Ethnographer. Anthropologist. Archivist. Availabl-ist. Arti-fact-ualist. All are terms that Craig Baldwin may have used to describe himself in his lecture/presentation on Thursday night of the 50th Ann Arbor Film Festival. This free engagement with the manic collagist was sponsored by the Penny W. Stamps Lecture Series through the University of Michigan's Department of Art and Design, and although there were a number of UM students there perhaps trying to extract some credit-worthy notes from Baldwin's attempt at a history of Collage and Appropriation Art that began somewhere around "Dada" and ended with him, the whole affair proved to be best digested as a mixture of classroom lecture, performance art, and a mini-found footage film fest (or, like a Craig Baldwin film). Baldwin's work is central not only to those interested in "collage" or "re-mix" culture, but to the goals of experimental and underground film on the whole, in all of it's capacity to gleefully offend the sensibility of bourgeois film goers, and as a way to opt out of engaging with the world through corporate media. To put us in mind of the great subversive art of Michigan's past, Baldwin began his power point presentation with a clip of the MC5 performing "Kick Out the Jams" in 1970, a reference point that produced some audible response from a few enthusiastic audience members, mostly those with graying ponytails and beards. As someone perched midway between the youngest and oldest of the crowd in attendance for this lecture, as well as someone who has been a fan of collage-based sound and film artists like Baldwin, Negativland, and John Oswald for some years now, I was curious to what extent the basis for Baldwin's aesthetic makes sense to a generation whose artistic set is used to having an ever-expanding archive of audio/visual material at their fingertips. Then again, although not of my generation, the MC5 resonates with me as the necessary sonic enema required for a generation naturalized to the idea that the way to get your music heard (and to hear music), is to sell out. In a bit of a frenzy, Baldwin tied together the aggressiveness of the Dada-ists, the idealism of the Hippies, the action of the Situationists, the media savvy of the Culture Jammers, and the currency of the Occupy Movement in a sort of art lecture equivalent of the MC5 (with Guy Debord as the front man) that he called "Masochism of the Margins of the Society of the Spectacle." In other words, he kicked out the jams (motherfucker!).
As I recalled in an earlier post on the similarly Experimental film-friendly Big Muddy Film Festival, Baldwin's Sonic Outlaws was pivotal in documenting a cut-and-paste aesthetic of appropriation that was first popularized by sound artists and satirists Negativland, and later expanded into culture jamming activist work, like the Barbie Liberation Organization whose members, Baldwin informed us, later went on to create The Yes Men. Sonic Outlaws is also exemplary of a form Baldwin calls "Compilation Documentary," which finds some of its roots in another regional touchstone, Kevin Rafferty's early 80's film The Atomic Cafe (also recently noted at the Michigan Theatre during Michael Moore's appearance, where he told stories of getting his start in film making from a ragged, young Rafferty). Likening the structural aspects of his work to an intertwining strand of DNA, Baldwin continued to screen examples from his Densist Hits collection that intricately weave together interview subjects, orphan texts, abandoned VHS visions, fact, fiction, etc. Along with maintaining a legendary A/V archive in the Mission District of San Francisco, Baldwin distributes his own work through Other Cinema DVD, and the actual Other Cinema still holds regular screenings, and continues to embrace "marginalized genres like 'orphan' industrial films, home movies, ethnography, and exploitation, as media-archeological core-samples, and blows against consensus reality and the sterility of museum culture." One of the more well received clips in Baldwin's presentation was from a film that recently screened at Other Cinema, Hollywood Burn by Soda Jerk, a duo of collage artists out of Germany:
Soda Jerk's work continues to combat and re-shape accepted narratives of history, politics, and art in the manner that Baldwin helped to establish with his primary works, including the short film (screened among the competition films at the AAFF this year) RocketKitCongoKit (1986), Tribulation 99: Alien Anomolies Under America (1992), Sonic Outlaws (1995), Spectres of the Spectrum (1999), and Mock Up on Mu (2008). All of these films rely heavily on appropriated footage, recombination, and juxtaposition to deliver, as Baldwin put it: "new wine in old bottles...as opposed to Hollywood, which is continually giving us old wine in new bottles." For me, Baldwin's work not only challenges the emptiness of corporate cinema, but, taken as a reflection of a traditionally more independent realm, allows a keen commentary on the current state of Documentary film, which has blossomed since the early days of Baldwin, Rafferty, and Moore, while simultaneously becoming stale in it's techniques, perpetuating audiences who treat Documentaries as mere information vessels, creating a rather lazy, cool engagement with visual media in general. The first time I encountered Negativland (a number of their works being a form of Audio-Documentary), I was excited most by how layered and seemingly inexhaustible their recombined sound-scapes were, excited by the way in which they simply demanded more attention than anything I had heard before. Baldwin's work begs the same kind of highly interactive engagement, and the opportunity to see him speak to that reminded me how increasingly important his work is an age when the neural passages of the Spectacle-bound continue to evolve, click by click.