Reading List

Friday 18 September 2015

As archives thaw

"It's a shame not to have more photos around the house. I guess we didn't see the point of taking pictures of ourselves... It's a shame."

I went to the cinema at the Barbican Centre recently to see '45 Years', a new film by director Andrew Haigh.

Before going in, I visited the giftshop and bought a postcard of the Barbican Centre itself. I'm especially interested at the moment in how cultural institutions present themselves, for example which images end up on their own postcards. I'll blog on this at some point.

From 'Barbican Collages' by artist Margaux Soland

The sister film to Haigh's excellent 'Weekend', '45 Years' explores the long marriage of Kate and Geoff Mercer.

Played by Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay, the couple must react to the discovery of the body of Katya, Geoff's former partner. Katya died trekking on a mountain in Switzerland before Geoff met Kate; her body is found after the glacier into which she fell begins to thaw.

Perhaps a theme of the film, Katya's body is one of several material objects from the past - or at least things for a long time out of view - which push the characters in different directions, at times spinning them deep into crisis. These objects include, as it happens, a scrapbook of old postcards. (Of course! ;))

On the train home, no doubt wrapped up in the research I'm undertaking on how museums process objects, I was struck by the potential for 'archived' material to unsettle us.

This seems especially relevant today, given the extent to which archives of all sorts are being opened up: from the digitisation of cultural artefacts, to the leaks of records and emails that individuals would prefer to keep private (wikileaks, Hillary Clinton's personal email account, Ashley Madison...).

One might hope being forced to confront the past necessitates useful reflection, but I suspect this hope stems from our habit (or at least my habit) of searching for means of progress, or even from hard-to-shift ideas of redemption. In Kate and Geoff's case, the uncertainty of how to process the news from Switzerland creates a terrifying situation: their lives could go any which way.

More of the Barbican postcards can be found on Margaux Soland's beautiful website