It was only half-way through watching Paul Wright’s 2017 documentary film Arcadia that I realised I hadn’t heard a single piece of narration. It runs at 78 minutes long, was one of the BFI’s flagship films of the year, and charts Britain’s historical relationship with the land from caveman to caravan – yet we do not once hear the voice of its creator. That’s because Arcadia is made up entirely of archive material, accompanied only by the dream-like score written by Adrian Utley (Portishead) and Will Gregory (Goldfrapp). It is an immersive and visceral watch, and one of the most striking examples of how using found footage and recordings in abstract and innovative ways can convey some of the most meaningful and reactive messages to modern audiences. This technique, of reusing and responding to archive material, is certainly not a new one, but in the past few years has experienced a huge surge in popularity in both the art and film world, and Arcadia is a case in point of the movement. Whilst on the surface perhaps a chaotic romp through the BFI’s film archive of over 100 years, it in fact tells a coherent story through extraordinary means. Footage of children playing on a 60s housing estate becomes a synonym for early British hunter-gatherers, and Morris dancers in little England are juxtaposed with 90s rave culture, but in the moment these transitions are seamless, and make perfect sense.

In part, this aesthetic is due to the sheer amount of footage and imagery now available, because as Wright himself points out, the camera was invented over 150 years ago. But it also comes with the unprecedented level of access to and exchange of such a vast quantity of forgotten, miscellaneous or controversial visual material on the internet. It alone has become a gargantuan library for an incomprehensible amount of data and resources, and as time goes on, we will find our own histories perfectly preserved and instantly accessible.

We are all products of both a shared history and individual experience, and therefore archival visuals can elicit both a common idea and provoke a unique reaction. Through this, a very interesting way of working has emerged. By collaging together found footage and imagery, an artist or filmmaker can create a very simple set or series of juxtapositions, from which an audience can then make a particular judgement (intentional or otherwise). In using both recognisable and previously unseen material, the audience has to jump between common cultural reference points (and their personal responses to those points) and new ideas which they then have to evaluate in a split second. This can create an often disorientating but extremely effective statement, regardless of who receives it. The layers of subtext are limitless, as each new image corresponds with an idea in both the shared and individual minds of the audience. Thus, a visual sequence can, without the guidance of a narrator, tell a story, contradict itself, support and question various concepts all in an understandable way.

So why, then, is it the past that is the crucial factor in this new brand of archival practice? Surely a filmmaker or artist could achieve the same effect by shooting new footage, or painting new pictures? A similar effect, definitely, but not the same. Of course, there is a never-ending list of moral, creative and indeed legal questions that surround the world of archive, and its use in new projects. Is it cheating? Is it lazy? Is it ethical? Is it legal? Do you have permission to use it? Is it legitimate? Indeed, these are all valid questions, and ones that anyone who bases their practice on archive sources will have to face at every turn of their creative process, but found material has a huge potential in creating and communicating ideas in a fresh and exciting way. Not only does it reutilise materials and concepts into new statements, but also takes a much-needed step back from the world of constant growth and progress, and is in fact a moment of self-reflection. Through an examination and critique of readily available footage and imagery, films like Arcadia create a dynamic cross section of both our society’s past and its modern condition. Just as religions place such an importance on ancient texts, archive material plays with these ideas of the past, and how we all perceive it.

In his exhibition O’ Magic Power of Bleakness, (currently on display at the Tate Britain until 5th January 2020), the Turner Prize-winning artist Mark Leckey takes these ideas to the next level, creating an immersive, timeless and almost transcendental experience for the audience. The exhibition takes place in a single, colossal room, in which Leckey has built a life-size replica of the underside of a 1960s motorway bridge, an exact copy of a bridge on the M53 near where he grew up. The structure, in itself, is an archive, and as Leckey points out, is riddled with connotations from the past 60 years.

“The bridge was built in ’68, just four years after I was born, and it was this new, modernist emblem of the future, or as Harold Wilson said at the time, the “white heat of technology”, this…promise of Britain surging into the glorious horizon of the future. But then by the 70s, it had become this kind of dystopian, neglected ruin, full of the threat of violence and dread. Then in the 80s it was like this fantasy of nuclear winter, a kind of post-apocalyptic landscape, and then in the 90s it was repainted and rebranded as part of New Labour’s programme of taking Britain back to the swinging 60s”

What we initially experience when walking into the room depends on a variety of things: our own encounters with this kind of architecture; our experiences of specific parts of the country; and also, our own age. This single construct, recreated exactly and arguably objectively, is in fact subject to each of our own individual ideas and memories. Around the walls of the room are various screens, (and blank spaces which are then projected onto) which display a series of three films. These films utilise archive footage to have the same effect, but interestingly are also interspersed with a new film created largely from scratch by Leckey himself, in which he recreates a paranormal experience he believes he had during his childhood, under the same bridge with his friends. This film, however, called Under Under In, is set in the present day, with the boys wearing heavily branded tracksuits, and they document the entire encounter on their iPhones, which makes up the bulk of the film. This is important, as Leckey did not shoot the footage himself, he merely gave the boys directions and edited it afterwards, and it is therefore in a sense still ‘found material’. He is still examining the idea of archive, but this time is experimenting with modern techniques of recording and documentation, whilst also juxtaposing it with archival imagery of pagan structures and ancient writing. The content of the film itself is also a collage of concepts which will relate to preconceived ideas held by the audience: tracksuits, iPhones, youth, drugs, race and masculinity.

It’s hard to say where this current archival trend is headed, and the fact that even massive brands like Adidas and Nike are now using 00s camcorders and VHS graphics in their advertising campaigns could suggest that it’s not long before it will be consigned back into obscurity. But, save for a few brief spells of modernism, we as a society have always been fascinated with our histories, and I believe that this is a medium which will continue to evolve and change as society progresses. Because by their very nature, we will never run out of archives.