Placing “Augusta”: Index, Tags & Findability

Curator's Note


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Amateur filmmaker Scott Nixon amassed over 26,000 feet of film documenting five decades of travel across the United States. The films tend to include shots of signs and maps marking location. While this suggests a not surprising desire to catalogue for purposes of subsequent recognition, Nixon’s insistent appreciation of signs as visual objects exceeds the merely functional requirement of recall. In this respect, his compilation film of the various places in the US named “Augusta” holds particular interest. Nixon edits no fewer than 36 disparate locations and scenes into a 10-minute montage of Augustas indentifed by signage, intertitle, or map. Whereas all other reels in Nixon’s collection resemble more typical home movie travelogues in their depiction of particular trips, “The Augustas” is arranged according to the logic of series and recombination.


In its employment of this logic, “The Augustas” recalls current practices of uploading images to photo-sharing websites (Flickr, for example), which involve tagging them  with keyword identifiers—including “augusta.” What seems an anomalous device for the analog film reel—the organization of images by means of keyword—becomes a defining characteristic of digital, mobile-imaging streams. As a metadata tag, “augusta” allows images to be found and related to other similarly tagged images, quite apart from whether we would otherwise recognize Augusta in those images themselves.


We might then ask: what does it mean to find Augusta in either medium?  Does Flickr alter the relationship between the image, place, and “tag” when it automates the index term as metadata?  Furthermore, what exactly is found when one searches for  “Augusta” in either form of representation? In both forms arguably, but very clearly in the case of Flickr,  Augusta makes possible comparisons that have nothing to do with specifying location. How do we contend with the consequent paradox: that finding Augusta locates it nowhere in particular?  What might this image-place-tag relationship mean for modern governmentality, which requires that persons be locatable within territories and populations?


I have to admit that before posting this comment, I found myself entranced and a bit lost navigating through the wondrous and often spectral assortment of images you made available.  I know that for now that is distracting me from my critical engagement with the rich questions you posed.  But that pleasure is no small thing.  Many thanks for bringing these films to my screen. 

Your woderful Augusta project starts several simultaneous threads in my brain: how this relates to certain readings of Google Earth (Lisa Parks, for example); or how the creators of The Simpsons chose the name Springfield for the hometown of Homer since it was the most generic name for a city they could think of - a place-wherever. (How many Augustas are there?)

I'm also intrigued by the ways new technologies allow for creative annotation. I'm not talking about only academic discourse but for audiovisual culture in general. The way we now scroll images to see what info pops up, how we get tagged in a photograph on Facebook or how hidden information is unearthed in computer games. The tag becomes a potential, a possible portal to a hidden archive ready to be activated. We can also imagine a function in which archival material used in documentaries, or artworks, (images or sounds) can be annotated, much like a reference, or footnote, in a text. This way we could see where the material comes from, what archives holds copies of it, who took it, how many times has this been used, etc. How many images of Augustas are hidden in other artworks, other movies? How many times is the word Augusta spoken in films, on TV, on the radio...?


The images are gorgeous and thought provoking.


Last evening I was leading my class through several visual research methodologies (mainly content analysis and semiotics). I showed them an episode of a television program and gave them the choice of looking at the show through either of these two research lenses. I assumed, because that's how I would go, that most of them would attempt a semiotic analysis. In fact, all but one group of students presented their analysis through the framework of content analysis. Counting instances of x as the textbook and I characterized it. During the presentations, it occurred to me that most of the students, even the fully engaged ones, were using content analysis as a way of delaying the moment of interpretation - what actually had the various instances of x meant in relation to their particular research question?


Long digression that leads to the following question: is naming and the counting of names - or tags - a way for us to distance ourselves (those of us who do this naming and tagging) from having to engage fully with the meaning that resonates from these locations? Obviously, I can only guess at what Scott Nixon was doing, but that in itself is sort of intriguing in that he left traces of his thinking in that single reel of edited Augustas.


It seems that posting to Flickr is much like older modes of photographic memorialization, only not. I'm still fascinated by tags. Possibly in an unhealthy way.


Dan Leopard

Catherine Summerhayes PhD. Lecturer in Film Studies and New Media Arts Australian National University

It is lovely to watch these images glimmer and weave across the screen and all seeminly under my control (via the mouse)!  The screen action of your project which I had the good fortune to hear you speak about at Visible Evidence in Lincoln last year, is here, I think, doing justice to your material and the way you seem to think about it.

Walter Benjamin's idea of distracted viewing, which he developed in essay on the flaneur and in his Arcades Project, seems a way into thinking about the narrative threads and musings that we can create when looking through a themed data base- transforming such a base from a catalogue to a multi-layered text which can offer new ways of thinking about the material.

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