Considering the material conditions of the National Audio Visual Conservation Center (NAVCC) at Library of Congress, in its capacity as the custodian of America’s media heritage, reveals that it operates at the nexus of political and ecological tensions. The Library’s goals of preserving our nation’s cultural heritage beyond the “life of the Republic” raises the specters of geopolitical and/or environmental collapse that may lay on the path of this historical trajectory.
We can draw poetic associations from the placement of the NAVCC facility within a decommissioned Federal Reserve bunker, once used to store currency to help jump start the economy in the event of a nuclear war [slide 1]. The common functional requirements shared by bunkers and archives should give us pause to consider how our memory institutions fit within regimes of geopolitical power. From a site where our government once planned to jumpstart a post-World War III economy with currency, it now may one day repopulate the earth with the artifacts of our departed civilization.
But, what sorts of artifacts will exist when we need to repopulate the earth? While the Library still actively conserves the world’s largest collection of film, video and sound recordings, increasingly, the Library is working to preserve digital artifacts, representing a shift to relying intensively upon digital infrastructures and new knowledge bases and values.
This trend towards digital preservation does not remove the archive from the constraints of the natural world. There is a palpable tension between the Library’s forest reclamation on top of its facility [slide 10], and the fact that the systems below draw large quantities of resources. In The Cinematic Footprint (2012), Nadia Bozak suggests “however sophisticated digital technology becomes … it remains plugged into a turn-of-the-century system of energy generation that is so outdated it should long ago have been declared, like the commodities it has yielded, … obsolete” (p. 4). Even our country’s most powerful archives rely on decaying energy systems.
Assessing the materiality of media archives raises a variety of new questions that are critical for today’s media thinkers: What sorts of traces will these collections leave when our civilization experiences ecological or political discontinuities? How might future media archaeologists reconstitute these collections when the infrastructure required to support them has decayed? What can we do today to help them revivify the past?