Cine colectania. Collecting and audio-visual appropriation

We have seen more people die on screen than in real life. We may even have seen more movie kisses than we have or ever could have given. Who is to say that our gestures are not a copy of what we have seen in films? Appropriating the stereotype and replicating it to the point of boredom is surely what we all do in front of and behind any camera.

Taking as our starting point the Foto Colectania exhibition Work-Collection. The Artist as Collector, curated by Joan Fontcuberta, and applying its thesis to the appropriation and accumulation of moving images, in this session of El Proyector that we have titled ‘Cine Colectania’ we will deal with a few instances of appropriated films. Clips posted on the Internet, examples of recycled and recontextualized images, which are recovered or repeated to the point of the per-version, superimposing or even cancellation of the image, to uncover new or different meanings of the known.

To cease to create new documents so as to document the creative possibilities of the image and of ourselves as producers and users is to discover that appropriationism and collecting, cinematic or photographic, is another way of questioning all that we see when we make an image.

Collecting and Appropriationism

Before setting out on this journey we must first differentiate two actions that do not necessarily always go together: collecting and appropriation.

The act of ‘capturing’ and accumulating that underpins collecting is inherent in photography and cinema: the views of the world that are at the origins of these two media are conceived as snippets of reality, documents of a past that ‘has taken place’ in front of the camera, from the most ephemeral to the most objective (from the ‘decisive moments’ of Cartier-Bresson to the typologies of Bernd and Hilla Becher), which are grouped and ordered in photo series or in the film sequence. However, the profile of the collector transcends any register, ranging as it does between the obsessive who compulsively finds and accumulates (bordering on the Diogenes syndrome) or buys (by weight, in second-hand markets) and the specialist who orders and catalogues (in an attempt to control chaos and uncertainty, despite their domination of the terrain) or is dedicated to tracking down every last variant (the rare find, that quirk of novelty and surprise in a prospect surveyed in the greatest detail). The exhibition Work-Collection encompasses these two aspects of the collector in his or her engagement with the real.

On the one hand, we find artists and photographers who select and collect from reality, from numbers printed on T-shirts (New York by Numbers by Hans Eijkelboom) to letters on the backs of trucks (Alphabet Truck by Eric Tabuchi) – in both cases likely to remind us of the thirty-two photographs of John Baldessari’s The Backs Of All The Trucks Passed While Driving From Los Angeles to Santa Barbara, California, Sunday, 20 January 1963 (1963) or the series Camion (2003) by Armando Andrade Tudela. In cinema, an example of the same approach would be the non-narrative documentary Baraka (Ron Fricke, 1992), which shows human diversity and its impacts on Earth with a concatenation of shots at different speeds.

On the other hand, the exhibition also takes an almost morbid interest in fanatical collecting, as in the case of Richard Simpkin, who photographs himself with celebrities, much like the protagonist of the Werner Herzog film Grizzly Man (2005), in that both lives are marked by the same obsession with collecting moments of proximity to the idolized being – to the death. In contrast, Ève Cadieux’s Les Antres gives us figures such as Rick Prelinger, an ‘orphan’ film collector and founder of the vast audio-visual archive that bears his name, with some 60,000 pieces. Record collecting is the subject of Vinyl (Alan Zweig, 2000), while the ostensibly more relaxed hobby of making and hoarding domestic films is followed to its pathological extreme in Capturing the Friedmans (Andrew Jarecki, 2003). Cadieux also offers us the external view of collecting, from a perspective that gives it new meanings from the outside. Perhaps the most notable figure here is Alan Berliner, the Martin Parr of cinema. Berliner has an archive of images, objects and sounds that, personal or not, he uses from an intimate point of view to talk about himself and his nearest and dearest. His entire filmography revolves around autobiographical themes, paradoxically often illustrated with footage of the lives of others. But let’s leave this for later: right now I am interested in the profile of the enthusiast-obsessive who has fashioned himself from films such as Wide Awake (2006), in which he opens the doors of his house to show us and describe for us the details of his great archive on one of the endless nights of insomnia he has been suffering from for years.

Berliner gives us the figure of the artist/filmmaker who accumulates through the ‘capture’ of other people’s work: in other words, he unites the gestures of the collector and the appropriationist.

To summarize drastically, we can say that appropriationism is a matter of taking up and decontextualizing in order to resignify; or, to put it another way, of ceasing to make in order to point out. An act that combines irreverence and humour with critique and reflective analysis. The history of this gesture can be dated to 1913 and Marcel Duchamp’s Roue de bicyclette, a readymade composed of a stool and a bicycle wheel. Then came the Surrealist collages of the 1920s and 1930s and the experimental films of the Letterists and Situationists in the 1950s and 1960s, and Appropriationism proper, which emerged in the USA in the 1980s, as a critique of representation and reification of the work of art that, in both practice and theory, questions notions such as originality, authenticity, novelty and authorship. More recently, and especially in relation to photographic practices, as we can see in this exhibition, there has been much talk of recycling, an attempt to curb the excess of images in to impinge on access to images. An ecology of the image and, at the same time, an expanded gesture that takes the image beyond itself, because in these cases the quality of the work resides not in the object or in the artist’s gaze but in the use value.

The causes, of course, are to be found in technological advances, and the first to see and describe the consequences was Walter Benjamin (himself a great collector, incidentally), in ‘The Author as Producer’ (1934) and, above all, in the famous ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility’ (1935), whose title Keith Sanborn adapted in 1996 for a piece of appropriated cinema consisting of splicing together a series of warnings about the infringement of copyright shown prior to the screening of a film, thereby liberating them from the original movies.

In the audio-visual media, the appropriation of moving images is known as found footage – third-party or pre-existing material which may or may not be in the public domain (excerpted from commercial feature films, television programmes, historical, scientific or educational documentaries, family or amateur films, pornography and so on), though more than found it is borrowed or stolen and given a new meaning. In a different discursive context, the objectivity of the image is contaminated or dynamited (unlike archival documentaries), which is why we describe this as a metareferential practice involving a critique of the medium itself, in so far as it uses the same language that it questions. The first use in cinema of an extraneous image is usually situated in 1929, with the scorpion that appears at the beginning of the Buñuel and Dalí film Un Chien Andalou, while the first film to be entirely derived from another film was Rose Hobart (1936), based on East of Borneo (1931). The sensuality achieved by the artist, master of collage and experimental filmmaker Joseph Cornell in slowing down the projection and adding a violet filter and samba music is complemented by a non-narrative, disconnected, surreal montage. Rose Hobart was followed by the Letterist and Situationist films of Isidore Isou (Traité de bave et d’éternité, 1951), René Viénet (La Dialectique peut-elle casser des briques?, 1972) and Guy Debord, one of the leading theorists of found footage, with manifestos such as ‘The User’s Guide to Détournement’, co-authored with Gil J. Wolman in 1956, in which he affirmed the appropriation of images in order to bring out their subversive potential – advice that, as we will see below, he also put into practice. With the advent of video, found footage extends up to the present day in the form of long films, short films, trailers, video clips and installations, whether for art spaces, cinemas or the Internet. The distinction between art/artists (video artist or video art) and cinema/ cineasts (experimental or auteur filmmakers) has become blurred to the point of complete ‘deprofessionalization’ as a result of the alleged intrusion of the internaut.

Found footage films tend to be identified by having new uses and meanings (poetic, comic, critical, analytical, etc) and by the technique used; specifically, by the degree of manipulation of the appropriated material. In the latter case, and leaving aside the sound, which would take up a whole other session, we can distinguish three main practices: recovering or rescuing (the gesture is choosing, with no manipulation: the work is shown whole or without retouching); re-editing (the film is reconfigured in a new edit, with changes in tempo – slowed down or speeded up – and loops, repetitions, compilations of a particular gesture or thematic motif, overlays or changes in the image – inversion, reframing, blow-up, re-filming, etc) and, finally, manipulating (intervention in the material by physical-chemical manipulation of the celluloid or digital retouching) to alter its appearance (visual or textural) and often to integrate the film into a new aesthetic.

Returning now to the Work-Collection show as a reference, we will focus on cases of audio-visual appropriation in which the emphasis is on selecting and rescuing, as well as on reassembly, accumulation and repetition, especially with a critical purpose, as an alarm signal debunking the supposed transparency of information (in documentaries or in advertising) and so-called pure entertainment (Hollywood narrative film) to expose the ideological baggage of the images.

Media critique

A great many artists appropriate images from the media, especially television: from Bruce Conner, with his first, A Movie (1958), or Ken Jacobs in Perfect Film (1986) – a paradigmatic example of selecting and rescuing without any manipulation – to Craig Baldwin’s parodies of American conspiracy theories (Tribulation 99: Alien Anomalies Under America, 1991) and present-day television zapping programmes. In all these cases there is a more or less radical critique of society and media manipulation.

From 1973 alone, for example, we have two films that, each in its own way, take a critical view of their time. On the one hand, the epileptically edited Frank Film, in which we hear Frank Mouris talk about his life as we watch an avalanche of images, a bulimic animated collage as a summary of life in consumer society. On the other, La Société du Spectacle, based on the book of the same name by Guy Debord, which best represents the merciless verbal critique. With his metaphorical palindrome In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni (1978) – ‘gyrating we go into the night and are consumed by fire’ – denouncing the use and abuse of images, Debord annuls cinema as a narrative medium and declares himself ‘proud to be able to make a film with anything’.

Revisiting History

​Stepping out of the media present, there are many filmmakers who work by selecting and retrieving images based on revisiting the archives (in the double sense of going back and reassembling) in order to show their timeliness and polysemy. Let’s look at three.

For some time now Yervant Gianikian and Angela Ricci Lucchi have been meticulously restoring, accumulating, and re-creating footage from historical archives with the aim of moving forward in twentieth-century history. Taking up Walter Benjamin’s maxim that there is ‘no document of culture that is not at the same time a document of barbarism’, their films show found barbarity with full-frontal simplicity, with one or two quasi-artisanal manipulations: colouring, slowing down and homing deep in on certain details (a gesture, a face) that provoke alarm. For this pair of filmmakers, re-filming or re-archiving was a way of making the past present and giving new readings of themes such as colonialism (Dal polo all’equatore, 1986) or human violence, developed at length in their trilogy on the First World War, which ends with the bodily reconstruction of the wounded in Oh! Uomo (2004). The whole of their filmography is a work of collection, basically of archive images, although they have also filmed collections of objects, such as the toys fashioned by the culture / barbarism of the interwar period in Ghiro ghiro tondo (2007).

Another filmmaker who works with archive footage is Gustav Deutsch. His ambitious Film ist is essentially a catalogue of responses to the question posed by André Bazin: What is cinema? Each answer corresponds to a chapter: movement and time, light and dark, instrument, material, the blink of an eye, mirror, comedy, magic, conquest, writing and language, emotions and passion, memory and document, grouped together in a film in two major blocks, on the relations between cinema and science (1-6: 1996-1998) and on cinema as entertainment (7-12: 1999-2002). There was also an installation of eight screens arranged in a circle, another palimpsest in the shape of a palindrome, this time spatial, evidencing even more clearly how subjective each person’s reading is. The appendix to this mosaic is Film Ist. A girl & a gun (2009), a montage of ethnographic, scientific, pornographic and other images showing the confrontation between Eros and Thanatos, love and war, and embodying Griffith’s dictum, later taken up by Godard, that ‘all you need to make a film is a girl and a gun’.

The third is Harun Farocki, who uses the installation to turn the exhibition space into a filmmaker’s cutting room. Farocki appropriates all kinds of images, from cinema

(On Construction of Griffith’s Films, 2006) and surveillance cameras (I Thought I was Seeing Convicts, 2000) to computer software (Eye Machine I, II and III , 2001-2003) and virtual reality (Serious Games, 2011), and often brings them together to simultaneously present variations of a given gesture (Deep Play, 2007). In this way he invokes the viewer’s ability to read images, to unite or assemble them and, in short, to be actively involved in the act of looking, because for him to see is to work. One of his most representative projects in relation to this idea is Workers Leaving the Factory, a medium-length film (1995) and an installation (2006) with documentary or fictional images on this working-class theme, which has, since Lumière, linked the cinema and the factory – and, it need hardly be said, not the dream factory.


The Cinematographic Imaginary

Grouping thematic motifs from different films generates a kind of continuity between them. It is what we may call the perversion of the raccord. The raccord is the cinematic figure that gives the impression of continuity and sustains our expectation by forming a single film, as if there were only one story and one way to film it.

Many works play with this effect, often in a ludic way, based on the finding, selecting and accumulating of a particular element. A good example is Telephones (1995) by Christian Marclay, as well as almost all the films of Christoph Girardet, such as Pianoforte (2007), Kristall (2006) or Mirror (2003) – or Miralls (2006) by the Tarragona director Gerard Gil. They are all situated somewhere between the game and the tour de force, the feat of finding more than one needle in this great haystack that is the history of cinema and of managing to thread them to achieve small narratives. We can find here found footage equivalents of the photo series with letters and numbers that we mentioned at the outset – Teaching the Alphabet (2007) and Counter (2004), both by Volker Schreiner – though the most interesting are the works that play with time as an intrinsic element of the medium: 60 Seconds (2002), by Girardet, sixty images of clocks following the second hand as it marks a minute, or the magnificent The Clock (2010) by Marclay, a 24-hour montage of film clips, each containing an indication of the time, screened in sync with the real time. Winner of the Golden Lion at the 2011 Venice Biennale, The Clock is, as the title tells us, a film that is a clock, therefore one of the productions that best and most fully questions the limits of space and time in cinematic envisioning.

There are also many other cases that, without renouncing irony, undertake a critique of the medium in order to expose the stereotypes constructed in the cinematic unconscious and fixed in the collective imagination.

Allow me to make a small point about the Internet. YouTube is full of anonymous parodies of cinema, from mashups (montages of clips from different movies) to recuts (a new edit of a particular film). The subgenre of recut trailers is something else, a real trip, in which mythical films are turned inside out (such as The Shining converted into a romantic comedy), while the comments of the Honest Trailers collective for Screen Junkies lay bare the commercial con trick of the trailer to reveal its obviousness. The ‘honest trailer’ for the first film in the Twilight saga is one of the best.

The world of the web is inexhaustible and references to cinema are not always direct. By way of what people put up on the Internet we can not only perceive the imaginary they are involved in but also, paradoxically, make a portrait of society in the most intimate manner. That is what the artist Thomas Galler does with the videos he finds on war and military themes. For Week End (2008) he collected footage that US service personnel in Afghanistan and Iraq had posted on the Internet in their spare time. In his most striking piece, American Soldiers (2012), he brought together Internet videos of people singing the eponymous song by Toby Keith. What at first seems like a mix of amateur music videos emerges as a clutch of creepy Made in USA clichés that Hollywood cinema has helped to implant: from the cowboy to the superhero, from melodramatic tears to epic, the flag and pride in patriotic sacrifice.

Returning now to cinema, there are many filmmakers who work with excerpts from more or less commercial films to create new montages that evidence their constructed character. Here the perversion is in the use the continuity effect to play with our expectations and make us reflect on our imaginary, on what we project when we go to the cinema, but also when we make movies ourselves. The latter point brings us back to Alan Berliner, whose Family Album (1986) is an hour of film on which we see a life cycle (from birth to death), but not of a single person or family. Compiled from a whole collection of 16mm home movies made between the 1920s and 1950s, it is a multiple and at the same time unitary portrait, a summary of an entire era and a certain notion of family. The best examples of this approach reveal the meanings inherent in the conventions of cinematic genres that have seen again and again, repeated to satiety. This is very much the case in A collection of camera movements through the corridors of science-fiction films (2012) by Serafin Alvarez, and in the wonderful Home Stories (1999) by Matthias Müller. Müller takes 1950s Hollywood melodramas and isolates and groups the female stereotypes of the woman alone at home, a seemingly innocent motif that soon discovers a nightmare, that of the woman embroiled in all the insecurities, hysteria and dangers imposed on her by the gaze of the male director.

The extreme form of the montage that works with repetition is the superimposition of images. Much as Corinne Vionnet did in her series Photo Opportunities (tourist sites shot from the same point of view), Camille Henrot superimposed the three versions of King Kong (1933, 1976 and 2005), screening them simultaneously in King Kong Addition (2007), and Douglas Gordon coupled The Song of Bernadette (Henry King, 1943) with The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973) in a split-screen projection to contrast ways of filming the extremes of good and evil in Between Darkness and Light (1997), while Nicolas Provost’s montage of kisses on Gravity ends up becoming a single orgiastic kiss between male and female movie stars. All three create an almost hallucinogenic optical phenomenon in which cinema and the collective imaginary truly merge.

We have appropriated the stereotypical gesture as it ranges from legend to kiss, or rather, from a simple kiss to a whole legend, and we repeat it every day. The contagion extends to sex, another repertoire of patterns infected by images, to the point that we have difficulty distinguishing between what we have seen in movies (whether commercial or pornographic, it doesn’t matter) and what we have experienced in real life. As we go from kissing to hardcore, we find that most erotic poses and sexual acts are clichés of our imaginary; indeed, we don’t even need to see them to know they are there, as Jon Haddock demonstrated in Internet Sex Photos (1999) by deleting the main action of homemade porn videos, and as Carolina Bonfim does in Before or After Pornography (unpublished) by selecting those scenes in which nothing is happening (yet or any more).

The allegorical layers are infinite. Every image has another behind it. To the point of abstraction. Blocking out its representation, as we have seen, does not mean that it is not there. In this process of the progressive elimination of the initial image by the addition of our imaginary we can go all the way back to the still image that inhabits the cinema. Following the path opened up by Fontcuberta in Blow Up Blow Up we arrive at Hiroshi Sugimoto’s Theatres (1978-), a series of extremely long-exposure photos of cinema interiors with the screened movie as the only light source; or, conversely, the monochromes with subtitles that Eric Rondepierre steals from foreign-language film, such as the symbolic black of Le Voyeur (Excédents) (1989), from dissolves in Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (1960).

These surpluses, a synthesis of all the rest that is latent in the images or that we simply add to them, lead us to confuse collecting and appropriation to the point where we no longer know what we have taken from them and what was our own. To question images is also to question our imaginary, what we construct from them and what in turn elaborates both our memory and our actions. Even a kiss.