Unique & extraordinary - Alone With Empire


By Alina Young, Arts Editor

Simultaneously intriguing, surprising and at times disturbing, Alone With Empire is a valuable contribution to our discussion of a troubling past.

It’s not often that one has the opportunity to feel ‘Alone’ with history. This is the rare encounter that IC-Visual Lab enables with their unique installation, which uses footage from the Bristol Archives’ British Empire and Commonwealth Collection.

Image credits: IC-Visual Lab

‘Unique’ as a description is thrown around casually, but Alone With Empire deserves it; the viewer’s experience will be seen by no one else, and will never be replicated. IC-Visual Lab’s concept is a fascinating solution to presenting over 2,000 pieces of footage. Viewers are invited to book a 15-minute slot, in which they view a randomised selection of archived film which they experience alone. Unlike official records of the Empire, the films are strikingly domestic; most are taken by tourists or those working abroad, capturing events, locals, their environment or simply family life.

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It’s an extraordinary way in which to reconsider Empire, exploring what it means to document it and what it means to revisit it. As Britain rethinks the Empire’s legacy in a national conversation, this intensely private installation encourages us to consider our personal emotions towards what we see. The archive footage is introduced with a poetic film created by IC-Visual Lab, which imagines a voice for the archive. The archive gains a part in our larger conversation, as it directly asks ‘the eye of the entrant’ to ‘form a new impression / or none’, to consider ‘knowledge gained / the vastness of what is seen / what is not.’

Image credits: IC-Visual Lab

After the experience, viewers fill out a questionnaire on their emotions, choosing keywords for emotions they relate to. It’s anonymous and immediate, a reflection that allows you to be honest about how the footage affects you. In turn, IC-Visual Lab will collate the responses and form a counter-archive: a documentation of how contemporary eyes view Empire.

The random, mechanised process takes away the judgement or bias that is unavoidable when presenting history in more common formats. The strength of the installation is its philosophical questioning of ‘truth’ in our understanding of history. Documentaries, revisionist books, the curation of archives – all have an intended message, an inclination towards a certain narrative, yet in Alone With Empire this is completely stripped away. By presenting only a few minutes of hours of material, the installation also forces us to consider that an individual’s view will never see the full picture.

Image credits: IC-Visual Lab

IC-Visual Lab challenges the perception that archives are passive resources, and enforces their relevance to contemporary viewers. The installation revitalises the archive as a living resource that audiences can have an emotional reaction to. Simultaneously intriguing, surprising and at times disturbing, Alone With Empire is a valuable contribution to our discussion of a troubling past.

(Featured image credits: IC-Visual Lab)

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