Q&A: CRAIG BALDWIN

This entry was posted on July 6th, 2014

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By Mónica Delgado

Craig Baldwin has a special place in found footage and appropriation cinema. Playing an aesthetic bet in the age of copyright, the filmmaker strips this notion naked and transforms it into an object ready to be subverted. This American filmmaker is also an inevitable referent in curations that are involved in archives recovery, like in the spreading of the collage of different calibers. In films like Sonic Outlaws, about cultural piracy, Baldwin shows a number of examples in which the author rights and cultural property regulations haven’t been hand to hand with the current technological revolution. Baldwin uses archival material in a high speed editing, under a provocative style about intellectual property rights as effect of an extreme consumerism. Baldwin talked with Desistfilm about his new projects and the motivations of his experimentation. 

Desistfilm: Your work shows an impertinence and rebellion that very few others have shown in their movies, How do you think this attitude has changed your way of using found footage, or collage as a technique, resource or language from your first works to your recent works with respect to this spirit?

Craig Baldwin: My first films were produced out of the punk movement, which is itself an impertinent and rebellious subculture. Hopefully that attitude has prevailed through these following three decades. Working with found footage itself is a sort of rebellion, of course, because it is an unorthodox way of producing a movie. Making movies out of the trash that I found in dumpsters was a solution to my impoverished situation in the beginning, but I became more comfortable with the technique even after my financial situation improved a bit. Now there are plenty of “Appropiation” artists who use previously-made imagery and audio, not because of poverty, but because of the semantic complexity, because of the ways that the layers of production and re-production complicate and enrich the filmic language; I do so appreciate the critical historical distance it gives me.  At first I called my method “Cinema Povera” in an homage to the Italian “Arte Povera” movement. I later shot more of my own footage, and cut it in with the found footage, and so the style was broadened, from what could be called “found-footage collage” to what I now call a “collage- or compilation-narrative”.

Desistfilm: Counterculture has almost become a hackneyed word. You even mentioned that it had been assimilated by the established order of “the arts” How does your work respond before this need for irreverence and political response in these times, especially in a United States governed by the media and social networks.

Craig Baldwin: It is certainly true that alternative or opposing social forces are constantly threatened by co-optation and assimilation in this culture which ravenously consumes itself. There is so much need for production and yet so few “original” creative/critical ideas, that corporate producers–as well as academics-–are constantly drawing from the underground, or the margins. We call our project “Other Cinema”; we point to the periphery, to the outside, at a time when everything is becoming so consolidated. Media-cultural networks, devices, and practices of the mainstream political and commercial world manage to produce the illusion of consensus…yet, in fact, there is no center.  It is a “paper tiger”, as Mao once said.  More people, especially artists, should point at that sham which stands for “consensus reality” and call it for what it is, which is a shell, a superficial screen of appearances and assumptions, as suggested by Guy Debord in his Society of the Spectacle.

So many artists are concerned with making “beautiful” things–and I don’t put them down for that–but other artists, activists, and minority sub-cultures can be doing research and developing modes of negating the lies and suggesting progressive solutions to the problems of everyday life, both local and global. Not only the commercial world, but also the academy, and the Art world itself, try to “recuperate” and co-opt many of these alternative gestures, and so it is difficult to stay out of the vortex that draws Difference and Otherness into the black hole of their illusion.

I have tried to move away from idealistic ideas of “Beauty”, and towards understanding informed, dialectical critique as a creative process itself…not so much the production of aesthetic objects (read: commodities) but towards a generous engagement with real historical process. This contemporary impulse might explain the mobilization of so many artists to documentary films recently.

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 Desistfilm: The Spanish Eugeni Bonet prefers to speak of found footage as “dismantling of films”, in relation to the original montage of material that has been found. This idea of “dismantling” seems to fit better with your work’s profile. What do you think about this?

Craig Baldwin: Yes, I am familiar with Bonet’s essay and I applaud any scholarly thinking around found-footage filmmaking. But my films are way too heterogeneous, too multiplicitous to fall under the rubric of “desmontaje”, because the trace of the original source is so fragmentary. Joseph Cornell, a mid-century American artist, used to keep large reels of found material largely intact, and just removed or added a few shots to the largely uncompromised original. But in my case, it’s even rare to have two or three shots from the same movie adjacent to each other.  So what one sees is not so much the shape of the source, but of a “sample” of it, though that is enough to conjure up a sense of its position and resonance in film history.

I sometimes talk about my films in terms of The Analytic and The Synthetic.  Perhaps Bonet-–now I’m wondering if he’s a critic or a maker himself?–-is stressing The Analytic. Because my films are so busy with editing–-both picture and sound–-my production focus has been more on The Synthetic, that is, more on the organization of a montage that holds together across the cuts…I’m at pains to keep it all glued together.

Desistfilm: Your name is associated with the most sui generis projects and proposals of the experimental in the United States. For example, in this edition of Desist/film we are presenting an article about the impact made on us by a project like J. X. Williams, and I believe that you have had something to do with that concept, especially from the perspective of the topic of copyright. Is that right?

Craig Baldwin: It is not so much copyright but “authorship” that is at issue with the J.X. Williams stuff. It is not the legal status of intellectual property that is being questioned, but the slippage of responsibility in terms of confirmation, identification of the auteur. We are being treated to a play in the fields of cinema, for sure, but it is less about the genre product than about filmography-as-narrative…the biography, the backstory, the “lore” that drives the mystique and attraction of popular cinema.  In a way, it’s a similar principle as in found footage, where the meaning of any shot is determined by its placement within the montage; the sense of a shot–-or a director’s oeuvre–-comes from the context of that object of study. This is an adventurously speculative “wake-up call” to film culture, as we already have plenty of genre productions!  A healthy dose of skepticism as to origins and provenance serves to destabilize the smug, “official” film history.

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Desistfilm: Another of your sides is with Other cinema, as a space to promote more challenging experimental film, outside of the circuit. How are you coming along with this project?

Craig Baldwin: Well, Other Cinema certainly is an ambitious project, and I am constantly tested to generate enough will and energy to satisfy its organizational requirements, as well as those of its fans. The most visible aspect of it is a seasonal  exhibition series, which has continued on a weekly basis for over 30 years now. Though we occasionally do show features, the OC vision is more about the group show, a programming of short films, videos, and performances that, separately and collectively, offer an eclectic, prismatic—actually we call it “cubist”—cinema experience. There is a whole lot of media-artwork being produced and circulated now, for sure, and the charge for the microcinema curator to discover, collect, select, and order shorts is, well, a creative challenge in itself.

And not only do we struggle to mount these weekly sessions of experimental media, but in fact we also write about it on our online journal, OtherZine (www.othercinema.com/otherzine). This project has gone on for 26 issues now, and is a serious commitment to international film discourse, certainly, though of course it lacks the deeply satisfying “embodiment” of film-lovers and makers energizing the same gallery space that we enjoy with our screenings.

But, in fact, there are even more Other Cinema projects; our DVD production and publishing project (www.othercinemadvd.com) now boasts almost 20 titles… and those are mostly of the risky collage-essay types that other publishers wouldn’t dare touch. And at the very root of the OC presence in this very competitive San Francisco neighborhood, is our legendary though resolutely anomalous 16mm film archive, almost hidden in the foundations of our media-arts complex. This inestimably valuable resource not only supplies students, artists, and producers with precious archival material on a weekly basis, but also very often serves to flesh out our programs with delicious celluloid thrills.

Desistfilm: In your works there is a common theme, to denude types of power relations (the communications in Spectres of the Spectrum, the rights of the author in Sonic Outlaws, for example). How have you continue this critical vein, now as a cinematographer or curator?

Craig Baldwin: I appreciate your insightful reading of the critical impulse behind Spectres and Sonic, and in fact all of my other works. Frankly, it would be hard for me to get involved with a project unless it was some sort of critique of established power relations, be they governmental, corporate, religious, and especially military. I hope it’s true that the same–well, “negative”–perspective succeeds in shaping our weekly screenings. Though there are very many “pretty”, visually attractive films in circulation, increasingly made by designers who now flood the art schools, our instinct and apocalyptic fear (ha!) draws us towards those works which manage to take a position, a point of view, and perhaps suggest an argument about historical and/or contemporary social reality.

Increasingly, my own work has moved away from the rather facile binary morality of “good” (colonial subjects) vs. “bad” (US military and Intelligence) towards a hopefully more nuanced exploration of creative thinking around structural problems–as well as “historiography” itself–which may be suggested by models taken from sub-cultural ethnography, art-making, and literature…which is why my movies are so packed with language!

My new project is a cinematic mounting of the critique of The Spectacle, advanced by both the philosophical aphorisms of the Situationists and the “cut-up” techniques of the Beats.  Rather than situate an anti-imperialist collage in the remote “failed states” of the developing world, I have moved my focus back home–-to a deconstruction of the commodity culture of bourgeois society.

Desistfilm: What future do you see for this “dismantling” film, for this culture of bricolage, or of jamming, especially considering the paths that it has taken in the last ten years?

Craig Baldwin: Now with the proliferation of copying and post-production devices, many kinds of “dismantling” will certainly arise, for many reasons that I can’t possibly know. Of course these can be disavowed as “nerdish” exercises of short-sighted pop-cult aficionados, who remain captivated by the most trivial aspects of celebrity culture and mass media. Some may call themselves pranksters, even hackers, but I suppose to really “dismantle,” one should have a larger view of culture’s role in Neo-Liberalism’s global reach. I’m talking about doing more actual research, even naming names, and the contemporary art world’s enlightened move towards documentary, a valorization of knowledge, and even social intervention. This new “documentary” activity will hopefully include contributions from engaged citizens, non-academics, even techno-peasants, and perhaps this sentiment against the Spectacular take-over of our lives will naturally produce a lush underground garden of ingenious works by cinema-povera practitioners like myself.