The trouble with archives, as recounted in film

Filmmaker Jenny Perlin took the inspiration for her recent series The Perlin Papers from an archive at Columbia University. An archive seems like straightforward affair — it’s a collection of documents, which might be dusty with age. But recent events have given us an opportunity to reconsider the importance of archives, as well as the historical forces which shape them. Last November, for example, WikiLeaks published hundreds of thousands of U.S. embassy cables on its website. The contents of the cables made headlines, but so did the person of Julian Assange, founder of WikiLeaks. The message: this archive is a collection of documents, but it is also the product of actual humans.

At the Columbia archive, Perlin examined many of the 250,000 pages related to the cold-war espionage case of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Her eight short films do not actually focus on the Rosenbergs, nor on the personality behind the archive, lawyer Marshall Perlin (a distant relative of Jenny’s). Instead, they explore acts of document preparation during the 1950s. We listen to muffled speech and witness the subsequent attempts at transcription. We see typewriter keys go astray. The message: this archive is the product of actual humans, and these humans worked with imperfect tools.

Still from “Mimeograph”. Film by Jenny Perlin, 16mm, color, sound , 19:50, 2010. Production still by Cassandra Guan 2010. Courtesy Jenny Perlin and Galerie M+R Fricke Berlin

In the film “Transcript,” FBI agents position themselves in the hallway of a New York apartment building in order to eavesdrop on a dinner party held by friends of the Rosenbergs. Snippets of clear conversation travel through the apartment walls from time to time, tempting the listener into constructing meaning. But for the most part, we hear long stretches of speech sounds that are frankly uninterpretable. In “Inaudible,” we see the transcript of this conversation as produced by the FBI. Most lines consist of a single word: inaudible.

In “Mimeograph,” two women spend their work day typing up FBI documents related to the Rosenberg case. The relentless din of typewriter keys leaves no doubt that we are back in the pre-digital era.  The women fix minor typos with a pencil. They fix larger typos with correction paper, which covers the error with white ink, one letter at a time. To create duplicates of their documents, they use mimeograph sheets, which would preserve a record of both the original errors and their subsequent corrections, laid on top of one another.

The films thus problematize the notions of archive and document and, in so doing, also problematize spoken and written communication more generally. Linguists often struggle when explaining these areas of research to a broader audience because speaking and writing seem relatively effortless to most of us. By filtering speech sounds through the walls of an apartment building, and subjecting printed words to wayward typewriter strokes, The Perlin Papers demonstrate that barriers to accurate communication exist everywhere. The research challenge for linguistics, then, is to characterize the cognitive capabilities that allow people to circumvent these barriers as often as they do.

The Perlin Papers, which played at Location One in New York City on January 27, will play again on June 1, 2011 at the Toronto International Film Festival. Until then, you can check out other projects by Jenny Perlin (disclaimer: she’s a friend), which include An Exchange with Sol Lewitt, at Mass MoCA in North Adams, Mass. and Cabinet in Brooklyn from January 23 to March 31, 2011, and Found in Translation at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, from February 11 to May 1, 2011.







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