May 11, 2014

The Strategic Value of Heidi Rae Cooley’s FINDING AUGUSTA

Benjamin Turkus
Everyday Governance: The Strategic Value of Heidi Rae Cooley’s Finding Augusta

On the third morning of the 9th Orphan Film Symposium, scholar Heidi Rae Cooley and media artist Evan Meaney, both professors at the University of South Carolina, joined filmmaker Bill Morrison for a session entitled Digital Decay and Remobilization. Their appearance coincided with the release of Cooley’s new book, Finding Augusta: Habits of Mobility and Governance in the Digital Era (Dartmouth College Press, 2014) and its companion August App (


While shared affinities for archival media united the three speakers, the connective tissue most readily apparent was their refusal (whether made explicit or not) to accept the stereotypical notion of “the archive” as a static, walled-off space, filled with obsolete items of little contemporary value. Instead, through their purposeful manipulations -- of film, computer code, and mobile technologies -- Morrison, Meaney, and Cooley all display a deep commitment to the archive as a fount of creativity, as the source of a new liberating potential.

Framed by the symposium’s theme -- The Future of Obsolescence -- their work also calls to mind the journal October’s special issue on obsolescence (Spring 2002). Reading alongside Walter Benjamin’s writings on history and media, the editors envisioned how contemporary artists’ disparate archival manipulations often emerge from a communal “experience of the obsolescent . . . [one which] offers a point of view outside what some see as the totalizing ambitions of each new technological order” (3). October’s questionnaire to 21 artists inquired about “The obsolescent, the ‘outmoded,’ the nonsynchronous, discarded forms, marginal mediums.” For many of these artists, as for Morrison, Meaney, and Cooley, the obsolescent serves as a critical resource, providing tools for “accessing dimensions of memory and/or history” (6), for constructing sites of resistance to ingrained political orders.

As Cooley would likely point out, however, this resistance does not necessarily align with neoliberal rhetoric that prizes, in her words, heroic “political intervention through feats of individual will and deliberation” (101). In their return to once-overlooked, orphaned media-historical objects, Morrison, Meaney, and Cooley present us with complex infrastructures of people, artifacts, and institutions, generating and sharing knowledge in new, interconnected ways. And whether pursuing a guiding metaphor or operational mode of re-assemblage, glitch, or tracking, their work should ultimately instill in us the desire to continue searching for new modes of communication, for new forms of community. 

Like Morrison’s roving, searching efforts—to uncover and repurpose archival film footage, constructing lyrical meditations on a theme (the deterioration and decay of celluloid film; the obsolescence of media technologies; the intertwining of history, memory, and art)—Cooley’s prose is also constantly pivoting, back-and-forth, from the concrete to the abstract, building an atmosphere of call-and-response, lost-and-found. As Wendy Chun adds in her blurb for the book, Finding Augusta and the Augusta App are concerned with the “patterns and rhythms” of our current technological era. For Cooley, it is “mobility, its organization and potentiality, [that] is the defining problem of this present” (xxiii).

The lodestar for Cooley’s wide-ranging though tightly focused exploration of the social and political implications of the rampant proliferation of mobile technologies is, in a wondrously strange way, a film historical artifact that is unusual in its own right. The film, Scott Nixon’s The Augustas, is part of the University of South Carolina’s Moving Image Research Collections. Following her presentation of the film in several public screenings (including Orphans 7) the Librarian of Congress added it to the National Film Registry in 2012, recognizing it as a work “of enduring importance to American culture.” The Augustas is part of a massive collection of Nixon’s amateur film footage (“approximately 26,400 feet of 16mm and 10,000 feet of Super 8”) gifted to USC by the Augusta Museum and the Augusta chapter of the National Railway Historical Society in 2000 (Cooley, 118). The Library of Congress description for The Augustas points to reasons it captured Cooley’s imagination.

Scott Nixon, [an independent insurance agent] based in Augusta, Ga., was an avid member of the Amateur Cinema League who enjoyed recording his travels on film. In this 16-minute silent film, Nixon documents some 38 streets, storefronts and cities named Augusta in such far-flung locales as Montana and Maine. Arranged with no apparent rhyme or reason, the film strings together brief snapshots of these Augustas, many of which are indicated at pencil-point on a train timetable or roadmap.

Beginning in the 1930s, and into the 1950s, Nixon documented every Augusta he encountered as he traveled the country, resulting in a compilation reel that summons and yet resists our interpretations. Despite these “slippery operations” of Nixon’s “Augustas,” this lack of a readily apparent “rhyme or reason”—throughout, “Augusta” variously signifies “a township, a plantation, a military academy, a fort, a street, and a flower”— creates an “indeterminacy of reference,” which Cooley argues is markedly familiar, calling to mind the operations of modern computing and mobile technologies (xx, xiii). For Cooley, The Augustas, despite its analog nature, demonstrates something quintessentially digital, a concern for “information retrieval and, more specifically, how the process of recording, storing, and arranging information relates to the project of finding information, persons, places, and things” (xx).

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Cooley’s peripatetic journey—from QR Codes to industrial design to Michel Foucault to ancient Rome—is something of a pixilated mirror image of Nixon’s movie; and the Augusta App, which allows iPhone users to find and document their own Augustas, seems designed to spark the cognitive bias known as frequency illusion (also referred to as the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon), “in which a word, a name or other thing that has recently come to one's attention suddenly seems to appear with improbable frequency shortly afterwards” (Wikipedia, s.v. “List of Cognitive Biases”). But our growing recognition of the multitude of Augustas is secondary, or perhaps complementary, to our awareness of the ways in which the “deceptively banal and quotidian nature of mobile technologies” masks their operations as tools for the administration and governance of populations (xvii).

This is the political core of Cooley’s work: the realization that our contemporary habits and routine practices—the feeling that accompanies a mobile phone being mistakenly left at home, the common plea for a compatible plug or available wall outlet, “tweeting from” or “checking in” at locations such as the Eye Institute in Amsterdam—are all instances of our participation in a biopolitical order. This is what “good” governance, or management, is all about: power as it operates on and through the body. As Cooley offers: “We are governed best when practices like googling stabilize into routine, when we ourselves habitually participate in the techniques that make it possible to predict and therefore anticipate and manage our conduct—most frequently by offering us results, products, services, and destinations that seem to be what we wanted all along” (8). For Cooley, mobility, location, findability, and metadata are the keys to the administrative logics of our information management society, rather than the more hackle-raising architecture of surveillance, confession, and self-discipline (79).

We walk away from this encounter with Cooley’s work with a greater awareness of and desire to engage anew with mobile technologies. And, as Cooley reminds us, “Change worth pursuing will require not ‘new ideals’ but new types of lived relations with a changing milieu” (108). Cooley not only imparts valuable advice, but she leads by example. Her willingness to experiment should inspire in us the desire to do the same. Our goal should not only be to breathe new life into films, but also to allow them to breathe new life into us.

This work, in some sense, will never be done. We must continue to reconfigure, redeploy, and remobilize, working constantly to turn films away from the past and toward the future.

-- Benjamin Turkus is a student in NYU's Moving Image Archiving and Preservation master's degree program. 


See also

Meaney, Evan. “On Glitches: A Deconstructive Analysis of Archives and Experience.” MFA thesis, University of Iowa, 2010. Rewrite downloadable PDF at

Here's the University of Iowa Libraries InfoHawk catalog record for the Meaney thesis (with its 28 leaves and companion Region-1 DVD). OCLC number 664028198.  
On Glitches: A Deconstructive Analysis of Archives and Experience
Thesis/dissertation, Manuscript, Videorecording
Document Type: Book, Archival Material
All Authors / Contributors: Evan J Meaney; Leighton Pierce; University of Iowa. Department of Cinema and Comparative Literature.
Sys. No. [005234641]
Description: iv, 28 leaves ; 28 cm. + 1 videodisc (25 min. : sd., col. ; 4 3/4 in.)
Details: DVD NTSC, Region 1.
Responsibility: by Evan J. Meaney.
Main Thesis T2010 .M435 text + disc
Special Collections University Archives T2010 .M435 text + disc

Google Books offers a QR Code for "On Glitches" (but lists Leighton Pierce as the author of Meaney's thesis).


Bonus feature: 

Left:  Cooley's iPhone photo of Meaney in Amsterdam.   Right: Cooley's screenshot of the August App in Amsterdam.