(We are very pleased to present a revised and expanded edition of this essay, which has been evolving online and in talks since at least 2007. Our interview with Rick Prelinger and Megan Shaw Prelinger may serve as a useful introduction. —ed.)
For those of us who fought to make borrowing legitimate, it might be time to declare victory and bring the troops home. More seriously, it might be time to think about where we are, or infinitely more interesting, where we might want to go.
What I want to do is try to explain why making work with preexisting materials is more interesting than making work with materials that seem newer. And at the same time, I want to look critically at some ways we think, and that I have thought, about appropriation. I’ll begin with my manifesto, which goes like this:
- Why add to the population of orphaned works?
- Don’t presume that new work improves on old
- Honor our ancestors by recycling their wisdom
- The ideology of originality is arrogant and wasteful
- Dregs are the sweetest drink
- And leftovers were spared for a reason
- Actors don’t get a fair shake the first time around, let’s give them another
- The pleasure of recognition warms us on cold nights and cools us in hot summers
- We approach the future by typically roundabout means
- We hope the future is listening, and the past hopes we are too
- What’s gone is irretrievable, but might also predict the future
- Access to what’s already happened is cheaper than access to what’s happening now
- Archives are justified by use
- Make a quilt not an advertisement
No one loves manifestos more than their writers, which means that they often require interpretation and maybe even translation into real-world language. So what I’m going to do is take my 14 points and expand them into ideas. Some of these might sound trendy, but I think they’re actually traditional—they’ve been in and around the culture for a long time.
1. Why add to the population of orphaned works?
This is meant to provoke, of course. I might as well have asked, “Why make new work while old work still exists?” That would be an argument for stasis, but I’m not seeking that—I’m seeking movement.
Authorship is at an apogee. More works are being made by more people in more places. We live in a tremendously media-rich society. Every year Americans throw away more text, sound, and image than most other nations ever create. We’re the world capital of ephemera, and much of it has no active custodial parent.
Since we cling to the absurdity that products of the intellect become property at the moment of their fixation into a physical medium, other odd creatures are born, including so-called orphaned works—which form a category of copyrighted works that someone still owns, even though that someone can’t be found.
There are millions of orphaned works out there floating in limbo. You can reproduce them or work with them if you like, but if the derivative work you make rises above a certain horizon of obscurity, you run the risk of being sued. We are trying to come up with a better set of rules, but it’s very difficult to change copyright law unless you run a studio or a record company. There are literally hundreds of thousands of great books we’d like to scan and put on the Net, but can’t because of their orphan status.
The real issue, of course, is that we need to convene and decide how deeply we want to connect culture and property. And when we’ve settled on a particular mix, we might think about whether it maximizes our freedom to speak, to learn, and to inquire—in short, whether it leads to the kind of world we’d want to live in. This will not be an easy conversation—it’s hardly even begun. But one way we can move towards more open cultural distribution and exchange is to make our own works as accessible as possible. We can do this by limiting restrictions on reuse to the absolute minimum, by using permissive licenses, like the Creative Commons licenses, that say “use me this way, it’s OK,” and by using copyright homeopathically rather than as a weapon of shock and awe.
There are too many works, and too many people making them. If cultural permaculture is our goal, we might think of finding thoughtful ways to re-present and recontextualize OLD works, while putting the brakes on runaway creation of NEW art.
2. Don’t presume that new work improves on old
We’re often too quick to imagine that we’ve actually learned from the past. But new works often tend to recycle the same ideas over and over again into different media. To me this suggests that we might be more open to letting old works speak, that our task might not be so much to make new works but to build new platforms for old works to speak from. This might mean that we weave using others’ threads, that we take positions as arrangers rather than as sculptors.
Collage often does this. In recent years we have construed collage largely as an assembly of small units—as the equivalent of words, syllables or even phonemes. But I’d suggest that collage might also work in larger units, as sentences, paragraphs, chapters, even entire books. This kind of collage works slowly and in stealth, and will ultimately affect the way that we contrast new and old works.
To claim that a mode of art production is new, or different, or avant-garde, or insurgent, implies opposition to or rejection of what’s come before. Many people have made such claims for appropriation. On the other hand the filmmaker Craig Baldwin has gifted us with what I think is a really important idea: that found footage filmmaking is really folk art practice, that its roots are as traditional as they come. Collage has migrated from traditional arts and crafts we associate with folk culture into the digital domain, often accelerating and fragmenting along the way. In other words, we don’t need novelty to justify our practice.
3. Honor our ancestors by recycling their wisdom
Take this with a grain of salt. I’m not good at ancestor worship and don’t know if I’d recognize wisdom when it’s in front of me. Recycling the so-called wisdom of the past can problematize the present and encourage people to ask harder questions. But recycling is at risk, and we need to think about how to save it. What we used to embrace as a leading avant-practice is devolving into mere style, into a kind of anti-glossiness that sells pop stars and blue jeans. The great appropriated works are disappearing into a haze of ambient experience.
How we can redeem recycling?
For one thing, we could aim towards keeping alive a genuine critique of the theory and mechanics of representation, not simply ritual deconstruction. Not another loopy piece that uses the tactic of making the familiar strange simply through repetition. Not simply aggressively edited machine-gun-style collages of mainstream news footage. We could come to terms with the question of whether we remix to make art, or make art to remix. In other words, is appropriation/recontextualization a strategic approach, or is it an end in itself?
Speaking as a filmmaker, I’ll admit we sometimes seek justification for remixing in media literacy. And one highly relevant critique of media literacy is that it turns potential critics of media into fans of media. Those of us who edit moving images know what this means, because editors are the ultimate cinephiles, or digivideophiles—we have a deeply emotional, almost erotic relationship with the material we edit, and this fetishism is on display to our viewers, no matter what their state of distraction may be.
This may argue for us to be more distant and less engaged with our material. Paradoxically, many of the new representational strategies that are open to us now as it gets easier to edit sounds and images allow us to make work that’s more hypnotic and less distanced than some of the clunkier work of the past. When I made my film Panorama Ephemera in 2004, I really went for distance. It was a slow and rather intellectual collage, speaking in paragraphs rather than phonemes. This was hard for people who expected something warmer, something “more edited.” In 2010, making Lives of Energy, I think I was much more indecisive—there are some sequences that engage a little more, and others that are quite minimalistic.
I also see a lot of our archival material, and found material in particular, used in contexts that are primarily ambient or experiential. By this I mean pretty unstructured, aleatory, chance-based sound/image/performance pieces, like scores that are written to accompany films without first looking at the films. Chance is a great strategy, but it’s no longer chance when it becomes routine.
So I don’t at all mean to criticize experimentation, but I think we need to experiment harder. Let’s ask more of ourselves rather than asking more of our software. And, while this is really hard when working with appropriated media, I’d suggest that we stop trying so hard to criticize existing media forms, and let them die by themselves. Instead, what might future forms look like? In other words, redeem recycling from a reactive mode and move it into a formative mode. Can we think about recycling as a point of origin?
If recycling continues to be more reactive than formative, I worry about its future. But to be optimistic, I think it’s deeply tied in with what future media is going to look like. But we’ll have to push it in that direction.
4. The ideology of originality is arrogant and wasteful
Many others have said this better than I can. It’s folly to make too much of originality. So much of what we make rests on work that’s come before. Let’s admit this and revel in it. Though it might make some people nervous, it actually cushions us in a genetic continuity of expression, and what could be more reassuring?
Unfortunately, art-as-property often relies on the idea of originality.
Several years ago, I went to a great lecture by Drew Daniel and Martin Schmidt from Matmos at the beautiful Hearst Mining Building. Drew laid out the history and promise of 1960s and 1970s conceptual art and talked about how it informed the work they do. One of the most provocative legacies of conceptual art was de-commodification—departing from object-oriented artmaking and from the tyranny of the art market. And yet it struck me that de-commodification had actually created its opposite. Conceptual works tended to exist primarily in their documentation, in physical traces of the work that had been created by someone so that the work would not disappear from consciousness. Documentation creates objects that are always someone’s property. The value of art documentation rests in whose work it documents and in who made the documents. We are therefore almost back where we started.
When you attend a performance, a demonstration or a happening, count the cameras and recorders. What’s the ratio of documentors to actors? Think of all the property that’s being created on the back of an event that may be nobody’s property, that may even be anti-property. Then think of identifying and unraveling those property rights forty years in the future.
5. Dregs are the sweetest drink
My partner Megan and I run a research library in San Francisco that we built around our personal book, periodical, and ephemera collections. At some point it got a life of its own and started growing like mushrooms in Mendocino. We joke about how it’s a library full of bad ideas; I characterize it as 98% false consciousness. It’s full of outdated information, extinct procedures, self-serving explanations, ideas that never passed the smell test, and lies. And yet that’s where you find the truth. You can’t judge the past at its best, you need to confront its imperfections. And of course that’s true for the present as well.
When I began to collect industrial films I was struck by how much of the history of working people was contained in films made by corporations. In order to extract it you’ve got to engage in selective appropriation, but it’s there, often eloquently so. There’s a 1936 film called Master Hands which you can download from the Internet Archive; it’s a tribute to mass production at Chevrolet. But what it really shows is how elemental, dangerous and mind-numbing the work at Flint was. It’s a film no one else seems to have, and it’s now on the National Film Registry, but it was dregs—on a cold day in 1983, I paid a man not to throw it away.
Research is now indicating that kids who grow up on farms have fewer allergies later in life. The hypothesis is that exposure to manure immunizes them early on. City kids miss out. I hope you’ll all come visit the library, get your own dose of bad ideas and build up your immune system.
6. And leftovers were spared for a reason
Leftovers exist for lots of reasons, but my favorite reason is that they’re our raw material for performing operations on history. Whether it’s an individual filtering their family’s reality through a scrapbook or a marcher carrying a picture of a prisoner at Abu Ghraib, people use what’s left to us as leverage to document history or even change it.
It’s a short leap from thinking about the remains of a meal to thinking more broadly about ephemeral culture and what it embodies: evidence of lost places and dead people, obsolete persuasions, formerly energized vectors that hang in limbo like broken webs.
Meanwhile, more and more people choose to interrogate ephemeral evidence while letting the work of scholars fend for itself. While the original document may itself not be authentic, returning to the document invests the search with authenticity.
A couple of years ago I was walking down the street with a professor who was telling me how she’d tried to get her Cinema Studies students interested in archives, but they didn’t care. I asked why, and she said “I guess they felt archives were the end of it all, the place where films go to die.” This was a big a-ha moment for me, because I realized we’d all got things completely backwards. I thought, what if we reconceive the archive as a point of origin, as a birthplace for new works and a rebirthing venue for old works? If we think of the archive as an incubation point, suddenly a cloak of bad ideas starts to slip away.
Archives promise the possibility of a return to original, unmediated documents. I think this is part of their attraction to artists—the idea that we can touch and appropriate records without also having to inherit the corrupting crust that they’ve accreted over time. This is an Edenic fantasy, but it can also be a productive point of origin.
7. Actors don’t get a fair shake the first time around, let’s give them another
I don’t know much about actors, really, and I’m not going to take you through the “long tail” argument. But I think that reincarnation through reuse helps weave works and makers into a denser quilt, and confers importance, recognition, and respect. Does it bring the makers money? It often does, and there are all sorts of experimental models out there. We ourselves make more money selling stock footage since we put the same footage online for free downloading.
Ubiquity raises value. Culture is an infinitely renewable resource. Does the value of “Stairway to Heaven” suffer because somewhere in America, someone’s playing it on the radio every thirty seconds?
Perhaps we’ll never know whether models of plenty beat out models of scarcity, but we may learn something as we experiment along the way and give actors a fairer shake.
8. The pleasure of recognition warms us on cold nights and cools us in hot summers
We add meaning to culture by remixing it. Putting something in a new context helps you see it with new eyes; it’s like bringing your partner home to the parents for the first time, or letting a dog loose to run in the waves.
We also infuse culture with new pleasure. When the maker who calls him or herself Otto Nomous made the short video The Fellowship of the Ring of Free Trade, he or she sought to decode the hidden prophecies contained in The Lord of the Rings and prove that it was an anarchist parable relevant to the present day. This video reveals the decoded dialogues through witty subtitles set in an Elvish typestyle. It is delightful and you can easily find it online.
Remixing is estrangement in the way the classic writers like Viktor Shklovsky and Bertolt Brecht described it. And yet the raw material remains familiar and recognizable. It’s at once a subversive and reassuring process. Some writers, like John Updike and not like Jonathan Lethem, fear the emerging mashed-up book. And some archivists fear that records will lose context, meaning, and intention when they’re remixed. There are continuing controversies, if you can believe it, over who should have access to archival records and how records should be used.
They hope their texts won’t be scrambled or altered, that they’ll always retain the same identity and continuity, and follow the same course. But rivers, like information, route around obstacles, and riverbends are where adventures happen. And I’m uncomfortable with the discourse of loss that inflects much contemporary commentary on remixing. It seems to me to be as much about loss of contiguity—the destabilization of historical and artistic connections—as it is about corruption of the original work, or creators’ rights. Mortar is just as historical as bricks, and it’s up to each generation to re-interpret and re-sort the cultural legacy that’s left to them.
9. We approach the future by typically roundabout means
It’s said that storytelling is hardwired into our brains—that we respond most deeply and emotionally to storylines, characters, and narrative arcs. You hear this from everyone, from folklorists to cable TV programming executives. You can’t drive a project through the distribution system if it lacks certain compulsory elements. You can, of course, employ traditional elements in novel and dramatic ways: this may win you awards.
Though I agree that stories wield power, I think this power is arbitrary. We believe in storytelling because we’ve internalized the consensus that causes us to believe in it. There is no reason for this consensus not to change as the world evolves. Storytelling as we know it is not an absolute, and it may slow the courses of culture and history. We value storytelling for its ability to wrap new skins on old skeletons, but even bones don’t last forever.
I say this because I believe we’ve hardly begun to imagine what we can do with what’s already been done. Lots of art is stuck in the same grooves. Most documentary films re-skin the same tired tropes. The Millennium Trilogy recapitulates the same old narratives of rescue and victimization. And TV networks don’t like to air black-and-white footage unless it’s part of one of those eternally black-and-white narratives like World War II and the Great Depression.
This is where DIY cultural activity can route around the aging vernaculars of mainstream entertainment. DIY culture, maker culture might point us towards long-awaited goals: peer-based rather than industrialized production, decentralized creativity, constant transgressive codeswitching and codeswapping. We’ve come part of the way.
What excites me about DIY culture is that it’s about craft and community, and very little about art. Or at least it doesn’t aspire toward the art market. It typically happens on a local level or within an affinity group, and seeks to intervene in the same place in which it’s born. And it raises a key question: just because we now have the capability and the tools to make mass media or high art, should that be our highest goal?
The rewards from working within particular communities often outweigh the actual benefits of mass distribution.
10. We hope the future is listening, and the past hopes we are too
It may be vain to hope that our works survive into the future and will be seen and listened to, but still we hope so. If we want to encourage those not yet born to think historically, we need to begin by thinking historically ourselves. This inevitably pushes us into the territory of preexisting materials, where everything carries a timestamp, even if we choose not to reproduce it.
This means passing up the opportunity to fetishize the new if it would lead us into eternalizing the present. Because things won’t always be as they seem to be today. Who would have thought polar ice caps would melt so quickly? Who could have predicted that honeybee populations would shrink? Who foresaw the breakup of the Soviet Union? And who among us recognizes that the 50 United States will grow to more or shrink to less than 50 as time passes?
When we inject history into contemporary experience, we are making an historical intervention, which can have dramatic consequences—if we listen.
This is one of the strongest arguments for the existence of archives, and an even stronger one for extremely expansive archival access. This is why we’ve put ephemeral films online and why we’re now scanning books, most of which weren’t written by famous authors.
11. What’s gone is irretrievable, but might also predict the future
For 20 years I collected old educational and industrial films. They were made to instruct and socialize young people with the objective of turning them into dependable workers, good citizens, and avid consumers. 1980s audiences became fascinated with these films and a cult following developed.
I was psyched to see this happen, but became disenchanted with what to me seemed like superficial and ahistorical reactions to the films. For many people, they triggered regressive nostalgic reactions. Others treated them as surreal documents, as bizarre oddities, as the stuff of long-gone conspiracies to manufacture consensus. The style of the films—old color, stentorian narration, outdated dress and idioms—often trampled over their evidentiary value. Something seemed to be missing.
The breakthrough for me was to realize that these films didn’t just describe a lost past, but might also be tracing the contours of possible futures. In other words, we could see them not simply as antiquated, but as predictive. And this has in fact come true. Many of today’s suburban children live the walled-in lives of their 1950s counterparts. Corporate and government interests are conflated. We cycle through new iterations of fear—communism, terrorism, socialism, deflation, secessionism, generational divides.
We can’t go back to the world of the past, but sometimes the past overtakes us.
12. Access to what’s already happened may be easier than access to what’s happening now
Sidewalk sales, dumpsters, library discard carts, Craigslist, your grandmother’s attic—all contain masses of content just waiting to be cut up and reassembled. Every city has an outsider archivist who’s rescued some important collection of something from a landfill and may be looking for collaborators. The past lies ready to be remade.
Yes, you can remix the present and upload it to YouTube, but they can take it down and they will, if you use content that someone else owns. The emerging digital media use electronic locks to inhibit reuse, and what you download on Saturday may vanish from your hard disk on Monday. We are beginning to turn fair use into a legal right rather than a legal defense, but we haven’t yet won.
While not shrinking from remixing the present, let’s enjoy the freedom that comes with working with public domain material. The public domain is the coolest neighborhood on the frontier. Use it or lose it. But to use it we need better access to archives.
13. Archives are justified by use
Access to archives should be an entitlement. You shouldn’t have to go to YouTube to find material to cut up.
This might seem obvious to you and me, but it doesn’t really work that way in the archival world. Until recently (and I generalize), archives focused more on preserving records than on providing access to them. The typical archival user used to be an author, a scholar, an historical researcher. As archives have gone mainstream, and the public knocks on the doors, archives have had a really difficult time reengineering themselves and their culture to meet the vastly increased demand for their holdings.
We have a wonderful infrastructure of public, private, and personal archives in the world, but we have very little guarantee that we can see, hear, or touch what we need to, now or in the future. Public libraries have an ethic of access and a tradition of openness. Archives don’t have that yet, and we don’t have a strategy to move in that direction. Nor do we have a culture of risk-taking. Exaggerated ideas of the financial value of archives also keep many cultural collections locked down. But it takes a really special case to turn an archives into a money machine. It may often be cheaper to give away digital copies than it is to build a business to sell them.
If archives don’t open their doors, and if they don’t find ways to act like cultural producers and push their holdings out to the public for people to experience and work with, they face a very uncertain future. In fact, they face obsolescence. I think this is already happening in our world, the world of media archives.
Which brings us again to YouTube. In addition to generating lawsuits and refocusing mass culture onto a shrunken, fuzzy screen, it’s raised critical issues for archives. Media archives have tried to join the 21st century by putting little bits and pieces online. They face such opposition internally and from copyright holders that they’ve had to take baby steps. Now YouTube has raised public expectations, and it’s hard to see how any institution can meet them. Since 2005, YouTube has built an easy-to-access online collection of hundreds of million videos that I’d argue has become the world’s default media archives. Everything anyone does to bring archives online is now going to be measured against YouTube’s ambiguous legacy. It presents a massive collection of older and newer material, from video of Malcolm X’s complete speeches to clips of the moose I saw wandering in front yards in Anchorage. It sticks to preview mode, presenting visually degraded Flash video, so it will still get sued, but most rightsholders will rightfully regard what it does as promotion. Best of all, it allows users to upload almost anything and annotate with relative freedom. It is not an archives, but it’s outclassed archives at their own game.
In order for archives to survive while the YouTubes rule, they need to be used. And it is up to us to use the amazing things that they hold.
Younger people, who form the vast majority of mediamakers, have already given up on legacy archives. They know they can’t get material from old-school repositories, and have routed around them. They’ll get sounds and images from filesharing sites and YouTube, regardless of who thinks they own them. Do copyright maximalists really think they’re going to retrain an entire generation to ask permission?
We’re seeing a huge upsurge in DIY culture and activity. Our library is itself inspired by oldskool punk culture, which encouraged and empowered people to take up the tools around them and just do it. There are many tendrils that lead back to a set of common assumptions: maker culture, citizen science, hacking consumer products and technology, urban agriculture, blogging as journalism—you’ll know others. For archives and for makers, the field is wide open for experimentation, and we will all gain if we are open to unconventional ways of pushing our works out to audiences that we might not even have known existed.
Scholars outsourced the responsibility of collecting research and documentation to librarians and archivists. But I like entomologists, folklorists, who collect their own. We can all be DIY archivists. There are many opportunities. Here are a few points of departure, some directions to think about. These are bodies of cultural material that no one is doing anything, or at least enough, to collect in an archival way.
Points of departure (samples only)
- zines & independent pubs
- home movies and home videos
- online videos (I estimate close to a billion on YouTube alone)
- curated collections of webpages (esp. personal profiles)
- local seeds (let 1000 Svalbards bloom)
- text messages, IMs, email
- TV commercials
- government radio communications
- records of nature/culture interaction
- Flickr and other photo-sharing services
- self-help books
- 1840-present drugs & supplements packaging
- local and community arts documentation
- your own personal records
14. Make a quilt not an advertisement
Quilting is an early form of sampling. A patchwork quilt combines preexisting fabric from many sources. Quilting relies on what geeks call interoperability—the ability of elements to fit into a matrix and function together. That’s what makes the Internet work—machines and networks can talk with one another and freely exchange bits.
Interoperability requires openness. But today openness is threatened in many ways. While some companies have built business models around openness, many others haven’t. Facebook is building an entire Internet of its own behind a steep wall. Apple has taken data out of open browsers and stashed it within apps reachable only through its own hardware. Many ebook formats don’t interoperate. You can’t weave a media quilt with squares that won’t fit together. If we’re to build networked books and videos, freely cite the work of others, and merge past and present, we need to make sure that openness is at the core of all of our activities. Cultural material needs to be shared and distributed as freely as the law allows.
But above all quilting is folk art, not corporate expression. It’s about turning leftovers into something that’s both transcendent and useful. It doesn’t have selling at its core.
Furthermore, a quilt isn’t a depopulated matrix. The squares come together to keep the bed clean and the sleeper warm. A quilt isn’t just a proof of concept. I would actually be delighted if we collectively decided to move beyond proving concepts and instead brought concepts to life. If architects aren’t backed by capital, they build conceptual buildings, castles in the air. Feature filmmakers usually wait for the money before they shoot. But those of us who work in cheaper media don’t just have to point to contradictions or question systems of power—we can make actionable work.
Culture, like water, small animals, and seeds in the wind, is hard to enclose. But culture is also fragile. If we start to run into involuntary limits on our mobility, our metabolism, and our freedom to consume, it will be interesting to see what forms of cultural activity survive.
Make a quilt, not an advertisement.