Documents of a Multi-screen Installation and Archival Films: Péter Forgács’ “Looming Fire”

Wang-Yun Yen (Amsterdam/Taipei)

In recent years, research in film and moving image art has been extended to a wide range of exhibitions and cross-institutional collaborations, but the use of documentation in these contexts remains a largely understudied area. At a conceptual level, moving image artworks are allographic – a term coined by philosopher Nelson Goodman to refer to two-stage arts – as each manifestation depends on the condition of presentation[1].For practical reasons, the field of time-based media conservation has addressed the question of analysis and yielded insights on the characteristics of these art forms. Their allographic nature necessitates a deep look at, for instance, the relationship between the playback of media elements and the actual installation [Laurenson 2006] and the analogy of the artwork to a system in which the parameters and components might change in each event [Phillips 2015: 168-179]. Obtaining a retroactive view could thus pose challenges, due to incomplete documentation or a lack of secondary sources regarding past exhibitions. In this study, I shall emphasise the gap between the exhibition event and its documents, considering it as an opportunity to think upon the descriptive method used on film-related installations.

This article specifically addresses the scholarly practice of describing and documenting archive-based moving image artworks through a case study of Péter Forgács’ Looming Fire: Stories from the Netherlands East Indies (1900-1940) (Sluimerend Vuur: Verhalen uit Nederlands-Indië [1900-1940]), commissioned by Eye Filmmuseum (Eye), Amsterdam, Netherlands in 2013. After being displayed in Eye’s exhibition hall, in 2014 Looming Fire travelled to Tong Tong Fair (The Hague), a festival dedicated to European-Indonesian culture. Comparing the video documentation of Eye’s exhibition with that of the Tong Tong Fair, it is noticeable that the same work was shown with a different arrangement of screens and chairs, with Tong Tong Fair’s arrangement more akin to the setting of a film screening than a museum display[2]. Since these two occasions, Looming Fire seems to have fallen into obscurity; the audio-visual components of the installation have not been circulated, and there has been no critical review containing detailed descriptions of the work. The aim in this case study is to retroactively probe into the commission, thereby incorporating the documented components into the analysis. I highlight the exhibition context as a field of reflection on film historiography, with regards to how films can be received and remembered in a contemporary setting through artistic production and its documentation.

To pin down the characteristics of Looming Fire, I refer to Eye’s archival documents of its debut exhibition. In Eye’s collection catalogue, Looming Fire is put in the “hybrid” category along with a list of content from the exhibition. The overview of the exhibition from the catalogue is the same as the introduction text on Eye’s website:

From 5 October to 1 December 2013 Eye’s main exhibition space was exclusively devoted to Looming Fire, the latest work by filmmaker and artist Péter Forgács. Based on Eye’s extensive collection of home movies, Forgács (Budapest, 1950) takes us through everyday life in the Netherlands East Indies at the height of the colonial period […] Supported by quotes from original letters, the footage shows daily life as lived by Europeans in the colonial era in full glory: the etiquette, the almost forgotten traditions, family life, the colours and the scents. Thus Looming Fire is able to add an extra dimension to the historiography of the Netherlands East Indies.

What follows is a quote from Péter Forgács:

I put my films together like musical pieces. I make compositions on the basis of the material I’ve found. They are personal interpretations of history, not documentaries aiming at objectivity[3].

The above text and statement foreground the historical value of films from museum collections as well as the creative engagement of the artist. Yet, what is currently available is the documentary evidence, instead of the physical presence of the work. The question then concerns how to characterise an archive-based moving image artwork as precisely as possible, with the aim of making sense of different discursive levels around the artwork for future study and potential iteration. In applying a documentary methodology to the study of art practices, library and information science (LIS) scholar Marc Kosciejew argues for a materialist reading, through asking how the information of art is materialised [Kosciejew 2018]. This methodological proposal helps consider the artwork as fact, and the documents as sources of evidence for that fact. The emphasis on the relation between information and documents of art might downplay the installation’s phenomenological dimension, but this method serves to tackle the temporal and variable nature of installation, and to describe how each document might function differently according to the context. This article examines the documentary evidence of Looming Fire in two parts: one related to the discourse of experience proper to the installation, and the other pertaining to the mediating role of the artwork between exhibition and archive.


Fig. 1 — Screen capture of the video documentation of Looming Fire at Eye Filmmuseum in 2013.


Fig. 2 — Screen capture of the video documentation of Looming Fire at Tong Tong Fair in 2014.



Installation loop and production process

Within the setting of museal exhibitions, one of the main properties of moving image installations is the conception of the artwork in relation to projective or display systems. Developing practice-led research at the intersection between cinema, architecture, and digital media technology, scholar François Penz proposes three contact points between the cinematic and museal experience, wherein the screen-based works would be able to:

1) capture or reflect the museum experience through moving images,

2) channel the viewer’s attention through spatial arrangements;

3) elicit the viewer’s on-site engagement through the coordination of interactive devices and museum exhibits [Penz 2012: 278-300].


Penz’s descriptive method offers a tool for outlining the relationship between the on-screen space and the architectural space where a work is exhibited. The floor plan of Looming Fire, inserted into the exhibition pamphlet to guide the visitor, indicates that the installation consists of 14 videos shown on 13 projection sets. Amongst the documents for internal use, a working version of the floor plan notes the sizes of the screens, and the sheets of technical instruction specify the projectors and digital player hard disks used in each set. Accordingly, at the heart of the work lies the loop form and the division of the exhibition site. In Eye’s exhibition hall, as the screens were not isolated from each other, the visitor could watch more than one video at the same time. The projection sets were situated amid the walking trajectory, thus leading to a heightened sense of passage. Instead of perceiving the images formed by the light beam issued from the back, here the visitor would often watch the videos close to the projectors and screens. The exhibition design lets the viewer decide her own route, but at the same time retains that the audio-visual components were the subject of concentration.


Fig. 3 — Floor plan of Looming Fire: Stories from the Netherlands East Indies (1900-1940) (Sluimerend Vuur: Verhalen uit Nederlands-Indië [1900-1940]), Péter Forgács, 2013, Eye Filmmuseum. © Eye Filmmuseum


As for the audio-visual components, 14 videos made by Forgács can be seen as separate files, corresponding to the loop in each projection set. The length of each video varies between 10 and 38 minutes. The loop of digitized images along with the free itinerary of the viewer offers a solution to the showcase of videos running for 6 hours and 22 minutes in total. A logbook for the installation of Looming Fire contains the titles of the source material from the film collections and thus enables researchers to identify sequences of videos through comparing them to the content of the film reels, annotated in Eye’s catalogue and accessible in its digital asset management (DAM).

As the exhibition documents from Eye do not contain notes on the selection of material, I talked to Dorette Schootemeijer, curator of Eye’s amateur film collections, who was involved in selecting the archival films for Looming Fire. The conversation clarified many facets of the production process. Simultaneous projection was made possible by the choice of integrating the films into the installation in digital format. For the commission, 3 hours of 8mm films in the Dutch East Indies collection had been digitised externally. As for the 16mm film, the most common format for amateur filmmakers since the early 1920s, Eye had digitised 12 hours of films ready for reuse[4]. Through the pre-selection and with guidance from the curator - amid the huge amount of material – Forgács then decided upon the films to be included. He then finalised the work with the soundtrack composed by János Másik, cited letters from the collections of the Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies (Koninklijk Instituut voor Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde, or KITLV), and the Tan-Schepers Letters Foundation (Stichting Brieven Tan-Schepers) [5]. In other words, the project draws connections between the colonial-era documents from different heritage institutions, whilst using archival films as the central pieces for revisiting the history of the Dutch East Indies.

From these reassembled documents, complementary information in Eye’s collection catalogue, and the words from the curator, it is possible to describe the audio-visual playback and the exhibition setup of Looming Fire. Regarding the production process, it would require complementary interviews to make the exhibition documents more informative. This reveals the limits of the existing practice of documenting a commissioned artwork based on a great amount of archival material. The list of videos below serves to provide an overview of the audio-visual components in Looming Fire.



Fig. 4 — List of videos in Looming Fire: Stories from the Netherlands East Indies (1900-1940) (Sluimerend Vuur: Verhalen uit Nederlands-Indië [1900-1940]), Péter Forgács, 2013, Eye Filmmuseum.


In the videos, Forgács’ re-editing creates a remix of different types of moving images originating from the last thirty years of Indonesian colonial history. For instance, in the first two videos that the visitor would encounter upon entering the exhibition – “Ouverture” and “Eye of Discoveries” – visual motifs are diverse. “Ouverture” offers scenes of social activities within the Dutch communities, local labourers in the plantations, and the domestic leisure of the expatriates. “Eye of Discoveries” demonstrates a similar composition, except that the split-screen format within the video frame doubles the moving images. Accompanying the loop and split-screen are effects such as juxtaposition, freeze framing, slow motion, mirroring, and captioning.

With its assemblage of home movies and other types of moving images under new video titles, Forgács’s work relies on a symbolic reading of the film archive. The installation manifests first and foremost the possibility of creating multiple loops within the exhibition hall. In contexts where the digital has become the common format for presentation, film theorist and curator Dominique Païni considers the constant loop of moving images as its most prominent effect [Païni 2002]. What Forgács’ re-editing invites us to think of, is the way that the constant loop activates a more contemporary reception of the largely unknown films linked to colonial history. This is most evident when comparing Looming Fire with films entirely or partly based on the Dutch East Indies collection. Found footage filmmaking – an umbrella term referring to the experimental practices that take pre-existing footage as both the subject and the material – has nowadays an orientation towards collaboration between filmmakers and institutions[6]. Vincent Monnikendam’s Mother Dao, the Turtle Like (Moeder Dao, de Schildpadgelikende, 1995) has surprised critics and scholars alike, not only because it brought this less known film collection to a larger public, but also because of how effectively the soundtrack, composed of field recordings and extracts from Javanese poetry, enabled the colonial propaganda to be viewed from a critical distance. Meanwhile, the digitisation of films has continued to facilitate artistic reuse by exploring the multiple layers of meaning in the images stored in the film museum. Taking the same collection as one of the primary sources, filmmaker Sandra Beerends tells the story of a fictional Indonesian babysitter in her film They Call Me Babu (Ze noemen me Baboe, 2018). The voice-over foregrounds the underrepresented groups by weaving together the visual records from Eye, the International Institute for Sound & Vision (Sound & Vision), and NHK (Japan Broadcasting Corporation). Within the temporality of cinema, the scripts written by Monnikendam and Beerends reorganize diverse archival films into coherent narratives. These two films prompt a reconsideration of the specificity of the circular structure of Looming Fire. Here the loops of Looming Fire constitute the repeatable part of the work, but the whole relies on the spatial arrangement within the exhibition space.


Fig. 5 — Installation view of Looming Fire: Stories from the Netherlands East Indies (1900-1940) (Sluimerend Vuur: Verhalen uit Nederlands-Indië [1900-1940]), Péter Forgács, 2013, Eye Filmmuseum. © studio Hans Wilschut

The spatial arrangement in Eye’s exhibition hall can also be understood in relation to the coordination between the artist’s engagement and the curatorial strategy. While the videos in Looming Fire leave out most of the provenance information of the selected films, the written texts are the most explanatory piece of the exhibition design. Each projection set includes a short text to inform the visitor what to expect when viewing the video. Some texts address the biography of the amateur filmmakers, others highlight the governmental force in the colony. A map of the Indonesian archipelago, attached to the wall near the entrance, helps to contextualise the geographical and historical backdrop of the Dutch East Indies film collections. Additionally, the visitors could take a transcript of letters written by colonial expatriates and quoted within the soundtrack of several videos in Looming Fire. Herein, documentation helps distinguish the two main entities of Looming Fire’s initial realisation: the installation loop and a group of complementary documents for the repurposed films. Through interviews with the artist and curator, along with references to contemporary scholarship on the intersection of colonial and amateur films, their coordination could be further studied within the project of the potential re-installation of Looming Fire.


Fig. 6 — Exhibition text included in the projection set. Looming Fire: Stories from the Netherlands East Indies (1900-1940) (Sluimerend Vuur: Verhalen uit Nederlands-Indië [1900-1940]), Péter Forgács, 2013, Eye Filmmuseum. © Eye Filmmuseum.



Fig. 7 — Entrance of the exhibition. Screen capture of the promotion video of Looming Fire: Stories from the Netherlands East Indies (1900-1940) (Sluimerend Vuur: Verhalen uit Nederlands-Indië [1900-1940]), Péter Forgács, 2013, Eye Filmmuseum.


Fig. 8 — A map of the Dutch East Indies displayed in Looming Fire: Stories from the Netherlands East Indies (1900-1940) (Sluimerend Vuur: Verhalen uit Nederlands-Indië [1900-1940]), Péter Forgács, 2013, Eye Filmmuseum. © Eye Filmmuseum.




Installation as new repository of archival films

Showing an archive-based work in a museum setting is only one of its possible manifestations. Amongst Forgács’ body of work – which has been consistent in the reuse of amateur films – The Danube Exodus provides an interesting case of multimedia production. Forgács first made the documentary film in 1988, before transforming it into an interactive installation, premiered at the Getty Research Institute in 2002. As a collaboration between Forgács and the Labyrinth Project, initiated by film scholar Marsha Kinder and focused on the “dialogue between the languages of cinema and the interactive potential and database structures of new media”, the three-screen installation has been transformed into a website [Hubbard 2006]. With a search interface based on topics and keywords, the site contains the reused footage, photos and transcripts of oral histories collected by Forgács during his research on the documentary, including maps of the Danube from different eras, etc.[7]

The online resource not only provides access to the components of The Danube Exodus outside of the temporal constraint of an exhibition, but also serves as a form of documentation for a project that explicitly mobilizes the languages of cinema and new media. It also points to one possible but unrealised iteration of Looming Fire. Similar to The Danube Exodus, Looming Fire can be said to interweave narratives through generating new relations between films and other types of documents. Eye’s exhibition proved to be a precious occasion to showcase archival films that had never been seen together to a larger public. The films in the Dutch East Indies collection largely fit into the categories of non-professional production (propaganda films, missionary films, documentaries subsidised by corporations, home movies, etc.), which have recently gained more attention from film historians [Ray 2021]. Nevertheless, in the present day, there is a gap between different types of moving images in terms of accessibility. The “Dutch East Indies playlist” on Eye’s YouTube channel has made publicly accessible over one hundred and twenty colonial-era films, except for the home movies[8], which due to copyright issues can only be viewed in the DAM, within the domain of the Eye Collection Centre. The enhanced visibility of films through artistic reuse seems a reasonable first move in discursively reframing the value of film collections, which are impossible to be present comprehensively through a single project.

To take a step further, to consider installation as a new repository of archival films, is to ask how the artistic engagement with archives could enter dialogue with film historiographical research[9]. A careful examination of the audio-visual contents in Looming Fire reveals that home movies are hardly displayed alone in the installation. Rather, state-subsidized films, amateur documentary films, and feature films that embrace colonial ideology are extensively included in the videos, most often without being identified as such. For instance, in the video “Family Tunes,” the home movies originating from the Boks family are mingled with excerpts from short films such as Amsterdam-Batavia by Airline (Amsterdam-Batavia door de Lucht, Theo Güsten, 1930) and Prison in Batavia (Strafgevangenis te Batavia, J. C. Lamster, 1912-1913). Amsterdam-Batavia by Airline is originally intended to praise the then newly inaugurated airmail traffic between Amsterdam and Batavia, capital of the Dutch East Indies. In Looming Fire, Forgács takes the postal boat – the symbol of an outdated and time-consuming means of transport in Amsterdam-Batavia by Airline - as a stock image, amid a succession of visual motifs related to the sea and the boat. As for “Prison in Batavia,” the artist inserts the scene where native prisoners walk back to their cells between excerpts from the domestic gathering of a white family and an unidentified family outing. There are numerous examples of ambiguous intercuts in Looming Fire. It seems that the annotations of archival films – which might enrich the historiographical understanding of the visual recordings sampled by the artist – are simply too large to be included in the spatiotemporal economy of an exhibition.



Fig. 9 — Screen capture of “Amsterdam-Batavia by Airline” used in “Family Tunes.” Looming Fire: Stories from the Netherlands East Indies (1900-1940) (Sluimerend Vuur: Verhalen uit Nederlands-Indië [1900-1940]), Péter Forgács, 2013, Eye Filmmuseum. © Eye Filmmuseum.


Apart from the semiotic importance of various filmic recordings related to the colonial era, what could be further considered is the specific usage of film medium by amateur filmmakers. Among the colonial-era films, home movies made in the colony rarely consist of disorganized fragments: scenes on a film reel bear a strong temporal or geographical relation. Even if there is no preconceived script for these recordings, adjacent shots allow to recognize specific visual tropes or spatio-temporal continuity. For instance, in Looming Fire, “Ouverture” starts with a shot taken from “Rudy and Harold as Toddler and Pre-schooler” (Rudy en Harold Als Peuter en kleuter, 1928) made by an unidentified filmmaker: the view of a child and a dog standing side by side in the garden. And yet, the original reel, whose ending sequence features a succession of photographical portraits, demonstrates the close relations between film and photography for amateurs since the early 20th century. Additionally, some of the private films without makers are particularly rich sources of recordings of local life. Looming Fire’s “I Have Bared My Soul Completely” and “Echo” insert a shot of people bathing in the warm pools. The shot originates from Visit to Tjipanas and Garut (Bezoek Ann Tjipanas en Garoet, 1930), a ten-minute recording by an anonymous filmmaker during a trip to the volcanic area. This reel is characterised by the gaze of the filmed locals toward the camera. Before addressing the significance of that gaze, one must first contextualise the reel by asking questions related to its historicity: who made the recording? Why does the filmmaker remain anonymous? Whilst the scale of selection in Looming Fire might fulfil the purpose of bringing the unseen films to the public, it highlights the risk of conflating and obscuring the diverse provenances of film reels.


Fig. 10 — Screen capture of “Visit to Tjipanas and Garut” used in “I Have Bared My Soul Completely” and “Echo.” Looming Fire: Stories from the Netherlands East Indies (1900-1940) (Sluimerend Vuur: Verhalen uit Nederlands-Indië [1900-1940]), Péter Forgács, 2013, Eye Filmmuseum. © Eye Filmmuseum.


Finding ways to preserve the repository-installation could be a response to the difficult balance between artistic reuse and questions of film historicity. The installation of Looming Fire was already marked by its openness, with diverse components of the artwork enabling the possibility to think of the potential iteration in terms of its relational qualities. Long-term access to an archive-based artwork can make archival films more legible and keep track of how artistic reuse has affected their cultural value. A first step would be to recognise the layers of access to films, from museum data management, commissions, exhibitions, to online services. The descriptive method on film-related installation can facilitate a better understanding of the film material in use and, crucially, its relation to other documents generated by artistic production and its iterations.



With Eye’s documentation of its archive-based exhibition, I point out two main properties of Looming Fire, namely the video loop and the formation of a repository of films and non-filmic documents. As commissioned by Eye, the production process was situated at the intersection between the artist’s engagement with the archive and the institutional agenda. Moreover, the amount of visual material in use prompts one to ask how precise the description of the artwork can and should be. To obtain a retroactive view of the artwork when making sense of past exhibitions, research can benefit from a shifted focus on the documentary evidence of artwork. On the one hand, this provides the possibility to reconstruct piece by piece the conception of the artwork and to contour the labour in the activities of selection, creation, and exhibition. On the other hand, new connections should be created between groups of documentary evidence, in order to speculate upon possible iterations of a commissioned artwork. Nowadays, more initiatives have turned to artistic practices in exploring new discursive frameworks for audio-visual collections. Eye has run its artist and scholar residency programme since 2017, for which its archive has been the focus of research and creation. In 2019, the research project Open Archief[10], a collaboration between Het Nieuwe Instituut, International Institute of Social History, and Sound & Vision, started to invite artists to develop media artworks based on their digital collections. In keeping track of these engagements and their resulting artworks, the importance of varying methods of art documentation will grow through examining the ways archives undergo transformations, both semantically through reinterpretation, and materially through their enhanced accessibility.

[1] For the discussion of Goodman’s terms in relation to the aesthetic valuation of film, see: Rodowick 2007; for film-related performance as allographic art, see: Balsom 2014.

[2] The video documenting Looming Fire at Eye’s exhibition in 2013 is available online:; for the video documenting Looming Fire during Tong Tong Fair in 2014, see online:

[3] The exhibition text of Looming Fire is available online:

[4] My interview with Schootemeijer, 25 April 2022.

[5] The credit can be found at the last page of the exhibition pamphlet.

[6] This orientation is epitomized by Found Footage: Cinema Exposed, the inaugural exhibition for Eye’s museum in 2012.

[7] The database project of The Danube Exodus is available online:

[8] Eye Filmmuseum’s Dutch East Indies playlist is available on YouTube:

[9] For the most recent study of the Dutch East Indies film historiography, see Ray 2021. Ray’s research also relies on archival sources from Eye, Sound & Vision, and KITLV, and addresses film historiography by examining the condition under which the visual recordings are stored, annotated, circulated, etc.

[10] For the project Open Archief, see:


Balsom, Erika. “Live and direct: Cinema as a performing art.” Artforum. September 2014. Online:

Bloemheuvel, Marente, Giovanna Fossati and Jaap Guldemond (eds.). Found Footage: Cinema Exposed. Amsterdam 2012.

Hubbard, Sally, “InterPARES 2 Project - Case Study 10 Final Report: The Danube Exodus.” 2006. Online:

Kosciejew, Marc. “Documentation and the Information of Art.” Tate Papers no. 29. 2018. Online:

Laurenson, Pip. “Authenticity, Change and Loss in the Conservation of Time-Based Media Installations.” Tate Papers no. 6. 2006. Online:

Païni, Dominique. Le temps exposé: Le cinéma de la salle au musée. Paris 2002.

Penz, François. “Museums as Laboratories of Change: The Case for the Moving Image.” In Film, Art, New Media: Museum without Walls?, edited by Angela Dalle Vacche. Houndsmills/New York 2012: 278-300.

Phillips, Joana. “Reporting Iterations: A Documentation Model for Time-based Media Art.” Revista de História da Arte - Série W 4. 2015: 168-179.

Ray, Sandeep. Celluloid Colony: Locating History and Ethnography in Early Dutch Colonial Films of Indonesia. Singapore 2021.

Rodowick, David Norman. The Virtual Life of Film. Cambridge, Mass 2007.