Alone with Empire: Isaac Blease in collaboration with IC Visual Labs / Reviewed by Caroline Molloy / 04.11.18
‘Alone with Empire,’ is a multi-media installation, made in collaboration between artist Isaac Blease and IC Visual Labs. It is housed in the Vestibule Art Space, in Bristol City Hall between October 1st until October 17th 2018. With support from the Arts Council England and the Heritage Lottery Fund, the creators of this body of work have been given unprecedented access to the British Empire and the Commonwealth Collection of colonial footage housed in Bristol Archives. This includes official historical government films of the Empire as well as amateur ethnographic and personal footage recorded by engineers, bankers, soldiers, missionaries and their families. In total over eight hundred colonial films (that is four hundred hours of footage) were examined as research for ‘Alone with Empire.’ As a post-graduate in visual anthropology, with a keen awareness of the problematics of engaging with colonial archives, I am intrigued to see how the footage is activated. This is the enquiry which led me to Bristol Town Hall on a windy October afternoon.
The entire interior of the Vestibule space is cloaked in black fabric so the architecture of the room recedes. Only the words ‘Bristol City Hall,’ above the digital viewing screen, are left unveiled. The participating audience are individually invited to step into the space and into a courthouse style dock which is located in the centre of the room. Standing in the dock, I am reminded to activate the digital screen. A ten-minute film is then played, which comprises a selection re-assembled archival footage, anchored by key search words. A digital algorithm has been used to systematically randomise the footage. This process curates a unique assemblage of footage each time the installation is activated. The audience experience of the installation is two-fold; both sound and vision are working concurrently. Whilst the audience focuses on the digital screen which presents the footage fragments, a soundscape is playing. The accompanying soundscape tracks the archivist movements as footage is sourced and collected for viewing.
If we refer to Allan Sekula (1986), who suggests that the power of the archive is in how it is indexed, how do we respond to orphaned archives; that is to say how do we make sense of uncatalogued archival material separated from its referent? What alchemy of interaction is activated when viewing the orphaned footage? The concept of the spectator is crucial in understanding ‘Alone with Empire.’ Inevitably a relationship between the participant (the spectator) and the footage is constituted. In doing so recognition of the content of the footage is awakened and digested. This is a progressive way of thinking through re-activating problematic footage, that requires recall and response.
On leaving the installation I am asked by way of questionnaire to examine my emotional responses to the film footage. Unprepared for this I am uncertain how insightful my responses are, and what the legacy of these responses will be. All the films generated during the installation will be available for viewing early next year on the dedicated project website. The film that generated my responses is number #267.
– Reviewed by Caroline Molloy
Sekula, A. (1986) ‘The Body if the Archive.’ October. (39) 3-64
Below, two images and an installation view from ‘Alone with Empire’, courtesy of IC Visual Labs.