CRAIG BALDWIN: Prank doc maker, activist and media archeologist
This past summer I found myself somewhere in the Balkans sharing a lunch with five top European film festival artistic directors and programmers. The group was throwing around the names of various doc royalty in need of a lifetime achievement award before old age might take them from our midst. Of the five, one Spanish director ticked off a list of deserving masters who had already responded that they would be unable to attend his popular event. He needed ideas. Out of the blue, it suddenly occurred to me to suggest my good friend, San Francisco’s experimental collage master, Craig Baldwin. The artistic director’s mouth dropped open. “You knew Craig Baldwin?” “What do you mean ‘knew’?” I replied. “I know Craig Baldwin.” He shook his head. “No, it’s not possible. Craig Baldwin’s a legend. He can’t be alive.”
San Francisco Bay Area prank doc maker, activist and media archeologist Baldwin is very much alive, having just turned sixty this past year. Radical fusions of discarded industrial films, scratched science fiction potboilers and ancient TV kinescopes are the stuff of Baldwin’s epic alternative histories, which satirically indict governments and corporations. Considered to be one of the secret heroes of underground cinema, he is the subject and recipient of numerous articles, retrospectives, awards and dissertations. Baldwin first began playing with Super-8 as a young boy, cutting up mail-order Hollywood films to find unexpected meanings.
Following stints at a few California universities, he set about crafting his assemblages before moving onto the dense and complicated features that tore apart the definition of non-fiction filmmaking. His 1992 Tribulation 99: Alien Anomalies Under America is a 48-minute masterpiece of re-purposed material that utilizes darkly absurd voice-over to interrogate a half-century of US foreign policy. His quasi non-fictional Specters of the Spectrum (1999) and Mock Up On Mu (2008) are punctuated by elliptical bursts of free form cut and paste that are often demanding, incendiary and poetic.
Apart from creative endeavors, Craig Baldwin is also a publisher and curator. His weekly Other Cinema shows at the San Francisco Artists’ Television Access gallery (ATA) are a highly influential salon of underground experimental documentary, performance and music. I spoke to Baldwin in the ATA basement, the cramped studio where Craig is toiling over a new film.
Like his work, words and ideas poured forth in jagged bursts as he jumped from topic to topic:
– How would you classify your work?
– Essay. Hybrid essay. I’m not rejecting fiction, but rather trying to use fiction for my own ends. In other words, a critique about history, about language, about power. Rather than going out and recording real world instances of abuses of power, I might take material from the archive, be it fiction or non-fiction. To use something that is fanciful and arty to actually make a comment on a real world situation. But the actual imagery does not necessarily have to come from documentary. Though it could. Dziga Vertov’s name will probably come up sooner or later, and his idea of newsreel … like an exploded newsreel. It’s not just reportage. It’s like Vertov in that it draws upon multiple sources. It’s generally about opening a field of ideas, not exactly philosophical ideas, but attitudes and ideological forces and conversations that are embedded within popular imagery.
– But do you consider yourself a documentary filmmaker?
– I don’t. But again, that begs the question what a documentary is. I certainly think you can call my work nonfiction. Almost all of it. But there are narratives in it and, of course, there are narratives in real life. And there are narratives in documentary. I am not an orthodox documentary filmmaker, that’s for sure. And I am less interested in a “record” and certainly I have nothing to do with objectivity and certainly can’t consider myself a journalist. However, I am interested in using artifacts from our shared culture to talk about real world issues. I’m not a doc maker in the classical sense, but I attain some of the same ends of doc making. That is, I get the history out, many alternative histories, by the way. I actually feel more comfortable with the word historian than documentarian. I’m an alternative historian.
– That’s also that dreaded phrase “experimental documentarian”.
– I love personal documentaries but I don’t make them. I do make experimental documentaries. They are personal to the degree that my nervous system shows through them in the music I use and the way I cut and paste. I like this idea of talking
about history but not having to abide by the conventional documentary form protocols.
– For example, my films have never really done well in documentary festivals. Though they probably have gotten in as a sidebar just as I am getting in the DOX magazine now. We can have a better idea of what documentary is if we see what the edges are. There’s this great metaphor that’s also in my ‘Other Cinema’ logo. With the naked eye no one can see the noonday sun or the corona of the sun. You can only see the corona when there is an eclipse, then the brightness of the sun is occluded and you can finally see that crown or the ring around the sun. We get a better sense of the figure by seeing the margin, the periphery that defines it.
– How do you see the progression of your work?
– A central theme in my work is this critique of consolidation of power over autonomy. Telling particular stories about the struggle of independent-minded groups of people against institutions of power. When I was coming out of school, I was very interested in experimental filmmakers like Bruce Conner, like Robert Nelson and Paul Sharits. I was interested in the materiality of film and how meanings and images come to be chained together, the negotiation of meaning, semiotics if you will.
– You mentioned the famed collage artist and filmmaker Bruce Conner. As your teacher at San Francisco State, how much did he influence your work?
– It really wasn’t his role as a teacher that had much use. It was the effect of Conner. Anyone who comes to San Francisco who knows anything about Beat filmmaking, assemblage or West Coast funk art can appreciate that sensibility. It was his film about JFK, his Report (1967), which is my very favorite Corner film – that was the golden road for me. The Conner idea of taking very little and yet being able to mean so much more through repetition, through structuring, through black leader, through looping, through juxtaposition. A formalization of the material, a self-consciousness and an ability to look AT it, not through it. That’s what Conner really taught me. Because of the pop consciousness of Conner, I felt that I could dive in into this trash culture, these pop images. I could put it back together in a new way and it actually would have the force of a hammer and it could make a difference in the real world.
– And yet I find a lot of your work especially your more recent Mock Up on Mu weirdly funny and wildly entertaining.
– Well, here in California we’re close to pop culture, to Hollywood and visual culture generally. I embrace it. I do not necessarily reject it. Warhol absolutely and utterly changed my life. What we learned from Warhol will not be unlearned. It definitely is part of every stroke every filmmaker makes from now on. Rauschenberg is an even better example: an avant-garde artist using these beautiful primary colors and always making allowances for pleasure. I certainly am someone who’s interested in form but I am not going to give up the idea of pleasure or humor.
We want to talk about the role of film in protest – so we ask if Baldwin as an activist sees documentary playing a role in this:
– Well, Tribulation 99 was all about the end of the world and I certainly am very pessimistic. The stakes are high now and contradictions are sharpened. That became clearer with the Occupy movement. But a year later, its legacy is threatened. And how about South Africa? Look at all the films shown here about South Africa in the 1980s. That was a huge issue. No one even talks about that now. I would say what is happening now is a crisis of agency. People are losing their ability to make a difference. They seem to be drowning in a sea of digital devices.
– So you don’t think these technological advances equal some kind of progressive change?
– Look, the corporations are still in control of the internet. You don’t even have a guttersnipe, fly-in-the-ointment, Mark Twain style of press. Yes, you got a bunch of people on the ground twitting away. That’s fine. But the media establishment seems more consolidated now. For the most part, I think it’s a consolidation in the hands of fewer and fewer people.
– So YouTube isn’t enough?
– You’re just trying to provoke me! No, certainly it isn’t. Youtube is a resource, sure, but for activating viewers, I prefer the micro-cinema. That’s a big part of my life – not just as a documentary filmmaker but also as a documentary curator.
– You curate a weekly microcinema, the Other Cinema, in San Francisco – it’s a truly innovative experimental cinema.
– Going back to the punk rock days, there were plenty of artists who were not getting shown by the fine arts venues. The idea of what was supposed to happen in a gallery had become resistant and hardened to what was happening in the sub-culture. I saw this tremendous amount of energy and ideas in the underground. Other Cinema shows works of art, that’s for sure, but it’s less about the idea of a canon. It’s more about vitality, curiosity and ingenuity and less about polish or status in the art world. I mean, with YouTube you can make a comment and that’s fine, but with the microcinema you are right there standing next to the artist. So it moves beyond the work itself into this authentic exchange of ideas.
There’s already some word on what Baldwin is working on next. Like a feature that celebrates novelist William Burroughs and French theorist Guy Debord. Baldwin comments:
– Have you ever been to Syracuse University? They have a huge mural of Sacco and Vanzetti. It’s made out of little tiny things – seashells, pieces of glass. I love that idea of mosaic, of sculptural collage. We have examples of collage in film, not only a Bruce Conner or a Craig Baldwin, but in literature too. Both Burroughs and Debord got past the egotistical, monolithic idea that they are the sole origin of their writing. They’re more about quotation and fragments from the field of culture. I thought about the two pieces of literature that made the most difference in my life – Burrough’s Naked Lunch and Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle. Not only do I admire the drama and intensity, the real-life color of these two figures, but also how they resonate as icons who championed literary sampling and citation through the late 20th century.
– The fact that they lived in the same Paris neighborhood at the same period in the 1950s is too good to be true. Did they ever meet? I don’t know. But I want to create a conversation between them that would advance the argument about the political uses of collage or new forms of cinema or literature. A synthetic discussion actually using their real words. So an argument about collage enacted through collage. Something political and revolutionary but not about Molotov cocktails. It’s at the level of ideas, which are invisible. Ideas can’t easily be brought down, reified. That is the central problem of the essay film.