Archive Researchers

Featuring: Melody Howse, Berlin

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You have a background in art and design, how did you become an archival researcher?

I started working in archive during my first job in TV in around the year 2000. It was for a court room drama reconstruction series with a limited budget. We were looking for ways to tell the story about some of the worlds most ingenious criminal minds, I was finding archive as part of the research process and after that most jobs I got in TV included some kind of archive research either through request or through me bringing it to the production. I became an archive researcher kind of by accident but it was a natural marriage of interest and skill which culminated in my work on Exit through the Gift Shop. Most of my work is still with UK companies even though I’m based in Berlin. 

You’re also a visual anthropologist and often work with projects dealing with pleas making. How does that enhance your work? For example, in your recent project on Brixton in the 1970s.

Archive is in a way central to how I see the world, in my work in visual anthropology I use archive as a starting point for research. When I was working on a ‘place making’ project recently here in Berlin I looked for state archive and allied forces archive to see if the place had retained any of the original features or buildings over the last century. Archive is an important way in which we understand both our past and our present. I’ve been working with some Pathé images about technology from 1949 which shows predecessors to some of the technology we are seeing today, the ideas have gone full circle and although they may be smaller and more refined now you can clearly see their genesis and understand the cultural context in which they were and are conceived. The Brixton project was really nice, Acme the company I worked for in London know me well and just gave me a loose brief to work from, from that I was able to think about the historical and cultural context of the time and deliver an interpretation of the main themes the series was focusing on.

Producing a hijack of Channel 4 for the TV premier of Banksy’s Exit through the Gift Shop sounds quite thrilling! How was the process of sourcing the imagery for that project?

That feels like a long time ago, but the process was quick. We were remixing adverts and using archive from Youtube and other community content sites, we were hijacking images and not just the channel. In essence I went about this the same as I do most projects but the team are immensely talented and creative and we worked as a team instead of me alone bringing ideas and a skill. So if anything it was a group effort which is a lovely way of working.

You have a gift for finding contemporary sources, like social media archives. Can you describe how that adds to the storytelling and creative elements of your production work?

We live in the time of personal content creation and Youtube, Vimeo and a host of other places are incredible treasure troves of original content. People are natural storytellers and I want to include their stories and how they see the world into what I do and what I can deliver. I feel this type of content is reflective of the society we live in and represents it sometimes better than the clean, in focus, non pixelated images that we generally have in the archive libraries. Our threshold for appreciating a distorted image has changed with Skype and online VOD where we’ve all gotten used to varying degrees of quality. I like this broader range, sometimes a story is told better through a powerful clip that isn’t perfect than something crisp and gleaming.

What aspects of being freelance strike you as most distinct from your work experience with visual anthropologist collectives (e.g. Polology) or production companies (e.g. Acme Films)?

The relationships! I enjoy having close relationships with the people I work with. I like to know how they think, what their aesthetic is and how they tell stories, if I know that, I know what I can bring to the production or the project. If I’m working as a freelancer on a short contract with a company I don’t know there is a learning process where I try to learn about them and their work, mostly this works out but sometimes it takes a long time to build the types of relationships which produce the best work. It’s a process of acceptance that being a freelancer I won’t always have the time or the opportunity to work in the way I’d ideally like to, but regardless I try to find common ground and establish their narrative style before starting a project together.

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