Guest blogger Heidi Rae Cooley is an Associate Professor of Media Arts at the University of South Carolina. Her monograph Finding Augusta: Habits of Mobility and Governance in the Digital Era considers routine practices that define the mobile present. It argues that because digital technologies set places, persons, things, and information in constant motion, habits of locatability and navigation assume decisive social and political importance. As such, Cooley argues that we should attend to the everyday habits of finding places, persons, and information that mobile media encourage and discourage. Augusta App is the book’s digital supplement and is available for download from Apple’s App Store. Finding Augusta and its companion app were inspired by a film at Moving Image Research Collections, The Augustas, made Scott Nixon, a traveling independent insurance agent. Below, Cooley discusses her experiences with and interpretations of the original material.
For most South Carolinians, Augusta names a city located just across the Georgia state line. This Augusta is known far and wide for hosting the Masters Golf Tournament each April. For those of us who have ties to USC’s Moving Image Research Collections (MIRC), it also suggests the prolific amateur filmmaker and photographer Scott Nixon. An independent insurance agent who travelled extensively, this charismatic Augusta native was a prominent figure in the city and its ardent advocate.
As Scott Nixon’s son Cobbs explains, “My father’s passion was Augusta.” So much so, as it turns out, that Nixon proposed naming his daughter Augusta Georgia Nixon. This did not happen. Nixon did, however, succeed in expressing his devotion to his home town through the images—still and moving—that he recorded during his travels from the 1930s through the 1950s.* This body of work records not only Augusta, GA, but any number of other cities, towns, streets, schools, and even flowers, bearing the name “Augusta.” Nixon’s enthusiastic Augusta-gathering produced a remarkable short film, called The Augustas, which was named to the National Film Registry by the Librarian of Congress in December 2012. The Augustas boasts no fewer than thirty-six instances of Augusta, each identified by means of signage, intertitle, labeled still image, train schedule, or road map.
MIRC recently discovered that Nixon documented several more Augustas. For example, footage from a European tour includes several sequences featuring Augusta, Sicily. More interesting to me, however, is a second unfinished reel of Augustas that came to our attention in summer 2012. This second reel includes footage of Lake Eau Claire in Wisconsin and an airfield in Augusta, Georgia—the latter, a site originally owned by the Nixon family.
Because this second Augustas reel is edited in a fashion similar to its confrere, it encourages us to consider more fully Nixon’s post-production process. For most first-time viewers, Nixon’s practice of documenting places called Augusta, or some variation thereof, might suggest home movies or touristic “snapshots,” which tend to document a moment or event in order to ensure later recollection and recounting. But I think Nixon’s Augusta films pursue a different, more abstract and experimental logic. Insofar as they proceed neither chronologically nor geographically, the films offer little in the way of narrative. They don’t tell the story of a particular trip, for example. What confronts us, instead, is a procedure of classification and recombination—a kind of structural logic that belongs more to information management than to tourism and informs what scholars in other contexts have called a database aesthetic. In other words, the Augusta reels demonstrate Nixon to be a collector of Augustas; they themselves are catalogs of all things Augusta. But also, they offer evidence of Nixon’s efforts not only to organize but also to combine and recombine his film elements. In doing so, they imply the possibility of further—indeed, nearly innumerable—combinations.
In summer 2013, I had a chance to speak with Cobbs Nixon about his father’s filmmaking. Cobbs’s memory confirms my interpretation. Apparently, Scott Nixon’s post-production practice involved taxonomizing his film elements. As he went through his footage, he’d cut it according to the subject captured on film and deposited each individual film element in an appropriately labeled cup. Trains. Flowers. Cats. Augustas. Cobbs recalls that the cups accompanied a large map of the US, which hung prominently on a wall in his father’s “man cave.” Push pins dotted the map, indicating the various Augustas Nixon had visited. And the string stretched between a series of Augustas outlined the routes he traveled from one Augusta to another. Precisely how and under what circumstances the taxonomy of film elements corresponded to the map of threaded routes is less clear—except, of course, in instances in which signage appears in frame specifying that, indeed, Nixon was on site documenting a place called Augusta. Otherwise, the relation between label-bearing cups, film elements, and map is open for interpretation. Under certain conditions, “flower” and “augusta” might very well be equivalent, as is the case in Nixon’s The Augustas where the concluding Augusta is a Hardy Phlox Augusta.
Thus, in addition to celebrating myriad Augustas, Nixon’s film practices makes a general conceptual point worthy of the most serious film experimentalists, namely, that the associations that make meaning possible are never fixed. Among semioticians, it’s an article of faith that meaning-making depends upon conventions, that, for example, allow strings of letters to mean something for a group of people. These conventions are only ever potential frameworks for structuring correspondences. They change over time and any number of correspondences might emerge. The stability of the association, for example, between “augusta” and a notion of place, is a habit of thought, and habits of thought are subject to change. Filmmaker Scott Nixon teaches us to embrace this variability and to delight in its possibilities. In the process, his films urge us to recognize that with such flexibility—such potential for recombination—comes the need for strategies for managing relations across, for example, film elements, labels, and people.
*According to MIRC Regional Films curator Lydia Pappas, there are no fewer than 6,000 feet of Augustas footage in the Scott Nixon Home Movie collection, which includes nearly 75,000 feet of moving image material (16mm film, 8mm film, and 35mm nitrate).
– Heidi Rae Cooley, Associate Professor of Media Arts, University of South Carolina