Friday, April 24, 2009


The esteemed archivist and champion of artistic re-use Rick Prelinger came and gave a talk here a couple months back. If you don't already know about the Prelinger Archives, check it out. Prelinger and his people collect and save and offer for free public use more than 60,000 (and growing) archival films, from advertisements to instructional films to public service announcements. The reels of vintage television commercials are totally absorbing.

Next time I go to San Francisco I am excited to visit this place in person.

Here's my notes from the PowerPoint presentation Rick gave.


1. Why add to the population of orphaned works?
"We're in the world capital of ephemera," says Prelinger. And: "We cling to the absurd idea that products of our mind become property the instant they're born."
2. We assume the new is better than the old.
3. Honor our ancestors by recycling their wisdom.
"I don't like eternalizing the present," he says, because we don't know now what will be meaningful later.

4. The ideology of originality is arrogant and wasteful.
And here he inserts a graphic of the hydrologic cycle.
5. Dregs are the sweetest drink

6. And leftovers were spared for a reason.
The library he runs is "a library filled with bad ideas... I like to joke that it's 98 percent false consciousness." And this is important, he says: "You can't judge the past only at its best--you need to confront the contradictions" and what didn't work. He compares it to the finding that farm kids suffer fewer allergies, possibly due their exposure to manure and dirt, and that rooting around in the archive can have a similar effect, building up your immunity to bad ideas.

7. Actors don't get a fair shake the first time around, let's give them another.
What he calls "reincarnation through reuse." He says: "We should use copyright homeopathically, not as a tool of shock and awe." (That's right, U2. Leave Negativland alone.)

8. The pleasure of recognition warms us on cold nights and cools us in hot summers.
"Rivers are like information--they route around obstacles, and rivers are most exciting at their bends."

9. We reach the future by typically roundabout means.
"Storytelling as we know it is not an absolute." Rather, we're conditioned to favor a particular kind of storytelling, character-based with a certain narrative arc that in documentaries in particular depends on a predictable formula of character with a problem --> character surmounts problem in second half. "We value it for wrapping new skins on old skeletons." And the dominance of this template is "tyrannical."

10. We hope the future is listening, and the past hopes we are too.

11. What's gone is irretrievable, but it might also predict the future.
This was the part that really stuck with me. Here he talked about those old films from the 1950s that are about behavior and manufacturing etc. and how there was a wave of fascination and interest in them in the '80s (and into the '90s too, judging from my own college experience.)

The problem, he says, is that people tended to see these old filmstrips as purely funny or kitschy, or be caught up with the style, the color, the voice, the funny rigidity of the mannerisms. But, he urges, "Don't see them as antiquated but as predictive"--and points out with frightening accuracy that all those movies of perfect controlled schoolchildren in the 1950s did not actually reflect the free-roaming ways of kids then, but in fact looks a lot more like today's suburban children, who are far more restricted and controlled in their movements than children anytime in the 20th century.

12. Access to what's already happened may be easier to get than access to to what's happening now.

13. Use justifies archives.

14. Make a quilt, not an advertisement.
"Quilting is an early form of sampling."

Here's a sample from the archives: "Are You Popular?" (1948), "a scream and a sobering document of postwar conformity" (and it features an actress named Bunny Catcher!)

• "Perversion for Profit" (1965), produced by Citizens for Decent Literature

No comments: