In search of lost memories | Andrew Alamango

‘Magna Zmien’ is a project aimed at researching, digitising and preserving Malta’s endangered cultural memories. Artistic director Andrew Alamango walks us through the mechanics of this particular ‘time machine’... and explains why those old family slideshows, audiotapes and footage buried in your attic cupboard might just be slightly more important than you think...

Andrew Alamango
Andrew Alamango

The concept of ‘time travel’ inevitably raises two questions. One concerns the mechanics: how does one revisit the past... the other is very simply: why? In this case: why is a return to the past so important to begin with. So how did this project start, and what does it hope to achieve?  

My own interest grew mainly out of previous research I did into local music when I was working on another project, ‘Lost Voices’. I was specifically looking for old recordings, but I also stumbled on a lot of other material: audio-tapes, photographs, films shot on Super8, and so on... and there’s always a story behind these things. Eventually, however, you begin to realise that there is generally a lack of reference to popular history on the Internet. Not just in terms of institutionally archived material: there is a lack of photographs, digitised films, audio recordings...

Could that be simply because the idea of archiving ‘popular history’ is, in itself, something recent... so no one ever bothered with it before?

In fact, the content in national archives is largely concerned with documenting State activity. And access to even that is limited: this database belongs to PBS, that one to DOI... separately, there is another issue that a lot of this material is not being digitised and preserved: many old PBS tapes have been recorded over, for instance. But even if it is preserved; the archives will, to an extent, dictate what you can access of it, and what you can’t. Because these and other national institutions are concerned somehow with ‘national identity’: and they create a sense of identity, by allowing you to see some aspects of your history, but not necessarily all. We are ‘Maltese’ because we have reference to Independence, etc; we are not ‘Sicilian’ or ‘Tunisian’ because we have reference to this or that. So, archives become very important in determining and shaping who we think we are today. Interestingly, however, when technology started to become accessible to the wider public – in the late 1950s and early 1960s – people used it to start documenting their own lives. Technology gave them the platform to record what THEY wanted to preserve, not what they were told was historically valuable. So the 20th century is important to us because that’s when popular history started to be documented, not just on paper, but also in audio-visual archives...

Why should the Maltese care about their cultural heritage? It’s been packaged and sold. It’s something for tourists. That, too, is why we need references to our popular history

Let’s talk about audio archives first: what do these ‘echoes of the past’, if you will, tell us about how those generations saw themselves?

One interesting thing is that Malta’s record industry started in 1931, three years after the introduction of the electric microphone. Our earliest recordings are electric, not acoustic; and until the 1950s, much of the music of the world was recorded in three-minute format – it was an industry standard, dictated by the technology of the day. So whether it was a Maltese song, or Mississippi Delta Blues, or Indian raga, or Arabic maqam – which usually goes on for two hours – everything had to be done in three minutes. And there was no post-production, either: it was all live. So you have this capsule, of whoever was in that studio at the time, with his voice and instrumentation... documented by this ‘sculpture’, the grooved record. Once tape came in, things changed. Both the length and the content could be determined by the person recording, as opposed to the commercial company that owned the studio. The innovation enabled people to document other things apart from commercial music. Now, these records are historical documents in their own right. But unless we salvage the content, we risk losing a huge reference to popular history in the 20th century...

When you say people started documenting ‘other things’... what sort of things, exactly?

To start with, when the audio-reel came in – and it was hugely important, not only in Malta, for recording folk and popular music – it empowered people: they could hear themselves on playback instantly; run it forwards, run it backwards... they could edit the recording themselves. Above all, they could transfer those reels from community to community. Between Malta, Australia, Canada, and New York, Maltese families would send each other audio messages by post: it became a very important tool for community diaspora connection. A family would get together to make a recording to send to their cousins in Australia, or vice-versa: they might sing a song – a lot of ghana, for instance – introduce themselves on tape, share the latest family news... But that’s just audio. From the 1940s onwards, you also had the widespread proliferation of cameras. Another format worth mentioning is the photographic slide. Families used to do ‘slide-shows’...

You’re bringing back memories now... I think we still have the old family slide projector at home somewhere...

It was often the way things were documented before home video came in: slide-shows of family holidays, weddings, events and so on. And the same could be said for film, too. At street level, the cine-camera arrived in the mid-1960s. Already, there was a particular stratum of society which had the money to buy cameras. And inevitably, as technology got cheaper it became more accessible. But in the meantime, one really interesting thing is that the Maltese communities in Australia, Canada, etc – who tended to be better off – would come and visit in summer, and bring their own Super8 or cine-cameras with them. And everyone would get them to film the village festa, their own family events, and so on. In Australia alone, there is a huge amount of this content – shot in Malta in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s – but a lot of it is dispersed, possibly in danger of being lost. Once the slide projector bulb has gone, or the audio-reel recorder is bust... these things just lie there for decades. Sometimes they’re kept as family heirlooms, but often they become ‘useless’ and get thrown away. Today, however, they are considered historical artefacts, and their content is very valuable because it represents a snapshot, in time and place, of how we lived. Without that, future generations will have no reference of what daily life in Malta used to be like.

It sounds like a certain amount of serendipity must be required, though. If you’re researching something specific – say, the work of a particular author – there are obvious places to look. But something as vast as what you’re talking about... where would you even start? And how do assess the worth of the material you’re looking at? Surely, a lot of it would be repetitive...

That’s exactly what I asked myself initially. When it came to VHS alone, and the technology was cheap and widely available... people started shooting absolutely everything. I thought I’d end up sifting through endless stacks of the same kind of videos: children’s parties, etc. But for one thing, even these seemingly mundane records have their own peculiarities: what people wore; how they looked; the context; the environment...

But what also emerged is that, when technology was not cheap and available... when cameras had to be borrowed, and the film was expensive to develop (Super8 film had to be sent for development to the UK, for example) people were a lot more ‘careful’ about what they actually filmed. Whenever they pressed the ‘record’ button, they did it to document something very specific. We’re finding that much of this type material is actually of very good quality. Not a lot of sifting through has to be done at all...

How does the ‘Machine’ part of ‘Magna Zmien’ actually work, though?

There’s a research aspect, and a preservation aspect. We’re encouraging people to come forward with their family histories... because, as populist or trivial as you might think they are, those records are actually valuable historical references. They’re not as unimportant as you think. Your story, next to that person’s story, and that other person’s, is the story of the community, the town, the village, the island, the country. Ultimately, the region: that’s how important it is. As to what we’re doing with the material: we have come up with five categories – ‘Technology’, ‘Landscape and environment’; ‘Feasts and celebrations’; ‘Extraordinary events and people’; and ‘Music and dance’.

We have set up a digitisation studio, with frame-by-frame conversions for different film formats; cassette and turntable converters for audio... and we’re giving people a digital copy of their content, too. So bring us your marvellous memories: don’t bring absolutely everything... be selective; choose things that are specific, that have meaning to you. But we will also need a bit of context: what the story is, who the people are, etc. Another thing is that we will not be using any of the content for commercial purposes. We are, however, very interested in the artistic re-application: we want to create new worlds out of that material, and put it all together in a way that showcases those beautiful images, those interesting recordings, in an artistic context...

At the same time, however, we are talking about personal memories here... family histories... so how does this work from an intellectual property dimension? Do the owners retain rights over their own material?

The material remains the property of its owner, but upon signing the consent form, people will be agreeing to hand over both the content and the use of it, for at least a year, for the intents and purposes of the project. But we understand it’s a sensitive issue: we’re being very careful as to how people are shown, for instance. Ultimately, we will be condensing the material to short, edited clips to be woven into a presentation...

Your story, next to that person’s story, and that other person’s, is the story of the community, the town, the village, the island, the country. Ultimately, the region: that’s how important it is

But is the project geared towards a single cultural event? Isn’t there a long-term intention to archive the material for posterity?

Whatever we collect will be backed up on a server, and available to national archives. So yes, there is the idea to preserve these memories for future generations. One other aspect is that all this material, apart from being historically interesting in its own right, is also highly relevant to what is happening today. As we can all see, life is changing so fast that our memories are being lost. My parents, who are from Sliema, don’t recognise Sliema anymore.

Not just the physical place; they don’t recognise the way they used to live, either. In such a small country, with such a high level of fast-paced change, things are being buried under layer, upon layer, upon layer. Bury it, and move on. We forget, for instance, that so many people had to emigrate in the past. Those audio-reels are a reminder of what previous generations went through. Another thing that emerges from old photos, especially, is how people used to interact with their environment. I’ve seen photos from the 1970s of people at the Neolithic temples: sitting around on the stones, having a picnic: sometimes dancing on the dolmen, or jumping from one stone to the other. Clearly, there are reasons to protect the temples from that sort of thing; I can understand that. But it also made me think of how we used to live with what we today call ‘Unesco World Heritage Sites’, and cultural heritage in general. In those days, sites were unprotected because they belonged to the people.

And people were there, living with and around them. I remember going into the Oratory of St John’s Cathedral, and seeing Caravaggio’s ‘Beheading of St John’... why? Because it was too hot outside, and my father wanted to sit somewhere in the shade. It was part of our everyday life. Nobody gave a damn about Valletta, because it was a place to live. Like Birgu. Now, it’s different. Unesco World Heritage sites no longer belong to people... unless you pay. Every cultural site is rentable. If you have money, you have access. Otherwise, it’s fenced off, with CCTV cameras... it’s not ‘ours’ anymore. Why should the Maltese care about their cultural heritage? It’s been packaged and sold. It’s something for tourists. That, too is why we need references to our popular history. It’s important to remember who we were, and how we lived... especially when so much of it is vanishing.

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