One of the signature genres of The Labyrinth Project, archival cultural histories provide access to a large body of diverse historical data (including texts, images, sounds, maps, material objects, etc.) structured as archives (either as on-line digital records or a material site), out of which many historical narratives can be generated by a variety of users with different goals. These histories can be presented as an installation, an on-line website, a DVD-ROM, an anthology, an essay, a book, a film, a television series, a radio broadcast, a live performance, a photographic exhibition or some other interactive narrative form.

Film Quarterly (Spring 2003)
MK essay: “Uncanny Visions of History: Two Experimental Documentaries from Transnational Spain—Asaltar los cielos and Tren de sombras

p. 14-15, “While this juxtaposition is still consistent with the compilation documentaries from the transitional era with their dialogic clashes between official public history and contradictory private memories, Asaltar departs from its predecessors when we suddenly see footage of the 1976 Rolling Stones concert in Barcelona, with the androgynous Mick Jagger prancing on stage as Spanish film star Charo López tells us in voiceover that these two dates, 1900 and 1976, mark the span of Ramón’s life. Although the specific date of Mercader’s death makes another historical connection with the transition, the choice of the Stones concert as historical marker introduces a vision of Spain that is more compatible with the postmodernist documentaries of the mid-1990s than with the transitional documentaries of the mid-1970s. For the concert associates Mercader not only with the end of Francoist xenophobia, but also with Spain’s immersion in a sexually mobile global pop culture. In a special issue of the Spanish film journal Viridiana devoted to Asaltar los cielos and Patrice; Guzmán’s documentary La memoria obstinada (1977), Rioyo and López Linares acknowledge this connection in their preface:

“The mixture of archival images, black-and-white and color footage, 16mm film, digital video, Super 8, photographs, interviews, audio united in a visual and sound montage, makes the telling of this history effective and accessible. We are addressing spectators of ARTE and of MTV with a model of audiovisual ideas that reflect modern concepts of how to look at cultural facts, documents, or music.”

Asaltar combines processed archival footage and a complex weave of interviews with a wide range of historical witnesses from a broad geographical range. They all had some direct connection with the film’s three major characters, who were born in different nations: Mercader in Spain; his mother Caridad del Río in Cuba; and his victim, Trotsky, in Russia.... There are also occasional star cameos like the brief interview with Sara Montiel (the leftist Spanish movie queen who met Mercader in Mexico). Yet the most famous “stars” in the story—Stalin, La Pasionaria, Diego Rivera (who convinced Mexican President Lázaro Cardenas to grant Trotsky a visa), Frida Kahlo (who had an affair with him), David Siquieiros (who tried to assassinate him)—are, like the protagonist and victim, all dead. They are ghosts who appear only in archival footage and whose direct testimonies are irretrievably lost, like those of Trotsky and Mercader.”

p. 18, “We see how genre contextualizes the meaning of images and sounds, and that all generic options foregrounded by Guerin—melodrama, mystery-detection, documentary, art film and historical reconstruction—can be applied to any movie. He employs genres the way he uses music, as a database of alternatives that alter the meaning of perceptions and that call attention to how we actually read the combination of sounds, images, and words.”

Video Vortex Reader: Responses to Youtube (2008)
MK essay: “The Conceptual Power of On-Line Video: 5 Easy Pieces”

p. 60-62, “Labyrinth’s Database Narratives: Stochastic Systems and Archival Cultural History. All of Labyrinth’s works are `database narratives’ that reveal the process by which story fragments—images, sounds, texts—are chosen from archives and recombined to make a series of rival narratives. To expose this process of knowledge production, we frequently make the database structure visible. These works combine contributions by artists and amateurs, creators, users, professional historians and ordinary people telling their own life stories.

As archival cultural histories, they involve a series of re-orchestrations in which on-line users and museum-goers participate. Labyrinth’s database narratives all feature brief video modules that can be combined in a variety of ways. The mix is presented as a stochastic system—a term Gregory Bateson used to describe evolution: a combination of design, choice and chance. The brevity of the individual modules works toward emotional intensity, yet we include narrative lures to prolong the users’ engagement within this force field of desire, where closure and other forms of premature death can be resisted. The combination (of brevity and prolongation) enhances the conceptual power of the pieces, both from amateurs and professionals.”

A Cultural History of Jews in California: The Jewish Role in American Life (2009)
MK’s essay: “Jewish Homegrown History: In the Golden State and Beyond”

p. 95, “We agreed that whatever subject we chose, the project would draw on the archival resources of the Huntington Library and of USC Libraries’ Special Collections and would leverage Labyrinth’s ten years of experience producing archival cultural histories as large-scale museum installations, drawing on Comella’s expertise as a multimedia artist.

The topic we chose was a cultural history of Jews in California, which would be presented to the general public in three different modes: as an on-line multimedia archive, a traveling museum installation, and a print anthology edited by Deverell (the volume in which this essay appears). Together these public presentations would comprise (what we at Labyrinth call) a “transmedia network,” the use of multiple media to create a series of networked public spaces that enable participants to engage with the same material in different ways.

p. 99, “Like cultural historian Diana Taylor, we believe that every database or archive is designed for a particular kind of knowledge production and comes with specific (if not necessarily explicitly stated) goals; and the decision of which items to include or exclude, what categories to use as structuring principles, and what metadata to collect (or exclude) for later retrieval —all of these decisions serve ideological ends. In our works, we frequently visualize the database structure so that the interface design exposes this process of knowledge production, which is precisely what happens in Jewish Homegrown History.

Cinema’s Alchemist: The Films of Péter Forgács (2011)
MK essay, “Reorchestrating History: Transforming The Danube Exodus into a Database Documentary”

p. 240, “Database Documentary is an empowering discursive form that provides access both to a series of rival narratives (whether truth or fiction) and to the underlying archive of materials out of which they are spun. It reveals what is at stake ideologically in the distinction between database (a dominant form in contemporary digital discourse, the politics of which tend to be disavowed) and narrative (the traditional form it supposedly displaces, the ideological baggage of which is well known). Yet by embodying their inevitable combination, database documentary exposes the ideological workings of both. As a genre it is particularly effective for presenting archival cultural history. It also is an effective participant in the current cultural debate over the ideological implications of databases and their relationship to narrative, an issue of growing importance as the academic world increasingly turns to online archives as new modes of scholarship and learning. By dramatizing the archive (whether it is a physical collection of books and material objects in the library or a digital database online), database documentary focuses our attention on crucial questions: what kinds of information are we trying to archive and retrieve, in what genres, and for what ends?

Transmedia Frictions (2014)
MK essay, “Medium Specificity and Productive Precursors: An Introduction”

p. 12-13, “Anderson and Mamber on Database Documentary and Archival Cultural History. Although Anderson focuses on history and Mamber on documentary, they both examine the impact of digital technology, databases, and search engines on nonfiction narrative, exploring what new models have been generated. Although nonfiction is their primary interest, they both see history and fiction as narrative cousins whose commingling and hybridization can be productive.

Perhaps most important, they both recognize that database structures and archival histories offer a seductive promise of `total knowledge,’ one that reinforces traditional epistemological assumptions about the stabilizing effects of rational order and progress. Yet they both claim that this vision of wholeness is an illusion. Instead they call attention to the inevitable gaps and random combinations in history, which they see as the driving force of narrative desire. By challenging the illusory nature of any totalizing history, they open the path for an open-ended narrative experimentation that always leaves room for the unknown and that exposes the ideological implications of all databases and their search engines.”