Spinning the reels: Kaleidoscopic decay
Film has an enduring power to shape the way the Australian public have understood and remembered war. It is tempting to view film as impartially true: after all, we can see it. But in reality this content is inherently grounded in fallible physical forms. Film material is fragile and is subject to a range of deterioration processes: changes to the chemistry of the film (such as broken molecular chains), dye instability, cracking, loss of magnetic properties, mould, dullness and emulsion failures – all of which all serve to change films from the artist’s original intention. The distinctive dullness of Vietnam War footage, or the colour saturation of domestic VHS tapes, affect the way we interact with this content, distorting the image of what was actually seen by military personnel.
The fantastic splashes of colour now visible in VHS recordings of oral histories are a startling reminder of the chemical and mechanical flaws in magnetic tape recordings, and the changeable nature of film. The Memorial’s photograph and film collections are full of examples of how errors in film can result in unintentionally vivid areas of colour and beautiful distortions of shape, even beyond the characteristic colour saturation of VHS. In the process of digitisation, the inherent chemistry of the object contributes to our reading of its content. Similarly, the eye-catching purple, blue, pink and green flashes shown in F09917 and F09923 are probably caused by signal faults created by dust on the tape or loss of magnetism.
These examples of distortion were created by magnetic media that became popular from the late 1970s. Those media record audio-visual data in magnetic pigments within a polymer binding: these include VHS, S-VHS, U-matic, BetaCam, cassette tapes or floppy disks. The appeal of magnetic tape was that it could be viewed and recorded over instantaneously, without the development processes required for cinecamera film. Tape was inexpensive and widespread; but the reliance on cheaper and lower quality dyes and tapes produced short lifespans. While the magnetic tape collections kept at the Memorial have been stored according to archival standards that control the temperature and humidity, many tapes have still accrued damage from the volatility of their chemistry or their histories of ownership. Deterioration processes do not affect magnetic tapes uniformly, as variations in the environment – and chemical pigments such as iron oxides, metal particulate and chromium dioxides – all produce differences in stability.
With the projected 10 to 20-year life expectancy of these objects rapidly approaching, there is a need for swift digitisation to transfer this content onto a more durable system. Also, the growing obsolescence of playback devices such as VHS machines and cassette players increases the urgency. While ‘digital migration’ alters the original object (image and sound) by separating the subject matter from its original physical carrier, visual traces of its history remain in the film’s colour balances and graininess. Beyond their immense value in aiding us to remember conflict, these objects show the patterns in how we have recorded and told our stories of war.
Oral history recordings and digitised magnetic tapes similar to the ones shown here can be found on the Memorial’s website.