‘You can’t have a city without a library. You can’t have film culture without an archive.’ Craig Baldwin
A biennial beacon of eclectic audiovisual programming that spans Newcastle, Sunderland and Middlesbrough, the 2010 AV Festival took up the timely theme of ‘energy’. This was channelled through the form of its Recycled Film programme, an exploration of artists’ use of found footage and archive materials. Including a series of contextual screenings, a day-long symposium and an evening of live performance, the strand opened up an increasingly significant area of moving image practice.
A maverick figure in this area, Rick Prelinger premiered his new film The Lives of Energy, plus a collage of thematic works from his collection. He also kicked off the symposium with a mind-bending keynote speech. As an archivist with a collection of mainly industrial and educational films, Prelinger has taken the radical move of putting over 2,000 films online at archive.org for people to access, download and use with a Creative Commons Public Domain license.
Prelinger isn’t pioneering simply in his embrace of new business models though. He also disseminates ideas, as crystallised in his manifesto ‘On the Virtues of Preexisting Material’. Acknowledging a US-centric position to his rhetoric, Prelinger explained in his speech that American archives are often the preserve of private entrepreneurs, rather than attached to larger bureaucracies, as in Europe. Copyright law is vastly different too. Prelinger estimates 500,000 films are out of copyright in the US, compared to a fraction of that amount in the UK.
Thereafter talk of copyright ceased for fear of leading the symposium down a rabbit hole, and it was only referred to as the C word by all save artist Vicki Bennett who stated: ‘It would cost me Â£200,000 to clear copyright within the clip of the film you are about to see.’
‘Fans will save the media.’ Rick Prelinger
Much of the appeal of Prelinger’s talk concerned the real-life nuances his experience with the archive provides. It’s handled around 50,000-60,000 downloads, but he said that while many people will download for free on a Creative Commons license, others want to pay for paper indemnification. Prelinger has felt the tangible effects of the gift economy, but reminded us that you need to encourage people to knock on the door.
In this context, he cited Wired co-founder Kevin Kelly’s 1,000 True Fans theory (if an artist can encourage a thousand true fans to spend a small amount per year, they can earn a living). While it’s been proven flawed by many, including Kelly himself, extended to archives, it demonstrates an optimism and openness that doesn’t clash with Prelinger’s respect and enthusiasm for the people carrying out the core responsibility to preserve collections. ‘We need to applaud guardianship while criticising excessive deference to rights holders,’ he stated.
The keynote was a tough act to follow, and while it wasn’t a call to arms to place all collections online, it fell to Rebecca Cleman of Electronic Arts Intermix to express the nervousness many collections, gallerists and artists feel about opening up access, particularly when operating within the scarcity model of selling limited editions, or coveting particular types of exposure.
However, Cleman cited several contemporary artists in the EAI collection who are pushing things forward. Ryan Trecarthin, Cory Arcangel and Seth Price all have commercial galleries as well as a strong online presence, and Cleman suggested looking to such artists on strategies moving forward.
Drawing a distinction between the work of public archives and that of distributors’ collections, Mike Sperlinger of Lux put forward a critique of the levelling effect of the internet. ‘In contemporary art, context is a key element,’ he stated. ‘This is less charged for filmmakers. It’s not just about scarcity but cultural value and artists’ ways of framing their own work.’
Indeed, the contextual benefit that collections have when they place materials online can be found in the framing offered, with services such as Luxonline and CRAMI (Curatorial Resource for Artists Moving Image) contributing to moving image discourse and expanding the conversation around the works.
‘Found footage is a folk art.’ Craig Baldwin
An answer to another question raised by Prelinger – a danger of artists’ interactions with archives developing into a uniform aesthetic or style – was provided as several artists spoke about their experiences using found footage and archive material.
The best known UK proponent is Vicki Bennett (aka People Like Us), whose collage films have been making the most of online archives for over 10 years. Bennett is pragmatic about sustaining her practice and puts all her films online, making money from live AV sets, including her storming AV Festival premiere of Genre Collage.
Jon Thomson and Alison Craighead presented their new film A Short Film about War. This is a split-screen work that uses stills from Flickr and actors reading blog fragments as written by people in war zones – soldiers and civilians. With the exact source annotated in real time opposite the images, the film places the origin of the material with laser precision.
Meanwhile a presentation from David Lawson on the work of the Black Audio Collective in the 1980s and 1990s gave further evidence of the political agency archive material can engender. Lawson ended with a short clip from fellow BAC member John Akomfrah’s latest film Mnemosyne. A tone poem premiering at the Public in West Bromwich, it’s the result of a residency managed by another inspirational speaker at the symposium, Dr Paul Gerhardt of Archives for Creativity.
‘Are we enabling people to speak truth to powers?’ Craig Baldwin
‘There is a temptation to look at these films as psycho-cultural documents or as aesthetics kitsch. But these films contributed to filmmaking and the techniques of information-giving,’ Prelinger argued passionately. Dealing with this warning against cultural commodification was Craig Baldwin, artist, archivist, filmmaker and founder of the Other Cinema in San Francisco.
As well as speaking at the symposium and screening his latest feature Mock Up on Mu, Baldwin hauled a suitcase full of 16mm over to Newcastle to lead a workshop at the Star and Shadow for four days during the festival. ‘There’s no disposable film footage in Europe. Every time I run a workshop I have to ship stuff over from the US. For a lot of reasons; one, because there’s overproduction in the US; also we still have 16mm over there; thirdly, because of the war a lot of your archives were destroyed. So for a lot of reasons you can walk down the street in San Francisco, or any city, and find Super8 and 8 track tapes. So that’s my whole theory about overproduction or surfing the wave of obsolescence: in a way we have to recycle and redeem it – redeem the value of film that’s used for the worst kind of commercial purposes.’ And with this magpie-like tendency Baldwin constructs compelling counterculture narratives from the remnants of cinema history.
It’s an exciting time for the engagement of archives and artists, with plenty of opportunity for experimentation and new thinking. For example, there have been a slew of recent projects across the UK funded by the Digital Film Archive Fund (DFAF) in response to the screen heritage policy, which can be viewed alongside work by organisations such as Archives for Creativity.
The Recycled Film symposium provided a comprehensive and diverse introduction to the challenges faced, and suggested that if artists can continue to push the possibilities and institutions are open and entrepreneurial enough, then archive material will continue to offer revolutionary potential.