Collecting is a natural extension of fandom, but what happens when collecting becomes obsession, and obsession becomes art? Ronni Thomas' eclectic series of short documentaries, The Midnight Archive, delves into those dark, fascinating corners of collectors and their passions. More than just an occult version of the Antiques Roadshow, the series delves into what's in these "private museums" have inside, how they're arranged, and what drives these keepers of the odd – in short, it's a view of the method behind the madness.
The series itself grew out of the old Morbid Anatomy space in Brooklyn, where curator and author Joanna Ebenstein regularly hosted talks by experts in the unusual and macabre. A discussion began about how to best capture these strange exchanges, so people outside of the small gallery where they were held could get a sense of their mission to explore the "interstices of art and medicine, death and culture."
Simply recording the talks was an option, but to Thomas – an experienced filmmaker – that seemed a little dull; he wanted to draw from his own "lifelong obsession" with making his work interesting, so he decided to take another route. Eventually, he decided to make short films that “represent visually what's being talked about, and do it in a way, through music and through design and editing, and don't make it just a boring thing."
From there it was simply an issue of deciding what went into production, no small thing, since Morbid Anatomy kept a steady stream of interesting subjects passing through its doors. Collectors soon emerged as natural subjects because of their focused nature and the collections themselves. As Thomas puts it, "I'm obsessed with obsession." It was a drive he understood and wanted to capture "I dabble in collecting, but I don't have the money or the time or the patience that these people do. I have an immense amount of respect for how dedicated they are to acquiring strange and unusual things.”
While most of these people hold their treasures in their own private collections for their own amusement, they aren't exactly shy about showing off their acquisitions to appreciative people. "You can go to any old museum and see what you're expecting to see, but private collectors have things you will you won't see anywhere else,” Thomas says. “All the people that I have dealt with are very exhibitionist about it. They want you to see their collection. They don't want to just have it behind closed doors."
He names Ryan Matthew Cohn, seen in his film The Collective Disease, as an example of a collector who treats his home as a museum. An avid collector of skulls and other medical oddities, his vast collection could easily overwhelm his living space if not for his choosiness and instincts for display. “They curate them very carefully," Thomas says. "Walking into Ryan's space was one of those moments when, not only is his collection amazing, but the way he has it displayed is amazing. He has these mummified heads, these kind of old medical, forgotten waxes, things like that. Things that, again, you're not going to see these anywhere (else.)"
He describes these intense collections needing to "evolve" due to the fact that they constantly grow and change. The hunt for acquisition may be as thrilling to some collectors as owning itself. This was another challenge in creating the series: capturing the exacting attention that it takes to acquire these objects, without making the shorts about shopping.
“I didn't want to capture that,” he says, "because I don't like that style of filmmaking, but I love this whole angle, that they're sitting on these private museums.” Even filming some of the "private museums" was something of an exercise in patience, since it's so unrelenting. “We're filming they're checking their phones, not for text messages from their girlfriends. They're checking for eBay postings, Google ad searches, things like that."
The results, however, are worth it, whether it's Ouija boards, Victorian taxidermy, ghost-contacting devices, or any of the other strange and wonderful objects he comes across in these homes and galleries. He also realizes that the commercial appeal of these things is currently limited, and understands that the audience is limited for haunted relics of the past – at least for now.
"The collection of paranormal objects interests solely a select group of people," he admits. And as fascinating as these people and their esoterica are, his own work is evolving and encompassing more subjects. “How many squid babies can you see?" he jokes, acknowledging that even he has his limits.
For Thomas, this means branching out into subjects that have taken their collecting to the next level by turning it into another form of art. That includes artist/collectors like spirit photographer, Shannon Taggart, and Tim Mullen, who collects old machinery and appliances puts together in a new way. "It's not so much one object, it's how they all work together," Thomas says. “He collects technical objects from the last hundred years and he displays them, but what he does that is fascinating to me is. He fuses them all together, so you're not actually sure what you're looking at, even though it's all items that are used in real life. They just seem to take on a new life of their own. That kind of spawned new inspiration for me."
In other words, as long as he can add new members to his own ever-growing collection of collectors, he can continue to stock the Midnight Archives.