From Junk to Funk to Punk to Link

A survey of the found-footage film in the San Francisco Bay Area
by Craig Baldwin  posted January 10, 2011
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This essay, which appears in the new collection Radical Light: Alternative Film & Video in the San Francisco Bay Area, 1945-2000 (University of California Press), is reprinted by kind permission of the author and the publisher.

Among the rich and richly varied filmways of the Bay Area can be found that rather special practice known as the found-footage film. There can be little doubt that this mode of making has enjoyed a particularly prominent place in the local tradition. But why, exactly? 

As a found-footage practitioner myself, I would like to float a few possible contributing factors and then sketch out a (necessarily partial) chronology of this curious activity in these here parts.

Even curiouser, how could the overt use of prefabricated industrial images flourish in a regional film culture that so vigorously valorizes "the personal"?


Well, at the risk of oversimplification, I would summon up that sense of artistic identity that Northern California makers might host vis-à-vis the commercial film establishment, especially regarding our competing film center to the south. In fact, those Hollywood studios are a major source of our found footage! Now, a Frisco maker just might see herself as an antagonist to the assembly lines of the Southland and her repurposing of the material as a redemptive gesture of "personal" creative agency. We can at least agree that it is a "contrarian" impulse—the artist and audience know that the footage came with a different intention, and much of the later delight derives from its witty preemption. The result is not your standard compilation doc, in which the archival images are homologues in service to the narration! Au contraire, mon frère!


At base, the materiality of the celluloid itself can be reclaimed as plastic-art material—the laughably ephemeral human forms easily enough canceled with a sufficiently sharp object (best if serrated), or stripped off that photochemical platform in an emulsion-erasing Clorox swipe. Cinéma concrète techniques such as these could be called "structural," sure, though they were in use long before the seventies, when that term came into parlance. And anyway, I'd argue that the Bay Area is not nearly so driven by formal concerns as, say, the Buffalo of Hollis Frampton and Paul Sharits (though we still pour a bit of beer on the ground for them, RIP). Our "soft structuralism" has it both ways: Instead of absolute refusal, or deconstruction to null-point, much of our work might be understood as a playful semiotic engagement with the "original" authors. Marshall McLuhan advanced the model of the "Menippian satire," after Menippus of classical Greek rhetoric (ah, already Frampton comes alive!), which is the mimicking of modes of speech to parody mannered patterns.

The image can be read two ways. We see the initial expression of the producer—as clichéd and ideologically overdetermined as that might be—and at the same time, like Schroedinger's Cat, we read it in its new context—a split or schizophrenic sign. Art historical graphic processes such as the palimpsest (old-school tracing pad) or pentimento (painting over an earlier image in an artwork) come to mind—more mixed metaphors for "reinscription" that certainly anticipate our contemporary obsession with digital "versions."


So against what sort of register might we consider the varieties of the found-footage experience? Well, for this brief argument at least, let's take a page from Saussure; let's consider an array (but not a hierarchy) of "meaning" . . . that semantic denominator that cannot be killed, even at the extreme of Schwitters's most splintered collage. The dadaists tried to grind letter-forms down into pure non-sense, while the Beats (on them, more later) wanted to get past intentionality with their I Ching. But you and I have been through that, and that is not our fate. For this here semiological guerrilla, during wartime (never stops), the crucial work is at the level of the symbolic—exposing intentions, harnessing meanings, and then the redeployment onto the, ahem, metacinematic plane. That is what hopefully elevates our projects beyond Altoids ads, beyond VJ wallpaper, beyond the facile pastiche that's passed off as . . . you know, the p-word . . .


Though of course the "liberated" signifiers can always be absorbed as "figuratively" (as opposed to literally) as desired. At one end of our spectrum, they can be abstracted into the broadest sort of all-purpose gesture, often enacted through extraordinary studio/lab techniques. Perhaps this pole comes closest to painting and printmaking. If maybe a little language is added (or even if it isn't), the spectre of metaphor may be invoked, maybe even the tentative tendrils of allegory.

And/or the found-footage artist can choose to work the more indexical end of the axis, picking up more stitches of the Real and self-consciously threading them through the warp and woof of the new quilt. The shots retain their specificity, be it film historical or sociopolitical. This enterprise I call the "collage-essay." It springs from what Eisenstein named intellectual montage and then extends toward a kind of conceptual art.

To better plot these different uses, and to frame the following folk history, let's first stake out those abiding (sub)cultural conditions that served as ground for the genre's growth.


1.   A general sense of regional humor and heterodox play that could flourish in a more casual West Coast culture, outside of the Atlantic axis of academies and museums.

2.   The legacy of dada and surrealism, kept alive by local art schools, the gallery scene, and practicing visual artists.

3.   The influence of the Beats, with their existential, Zen-tinged appreciation for the "is-ness" of the lived world, for humble objects and "stressed" materials. And their embrace of poverty—coping through ingenuity (and masochism) rather than buying one's way out of problems.

4.   A distinctly San Fran transcendental impulse, certainly related to Buddhism but also to Native American religions, to the Kaballah, and to the New Age "vision quest"—the Jungian journey through psychological symbolism, the pilgrim recomposing herself as she shuffles among the new configurations of meaning. Also, the communitarian, collaborative practices that are woven deep into the social fabric, especially since the hippie era.

5.   A powerful affinity with a pop-art aesthetic, driven not by poverty this time but by California wealth, with its attendant self-consciousness of commercial imagery and movie-cult quotation.

6.   Hell yeah, an aggressive and deeply ingrained punk-rock attitude that has not been quashed even yet, that opposes the precious with a perverse appetite for violent collisions between compositional elements, for shredding the store-bought, and for noise.


Now, most surveys of Bay Area found-footage film would start with Bruce Conner, who had already established himself as a painter and assemblage artist before producing any films. Some familiarity with the 1950s Funk sculpture scene helps to understand how the junk constructions of the Beat years influenced an allied bricolage practice in the cinema. 

Eisenhower-era dropouts from around the country had migrated to the City, finding cheap rent in the Fillmore District and in North Beach, where many connected with the California School of Fine Arts (renamed the San Francisco Art Institute in 1961). A sense of community and a regional—and temporal—aesthetic identity developed. The visual collagist Jess (Collins) started the King Ubu Gallery in 1952 with Robert Duncan and Harry Jacobus. A year later, Wally "Funk Daddy" Hedrick initiated the Six Gallery. Then James Newman and Robert Alexander's Dilexi Gallery opened in Alexander's loft above the Jazz Workshop on Broadway. These alternative venues were dedicated to presenting the new breed of interdisciplinary artists, mixing painting, sculpture, music, and spoken word.

After the Los Angeles Police Department closed down his Ferus Gallery group show in 1957, multimedia artist-curator Wallace Berman left, in disgust, for San Francisco (actually Larkspur), joined by the sculptor George Herms. This was the same year that Conner arrived from Colorado on a tip from the poet Michael McClure, a high school and college friend from the University of Nebraska. The new immigrants accelerated this very exciting breakdown of the barriers between the disciplines and, well, between art and life generally. In this freewheeling atmosphere, Conner became affiliated with a group that included McClure, Hedrick, Manuel Neri, and the painters Jay DeFeo and Joan Brown (both to later figure in Conner's movies). The Rat Bastard Protective Association, "the first funky art religion," was the name that Conner coined to self-parody the outsider status of these pessimistic bohemians, scraping by in the crumbling Victorians of the Fillmore. For materials, they scavenged in the dumpsters for discarded architectural "gingerbread" from demolition projects: urban renewal was remaking the neighborhood into the "Western Addition." After dark, they jammed the jazz clubs and late-night cafés for bebop and the spontaneous poetry of Kerouac, Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti, Corso, et al. 

Eventually, their scrap-collaged, pigment- and wax-encrusted paintings grew off the walls and into the gallery space, free standing. Conner produced several of these assemblages before hitting on the idea of incorporating a running motion picture projector into the ensemble. In time, this twelve-minute black-and-white film took on a life of its own, crossing into the world of cinema as A Movie (1958).  "I stopped gluing it down," said Conner.

Black-comic, and with a giddily ambiguous embrace of pop-cult imagery, A Movie is a meticulously measured montage of 16mm midcentury newsreel shots. Off-the-shelf prints of news digests were readily available on 100-foot and 400-foot silent (and sound) spools, produced for the amateur market by Castle Films and the like. These screen reports, like the trailers and comedies they often accompanied, had been familiarized through the regime of the neighborhood theater, and the pastime of home projection, before the domestic viewing of 16mm (and later, regular and Super 8mm) was eclipsed by television. As well, many of these documentary and human interest shorts were re-presented on TV in the 1950s as the networks were padding out their sparse programming. Conner has acknowledged his debt to these B shorts, remembering an early stock-footage compilation cut to the "Beetlebaum" song of Spike Jones, who had his own TV show at the time.

The sexual metaphors of A Movie reemerge in Conner's Cosmic Ray (1961), a dazzling succession of superimpositions cut to Ray Charles's "What'd I Say." Conner combined dancing girls with fireworks, Disney animation, Academy leader, and other celluloid detritus in an energized prefiguring of the rock 'n' roll euphoria that would shake the City (and the world) a few years hence. And it was the prototype for the "music video" form that emerged two decades after that.

Between 1963 and 1967 Conner cobbled together Report, using countdown leader, extraneous snippets, and news footage taken of John F. Kennedy in Dallas that was available through mail-order catalogs and local camera stores. Versions of Report were issued in both 16mm and 8mm, the latter for home use. Harking back to his original kinetic sculpture inspiration, Conner occasionally displayed the small-gauge edition as a film-installation—a gun-metal gray Bolex projector focused on the white-painted screen of a period TV set.


Also on the North Beach scene were Robert and Gunvor Nelson. Both joined the faculty at the Art Institute, and both undertook active collaborations with area artists (Steve Reich, R. G. Davis of the Mime Troupe, and William and Dorothy Wiley). Robert's zany film collages (Confessions of a Black Mother Succuba, 1964-65; The Great Blondino, with William T. Wiley, 1967) mix found and live-action footage in neo-dada burlesques. War Is Hell (1968), with stock war-movie shots, was produced for San Francisco's public television station, KQED, in 1968; Bleu Shut (with Wiley, 1970) is (among other things) a hilarious quiz on names for recreational boats, their "found" still photos held for self-consciously extended lengths of time. Gunvor Nelson and Dorothy Wiley's Schmeerguntz (1966) is a mad montage of real-world motherly chores, juxtaposed with the media's idealized depictions of womanhood.

The godmother of the area's experimental film scene and a cofounder of Canyon Cinema, Chick Strand, is another prolific maker who often used found footage. Her second work, Angel Blue Sweet Wings (1966), made after she relocated to Los Angeles, folded preexisting imagery into the montage, as did her 1967 Waterfall. Her 1979 Cartoon le Mousse prompted Gene Youngblood to declare, "If poetry is the art of making evocative connections between dissimilar phenomena, then Chick Strand is a great poet, transcending her material to create a surreal and sublime universe beyond reason." Her found-footage masterwork is Loose Ends (1979), a quirky skein of midcentury miscellany that in fact manages a "compilation narrative."

Among this first wave of cine-collagists could also be included these two special cases: Lawrence Jordan and Jordan Belson. An early member of the Canyon Co-op, Mr. Jordan came to the city from Colorado in 1955, also garnering a position at SFAI. Having apprenticed with Joseph Cornell, arguably the first American found-footage maker (Rose Hobart, 1936), Jordan received from the elder auteur the commission to complete his last six nearly finished found-footage pieces. Though Jordan is generally known as a cutout animation artist, the illustrations in his whimsical works are for the most part archival (e.g., Gustave Doré's engravings). Duo Concertantes (1964) and Our Lady of the Sphere (1969) are among his most memorable.

The work of Jordan Belson, another Bay Area visionary whose filmography begins in the fifties, is also generally classed as animation rather than compilation, but a certain kind of collage it surely is, and stock—though perhaps not "found"—images often figure in his gaseous miasmas. Belson's 1957-'59 Vortex Concerts (with the sound artist Henry Jacobs) in Morrison Planetarium were a crucial watershed. Their radical advances in the projection arts set the stage for the sixties psychedelic light show scene (in which Conner was deeply involved, not coincidentally), an "expanded cinema" form that drew heavily on hypnotic loops and phantasmic, freely circulating clips from the populist surrealism of Max Fleischer, Busby Berkeley, Flash Gordon, and other antecedents.

The expansive displays of Belson, and of Jordan and Jerry Abrams and Anne Severson and many others, reached broader audiences in the seventies with the stabilization of screening series like the Cinematheque, eye music (at 80 Langton), and Karl Cohen's Intersection showcase, as well as the maturation of cinema departments at SFAI, San Francisco State, and the California College of Arts and Crafts and the establishment of Film Arts Foundation (FAF). Scott Bartlett, one of FAF's founding members, is remembered for bridging gaps, both between formats—experimental film and (then emerging) video art—and between private and public imagery (as in Moon 1969, 1969). William Farley, also instrumental in the FAF project, was able to probe profound philosophical issues, paradoxically enough, in a tour-de-force fusion of pop-cult ephemera, Being (1974-'75).


Collage chronicles of the period should also include Doug Wendt (and his appropriately titled Dub Film, 1979), Lyle Pearson (Funk, 1979), and Rock Ross, Michael Rudnik, Ed Jones, and Dean Snider—the latter four closely associated with No Nothing Cinema in San Francisco's South of Market area, signaling a shift of the artistic epicenter out of by-then-tourist-infested North Beach. The heady freedom of the seventies and early eighties produced not only a proliferation of cine-socials like Curt McDowell's weekly salons and No Nothing's BYO-BBQs but also the fuzzy outlines of a Bay Area beachcomber style (No Nothing was "dock o' the bay," just as Berman had been twenty years earlier): hang-loose shorts pieced together with out-of-date raw stock, hand-held/available-light camerawork, and felt-penned found footage, playfully patched and scratched on like mad, then exuberantly unspooled with double-system sound, to the favorite tango tune (or children's song) of the moment. These were among the most joyful, most unselfconscious moments in the Bay Area's found-footage saga, treating original and secondhand shots as equally serviceable surfaces for Exacto knife noodlings, direct animation appliqués, and rhythmic editing patterns.


But in the eighties, alas, everybody got a haircut. The mood changed, studios and labs closed, and of course, SoMa fell to gentrification (the original No Nothing site is now home plate in the SF Giants' ballpark). McDowell died, and Bartlett died, and Snider (somewhat later, in 1994) died. (Another dram to the ground, dear Reader.) What had been a beatnik, then hippie, then punk dismissal of the Academy came back as "appropriation art." The period's gravitas freighted—and did enrich—the assemblage mode with more serious agendas: gender, identity issues, postcolonialism, media theory, psychological dysfunction, et al. Michael Wallin's Decodings (1988) synched up an uncanny skein of pictures to a parallel narration and an elegiac Shostakovich score in a cosmic-goof coup de grâce that went on to the Whitney Biennial. Scott Stark, a long-legged pillar of the area's avant-garde scene, unceasingly released a slew of short formal works (including some on video) that incorporated estate sale and otherwise orphaned imagery, leading all the way up to his latter-day dazzlers Noema (1998), Angel Beach (2001), and Speechless (2009).

To keep this chronology complete, the Author himself is obliged to list his own obsessive-compulsive concoction, RocketKitKongoKit (1986), a postcolonial political consciousness-raiser, as well as a subversive upending of genres, both fiction and documentary, so as to expose their ideological bases. Shortly after, fellow San Francisco State graduate Jay Rosenblatt crafted a careful slo-mo style in support of his depth-psychology excavations (Short of Breath, 1990). Another State alumnus, Greta Snider, also used optical printing (and hand-processing and "photo-gramming" and superimposition and intertitles and subtitles and direct address, and a dozen other methods) in a series of zine-inspired, fearlessly honest personal essays (Futility, 1989; Our Gay Brothers, 1993; Flight, 1997).

During his Cali days, the now NY-based Mark Street developed a distinctive cinéma concrète style that foregrounded the film-as-material. His scratching, tinting, optical printing, and directanimation techniques wrought alchemical miracles from the outré emulsion of educational and porn artifacts (Winter Wheat, 1989; Blue Movie, 1994). Meanwhile, Lynne Sachs was cobbling together her feminist essay, House of Science (1991). And Julie Murray, now also lost (to the Midwest), was developing an assiduous collage practice (in her visual art as well), setting up her own homemade Super 8 optical printer in her (now-razed) Clarion Alley studio, for her fiercely idiosyncratic small-format works (Fuckface, 1986).


If anything, the pace picked up in the nineties, with an increasing emphasis on rephotography and intense emulsion mucking. Alfonso Alvarez (Film For . . . , 1989; Quixote Dreams, 1990-'91) demonstrated a bold graphic style, while Steve Dye's animation sense apprehended the found frame as a fragile miniature (Lun, 1990; Zero, 1996). A trained architect, Thad Povey galvanized the scene with his Tesla-esque wizardry with light, projection apparati, and filmstrip (be it original or found). His mastery over film's material aspects led to surface work akin to the attacks of the abstract expressionists. Carrying on the potlatch generosity of No Nothing from his studio days there, Povey has in fact organized a regular gathering for found-footage "quilting bees," where amateurs (the Scratch Film Junkies) can freely experiment on editing room outs with fingernail polish, acetate inks, and whatnot. Povey's own portfolio is prodigious (A Different Kind of Green, 1989; Thine Inward-Looking Eyes, 1993), and by century's end he had branched out into installations (Wrapped Around the Screw, 2001) and collaborations with musicians in live performance (Nightsoil, 2002, also with Alvarez). And apropos of projector-performance, also noteworthy is Wet Gate—Steve Dye, Peter Conheim, Owen O'Toole (and sometimes Gibbs Chapman, who has made more than a few found-footage films of his own). Surfing the wave of obsolescence, this resourceful "Graflex group" plays industrial film loops arranged like audiovisual songs. The scene is busy indeed in the current millennium. David Sherman (Revolver, 1993; To Re-Edit the World, 2002) took his Tuning the Sleeping Machine (1996) to the Whitney Biennial, while Kerry Laitala's mesmerizing gothic reveries (Hallowed, 2002) brought her back to Black Forest audiences three times on her tours of Europe. And the archivist Rick Prelinger put a thousand plus public domain films online for a new generation of media archaeologists.


Yes, though it isn't the focus of this review, respect is also due to that rank of found-footage makers who work in video. Jeanne C. Finley (often with John Muse) has drawn equally from the archives as from her own doc footage to engender electronic essays that work the space between public and private systems of signification and behavior (So You Want to Be Popular? 1988; Involuntary Conversion, 1991). Phil Patiris (Iraq Campaign, 1991) has distilled a wickedly satirical videography out of the relentless flow of corporate logos, government propaganda, and sci-fi escapism that is broadcast television. Bryan Boyce (America's Biggest Dick, 2005) rocketed up from Chip Lord's tutelage at UC Santa Cruz to an ascendant position in the video-appropriation heavens, sampling smartly from the duplicitous double-talk of the multinational media moguls, to finally bring the wrath of McLuhan's global(ized) village right back to the heart of the beast. Sick media chickens coming home to roost.

This is perhaps the promise of an electronic folk culture that Bay Area found-footage makers hold forth: Concomitant with a cautionary acknowledgment of—and negotiation with—image overload, ours is a refreshing affirmation of relative autonomy, personal ingenuity, and creative agency to discover and share our own uses for things. The radical imagination can still find its way through this bewildering forest of signs. THIS is what is Beat-ific, what is supremely ironic, and what is powerfully redemptive about this activity. Saint Francis returns as Emperor Norton: the holy fool found his captain's hat in a free bin, and now he's calling the shots. 


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September 17, 2010–April 30, 2011 Radical Light: Alternative Film and Video in the San Francisco Bay Area


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Craig Baldwin is a filmmaker and curator whose interests lie in archival retrieval and recombinatory forms of cinema, performance, and installation. He is the recipient of several grants, including those from the Rockefeller Foundation, Alpert Award, Creative Capital, Phelan, AFI, FAF, and California Arts Council.

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Author's Website: Other Cinema