A Research Site Devoted to the Past and Future of Found Footage Film and Video

"The Literary and Artistic heritage of humanity should be used for partisan propaganda purposes." - Gil J. Wolman
“A lot of people who call themselves artists now are cultural critics who are using instruments other than just written language or spoken language to communicate their critical perspective.”
-Leslie Thornton

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Patterns of Collection

I have previously discussed some tendencies of experimental filmmakers to rigorously construct patterns of images usually related to a prominent trope in cinema. For a good example, see Volker Schreiner's amazing film "Counter" below.

Watch Counter By Volker Schreiner in Entertainment  |  View More Free Videos Online at Veoh.com

This tendency has become a significant part of digital remixes in the past year demonstrating a rigorous form of collection, repetitive editing and exhaustive archeology of popular media. A recent example:

Many appropriation artists are first and foremost, collectors. The materials collected, their visibility in popular culture and the modes of transformation implemented by the artist all help to characterize their approach to appropriation. Joseph Cornell was well known for his elaborate collections of found objects—ordered in numbered and catalogued boxes and reconstructed into archival boxes themselves turned into art objects. Critic Jodi Hauptman characterizes Joseph Cornell’s artistic career as a form of “image search” or new form of portraiture utilizing “exploration, research [and] collection” (Hauptman 1). Cornell’s interest in cinema revolved around the actress-muses that found their way into his box assemblages, collages and subsequent found footage films.

While much could be made of Cornell’s obsessive fascination with Hollywood actresses Hedy Lamarr, Rose Hobart, Lauren Bacall and Greta Garbo to name a very few, more interesting is his method of collection. Cornell produced dossier folders of images and trinkets, some literal and others highly personal and oblique, which reminded Cornell of these individuals. He engaged in research in order to link actresses to historical figures by weaving invented stories. Cornell was also deeply interested in presentation, creating archives and “romantic museums” to commemorate his obsessions. Hauptman suggests that, “In his dedication to preservation and his labors as an archivist, he is less a surrealist and more a historian” (Hauptman 37).
Much of Cornell’s work can be understood as a sophisticated method of interrogating popular images and fostering of an individual mysticism and alchemy of everyday objects. In this way, Hauptman describes Walter Benjamin as being in harmony with Cornell’s ideas on collection. She writes:

Cornell’s activities call to mind Walter Benjamin, a figure who similarly turned his attention to history and to the survivors of the past. Benjamin’s interests—book collecting, childhood, the city, miniatures, the nineteenth century, photography, flanerie, the trivial and shabby—parallel Cornell’s own. In the artist’s archival accumulation of texts, quotations, and images, Cornell resembles Benjamin at work on his Arcades Project, a “materialist philosophy of history” that excavates Paris (Hauptman 37).

The connection between these two thinkers also leads back to the surrealist movement, as indicated by Hal Foster in Compulsive Beauty. Described as an uncanny form of found object, the ruin, referred to as the “romantic ruin,” strikes an “auratic register and represents a “displaced” object that has been “outmoded” by capitalist production. Assigning value to this outmoded object is a form of détournement to Foster (Compulsive Beauty 127) who sees the collection of such objects existing outside of capitalist production as a subversion of that process. The romantic ruin is emphasized by the Surrealists because it is seen to “redeem the outmoded and to mock the mechanical-commodified” (Foster, Compulsive Beauty 127). The “romantic ruin” described by the Surrealists and later by Benjamin, is echoed in the language of Cornell when describing the “flotsam and jetsam...” of found objects (Hauptman 21). Like Benjamin’s penchant for a critical montage of quotes in the Arcades Project, Cornell “began to see his collecting…as a viable, if not critical, form of art-making” (Hauptman 22). Part of Cornell’s impetus towards manufacturing boxes from ephemera, was to turn the found detritus he had collected into something that could, in his own words “transcend the dustheap & ruthlessness of time” (Hauptman 3).

Cornell’s fascinations, however, do not account for what motivated his obsession with cinema. As an aesthetic form, Hauptman suggests that Cornell’s “flanerie” extended to the cinema and that the fleeting images and objects he collected on the streets were replicated by the camera. Cornell’s fascination with maps and the flaneur also link him to the Situationists. Cornell’s “Souvenirs for Singleton” box, made for actress Jennifer Jones, was a map made from detritus which is reminiscent of a chronologically simultaneous image, “Discours sur les passions de l’amour,” by Guy Debord, which offers a psychogeographic guide through Paris with map fragments united by red arrows. One of the connections between the flaneur and the person undertaking a dérive , is the goal of both “to find.” The recovery of objects is frequently associated with the pedestrian strolling through the city and coming upon some discarded artifact of overlooked importance. Collage itself is described as a kind of artistic corollary of the views of the city walker. Hauptman writes “In its accumulative structure, collage visualizes the city’s temporal layering.” She invokes Rosalind Krauss’ contention that collage is a form of image reading that focuses on duration—“the kind of extended temporality that is involved in experiences like memory, reflection, narration, proposition.” (Hauptman 153) William Burroughs suggests that collages, or as he called them, “cut-ups” resembled the human mind’s perceptual approach to the world. He wrote, “the cut-up is much closer to the actual facts of perception. As soon as you look out the window, look around the room, walk down the street, your consciousness is being cut by random factors. Life is a cut-up…rather than a straight linear narrative” (Burroughs, quoted in the film William S. Burroughs: Commissioner of Sewers). In this way, we might see collage as an attempt to reproduce the reality of the city dweller, walking down a busy urban street.

The search for moving images by remixers often takes place on YouTube, which allows Internet spectators to search through videos by clicking other videos associated through key-words, users and actual video responses. This allows for YouTube users to scroll through videos without creating new search terms and, in effect, drift through the digital archive the site provides. This pattern of spectatorship, which promotes an aimless drift, a discovery of images and reuse of those materials re-imagines the urban derive as a stroll through the spaces of a digital archive.

The appropriation artist and avant-garde musician Christian Marclay was deeply influenced by artist Bruce Conner and employed found images in his visual artworks for years before moving into the cinematic milieu. However, unlike Conner, Marclay was interested in using recognizable materials rather than ephemeral industrial or educational films. Critic Jennifer Gonzales suggests, “For Marclay, it is crucial that the films he uses are recognizable, that they spark a memory in the viewers who see them. The individual film clips are not merely archival, they parallel our memories of them” (Gonzales 63). The importance of recognizable materials to these artists cannot be overstated. Part of the pleasure of the spectator when viewing these materials is experiencing the nostalgia and memories they elicit in the spectator.

In terms of appropriation, Marclay has said that “To be totally original and to start from scratch always seemed futile. I was more interested in taking something and making it mine through manipulation” (Seliger 136). All of these strategies come to paint a picture of the artist as collector and archivist. Hal Foster suggested, “the classic site of the surrealist dérive” was “the flea market…” (Foster, Compulsive Beauty 159); a site that Marclay explores in his own work. Jennifer Gonzales suggests that though “nearly all of Marclay’s works rely upon readymade images, objects or texts, they can also be called ‘archival’” (Gonzales 56). She argues that Marclay is overwhelmingly dealing with historical and cultural memory—inscribing new meanings onto the work through his transformation of the materials. Sometimes the materials are simply curated—as in his piece Arranged and Conducted (1997) in which Marclay “arranged, with frames abutting, more than a hundred prints, drawings, paintings and photographs drawn from the permanent collection of the Kunsthaus, each depicting a musical event.” (Gonzales 57) These materials have not been altered—they have been dropped into a new context, yes, but the overwhelming sense is that they have been selected and organized anew.

Once digital media became the paradigm of home spectatorship and editing, moving image appropriators could transform materials with a newfound ease and on a larger scale. Christian Marclay has produced three significant works appropriating mainstream images and sounds with the use of digital video. Marclay’s three major film works, Telephones (1995), Up and Out (1998) and Video Quartet (2002), are compiled from recognizable films edited based on an organizing principal Marclay has set out to explore. In Telephones, Marclay has constructed a “seemingly plausible linear dialogue between historically (and spatially) unrelated characters” (Higgs 88) by appropriating clips from mostly Hollywood films of actors on telephones. Up and Out uses the images of Antonioni’s film Blow Up (1966) and blends the film with the soundtrack to Brian De Palma’s homage to the film, Blow Out (1981). His most ambitious work, Video Quartet, features over 700 DVD clips from films of actors “playing instruments, singing or making noise” (Higgs 88). The film is a quadriptych, featuring four simultaneous screens that are expertly arranged to create a seemingly cohesive soundtrack. The grouping of multiple sounds has features “akin to that of a hip-hop DJ,” (Higgs 89) with the pleasant collision of sounds from disparate source materials. These works often feature the exploration of film clichés or frequently employed film motifs—the dramatic telephone conversation or the café piano player.

This kind of archeology of repetition in film scenes has permeated both contemporary avant-garde films and digital remixes on the Internet. In German artist Matthias Müller’s found footage film Home Stories (1990), women from disparate Hollywood melodramas go through the same series of actions—answering a phone, receiving dramatic information, running down a lavish flight of stairs and grabbing their coat and fleeing outside. Müller also enacted similar patterns of collecting with his epic Phoenix Tapes (1999), which examines numerous Alfred Hitchcock films.
These patterns of collection and ordering of archives is a stalwart feature of found footage today. German video artist and essay filmmaker Harun Farocki’s Workers Leaving the Factory in Eleven Decades (2006) is a twelve channel video installation building upon the first Lumière Brothers’ film “Workers Leaving the Factory” (1895). The installation goes through eleven decades of cinema and appropriates scenes of factory workers leaving work. In the digital remixing community these patterns of collection appear often though in many cases without the implicit political concerns observed by Farocki. In his writing, Farocki has justified this form of collecting in his call for “An Archive for Visual Concepts.”

Many digital remixers catalog repetition in films through humorous reconstructions of tropes into a new ensemble. In Augart Media’s remix Crash (2008), images of car crashes and car explosions are assembled into pulsating rhythmic crescendos. The remixer transforms Hollywood’s overwrought love affair with automotive destruction into densely layered percussive experiments which reveal an incredible attention to detail and a highly patient and disciplined editor. Augart assembles other experiments by exploring screams, parades and war film images. One of his most ambitious works, YouTube Symphony (2009) is strikingly similar to Christian Marclay’s Video Quartet. In this work, Augart lifts YouTube clips from amateur musicians and layers them to construct his own experimental music piece.

The remixer AMDS, by far one of the most adept editors in the remix community, documents the use of black sunglasses as a device for imparting mystique onto characters in the remix Black Glasses (2007). The video utilizes hundreds of clips in which mostly male action heroes put-on or take-off sunglasses with a focus on the gestural continuity between each film. Unlike political remixers, AMDS does not construct a visible critique onto the materials he appropriates, but rather celebrates these films and their characters. A figure highly regarded in the remix community because of his seamless integration of multiple film images, AMDS is unlike other remixers who construct relationships between films through montage as mash-ups do. Instead, AMDS is a collage remixer, putting multiple films into the same image. In Neo Vs. Robocop (2007) the editor masterfully places both characters (including Charles Bronson’s character from Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) and Yoda from the Star Wars (1977) films into the same frame. This kind of work, which celebrates films rather than critiques them, is discussed (albeit in an art context) by Hal Foster, who is concerned with appropriations that merely reproduce images rather than engages critically with them. In the last chapter of his book Recodings: Art, Spectacle, Cultural Politics, Foster addresses appropriations which reveal a “fetishism of the signifier” or an uncritical passion for the materials appropriated (Foster, Recodings 175). This work might be a prime example of such a fetishism of spectacle and celebration of Hollywood semiotics, which does not possess an implicit critique.
The examples above imply that the collection and ordering of archival images only occurs on a superficial level in digital remixes and do not necessarily consider the implications of the frequency of such images. But this criticism applies widely in the digital remixing community; remixers are more prone to making observations about cinema rather than examining what the prevalence of certain images might signify. This of course, does not apply to the entirety of the community.