of historian Georges Sadoul and the acknowledgement of verité master Rouch, that Vertov was recognised for his contribution to film and to documentary.

Working in a “Council of Three” with editor Yelizaveta Svilova (Vertov’s wife) and cameraman Mikhail Kaufman (his brother), Vertov uses film to its maximum cinematic potential in this city symphonic portrait of Soviet Russia. Through observational filming he captures and remixes Russia’s real poverty, leisure, work, marriage, divorce, death, even a live birth (!) against the backdrop of the technological, social and political machinery of post-revolution Russia. He and Mikhail wade out into the ocean with tripod in hand, scale nimbly up bridges, chase ambulances, firetrucks and fellow motorists from the back of a convertible and dive beneath trains as they rumble literally a foot overhead, winding the bulky camera all the while. Vertov uses special effects as political, social and artistic metaphor, including split screens, dissolves, superimposition, freeze frames, fast and slow-motion, extreme close ups, stop-motion animation, reversals, jump-cuts and hand-held footage. He even captures the film crew themselves, editing, filming, in reflections, in the lens itself – as if in a fit of hyper-reflexivity – always reminding the audience that what they are seeing is at once both reality and a deliberately constructed reality.

“Our eyes see very poorly and very little […] the movie camera was invented to penetrate more deeply into the visible world.” – Vertov.

Screen captures of Man with a Movie Camera via Kinobuff.
Screen captures from Man with a Movie Camera via Kinobuff.

But the power of the film medium for Vertov was not simply one of observation and presentation, rather it was an the entry into a much deeper conversation about the potential to use film almost like a scientific and cultural experiment, to explore and test “cinema truth” (kino-pravda, the cinema eye) as a revolutionary tool and (dangerous) critique of Leninist Russia. As Brian Winston put it nicely:

“A ‘kino-eye’ seeing below the surface realities offers a crucial lifeline as modern technology undercuts and wounds mainstream realist documentary’s essential observationalist assumptions, perhaps fatally. Vertov’s agenda in Man with a Movie Camera signposts nothing less than how documentary can survive the digital destruction of photographic image integrity and yet still, as Vertov wanted, ‘show us life’. Vertov is in fact the key to documentary’s future.” (in Sight and Sound, Sept 2014).

Vertov's Kino-Eye.
Vertov’s Kino-Pravda, or Kino-Eye, the “cinema truth”.

I hope it’s clear why I am including Vertov’s work in the same blog entry as a review of a VR exhibit in archaeology. As I’ve said before, I believe archaeologists are storytellers and I believe documentary – whether through film, TV, VR, online or in combination of these – is the ideal medium to communicate and explore archaeological stories and ideas. But we must tread carefully when experimenting with new technologies, and although VR has been around for a couple of decades now, it’s only recently taken off as a popular medium so our understanding of it is still developing. As Vertov refused to rest on convention and instead situated his filmmaking practice firmly and fiercely within his own political and artistic philosophy, we archaeologists and museum curators too must be critical of our use of VR, so we don’t trap ourselves and get stuck simply using technology as an easy audience hook in place of meaningful and deliberate storytelling and genuine human connection, whether with the present or with the past. As the use of VR in archaeology becomes more common, we must enter into a deeper conversation about how, why and for whom we go about constructing past “reality” (or even the “reality” of current archaeological practice). Fortunately documentary theory and practice have already done a lot of the groundwork for us – the works of Vertov, Rouch and Winston are a great place to start. Medium matters of course, but it matters only if the storytelling stays true.