Craig Baldwin, three interviews
> I want to begin by asking about your education background, because you studied with Bruce Conner whose films are characterized primarily by their use of found footage (Hollywood movies and newsreels) to challenge conventional notions regarding the nature of the presentation of information
Sure. He was teaching at State, which was a public school, but he lives about three miles away. He's not a recluse, you come across him, and certainly his influence is all across San Francisco.
> But you were familiar with his work previous to going to college?
Sure. But you know, Bruce Conner used to do light shows, and that's how I got into filmmaking myself. My approach doesn't come from an academic or even a documentary point of view, but from a sub-cultural impulse - the clubs, rock and roll, youth subculture and 'happenings'.
> With his films like A Movie, Conner was part of a particular analysis of the media by people such as Marshall McLuhan
Right. What was important was to literally enact the image culture that we are in, but to project it back on itself with the agency of the imagination, to be creative about it and not just be recipients I also have a joy in found material, a McLuhanesque sense of the proliferation of meanings, gestures, and images, and an obsessive collector sensibility - I'm not a rarefied minimalist, but a maximalist I have a vast archive of the collective unconscious of popular imagery. This flea market sensibility, or do it yourself / low budget / garage / junk aesthetic is part of a huge tradition. You can walk down the street and find records or 8-track audio tapes in the gutter. The same with Super 8 and 16mm, it's disposable material. So my whole project was to reclaim and redeem this trash which had been ruled obsolete and of no value because there was a new product coming along, shiny, new. But this year's model became increasingly more predictable, more banal, more commercial. Using found footage was like a Dada chance operation. My project was not to make a beautiful film, but to make a critical gesture against the film industry, which was based on retrograde narrative ideas and stereotypes.
> What drew you to Dada and Situationism?
I wanted to leave the middle class ideas that culture was accepted without question, was something that we conform to and find our identity in. I had a very critical, antagonistic attitude about popular culture. So I found spiritual resonance with Dada, Situationists, punk, all those movements.
> I want to discuss the political aspects of your work
I was always very political and felt that documentaries were great, but that they were a little bit guilt ridden, puritanical.
> It's also very bourgeois - the idea of political documentaries that they will raise somebody's consciousness, as if the filmmaker's ideas were somehow higher or more noble. But what I saw in Tribulation 99 was that you weren't raising people's consciousness, you were making this funny movie, but underneath that there was a really serious point about colonialism and the relationship between Cuba, America, and Latin America.
It was a trade off, I wanted to be on the margins, but not to trade on the most overexposed subcultural film ideas like UFOs. So what I tried to do was to take those ideas and tweak them, so they would accommodate the political argument. I could turn them inside out and use urban myths as vehicles to make points about something else. I didn't want to go in with a straight political history of Guatemala, which would be too academic and would turn people in the subculture off, so my idea was to tell stupid, paranoid, conspiratorial stories to make a pseudo-pseudo-documentary. Fake right, go left - make it look like you are taking people towards the gutter, but then actually redeem the story. And the beauty of it is that you get a large audience who enjoy the montage, the cartoons, the sound and the fury, but the film also carries this other kind of political meaning which doesn't wear itself on its sleeve. I didn't have to appeal to this idea of moral superiority.
> What attracted you to colonialism as a theme for Tribulation 99 and Oh No Coronado?
I am a child of the Vietnam War. I used to work for El Salvador Film and Video Projects and was very involved with the solidarity movements with people struggling for democracy in Latin America, so that's my background. My life-long moral commitment is getting the US government out of people's lives. A lot of experimental filmmakers make personal films, let's say George Kuchar or Jack Smith, and that's fine, but I always felt embarrassed to make a film about my own self I wanted to be critical, to make a critical documentary, but again not something that played upon people's guilt or made a study of world history, but something that people could relate to because of the humor in it. I made it for people who didn't want to have anything to do with the straight world or the world of straight politics.
> When did you start making Sonic Outlaws?
1993-94. Negativland were busted in 1991. The abuse of power was always off-shore in the previous films, and it occurred to me that there was this kind of liberal-tourism in going and finding these parts of the world where there were outrageous abuses and then pointing my finger at it. It is true that I felt guilty about this exoticism or voyeurism of finding problems in other places in the world, so I brought it back home, to colonialism at home. I realized after I became more acquainted with the story that these guys were in a lot of ways in the same situation I was in.
> As artists they utilized a series of very similar aesthetic techniques
I was drawn to their case. And I could tell that story better than any other documentary, which would just go ahead with straight media style interviews - because I could actually demonstrate what they were doing.
> Exactly, in the film you are taking images and manipulating sources, and via film you are using the same aesthetic and political statements as they are. And you are committing exactly the same crime that they are accused of.
story is not described. It's not represented. It's embodied
the idea. You see, I hate watching documentary, even though I am a documentary
filmmaker. So any chance I got to replace talking head shots with collateral
material, I would snap up. The idea was not to have a direct line, something
linear, but a spiral - the image sort of corresponded to what they were
talking about but was inappropriate somehow. It's like DNA - you have
this double helix, these two arguments going simultaneously - and they
have a relationship, but they keep moving around each other. The film
wasn't just a documentary, a reportage or a presentation of just the facts,
but gave free reign not only to my own imagination and my own fetish for
playing with found footage, but also to the audience's imagination. They
can follow the argument, but they can also indulge in this parallel, associative
> I wanted to talk to you about the writing aspect. A lot of the energy in Spectres of the Spectrum is verbal. How does writing work in your films? Do you think of yourself as a writer primarily?
are driven to develop strategies to get information across. Like Eisenstein
said, the ideal development of the motion picture form would be to be
able to film Marx's German ideology, in other words to capture
abstract/philosophical ideas, to develop a form of cinematic language
as sophisticated and nuanced as verbal language. When you see a visual
image, it's already there. It affirms itself. It doesn't have the ability
to make inquiries or critique. So I'd like to - of course it's just a
goal - develop this kind of sophistication of the visual lexicon to create
the same kind of subtlety of nuance as writing or speech: with inflections,
tenses, genders, subjunctive modes, interrogative modes. But, in the absence
of that, what I'm trying to do is establish a kind of hybrid form of filmmaking.
OK, good question. It's not unofficial or official. The whole thing really has to do with the slippage between fact and fiction. Most compilation documentaries don't use fictional film. They'll use the archive film. They'll have a lot of the shots that I have, but they'll stop short of putting in some Japanese demon in there
> All the stuff on Farnsworth and Sarnoff is true, though.
true. But I'm not quibbling whether Tesla did this in 1912 or 1913. That's
minor. I'm interested in a pattern of co-optation of creative genius by
corporations. It's a speculative history, considered in the tradition
of science fiction. Science fiction is a kind of history. It's the speculative
history of the future.
me there's a perverse justification to use the throwaway detritus, the
waste of postindustrial Hollywood. This neotribal scavenging through the
crumbs on the table to bricolage something beautiful, patchwork, made
up with incredible diversity, variety, and changes of texture - is an
authentic response from the margin. But it also has the element of critique,
which is more trenchant because it uses the images against themselves.
> Sonic Outlaws addresses issues like "fair use" and "free airwaves" long before issues now linked to the Internet like "open source" and "file sharing." Is the resonance surprising to you, or not?
No, the resonance between the themes in "Sonic" and the "open source" movement do not at all surprise me, because in fact the central theme in "Sonic" is 'media democracy"--tracing the struggle between the forces that want to use community technology for the free dissemination of ideas against those that see the media platforms as a road to profit. That is more or less explicitly stated in one of the interviews (Erik Davis'). This battle has been going on for, well, centuries, and will continue for centuries, regardless of the media at hand--print, telegraph, radio, television, and now the Internet. What's sharpened the contradictions now is that we are at a historical moment where the democratization could be finally realized, what with cheap phones and computers and Xeroxes and Super 8 film, and video but perversely, we are seeing a very aggressive privatization/litigious climate along the corporate holders of intellectual property rights. It is this tension that my movie is driven by.
> Spectres of the Spectrum hints that technology has gone awry. Do you believe it has? What's your prognosis for the next decade? And beyond?
Well, "S.o.S." is pessimistic, that's for sure, but that shouldn't be oversimplified into some blanket disavowal of technology. In fact, the film celebrates technological innovation--pioneers like Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Graham Bell, Nikola Tesla, and Philo T. Farnsworth--for their visionary abilities. It understands their inventions as artistry--the design for the alternating-current generator came to Tesla in a flash, while the sun was setting in Budapest, whilst reciting a poem by Goethe! It was more of the insight of a poet or a visual artist with a very vivid imagination, than it was the result of thousands of hours of trial and error, conducted by hired workers, that characterized the developments of Edison. He was the pragmatist, as was Sarnoff, while my film valorizes their respective muses Tesla and Farnsworth. As a child of the twentieth century, I must acknowledge the contributions that their machines have made to the quality of life...so it is not the tech itself that is "evil" or flawed, but it is the human application! Tesla dreamt of free energy for all by tapping into natural energy sources like the ionosphere. This is of course the communist dream--socialism plus electricity! But their patents were stolen and the corporations consolidated more and more power, turning the tools into siphons for draining wealth from the consumers to the owners (witness the current corporate scandals), and ultimately towards war (Sarnoff/G.E.'s production of nuclear weaponry). As to a prognosis for the future, my answer would be similar--just as there are no "essentially" evil technologies, just their applications, there is no immanent, foregone future scenario, pre-fabricated and waiting to materialize.
> Are your films more about cultural criticism or subversive fun?
Of course the distinction between 'cultural criticism" and 'subversive fun" is a totally artificial one, a product of a guilt-ridden Calvinist political philosophy that went out with Dada, doncha know? Who was it that said "you can't fight alienation with alienated means"? And remember Emma Goldman's adage "I don't want a revolution that I can't dance to" [sic]. The Surrealists, the Situationists, the Yippies, the feminist movement and the punk rebellion have all taught us that the personal is political and the revolt of desire is an absolutely necessary plank in any political platform. My work educates as it entertains, understands humor and laughing as instruments for literally shaking up the status quo of the body...back to Wilhelm Reich! Ha! I realize that your bi-polar categorization can be a useful way of apprehending a media-artwork, through rhetorical opposition, a dialectic, so to speak, but why stop at two? My work--well, any work--can be "read" through any number of "critical matrices", and each reading is just as "true" as the other. The question remains then, through which film-critical lens do we choose to interpret the meaning of a work? When the audience starts asking itself these questions, well then, I have succeeded in pointing out the arbitrariness of cultural tastes and the ways in which meanings are linguistic constructions. Of course the found-footage goes a long way in that direction too.
> In a post-Napster world, what are your feelings about piracy?
Piracy question. Of course "piracy" is an(other) very rich and
problematic term, meaning different things to different people, generally
depending on where they are in the intellectual-property pecking-order.
What I and Negativland and Emergency Broadcast Network, et alia advocate
for in "Sonic Outlaws" is not "bootlegging"--the complete
wholecloth lifting of another's creative work, so to re-direct his/her
potential revenue stream into our coffers. Of course, this is the legalistic
sense of the term. I choose to rather aggressively embrace the fantasy
elements of the character, and cast it in the romantic South Seas to boot.
Picture a sailor, a poor sailor, whose boat has gone down, and he's gasping
for air among the watery peaks, and he manages to grab onto a floating
spar. He grapples his way onto the top side of it, from which prospect
he is better able to shout out his calls for help. Do you think that our
poor mariner should agonize over whether that spar came from his craft
or another's? Now let's take the allegory a step farther...let's say he's
able to reach a desert shore, and with natural vines and a whole lotta
invention (daughter of necessity, after all) he ties a bunch of beached
spars together and fashions a sea-faring vessel, in the crude image of
a luxury liner...in fact the luxury liner that originally steamed over
his fishing boat. I would say that was pretty ingenious, and his savage
satire a testament to human resilience and courage. I call my own films
the products of a post-industrial cargo-cult. Now that his vessel is seaworthy,
you better be careful who you call pirate, you arrogant neo-colonial tourist
who have turned my fishing inlet into a bogus tiki-bar resort!