Friday, October 16, 2009

A Blank Spot in the Basement of 155 George Street

Descending the carpeted steps of the MCM department, I turn left. To my surprise, I am confronted with an industrial-like corridor; I can hear what could be the furnace along with other faint sounds endemic of utility—connoting maintenance, support, and most importantly, infrastructure. As I continue down the relatively bland off-white hall, an uninviting metal door hinders my movement. I open it. But, I am once again bound, as there is another door: only three feet ahead of the last. What lies inside? There’s no indication on the door. No sign. No room number. No semiotic assertion of purpose. Just hidden potential. Potential only revealed by turning the knob, and stepping foot into the open secret that is the Modern Culture and Media film archive/screening station.

Who would expect this? A sophisticated catalog of films—DVDs aligned horizontally, in a seemingly infinite series of titles. Yet, there is more division and hierarchy at play in this archive than the abundance of consumable images would suggest. In an adjacent room (with no dividing door, just a spatial threshold), there are more images—the dated icon- container that is the VHS. But they are not visibly on display. One must open individual metal drawers (alphabetically labeled), to discover the slightly hidden VHS—possibly suggesting the room’s dedication to conserving the images of nostalgia. The opaque and perceptually impervious metal drawers protect them from visual consumption.

But if visual consumption of the media image is denied by the structure of this room, then why is there an abundance of film in various formats? The room inhibits leisurely screening by promoting intellectual labor and theoretic analysis—the tenants of the discourse of Modern Culture & Media. This primacy on intellectual labor is enforced by a room monitor, a pawn of the MCM dept., whose purpose is to ensure that the films are not taken beyond the borders of the room. The room monitor also maintains the hierarchy within the MCM dept. itself by regulating each individual’s access to the image based on his relative immersion in theory. Meaning, if a non-MCM student was leisurely viewing a film at one of the workstations (which resemble school desks with DVD and VHS players atop) and an MCM undergrad entered the space and required that viewing station, the non-MCM student would be ejected from the space. Similarly, the MCM grad student trumps the MCM undergraduate; he is the only figure that is allowed to remove films from the archive and take them beyond the secure borders of the screening area.

But he is not the master of this blank spot, this secret realm of the physically archived image. At the top of this film-access hierarchy is Richard manning, the official MCM film archivist, the monarch of the image. He knows every movie in the collection, and because there is no tracking system at play, he is the only one who can detect fragmentation with the archive.

I asked Richard, why is the MCM archive so secret, so unpublicized? He responded by saying, “You think that’s secret? You haven’t even seen the 16mm film archive.” Where is that located, I ask? “In the carriage house, restricted by card access,” he replies. Shocked by the existence further image demarcation, I demanded to know why the general population doesn’t have access to this now-ancient media. Richard simply answered, “Do you really think a non-MCM student cares whether or not he’s watching DVD or print film?” Indeed, the open secret of the MCM film archive, and the even hazier blank spot of the 16mm film carriage house, are facilitated not only by an MCM hierarchy of accessibility, but also by the sheer lack of interest of the leisurely viewer. Those who wish to consume the image now have innumerable options in the form of the hyper-accessible Internet, which contains an infinite archive—or rather, smorgasbord—of images.

Jordan and Jan

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