Specters of the Spectrum (3 of 3 Part Installment)

  • Craig Baldwin
  • 2001

Psychoanalytical Guerilla Historical Revisionism in Craig Baldwin’s Cinema Povera Collage

Filmmaker Craig Baldwin is a hunter-gatherer of images, sounds and ideas. Embracing and celebrating satire and camp, his collage-essay films convey the sheer joy involved in the (re)construction: the exhumation of postwar educational and training films from their once rock-solid cultural contexts into feature-length satirical ammunition. A champion of film and video activism, Baldwin has helped transform San Francisco’s Mission District into a dynamic cultural hub for the genre. “Collage is the contemporary art,” states Baldwin. “It is the most definitive”. Yet it runs absolutely against copyright laws. “Collage artists take a tiny bit of something from your piece and put it together with a lot of other pieces too to make a distinct whole.” But if collage is a contemporary art, it has been around since Modernist artists such as Kurt Schwitters and Pablo Picasso. What makes it current is perhaps best explained by Greil Marcus: “When it works, all collage is a shock.”

A lifelong denizen of the Bay Area sub-cultural underground, Baldwin, 45, once lived in a projectionist booth above a porn cinema. It was in these unlikely surroundings that he had his cultural epiphany. From the scraps of film left lying around, Baldwin made Flick Skin, a Super-8 film. The formal qualities of the film surface — with its patched-together, hand processed X-rated film material — were made obvious to the viewer, to highlight the mechanics of film as a process in the service of an unjust economic system. So began a career concerned with the politics of the image, one in which humor and wit guided the choice of imagery into a carefully reworked mosaic. In Baldwin’s hands, the image is no longer what it initially represented, yet somehow it reveals a truer identity. Found footage is unmasked as an impostor, and made to perform roles for which it was never intended. As Guy Debord declared, any image can be made to invoke another meaning from the one it was intended to, even the opposite. In keeping with his “grab the footage and run” philosophy, Baldwin’s Stolen Movie was constructed by literally charging in to mainstream cinemas and stealing images off the screen by filming them on a Super-8 camera, then rapidly exiting through the rear door with the booty. Part guerrilla theatre, part performance art, this brand of media pranksterism was an act of deliberate provocation and the result of a politics of the everyday.

…in an era of ubiquitous digitization and image manipulation, the use of the relatively arcane film object as a field for artistic endeavor is rare

By dredging the depths of America’s media past, Baldwin develops an archeology of American ideology. The best place to exhume the corpses, it turns out, is the world of ephemeral films. These are the forgotten trailers, commercials, sponsored films and educational films that still transmit forgotten signals from the Cold War and the Space Race. Now cast adrift from their former contexts, these filmstrips still manage to reveal the disarming forcefulness of America’s once official culture, with its ubiquitously familiar, authoritarian and paternalistic voice-overs. In an era of ubiquitous digitization and image manipulation, the use of the relatively arcane film object as a field for artistic endeavor is rare. Cut, manipulated, edited, blown up, shrunk down, stretch printed, scratched and drawn on, the physicality of film is at the very core of found footage’s aesthetic appeal.

Baldwin, in his own words, is trying to “negotiate an alternative pathway toward some kind of understanding of American culture and cinema.” Cinema Povera means also a deliberate and consistent turning away from the offerings of the mainstream, looking instead at the scraps of the past, or the work of filmmakers themselves trying to negotiate a way out. Craig Baldwin’s found footage work is thus an extension of a whole culture: a culture of community and collaboration; of people gathering in scenes, unified, like the Beatniks of the past; of deliberate self exile from the mainstream and active opposition to it. Baldwin interprets everything. His cultural archeology combs the contemporary urban landscape as carefully as it does the detritus of the industrial era — the training film, the advertisement. This flurry of relentless activity makes the process of making found-footage films a natural extension of a lived, everyday aesthetic of foraging, collating, sifting, researching and playing with images, text, sound and selection. This is a culture of ancient movie projectors and bits of editing equipment which are lovingly maintained, of dark and damp basements with dim lights and leaking earthquake-damaged roofing. It is a culture of canned foods and cheap takeaway food. It is a world of moving images and sounds which are invoked, like ghosts from the grave of cultural history.

…the filmic variation on the great American collage tradition which includes Joseph Cornell, William Burroughs, Robert Nelson, Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg

In an increasingly electronically-mediated urban world, media archeology is the most appropriate kind of search for truth among the ruins. Baldwin’s collection is valuable not only as a repository of films whose subject matter has been filtered into his own work, but as a kind of snapshot of the filmic variation on the great American collage tradition which includes Joseph Cornell, William Burroughs, Robert Nelson, Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg. The picture plane in some of Robert Rauschenberg’s collages could look like some garbled conflation of control system and cityscape, suggesting the ceaseless inflow of urban message, stimulus and impediment. To hold all this together, Rauschenberg’s picture plane had to become a surface to which anything reachable-thinkable would adhere. It had to be whatever a billboard or dashboard is, and everything a projection screen is, with further affinities for anything that is flat and worked over-palimpsest, cancelled plate, trial blank, chart, map, aerial view. Any flat documentary surface that tabulates information is a relevant analogue of his picture plane — radically different from the transparent projection plane with its optical correspondence to man’s visual self. If some collage element, such as a pasted-down photograph, threatened to evoke the topical illusion of depth, the surface was casually stained or smeared with paint to recall its irreducible flatness. And it seemed at times that Rauschenberg’s collage surface stood for the mind itself — dump, reservoir, switching center, abundant with concrete images freely associated as in an internal monologue — the outward symbol of the mind as running transformer of the external world, constantly ingesting incoming unprocessed data to be mapped in an overcharged field.

Brecht’s epic theater is a theater that is in certain ways conscious of itself as a signifying practice, and that draws attention to its own means of production and processes of representation. This quality of self-reflexivity largely derives from the devices of distanciation or alienation by which the means of representation are foregrounded. This foregrounding of devices, however, is not so much designed to produce a sense of aesthetic ‘play’ as to offer the audience a place from which it can develop its own criticism of and judgment upon the actions represented. The individual episodes have to be knotted together in such a way that the knots are easily noticed, so to speak. This process of ‘noticing the knots’ or of foregrounding the means of representation has been a familiar one in modernist theory and practice since the time of the Cubists.

…the results of the most authentic creative processes are, as Debord observed, reduced to “self-parody”

Collage is a critical paradigm of the information age because it opens the range of possibilities through which we interpret information artifacts. Cut and paste enables semiotic construction that simultaneously leverages and detourns the means of production embodied by particular media elements. The recombination of genetic codes of meaning creates hybrid forms. Through these cross-currents, culture, and even knowledge, evolves. Ironically, the subversive method of detournement is also an engine of innovation. Innovation fuels capitalism’s ongoing expansion. In this way, the irony takes form through the inevitable appropriation of detourned expression as the economic production of signs. The intentions of the creators of such signs become immaterial, while their function as commodities materializes. Thus the results of the most authentic creative processes are, as Debord observed, reduced to “self-parody”.

Freud’s theory of the primal scene enables the project of the deconstruction of the subject to exist side by side with the historicist project of the reconstruction of the object. The primal scene ensures that the double operation of deconstituting the subject’s relation to language and reconstituting language’s relation to the object retains its necessary tension and complexity. The research back-boning Baldwin’s project may be of a particular kind, but, if so, it’s the best kind: that errant, excitable, semi-accidental rummaging which is guaranteed to kick the synapses into life. In solitary confinement before his color TV, the citizen is made a part of all that is happening on a planetary scale and impressed with his powerlessness to act on precisely that planetary scale. Closed in upon himself, the citizen is not the yeoman structure that creates the content of the Republic, but simply a photograph in a collage enormously larger than himself. This alludes to one of the more radical and persistent notions in Freud’s thought: the memory trace, not as an image of its object, but as a sign constituted by its coordination with other signs.

…the method of determining the primal scene through tropes and figures of a patient’s discourse remains useful in reading texts such as Baldwin’s Specters of the Spectrum

Freud saw primal scenes as originary traumas explaining adult neuroses. In “The Case of the Wolf Man,” the primal scene Freud inferred was that the patient, at the age of one-and-a-half, had seen his parents copulating. Unable to comprehend the scene, he interpreted it as a violent castration of the mother, and thus repressed the memory. Various rather interesting symptoms resulted from this repression. Freud believed that discovering this primal scene in the course of psychoanalytic therapy would lift the repression and resolve the patient’s neurotic symptoms. Discovery of the primal scene, however, was to be aided by the therapist, for the patient’s repression is such that he/she cannot consciously remember the scene. As Ned Lukacher in his redevelopment of the idea of the primal scene for literary analysis asserts concerning the notion of the primal scene, “Freud developed a theory of the unsaid and a technique for discovering the tropes and figures that determine the shape of a patient’s discourse but that the patient himself can never remember. The patient’s speech ‘remembers,’ while the patient himself remains oblivious and utterly resists all the analyst’s efforts to bring the ‘memory’ to consciousness.” While perhaps overstating the lack of awareness on the part of the patient, this description of the method of determining the primal scene through tropes and figures of a patient’s discourse remains useful in reading texts such as Baldwin’s Specters of the Spectrum with an ear to hearing its repressed primal scene. For Lukacher, the critic of a literary text plays a similar role with respect to the “patient-text”: “Interpretation is always a kind of listening or reading that enables one to translate one set of words into another. The voice of the text, like the voice of the patient, is a verbal mask that conceals forgotten words and the forgotten scenes they compose. In brief, the critic can read Baldwin’s discourse as a key to discovering his forgotten primal scene, or more accurately, his desire to invoke such impulses within the viewing audience. Lukacher redefines the notion of the primal scene as a trope for reading and understanding. In my use of the term it becomes an intertextual event that displaces the notion of the event from the ground of ontology, calling the event’s relation to the Real into question in an entirely new way. Rather than signifying the child’s observation of sexual intercourse, the primal scene comes to signify an ontologically undecidable intertextual event that is situated in the differentiated space between historical memory and imaginative construction, between archival verification and interpretive freeplay.

Thus, for Lukacher the actuality of the primal scene is irrelevant, a combination of historical memory and imaginative construction. Finding the “truth” of the primal scene, the “origin” of the symptoms, is endlessly deferred in texts. The same might be said towards Specters of the Spectrum. For the viewer, the interpretive role of interpreting the discourse of the film, of piecing together symptoms revealed in words, plot, and imagery, is an intertextual process of constructing a narrative about a primal scene. Lukacher sees the primal scene as “always the primal scene of words. At its most elemental the primal scene becomes the primal seine.” Yet it is important to ‘discover’ the primal scene for relevant texts, for “the primal scene is that without which the symptoms could not have developed.”

…Specters of the Spectrum testifies to a historicist image pursuing the opposite aim

According to Immanuel Kant: “consciousness in itself is not so much a representation, distinguishing a particular object, but really a form of representation in general.” The collage, the contemporary method of visual thinking, in which reality only becomes understandable when interpreted by human intelligence, is epitomized in Baldwin’s abbreviated model which is itself graspable by consciousness. Characteristic civil processes and substantive situations can, with the help of the collage principle, be re-experienced without the emergency-causing consequences that would accrue in actual life. Quite unlike the modernist collage, in which various fragments and materials of experience are laid bare, revealed as fissures, voids, irresolvable contradictions, irreconcilable particularizations, pure heterogeneity, Specters of the Spectrum testifies to a historicist image pursuing the opposite aim: that of synthesis, of the illusory creation of a unity and a totality which conceals its historical determination and conditioned particularity.

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