Recycle It

A look at found-footage cinema, from the silent era to Web 2.0
by Ed Halter  posted July 10, 2008
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From The Phantom Edit to Hillary's Downfall, remixed video has become one of the hallmarks of contemporary Internet culture, embraced by amateurs and artists alike. One of the most accomplished young practitioners is Oliver Laric, a German artist who has made a series of videos that deftly repurpose bits of media found online. In 787 Cliparts (2006), he animates a digital flipbook of banal stock illustrations into a mesmerizing stop-motion morphing of human forms. With a more conceptual twist on data management, in Message The (2007), Laric slices up an old music video of Grandmaster Flash's classic "The Message" into its individual words, then rearranges the lyrics in alphabetical sequence. 50 50 (2007) compiles 50 YouTubers of various ages and resolutions, each singing part of 50 Cent's hit "In Da Club," while (>'.')>=O____l_*__O=<('.'<) (2008) uses thousands of tiny animated gifs to create an ultra-low-res illusion of cinematic movement, generating a barely discernible compilation of clips from a series of hip-hop music videos. Reminiscent of the ASCII movies of first-generation net artist Vuc Cosic (who rendered bits of big-screen classics like Battleship Potemkin and Deep Throat using only text) and the minimal LED animations of Jim Campbell, Laric's low-information video undercuts the ostentatiously high production values of its source materials.

Laric, who distributes his work for free online, has found a wide following both within new-media-savvy corners of the art world (aided by his influential blog VVORK, which provides a near-constant curatorial stream of witty single-image posts about contemporary artworks and exhibitions) and the meme-hungry distraction pool of the greater Web-surfing public. In a recent interview, he explained how his practice over time has shifted from making images to simply reusing what he can find on the Internet. "There is everything you can imagine," he writes, "sites like YouTube, or just on TV, or stock image sites, so there's not really any sense in producing anything, for me, right now. And I don't understand why few artists still use this material, and why so many still produce their own material, because I have a feeling there's just too much material produced....I would rather just find the ones that I can use."

While Laric's work feels particularly attuned to today's user-driven Internet, created from and for a fecund media ecology of overwhelmingly available materials, his appropriative strategies in fact have a deeper genealogy. The phenomenon of creating new moving-image works from found footage reaches back nearly a century. Laric's bling-generation Quicktime files can be seen as some of the latest examples in the history of creative recycling, a lineage of cameraless cinema that has long responded to and capitalized upon the ongoing evolution of visual technologies.

The earliest examples of the reuse of moving images occurred not so much in response to a surfeit of visual materials, but a desire to cut corners. The use of stock footage began in the first decade of the 20th century, when film had become a corporate enterprise: old footage was used to illustrate newsreels or provide cheap establishing shots in one-reeler narratives. In the primal days of Soviet cinema, kinoks recut leftovers out of necessity, with production equipment and new stock hard to come by. Lev Kuleshov's famous montage experiments employed expropriated reels from Russia's commercial film industry; using segments of pre-revolutionary actor Ivan Mozzhukin to illustrate what became known as the Kuleshov effect, he created what could be considered the first remixed movie. The political potential of reordering images from the czarist era was more fully explored by Esther Shub in the 1920s. Working for a Soviet film distribution agency, Shub spent her early career re-editing foreign films for distribution to Soviet audiences; as a precursor to today's YouTube shenanigans, Shub liked to take odd scraps home and edit together "film jokes" for her friends. Later, she discovered the home movies of Czar Nicholas II—shot by his private cinematographer—and reworked them in 1927 into a new pro-revolutionary film entitled The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty, her first in a series of similar archival endeavors.

Shub's strategy begat a strain of documentary filmmaking now known as the compilation film, in which the historical content of old footage is reused to tell a new story. Chronicled in Jay Leyda's 1964 study Films Beget Films, the compilation format lends itself to educational projects and, in the tradition of Shub's work, political argument and propaganda. Compilation filmmaking can be traced from Shub to Frank Capra's Why We Fight series of the 1940s, to Jayne Loader and Kevin Rafferty's rethinking of early nuclear America in The Atomic Cafe (1982), up through Adam Curtis's documentary essay series The Century of the Self (2002) and The Power of Nightmares (2004). Leyda notes that the compilation film can be linked to other forms of documentary through its "manipulation of actuality." He writes that "this manipulation, no matter what its motive—art, propaganda, instruction, advertisement—usually tries to hide itself so the spectator sees only ‘reality'—that is, the especially arranged reality that suits the filmmaker's purpose."

Around the time Shub started her documentary experiments, 20th century avant-garde artists likewise began using repurposed chunks of mass-produced ephemera. Picasso and Braque threw bits of newspaper into paintings; Max Ernst cut up Victorian illustrations to create proto-surrealist collages; Walter Benjamin, T. S. Eliot, and James Joyce pushed the literary practice of quotation into the realm of pastiche; Marcel Duchamp pioneered sculptural assemblage with his readymades; and photomontage blossomed in the graphic works of John Heartfield, Hannah Höch, and Alexander Rodchenko. These works rearranged reality to suit their artists' purposes but, unlike the compilation films, did not try to hide that manipulation. Whether Cubist, Dada, or Constructivist, these artists chose to disrupt the new realities of mass media rather than replicate them, savoring the illogic of dreamlike disjunctions and precipitating new ways to see all-too-common images.

In the 1930s, American artist Joseph Cornell brought this sensibility to experimental cinema with Rose Hobart (1936), a short film created out of a battered print of the 1931 jungle romance East of Borneo by using only the most strangely evocative moments in the movie, titling his work after the original film's lead actress. When he screened the film at a New York gallery, an enraged Salvador Dalí attempted to kick over the projector, later claiming that Cornell had stolen from his mind the very concept behind the film. Cornell, who also created photomontages and his now-famous "Cornell boxes" of found objects, continued to create curious celluloid assemblages for decades, but chose to screen them almost exclusively at home to friends and family.

During the explosion of experimental filmmaking in postwar America, Bruce Conner (who passed away on July 7) brought a Pop aesthetic to found footage, narrowing in on the junkier, more ephemeral elements of mass-media culture. Fascinated by the repeated use of stock sequences in coming attractions, newsreels, and Poverty Row productions, Conner created the stream-of-consciousness montage A Movie (1958) out of footage lifted from 16mm Castle Films compilations he purchased at a photography store. In William C. Wees's 1993 study Recycled Images, Conner says that television was another muse: "When you can switch from one channel to another. Also, watching TV without sound and adding your own selection of music and other sound." Conner's looping Kennedy assassination meditation, Report (1967), presaged the rise of structural filmmaking in the late '60s and '70s, and his music-driven found-footage films like Cosmic Ray (1961) deeply influenced the development of music videos in later decades. Despite vibrant and widespread experimental activity in the 1960s, Conner had only one notable contemporary working primarily in found-footage film: Canadian filmmaker Arthur Lipsett, whose own works of dreamlike quasi-continuity such as Very Nice, Very Nice (1961), 21-87 (1964), and Fluxes (1968) circle around themes of technology, war, and alienation, and inspired Hollywoodians Stanley Kubrick and George Lucas, who has included references to 21-87 in many of his films.

As the electronic image-making technologies of video production and broadcasting became available to artists via early public television residencies and the relatively inexpensive PortaPak camera system, a new wave of image recycling emerged. Stan van der Beek used channel switching to produce the multiscreen Panels for the Walls of the World, commissioned by CBS in 1962 as one of the first found-footage works to use live editing, a process later taken up by video art pioneer Nam June Paik, who mixed television footage of the Beatles and LBJ in a number of early videotape studies. In the 1970s, Dara Birnbaum used reel-to-reel analog video editing for astonishing works of high-speed television appropriation such as Technology/Transformation: Wonder Woman (1978-79) and Kiss the Girls: Make Them Cry (1979), which turned samples from the shows Wonder Woman and Hollywood Squares into audiovisual music with wry feminist overtones.

The advent of video also changed the way some artists looked at the medium of film. In the parlance of their era, Paik and Birnbaum worked in the Now, remixing live broadcasts and contemporary TV shows. But experimental filmmakers became increasingly drawn to the idea of film as a historical artifact: Ken Jacobs rendered a deep analysis of a few moments from a 1905 Biograph short in the 115-minute Tom, Tom the Piper's Son (1969), and Ernie Gehr revisited pre-quake San Francisco in his reprinted actuality Eureka (1974). In both works, the slowed-down contemplation of ancient footage has a time machine effect, drawing the viewer into mundane details of turn-of-the-century existence, examining bits of lost life trapped like flies in celluloid amber.

This historical self-consciousness continued into the next decade, when found footage appeared in many of the documentary-experimental hybrids known as essay films. Unlike the use of similar footage in compilation documentaries, the use of found footage in works like Yvonne Rainer's Journeys From Berlin/1971 (1980) affirms the historical status of its sources while adding a critical layer . "Such materials are neither fetishized nor passed along as neutral carriers of information," Paul Arthur observed in 1989. "Instead, they are prone to oppositional readings produced by visual juxtaposition, voiceover commentary, and other tactics."

Related critical maneuvers were employed in the Scratch Video movement of 1980s Britain, which used low-budget VCR tech to remix TV news and other images into hyperkinetic agitprop, eventually influencing pop culture via MTV and club visuals. A masterwork of this postpunk moment is the Duvet Brothers' Blue Monday (1984), which sets images from the Thatcher-era miners' strike to the tune by New Order, turning the forlorn synth-pop love song into a lament for a people's broken relationship with its government. An American approximation of this détournement style can be seen in the work of Craig Baldwin, who raids decades of 16mm educational and industrial films to create post-Situationist sci-fi features like Tribulation 99: Alien Anomalies Over America (1991) and Spectres of the Spectrum (1999).

The use of found footage in experimental cinema increased in the '70s and '80s, then exploded in the 1990s and into the current decade. Several decades of trashed infomercials, low-budget VHS releases, and junked 16mm slug created a rich treasure trove of raw materials for innumerable film and video artists. As the end of celluloid approaches, filmmakers like Gustav Deutsch and Luther Price are exploring the enigmatic decay of old film footage, while Martin Arnold and Peter Tscherkassky use found materials to expand the expressive possibilities of optical printing. More ironically drawn toward outmoded analog video equipment, the duo Animal Charm traffics in the Conner-esque realm of the strange and surreal, sussing baffling juxtapositions from the most mundane detritus of television culture. A more politically minded prankster, Bryan Boyce uses newer digital imaging tools to create visions of George W. Bush attacking Teletubby-land as an evil rising sun in State of the Union (2001) or news anchors spouting hair-raising lines from exploitation trailers in Special Report (1999). Sitting somewhere between these two styles but inflected with the serialism of Steve Reich, Kent Lambert's videos are elaborate mood pieces evoking moments of strange joy or dread; one of his most recent works, the masterful Hymn of Reckoning (2006) combines images from old computer games and Lost to create a carefully calculated age-of-terror mental maelstrom.

In contrast to the limited-edition model of gallery video art, Lambert early on aligned himself with an anti-copyright ethos, ending his videos with a note that his works were in the public domain, and setting up a website to exhibit them freely. In this sense, he overlaps with a younger generation of artists who emerged as Internet natives, engaged with sharing video as a social activity. Artists like Laric, Guthrie Lonergan, and John Michael Boling are now carrying on the traditions of found footage into the digital age, besting casual YouTube remixers with heady doses of sharp-witted media collage, from Lonergan's strangely chilling Artist Looking at Camera (2006) to Boling's ecstatic Body Magic (2006). 


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Ed Halter is an author, critic and curator whose writing has appeared in The Village Voice, Rhizome, The Believer and many other publications. He is former director of the New York Underground Film Festival and a founder of Light Industry, a new venue for film and electronic art in Brooklyn, New York.

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