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Venue: Birkbeck 43 Gordon Square

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Every two years Birkbeck Institute for the Moving Image (BIMI) organises a research workshop with colleagues from University of Pittsburgh. The theme for this year’s BIMI-Pittsburgh Research workshop is collections, collectors and collecting, as they relate to Film and Media Studies and to neighbouring disciplines that explore visual and digital culture broadly conceived.


THURSDAY 11 MAY (day 2 of 3)


10:30-12:00 SESSION THREE

Silpa Mukherjee (Pittsburgh): “Doing Film History in the Global South”


Naomi Smith (Birkbeck): “Considering Context: Partisan Roots of the Vanderbilt Television News Archive”

Discussants: Eleni Liarou (Birkbeck), Justin Schlosberg (Birkbeck)


12:00-13:00 LUNCH BREAK


13:00-14:30 SESSION FOUR

Senjuti Mukherjee (Pittsburgh): “Collecting Viral Media: Creative Agents of Documentary in the Age of Democratic Erosion and the Internet”


Mary Newbold (Birkbeck): “Walter Benjamin’s ‘The Collector’ and Digital Visual Culture”

Discussants: Sarah Joshi (Pittsburgh), Joe Brooker (Birkbeck)


14:30-15:00 COFFEE BREAK


15:00-16:30 SESSION FIVE

Neepa Majumdar (Pittsburgh): “Collecting as Research: Indian Film Song Booklets between Pleasure and the ‘Drudgery of the Useful’”


David Pettersen (Pittsburgh): “Netflix France: Collections, Localization, and National Branding in the Age of SVOD”

Discussants: Emma Sandon (Birkbeck), Dorota Ostrowska (Birkbeck), Mary Harrod (Warwick)



Oliver Fuke (independent researcher): “Introduction to Trevor Mathison exhibition ‘From Signal to Decay, Vol. 3’”



Visit exhibition “From Signal to Decay, Vol. 3” in PELTZ GALLERY (Birkbeck):


ABSTRACTS/OUTLINES for Thursday 11 May (day 2 of 3)


Silpa Mukherjee: “Doing Film History in the Global South”

In 1980s Bombay, a Dubai based mafia exerted control over cinema and its ancillary businesses. This cine-crime nexus was nurtured by the state’s shadowy participation in it. Examining this cine-crime nexus, my project traces a counter archive from materials that are uneven or even missing to construct a study of an entire shadow media economy.

   In my presentation I will share archival sources from the 1980s that enable me to foreground a South-South media corridor between Bombay and Dubai that is obscured from standardized world cinema historiographies. These sources are in the form of police interrogation sheets, confession statements, court proceedings, commerce documents, newspaper clippings, and photographs. I assembled this archive ethnographically, from bureaucrats and police who have built their private (and likely pirate) collections in unassuming warehouses in dusty alleyways of Bombay.

   My project looks for film history in fortuitous convergences and unexpected repositories. Many historians consult surviving documentation to reconstruct histories of lost films. I use contextual documentation to reconstruct the absent business records of dubiously funded extant films. My research method is tied to my material in unique ways, differentiating my experience from film historians of the Global North. Since my work is about and through underhand business, few scholars encounter the world of hearsay, bribery, and urban intrigue that my work both engages with and in fact demands. Drawing on my experience of navigating red tape in accessing documents through bribes and other payments of the insalubrious kind, this presentation demonstrates what doing film history in the Global South looks like, especially when a researcher looks past the screen. Methodologically, it contributes to non-western media archaeologies and writing media historiographies in the absence of media objects and texts, crucial for postcolonial and indigenous studies where archival taxonomies are pinioned by institutional inertia, decaying materials, and colonialism.


Naomi Smith: “Considering Context: the Partisan Roots of the Vanderbilt Television News Archive”

Founded in August 1968, the Vanderbilt Television News Archive holds over 40,000 hours of news broadcasts from national television networks across the United States of America and continues to be one of the most extensive and complete archives of television news in the world. Containing over fifty years’ worth of broadcasts, the archive has grown into a vital resource for television news media researchers and anyone else who might be interested in seeing the first draft of the last fifty years of American history.

   The story of the archive’s founding is a narrative as equally compelling and – perhaps – surprising, as some of the stories contained within its servers. The archive’s founder, initial financial backer and chief fundraiser, Paul Simpson, was a deeply conservative businessman, and was convinced that network news broadcasts were contributing to social turmoil and unrest across America. He created the archive not necessarily with the needs of future media and journalism researchers in mind, but with the express purpose of demonstrating that the networks were, as he alleged, deeply biased against the conservative right in America.

   This presentation considers how we might “read” the archive’s collection in the context of its founding, and whether the intent behind its creation has – or should have – any bearing on the way that researchers interact with the archive and its contents today. Furthermore, it looks at similarities between the rhetoric surrounding the creation of the archive and similar sentiments concerning television journalism expressed by politicians and other social actors today and discusses the potential impacts of this rhetoric on use of the archive now and in the future.


Senjuti Mukherjee: “Collecting Viral Media: Creative Agents of Documentary in the Age of Democratic Erosion and the Internet”

The seemingly inexhaustible supply of online media objects is transforming notions of collecting in creative and historiographic work. Considering the proliferation of citizen-generated visual records of state-sanctioned violence in India, this presentation will unpack the potential for creative agents of the documentary form to emerge as real-time collectors of an exponentially expanding online image landscape. Despite the virality of such images, archives of power continue to exclude, erase or manipulate these narratives. This presentation will examine “collecting” and “selecting,” during times of excess and saturation, as artists attempt to interpret, organise, and anthologise small and large-scale affective narratives of democratic erosion.

   Payal Kapadia’s A Night of Knowing Nothing (2021) and Pallavi Paul’s The Blind Rabbit (2021) merge reality and fiction using visual evidence from this environment. Kapadia’s film, on a student’s experience of political events, enmeshes smartphone and CCTV footage of protests and police violence. Meanwhile, Paul addresses the pervasiveness of the image by making it subsidiary to audio clips, examining historical patterns of police brutality and the inner workings of power structures.

Focussing on clips of police brutality from both films, I will trace the ways and forms in which they reappear after being posted online. Destabilising notions of authorship and appropriation, their first appearance is already a collection of sorts, having travelled through anonymous, hyper-local media routes to the bigger platforms. Building on this, I will inquire into how the artists expose the complex infrastructural substrata of the networked digital media landscape by collecting and recollecting the affective object.

   Moving beyond nebulous terminologies like found and archival footage, compilation and collage film, the presentation will raise new questions: Can the careful collection and re-presentation of viral media as a form of cultural retrieval invoke empathic solidarity? How does the spectatorial relationship to the viral image generate new ways of thinking about resurfacing the “past” and reactivating memories? These documentary practices expose the stakes of collecting in a world of algorithmic memory-making, where the conditions for encountering and negotiating social realities are automated and increasingly violent.


Mary Newbold: “Walter Benjamin’s ‘The Collector’ and Digital Visual Culture”

In his unfinished work, The Arcades Project, Walter Benjamin collated a convolute of notes and quotations under the thematic of ‘The Collector’. Within these fragments, Benjamin sketched out the constellatory relationship between the social physiognomy of the collector, the objects such a figure might collect, and the places, the storage spaces, where objects to be desired, collected and owned were put on display. For Benjamin, the figure of the collector, along with the rag picker and detective were characterised by a preoccupation with the past. In contrast to the gambler, the prostitute and the flaneur, these figures were concerned with the detritus within which the wish images, the unfulfilled dreams, of the past century could be deciphered as such. Collectors’ objects, often rendered obsolete and, therefore, in a world governed by commodity relations, diminished in both use and exchange value, Benjamin perceived a third category of value in which the ‘wholly irrational character of the object's mere presence’ could be overcome ‘through its integration into a new, expressly devised historical system: the collection.’

   For Benjamin, ‘possession and having [were] allied with the tactile, and [stood] in a certain opposition to the optical.’ Benjamin contrasted Collectors ‘as beings with tactile instincts’ with the flâneur, a figure for whom optical sensory experience held primacy. In this paper, I will briefly explore the constellatory— also in ways contradictory—relationship between collecting, possessing and seeing in fragments of The Arcades Project. I will then reflect on the insights that Benjamin’s aphorisms on the Collector can bring to questions of digital visual culture, particularly with respect to the relationship between the optical and the tactile in the case of the (intangible) digital artwork and the possibilities and tensions of possession and having brought about by the non-fungible token.


Neepa Majumdar: “Collecting as Research: Indian Film Song Booklets between Pleasure and the ‘Drudgery of the Useful’”

The collector and theorist of collecting par excellence, Walter Benjamin, understood the material pleasures of creating new configurations of objects, insisting that collectors “divested things of their commodity character” and freed them from “the drudgery of the useful” (The Arcades Project, 9). Does collecting for research reinscribe drudgery of the useful? My primary objects in this presentation will be digitized copies of song booklets, which have a long and unique history in South Asia. Unlike film booklets that did sometimes accompany film screenings and premieres around the world, the South Asian film booklet was cheaply made to be sold on the streets and, after the coming of sound, included lyrics to the songs in the film, in addition to photos, a summary of the film, and advertisements. The practice continued well into the 1970s. In South Asian film scholarship, song booklets figure prominently as sources especially when the films themselves no longer exist. Every South Asian film historian I know, myself included, collects song booklets, creating many dispersed and unofficial archives of these valuable sources for film history. But we aren’t the only ones collecting song booklets as they are sought after by private collectors as much as by university libraries such as Stanford or official archives such as the National Film Archive of India.

   The majority of scholarly writing based on song booklets emphasizes their content over their material properties, using them for information on films that no longer exist, while exhibitions and coffee table books tend to offer primarily a nostalgic, heavily visual, and even fetishized experience of a bygone era. Although these two modes of engaging with song booklets might bring to mind the opposition between the useful and the useless that Benjamin evokes, song booklets as collectors’ items and research objects now point to the impossibility of collecting as a mode of de-commodifying an object or removing it from circuits of usefulness, which collectors take on as a Sisyphean task at best, according to Benjamim. In my own collection and engagement with these materials for my book project on the transition to sound in Indian cinema, there’s been a tension among these various inflections, between the somewhat obsessive pleasure of collecting these materials without any particular goal (“in case I need it someday”) and the impulse to read them for analysis and information. In this presentation, I will offer an overview of song booklets in academia and in the collecting world, where they have gone from costing nothing to significantly escalating in value, moving from there to draw from my collection to present some of the paradoxes of seeking traces of the sound of absent films in their written lyrics, a task that frequently leads to the illuminating distractions of the booklets’ formal features.


David Pettersen: “Netflix France: Collections, Localization, and National Branding in the Age of SVOD”

Streaming platforms are changing how scholars conceptualize collections and cataloging. In part, this change is an outgrowth of the shift to digital forms of cinema that are now several decades old. However, what is new is the multiple roles that streaming platforms now play, alternately producer, distributor, exhibitor, archive, library, and curator. Streaming platforms develop and monetize catalogs in much the same way that music companies do. The create their collections through acquiring and commissioning films and series that they seek to add to their catalogs for simultaneous release in as many markets as possible. On the commissioning side, catalog development focuses on investments in the local production of media or at least the localization of media. On the acquisitions side, it involves purchase the distribution rights to local media, often misleadingly rebranded as an “original” series for the platform. Frustratingly, these “collections” in these streaming catalogs can be quite ephemeral and unstable. The patchwork of licensing rights is constantly shifting because rights are rarely negotiated in perpetuity, especially as media makers have increasingly realized it is not in their best interests to sign away all rights to their media. In terms of curation, sophisticated alg

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