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The Archive Of A Vanishing World

Noema – Archives de la Planète: “PARIS — Line 10 of the Paris Métro terminates almost five miles west of the center of the city at Boulogne-Pont de Saint-Cloud. The station is a polished hub in one of the wealthiest regions of Paris, not to mention all of France. Boulogne-Billancourt is the birthplace of France’s aviation industry and the site of the historic Chateau Rothschild. It is also home to the Musée Albert-Kahn, an archive of the planet. It is a madcap, romantic thing to try to document the entire Earth, an undertaking so ambitious and so hopeful it must be delusional. And yet, faced with the crisis of a rapidly changing world at the start of the 20th century, that is precisely what Albert Kahn sought to do. Between 1909 and 1931, he dispatched a team to distant lands to record the world in photography and film exactly as it was: its people, landforms and ways of life. For Kahn, it was primarily an effort to understand and produce images of human complexity as a means of promoting international solidarity and peace. He was forced to stop only after the Great Depression decimated his fortune.  Kahn’s team surveyed the world for more than 20 years, bringing back to France 4,000 black-and-white photographs, 120 hours of video footage and more than 72,000 autochromes, an early color photography process. Together, this material was to form the Archives de la Planète, the crux of Kahn’s lifelong humanist endeavor. Kahn established his archive as a means of “fix[ing] once and for all, those aspects, practices and modes of human activity, the fatal disappearance of which [was] only a matter of time.” He worried about the effects of industrialization and the loss of diversity it foretold, both cultural and environmental — a loss, as such, of history. This fear was reinforced by the onset of World War I, which began three years after Kahn unveiled his plan to create the archive. But knowledge of foreign cultures and different ways of living would, Kahn thought, encourage respect and cooperation between peoples, and his team persevered despite a backdrop of warfare and ruin…”

Kahn set out to preserve the world as it was, but he ended up registering the very developments that he so worried would destroy what he sought to immortalize. Against a destabilized backdrop, the Archives de la Planète portends political destabilization, environmental destruction, the mass movement of peoples and the precipitous decline of cultures..”

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