Ina Archer is a filmmaker, visual artist, programmer, and writer whose multimedia works and films have been shown nationally including at Contemporary Art Museum, Houston; List Visual Arts Center, Cambridge; Maysles Cinema, New York; Microscope Gallery, Brooklyn; Spelman College Museum of Fine Art, Atlanta; and Studio Museum in Harlem, New York, among others. She is a Media Conservation and Digitization Specialist at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture. Read more.
Richard Sale’s Abandon Ship (1957) begins ominously with the explosion of a derelict mine that sinks a cruise ship, stranding 37 survivors in a 14-man lifeboat. As the highest ranking officer, Capt. Holmes (played by Tyrone Powers) is tasked with saving as many of the socioeconomically, ethnically, and racially diverse “souls” (plus a dog) on board as possible. In true Hollywood/British fashion, he must determine who is valuable—each chosen person must be strong enough, able-bodied, and meaningful to the future or they will be cast overboard into the drink.
Mortally injured, the skipper warns Holmes, “Don’t get to know them.” “You’ve got a full house at the wrong time,” and those who can’t pay the rent must be “evicted.” When Holmes refuses, crying “Negative!,” he chastises: “I thought you had the guts to save half of ‘em instead of losing them all.” A scholar in a life vest hanging onto the boat’s side ropes jauntily notes, “It’s a fascinating moral problem.” As a storm threatens, Holmes ruthlessly clears the lifeboat, sending the elderly, the injured, and the effete adrift.
I’ve used Abandon Ship in my film studies to metaphorically consider the challenges presented by marginalized films—like Vitaphone short subjects, just to name one of my obsessions—to be deemed canon worthy. Blowing up—or at least blowing the dust off—the canon has long been a subtext of my art work. The development of my creative practice, linked with my curiosity about media preservation and restoration, corresponded with the centennial celebrations of cinema in the 1990s, when there seemed to be a constant barrage of “Best Of “ and “100 Most” movie lists being named by entities like the BFI and AFI. However, established notions of what constituted notable or worthy film didn’t include works that fascinated me and that seemed important to study as I tried to grapple with damaging legacy of minstrelsy and misrepresentation that threads through our film histories. The principle themes in my art, academic studies, and work as a conservator emerged from that moment.
In my films and installations I’ve appropriated Abandon Ship’s image of the exploding mine, as well as papier-mâché bombs and hyperbolized imaginings of fiery nitrate reels, to signify the volatility of neglected films and outdated racial images. Like Hughes’s “dream deferred,” does the filmic dream, discounted, decompose into goo, or, neglected and then, agitated, ignite?
Exploiting the innovative digital technologies referenced in the prompt, not just a new generation but a reinvigorated mentor cohort of archivists—who work as hyphenated artist-preservationists and conservator-curators (let the combinations ensue!), and who may claim hyphenated nationalities and identities (although at NMAAHC we spurn the – between African and American)—are becoming the ship’s stewards. This scrappy—or was it motley?—multitasking crew ignite layered undertakings of restoration and access, opening up and diversifying the field and hopefully empowering more equitable decisions about the fascinating moral dilemma of who gets to stay in the lifeboat.