For more than 20 years, filmmaker Craig Baldwin has been excavating (and rattling) the bones of the media age. Working primarily with found footage, Baldwin beachcombs among the media detritus that the airwaves wash up on the poisoned shores—from Spanish conquistador movies to ‘50s science-ed TV to intercepted cell phone calls—and with razor blade and splicing tape reassembles them into versions of history that are at once loopy and uncanny. His most recent film Spectres of the Spectrum mixes found and new footage to look back fictionally from the year 2007 on the real history of broadcast technology—in many ways the history of the 20th century. Spectres is also a stunning collage of media fragments, a meditation on death and loss, a mystery story, a paean to political and individual freedom, and a great ride.
"Home taping is killing the music industry (and it's easy)," reads a flyer in Baldwin's documentary Sonic Outlaws, which takes sound collage artists Negativland's legal battle with U2® and Island Records® as a starting point for an investigation into copyright infringement (your best entertainment value), culture jamming, and media subversion. In that film, Josh Pearson of the art collective Emergency Broadcast Network argues that the ever-expanding universe of (usually copyrighted) media images has become as much a part of the environment we live in as the sticks and rocks a sculptor might once have used to make art. Similarly, the members of Negativland describe themselves as basically making folk art, taking the flotsam and jetsam of a culture and making something, if not exactly beautiful, then valuable. These in turn are fine descriptions of Baldwin's own working method, which he discussed in a recent conversation at his San Francisco studio. "I do see the world we live in as being detritus and residue, certainly. There's junk everywhere," he says. Baldwin might also have in mind Spectres' media bricoleurs, Yogi and BooBoo, trolling the Nevada coastline (California having recently joined Atlantis) when he elaborates the image of the found-footage filmmaker "walking the seashore after Hollywood sinks, and redeeming the pieces by using them for new purposes." But what type of redemption is Baldwin after? His phrase could equally suggest messianic redemption or the cashing in of old soda pop bottles; sometimes you hook a fish and sometimes an old tire.
Well, there are a lot of good things you can do with an old tire, or,
say, a propeller from a plane that has fallen from the sky. "The cargo
cult is actually a good sort of model. We wander around and there's a
lot of planes that went down; there's a lot of propellers and they're
beautiful objects. We don't know that it's a great propeller; we're not
in the war; we don't know what a plane is. But we can use it for a lot
of other things. We can make a little altar out of it. I like the idea
of reinvesting and re-projecting new meanings onto old things that are
beautiful and that are available to us and that resonate."
I ask Baldwin about the massive archive of images from which he draws his material.
"Though there are archival shots in my movies, it's really more the idea of found.
What I try to do is kind of trade off this difference between archival
footage and found footage. You call it an archive—but it's films that I
happen to have, that someone basically dropped off or I bought at the
flea market by chance, really by coincidence. Kind of like the idea of
dada, letting in chance and random actions."
I point out that the redirection of these chance images is nevertheless quite pointed.
"It generates a critique by using the material left behind by the
enemy. Like jujitsu, using the weight of the enemy against himself… I
don't want to just reiterate some sort of consensus. I want to strike a
blow against consensus." With clear affinities to situationist
practice, Baldwin has created a critical form of "damaged" documentary
by sewing together history's discarded shreds and patches. And indeed
the collage histories told in these films often seem far more familiar
and true than the narratives of the average textbook or PBS
documentary. When a spliced-together Reagan at the end of Sonic Outlaws
triumphantly boasts "After all, I was the nightmare of America and the
human race," that image approximates the truth a lot better than most
"untreated" file footage of the Gipper in office, which can seem truly
unbelievable. Old tires can be very telling.
Then again, sometimes you hook a fish. From Baldwin's remark about "redemption" a line might be drawn back not only to the détournement of images by the Situationists and Dadaists, but also to Walter Benjamin and his great, unfinished found-footage collage, the Arcades Project.
Benjamin's thought revolved around the idea that the past would be
messianically redeemed not by the perfect reconstruction and
restoration of its infinite fragments to their original historical
context and significance, but rather through their violent
revitalization and renewal in the alien present. That elusive process
can be glimpsed in Benjamin's idea of quotation with no quotation
marks, something the legal believer might well call plagiarism. Of
course, Benjamin and Baldwin are not simply interested in ripping
people off, but rather in seeing what happens within these
recombinations of temporally disparate elements. As Baldwin says, it is
a way of writing history so that history itself becomes vital and
visible: "The narration of history is really what my films are about,
because it's all narrative; it all has to be told a certain way, and
obviously there's a lot of stuff that's left out. So I'm trying to open
up a space where ideas about history can be generated, to create a sort
of a theory in which we can kind of see this process, where you can see
how certain kinds of meanings become attached to certain kinds of
images, and how that can be undercut. So it's the idea of what I call
‘proliferation of meaning,' of taking a certain set of images and then,
like a kind of atomic fusion, kind of driving them together to create
heat and light."
Pulling the ghosts out of the electromagnetic æther or digging them up
in buried film canisters, Baldwin's films perform the unholy task of
exhuming and reanimating dead media images, bringing them back to life
after their planned obsolescence. And of course, how could a film
called Spectres of the Spectrum not be about haunting? BooBoo buries her grandmother at the beginning of Spectres
only to find her again by flying a tricked-out Airstream through a
wormhole and catching up to a fifty year-old transmission of the 1950s
educational TV program Science in Action, where her
grandmother had once landed a gig as Dr. Herald's silent assistant (and
also as JPL founder and Aleister Crowley-follower Jack Parsons'
lover—like I said, Spectres is a great ride). There, on
the air, BooBoo is trying to decipher the secret that might bring about
the apocalyptic end of broadcast history. Hallelujah.
In addition to those mentioned above, Craig Baldwin's films include Wild Gunman, RocketKitKongoKit, Tribulation 99, and O No Coronado. He
is also curator of Other Cinema—an ongoing weekly series of unusual,
experimental, and avant-garde film screenings in San Francisco. Other
Cinema's website is www.othercinema.com.
Kevin Attell is a writer living in Berkeley. He recently co-curated (with Sirietta Simoncini) the exhibition Emilie Clark: Opere 1990-2000 at the National Museum of Architecture in Ferrara, Italy.
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