Ross Lipman

The Archival Impermanence Project, or:

Performing Cinema in the Age of the Death of Everything


This piece, written amidst the days of lockdown, is a tentative step towards a more ambitious undertaking that I may or may not realize in the future.  That hypothetical project, as named above, would aim to provide web-based resources  for improving presentation and viewing conditions of moving image works

Amidst all the other crises facing us today, lies cinema’s. What does that mean? Who even cares? Some friends of mine recoil at the word cinema itself, which for them suggests pretension and snobbery. Others don’t mind the word, but think such worries are inconsequential in the scheme of things. It’s hard to argue with that when the world is burning.  But in such times it’s more important than ever to find moments of reprieve, and that’s something the cinema can give in welcome abundance.  So what do I mean when I say the cinema is in crisis?

Obviously the theaters are challenged by pandemic-induced restrictions of all kinds.  But what of home viewing, which offers at least glimmers of hope?  It’s both a blessing and a curse. As a film restorationist by trade and filmmaker by night, I’ve been looking at such questions for a few decades now, and it’s interesting to see how my views have developed over the years.

Back in the early nineties, when digital was just a blip on the horizon, I was among the film purists who looked ahead to preserving the organic aesthetics of photochemical film. At that time digital quality was more or less terrible, and I focused on sustaining the analog experience for as long as possible. I was fortunate to find work at the UCLA Film & Television Archive under the tutelage of preservation visionary Robert Gitt, where we strived to create the best possible photochemical renditions of works ranging from Hollywood classics to experimental film and beyond. But somewhere along the years things began to change. Digital quality improved, and Bob and I diverged on one small practical axis. He considered his job complete when the film print was made, whereas I began a parallel practice in digital remastering.1 Today it’s the digital versions of my restorations that are seen in the great bulk of instances, and Bob concedes wishing he’d done more back in the day.

Nowadays digital quality has risen to such levels that it’s almost a non-issue — at least one I don’t need to discuss in this context — because much larger problems exist. Those problems arise when one reinvestigates the nature of the cinematic experience itself. When I say the “cinematic experience” I use the term in the broadest sense to encompass everything from theatrical viewing to the museum and gallery to the home. Uniting these disparate environments, I’d like to take one point of departure that defines our term. The cinematic experience is one that requires focused viewing, as distinct from distracted engagement — a phenomenon noted by Walter Benjamin decades ago that now defines our times.

Let’s first look at distraction in the home, which has increasingly become the main battlefront on which the unconscious war on cinema unfolds. The war is unintentional, and entirely understandable. We’re all exhausted and stressed out by the demands of everyday life. When one connects to a screen, it’s precisely distraction that’s usually sought — a way to forget our troubles. But let’s distinguish between escape and transportation; two modes of leaving those troubles. The first being flight from a bad place; the second being a means of reaching another, hopefully better one. Our quotidian screen engagements offer the former; cinema offers the latter. The trick is that to experience it, one intrinsically needs to bypass distraction, which is no easy task.

The movie theater, developed upon centuries of change in traditional theaters, is perfect for the task. But in the present moment it’s not as readily accessible. We’re more frequently watching at home. So let’s take a look at some of the forms distraction takes in a home viewing environment.  I herewith present:

A Home Viewer’s Guide to Distraction

Light Pollution   
Until recent times most moving image works were designed for viewing in a darkened room, yet are now most frequently viewed with incidental light that affects the tones and colors of the images.  This can be further exacerbated by reflections on a glass screen.

Sound Pollution
Noise unconnected to a work by definition distracts from it.

Picture and Sound Quality
Moving towards the device itself, a number of factors beyond reasonable viewer control offer further distraction:

    • small screen size
    • buffering or freezing of video streams
    • compression artifacts
    • picture and sound out of sync in video stream
    • watermarking

Display Context and Viewer Engagement
The above presupposes a viewer at least aspires to a concentrated viewing state.  But that’s a presumption.  Let’s list a few other factors that come into play through passive or active choice:

Passive Choice
      • viewing on small screens when better options are available in the home
      • not optimizing screen brightness or sound level2

Active Choice
      • using multiple devices at once (e.g., phone and laptop)
      • having multiple windows open on a single screen

Our active choices speak to a multi-tasking mode of engagement at a polar end from the dedicated viewing experience. Many viewers quite understandably enjoy chat rooms or monitoring social media while a work is in progress. This practice extends to theaters and museums, as seen in the frequent checking of phones during a movie or amidst an exhibition. An analysis of the social ramifications of this phenomenon is only peripheral to this discussion, so let’s just say it serves a function outside the domain of the artist — which remains my present point of concern.3

Even when one optimizes the surrounding conditions, another challenge arises.  The comfort of home viewing invites an impatience that the theater discourages.  If a work doesn’t engage immediately, it’s easy to switch off. Switching off can be a welcome option amidst an onslaught of dross calling for eyeballs, but that’s again not my concern here. Rather, I want to facilitate an active engagement with those works that merit it. Some works don’t make their strengths known until time has elapsed, and they face severe challenges in the present reception climate. We live in a world where more people are viewing more content than ever, but poorly and in fragments.

Although my main focus is home viewing, these conditions are by no means unique to it. A surprising amount of the same problems arise in supposed bastions of art; the museums and galleries. As a matter of practice our institutions have historically relied on models designed for static, non-time-based artworks. While painting and sculpture can be challenged by similar issues, it needs to be noted that some of the very things required for their viewing become problems in themselves for moving image works. As just one example, painting and sculpture require an ambulatory viewer. The moment one of those ambulatory viewers ambulates, they become a distraction themself, for other nearby viewers engaged with a time-based work.4 This small example speaks to a much larger dynamic embedded in the construct of museum-based viewing. Just go through the list above.  There’s an inherent conflict between traditional museum and gallery exhibition and the moving image that our institutions have yet to successfully address, and only begun to acknowledge.

Connected to this is an unrecognized issue of social class, hinted at earlier.  While on the one hand some lovers of popular movies deem “cinema” a realm of rarified snobbery, on the other, parts of the art world are also averse to it. For them, cinema is not rarified, but coarse and populist. Here high and low culture join in rejection of a middle road. In formal practice, the museums’ bias takes the form of distinction between the white cube of the gallery and the black box of the theater.  While countless dollars are available to the museums for display practices compatible with commodifiable (or sellable) art forms like painting, it’s much harder to arrange an allocation of those deep resources for the creation of “theaters within museums” which hint at the populist. In this way the distracted viewing of the fine art world serves as mirror to the distraction of escapist entertainment.5

But let’s for a moment forget the richest of institutions and look at smaller arts organizations that, with limited resources, would like to address the attention deficit with tools available. Here they can join the motivated home viewer — as well as the theaters — in considering what conditions are needed for the presentation of “cinema” in its myriad forms. And to reiterate my very subjective definition, I use the word cinema to describe works that need dedicated attention.

I’ve first delineated a host of problems, obstacles, and barriers to cinema’s ideal reception. Let’s now start looking at some practical things one can do to address the problem, in the form of three simple principles:

in which one attempts to create an environment for viewing that minimizes distractions like light and sound pollution

in which one attempts to carve out an unbroken time to experience a work in completion, as the film’s makers intended

in which one works with the available equipment to present the work in the best way possible in a given environment

Through these principles we arrive at a place wherein the presentation of a recorded work becomes in essence an ephemeral experience: at once fixed and variable. While seemingly oxymoronic, such a concept in fact traces to cinema’s early days of hand-cranked projectors, when projectionists adjusted a film’s speed of movement through the varying pace of their cranking. Each screening was different. The tradition has continued in one form or another throughout the decades — in forms as diverse as Benshi narration, live musical accompaniment, special format works, expanded cinema, moving image-based performance works, and more recently, live documentary.

From a preservation and restoration perspective, this shift of emphasis from the artwork itself (be it filmic material, or its more recent cousin the digital file) to one encompassing both the work and its presentation, would seem to be common sense. Nonetheless it marks a radical shift in our understanding of archival practice. Our entire notion of what’s considered “archival” is challenged if the work is understood to be ephemeral in its very essence.

And so we find ourselves seeking a condition of archival impermanence:  in which the act of preservation acknowledges that — like the philosopher’s tree falling in the forest — an artwork exists only in its moment of presentation. If the conditions of presentation aren’t suitable to its perception, the work in its truest sense cannot be experienced. Herein Bishop Berkeley’s celebrated notion that “to be is to be perceived” cannot be brought into focus, let alone challenged.  

At the professional worker and creator’s end, the act of production now, in essence, asks for the creation of multiple editions of a work calibrated for different environments. The home, the theater, and the gallery each have different conditions one can target in a work’s editioning, with further divisions within each. For the archivist, this means expanding our notions beyond the singular work towards, rather, a transmutable essence; one that becomes embodied in unique presentations adapted to the environment in which they take place.6

But if we seek to truly preserve our moving image culture, we need to expand our notions of the work further — to include its enactment as part of its being. The home viewer, the theater, and the gallery alike can all join in this project in their own way — by exploring the perceptual variables of their unique spaces in a spirit of cinematic performance.

Having done these things, there is a last barrier in our path — and alas, it’s a formidable part of our epoch, beyond control. I speak of our common cultural exhaustion. In times such as ours, when everyday life is overwhelming in itself and the future seems so dark many dare not even think of it, it’s hard to waste energy on any of this. Who has bandwidth left for pursuits of aesthetics? In a modern spin on Bertolt Brecht’s dictum that “food comes first and then morality,”we can say that rest comes first and then the world of dreams. But without the dream there is no respite, even in rest. So paradoxically, in the end we need both.

To resolve this conundrum, my reply is that our pursuit of focused attention can be selective. Distracted viewing serves its purposes, while art serves its own, and they are not in conflict. So let’s agree it’s okay to indulge in simple pleasures, and hope that amidst them we still find a voice that yearns for something more...  something that isn’t escape, but which transports.  

To achieve that, we need to understand the conditions in which such transportation is possible, and work to cultivate those conditions. It may grant only a moment’s transcendence, but in the end the moment is what we have, and for it we can be grateful. Like the monk’s sand mandala, raked over upon its completion, the cinema performance is an experience that takes place in time and is gone. Like a dream, it disintegrates upon contact with consciousness. Yet in its very ephemerality lie the spores of renewal, waiting to grow wildly amidst the ashes of a burning world.

1. This would refer to the creation of digital editions of works created in analog media.

2. At the most rudimentary level, one can adjust brightness and volume to taste, or set a desired viewing mode on one’s television. At a more ambitious level, one could aspire to standards desired by a work’s creators; for example by selecting the recently implemented “Filmmaker Mode” on their viewing device.

3. One could reasonably ask what it says about our cultural epoch that “distraction” is the reigning paradigm.  At present I’m simply choosing to ask how to remedy the situation in selected circumstances.

4. Amongst museums and galleries, time-based media is a term commonly used to describe works that exist in time with a fixed duration, and can include films, videos, audio recordings, digital works, etc.

5. Elsewhere I’ve discussed how moving image creators respond in turn by creating works intended to be viewed in distracted conditions.  (“In Search of Sight-Specific Cinema,” in The Moving Image, Vol. 12, No. 1, Spring 2012.)

6. I’ve previously discussed this notion in “Conservation at a Crossroads,” in Artforum, Oct. 2013.

7. "Food is the first thing, morals follow on" —  Bertolt Brecht, The Threepenny Opera, 1928.

Ross Lipman is an independent filmmaker, archivist, and essayist. Formerly Senior Film Restorationist at the UCLA Film & Television Archive, his many restorations include works by Barbara Loden, Charles Burnett, John Cassavetes, Orson Welles, Shirley Clarke, Kenneth Anger, Julie Dash, Rob Epstein, Nietzchka Keene, Bruce Conner, Eleanor Antin and Robert Altman.  His 2015/16 documentary Notfilm, on Samuel Beckett’s FILM starring Buster Keaton, was named one of the 10 best films of the year by Artforum, Slate, and many others.  His new film, The Case of the Vanishing Gods, premiered at the Locarno Film Festival in 2021.