The Spectres of Craig Baldwin

A recent celebration of the American filmmaker provided a rare opportunity to come face-to-face with a major figure of underground cinema

Why Craig Baldwin’s contributions to cinema continue to be undervalued – at least outside of specialist film circles – is a mystery. It’s one as stubborn as who actually murdered John F. Kennedy, why the crew of the Mary Celeste vanished or for what purpose Stonehenge was built. Which, as colossal overstatements go, I’d argue is perfectly appropriate, given that the veteran Bay Area filmmaker began exploring the paranoid American imaginary in his work decades ago, back in the days when – imagine! – it was unacceptable to argue in public that the Earth was flat or that high school shootings were ‘false flag’ conspiracies of the deep state. Not only that: Baldwin saw today’s debates around creative copyright hurtling down the pike long before social media bit artists, filmmakers and musicians on the backside, and he was exploring the impact of broadcast technology and the internet on human consciousness when most of us still thought an email address looked like something the cat might accidentally type when it sat on your keyboard. 

In New York earlier this month, a week-long celebration of Baldwin’s work failed to provide any answers about dead US presidents, although the assassinations of both Kennedy and William McKinley were covered in the screenings. It did, however, give the East Coast a rare opportunity to come face-to-face with this major West Coast figure of American underground cinema. Two events at UnionDocs Center for Documentary Art showcased Baldwin’s activities as the impresario of Other Cinema, the influential film programme that has run in San Francisco’s Mission District since the late 1980s – a miracle of survival in a city twice-over asphyxiated by tech money. Metrograph cinema in Manhattan presented a selection of Baldwin’s shorts, along with his three feature films: Sonic Outlaws (1995), Spectres of the Spectrum (1999) and Mock-Up on Mu (2008). The programme also included Baldwin’s classic ‘pseudo-documentary’ Tribulation 99: Alien Anomalies Under America (1991). Made using found footage from newsreels, sci-fi B-movies and anthropology films, all strung together with a manic voice-over – ‘REPORTED BY BALDWIN’, as the opening credits state – Tribulation 99 is a sharp critique of US political intervention in Latin America smuggled inside a witty parody of the conspiracy theories that have come to infect public discourse today. (It begins by claiming that an alien race, called the Quetzals, has been influencing world events from secret cities buried deep inside the Earth and runs wild from there.) Over at Light Industry in Brooklyn, Baldwin delivered an inspiring and chaotic artist talk titled ‘Industrials, Orphans and Essays: Archival Anomalies from Baldwin’s Frisco Basement’, dedicated to fellow filmmaker Barbara Hammer. The event provided further glimpses into his work with found footage – ‘orphan films’, as he calls them – and of the artists who have come into the orbit of Other Cinema to join Baldwin’s fight against ‘consensus reality and the sterility of museum culture’.

Craig Baldwin, Mock-Up on Mu, 2005. Courtesy: the artist

Craig Baldwin, Mock-Up on Mu, 2005. Courtesy: the artist

The use of the word ‘museum’ here is notable, given the filmmaker’s description of himself as a ‘folk archivist’, part of a network of collectors across the world who have dedicated themselves to preserving film marginalia: industrial shorts made for corporations, manufacturers or government agencies; educational videos for schools and colleges; amateur home movies; public information films; political and religious propaganda; animations and exploitation movies whose creators have long-since vanished. Baldwin’s personal collection of some 4,000 reels of film, kept in the basement of Other Cinema’s home at the non-profit venue Artist Television Access (ATA), has provided source material for his shorts and features. It also exists as an invaluable record of film culture in its expanded sense. Film made not for public entertainment and profit but for practical applications, private expression or the representation of fringe beliefs. His reels at ATA – towering stacks of canisters that look as if they might topple over at any moment – are symbolic pillars of opposition to the growth of corporate-owned image collections seeking to exert an increasingly profitable and monopolistic control over visual culture.

Baldwin argues that the footage he conscripts into his ‘cinema povera’ – proudly handmade and intimate – constitutes fair use and belongs to the tradition of satire, political commentary and ‘culture jamming’ that he explored in Sonic Outlaws. This documentary – relatively conventional in style for Baldwin – centres on Bay Area band Negativland, whose work drew heavily on sampling technology to critique subjects including the media, intellectual property, religion, gun rights, corporate power and free-speech laws. (Infamously, Negativland ran into legal trouble with Island Records in 1991, when they released their EP U2: a parody of the Irish band’s 1987 song ‘I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For’ fused with tapes they had obtained of an expletive-laden rant by the clean-cut American Top 40 presenter Casey Kasem.) 

In the electrifying Spectres of the Spectrum, Baldwin takes his media archaeology to deeper strata. Part found-footage documentary, part live-action science-fiction narrative, Spectres of the Spectrum follows Yogi and Boo Boo, a father and daughter who operate a pirate television station in a post-apocalypse USA, broadcasting to an underground resistance network. Boo Boo (played by artist and writer Caroline Koebel), attempts to decipher a secret message planted for her in a popular 1950s television science show by her grandmother, the real-life figure of scientist Amy Hacker. As Boo Boo’s mission unfolds, Baldwin collages found footage to tell the peculiar history of electricity, radio, television, new-age religion and various attempts by business and government to establish hegemony over the airwaves. (The story is openly indebted to the 1998 book Techgnosis written by Erik Davis, who makes a cameo in the film.)

Craig Baldwin in Cans

The influence of Baldwin’s teacher, the artist and filmmaker Bruce Conner, is clear in Spectres of the Spectrum and many of his other works – particularly in the atmosphere he conjures of Cold War-era anxiety. Baldwin also has a keen feel for pop music’s emotional power and a fondness for satirizing the stiff mannerisms of the industrial and educational films he repurposes, whilst drawing a sad beauty from them, too. Contemporary audiences might be tempted to see loose affinities with British filmmaker Adam Curtis, whose works combine archival and found footage with talking-head interviews to explore today’s political landscape. Yet, Curtis is slicker and far less visually free-wheeling by comparison. 

Perhaps what Baldwin’s work incidentally highlights is how ubiquitous the use of archival footage in television and film has become. His experiments in media archaeology can look a little quaint now that access to documentary material is a great deal easier for filmmakers than it once was: a fact that overshadows just how ahead of his time Baldwin has been. The purpose of estranging those 1950s television shows or military training films in order to create new stories is somewhat lost behind the style in which they’re collaged together – a method that can be categorized as late-20th-century post-punk: a kind of underground, irreverent form of American media studies trying to make sense of its postwar culture. Baldwin’s films, which made use of historical material, now themselves look increasingly historical, the further in time we get from the mid-century footage from which they’re created and the deeper we plunge into entirely new relationships between screen, camera and internet. 

Movie audiences have, to some degree, caught up with what Baldwin and other filmmakers who experimented with archival film have long been telling us: that emotion resonates in the decaying, depleted, obsolete patinas of orphan films and home movies; that by recombining found footage, or whatever you want to call the moving-image detritus of the past century, fresh approaches to narrative may be discovered. Today, we take it for granted that entire television documentaries on Netflix or Amazon can be built around the textures of scratchy 16mm film and the thick, over-saturated colours of VHS tapes that once may have been inaccessible: Conversations with a Killer (2019), Losers (2019), They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead (2018), Wild Wild Country (2018) and Won’t You Be My Neighbour? (2018), to name just a few recent examples.

Craig Baldwin, ¡O No Coronado!, 1990. Courtesy: the artist and Metrograph, New York

Craig Baldwin, ¡O No Coronado!, 1990. Courtesy: the artist and Metrograph, New York

The event at Light Industry closed with Masochism of the Margins, a short documentary about Other Cinema and ATA, made in 2016 by Cyrus Tabar. The film serves as a portrait of Baldwin – a generous, somewhat live-wire figure – and of ATA’s struggle to stay afloat as the gentrification of the Mission District threatens to swamp it. It’s hardly news to anyone that San Francisco has been choked by dreary entrepreneurs riding electric bicycles and wearing tech-branded swag. An article published in The New York Times during the week of Baldwin’s screenings warned that imminent IPOs by Airbnb, Lyft, Pinterest, Postmates, Slack and Uber will create overnight thousands of new millionaires, driving the cost of living up to even greater altitudes. Yet, it seems particularly cruel that Baldwin’s world is being engulfed by the same forces of media technology that his films have critiqued, by the companies who have harvested data to create their own ‘folk archives’ from our personal photographic records, and by the businesses who have appropriated the art community’s language of creativity, disruption and innovation. Spectres of the Spectrum, in retrospect, may have foreshadowed its own demise.

It’s easy to write elegies for a disappearing world. Harder, but more important, is to consider what new questions about our mediascape can be added to those raised by Baldwin and his cohort. Through his archiving work, in the support he’s given to fellow artists by way of Other Cinema, and with his engaged, humorous and hyperactive filmmaking, Baldwin has provided an inspiring model of what a truly independent art and film culture can look like. Whilst learning to accept the ‘masochism of the margins’ – figuring out how to keep going when you have no money or institutional support – he has constructed an idiosyncratic vision of American culture and history from its cast-off videotapes and unwanted prints.

You may follow his example and identify new directions in which to extend this work. But keep in mind that Tribulation 99 may have been a double-bluff and Baldwin could secretly be an alien Quetzal who killed JFK, rigged the 2016 US elections and is trying to re-engineer the shape of cinema history for his own dastardly ends. In which case, we’re doomed.

Main Image: Craig Baldwin, Tribulation 99, 1991. Courtesy: Canyon Cinema, San Francisco

Dan Fox is a writer who lives in New York, USA. His latest book is Limbo (2018).

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