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Erika Tan
Part II: Propping Open Archives

For Walter Benjamin writing in 'Theses on the Philosophy of History' in 1940, 'every image of the past that is not recognized by the present as one of its own concerns threatens to disappear irretrievably'. It is not only that the image disappears, but also the historical, political, and economic ramifications, their ideological formations, the social and cultural contexts that surrounds that image is forgotten in our failure to remember.

It is in such a context that Erika Tan's Persistent Visions (2005) should be considered. This three-screen video installation (shown silent or with a sound-track) is based on footage from the moving image archive housed in the British Empire and Commonwealth Museum in Bristol. This archive originally formed a part of the Commonwealth Institute in South Kensington, London which told 'the' story of Britain's colonial and imperial history from the rise of its Empire to the establishment of a Commonwealth. Although the archive houses government produced films, commercial documentaries, news footage and Christian missionary films, Tan chose to work on the 'amateur' silent Super-8 films recorded by individual colonial families 'out in' the colonies and 'at home'. The images range from the travellers moving through 'foreign' landscapes, talking to the 'natives', and taking spells of relaxation within the colonial territory, to being back home entertaining, chatting with friends, surrounded by children playing in the garden. What we are privy to, are the power dynamics of colonial rule and those of intimate relations. This is what Tan has called the 'subjective memorising' that is symptomatic of these archives, and what Jacques Derrida would name the archival 'unconscious'.

Understanding that once these archival films are collected, classified and institutionalized, they lose their connection to the 'original' maker, Tan is keen to take advantage of this breach through artistic intervention and interpretation wherein as she states, '"original" histories become opaque, [and] new stories are told.' An installation such as Persistent Vision works through what Rey Chow would call our need for 'a thorough disassembling of the visualist epistemological bases of disciplines such as anthropology and ethnography as we know them to date'. For Chow, this is possible by making the viewer privy to the 'full, materialist, and most likely equally corrupt, equally decadent participants in contemporary world culture' and its histories. This is the ethical dilemma of Persistent Visions. And it takes place in silence.

The viewer of Persistent Visions is drawn into the image because of and through the installation's silence, and yet the image is calling for critique. We are seduced and repelled by the image: its aesthetic quality, its material and documentary character, its record of everyday life and personal history, and its function as evidence of colonial rule, of our history, and the ethnographic and anthropological impulse of Empire. And yet, we as viewers are implicated in a perverse viewing experience as the 'evidence' also becomes an ethnography of watching the 'white' colonialists as 'others': making the coloniser the colonized. The dialectic of the image's disassembling, its survival and loss, and ours, set within the stillness and intensity of a silent viewing, is what constitutes the political and ideological critique in Persistent Vision.

Still from Persistent Visions by Erika Tan, 2005
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