June 20, 2009
A couple weeks ago, I went to the 2009 “Festival of (In)Appropriation,” hosted by the Los Angeles Filmforum and curated by two UCLA film studies graduate students. It was the first program of what is intended to be an annual celebration of contemporary found footage filmmaking.
In the program notes, the curators write, “Whether you call it collage, compilation, found footage, detournement, or recycled cinema, the incorporation of previously shot materials into new artworks is a practice that has generated novel juxtapositions of elements which have produced new meanings and ideas that may not have been intended by the original makers, that are, in other words ‘inappropriate.’ This act of appropriation may produce revelation that leads viewers to reconsider the relationship between past and present, here and there, intention and subversion.”
As they lay it out in their description and in their parentheses, these found footage works both appropriate (verb) and are inappropriate (adjective) at the same time. The series of binary relationships these films and videos help us think about (past/present, here/there, etc., and many more not listed) can be understood as being foregrounded by the parenthetical “(in)” of the program’s title, which draws our attention to the simultaneity of a thing or quality and its opposite. (Ironically, though, inappropriation and appropriation are not quite opposites. Appropriation is to take property; inappropriation–not technically a word–is of the inappropriate, the not proper.)
I think the two projects that were most (in)appropriate were the first and the last on the program: Daniel Martinico’s The Blockbuster Tapes and Scott Stark’s Speechless. The Blockbuster Tapes selectively documents a three-year project the filmmaker did, in which he rented videos from Blockbuster, made subtle, brief, but humorous manipulations into the videos and returned them, leaving these glitches to be (not? barely?) experienced by future renters. Stark’s film interwove 3-D reels of female genitalia with footage of landscapes. The very graphic nature of these images and their recombination were explicitly inappropriate.
There were several great shorts in the program. Some of my favorites were those that were less “inappropriate” but had more of a poetic formalism to them, such as Sandra Gibson’s Untitled (“Tiny Bits”) and Gregg Biermann’s Utopia Variations. Gibson’s short abstract film visually recalls films such as Stan Brakhage’s Mothlight. She “chopped up and reconfigured” bits of film in an optical printer–so that we see sprockets and margins of unknown filmstrips pass before our eyes, slowing down, then going in reverse. Biermann’s film broke up the “Over the Rainbow” sequence from The Wizard of Oz in an algorithmic way, so that screens kept splitting, building to a climax of 25 screens simultaneously, with each screen from the sequence playing the song simultaneously but slightly syncopated. It then symmetrically returns to just one screen by the end of the song. It is a very captivating video, an aesthetic experience in its own right, but it also seems to speak to the unique properties and powers of manipulation—-and common glitches (like a scratch on a CD)–in digital contexts. I also really enjoyed “Repeat Photography and the Albedo Effect,” which was a collage of a boxing scene from Raging Bull, NPR coverage on global warming, and sound art. It is the first part of Caroline Koebel’s tripartite Flicker On Off.
(In)appropriation–repurposing already existing footage–of course has a prominent place in popular cultural practices, and this is something that the curators and that many of the pieces in this program were engaging with, explicitly and implicitly. Recently, for example, “literal versions” of various music videos have been circulating in high rotation on YouTube. These videos take familiar music videos and rework the lyrics to the songs they are for to humorously reflect what we “literally” see in the video.
Conversely, there are also “misheard lyrics” videos that take an actual pop song but pair it with images for words that the song’s lyrics resemble, or often sound more like, which is helpfully and humorously reiterated by typing the “misheard” text over the images. One of the first of these that I saw, which I saw a couple years before I saw any “literal versions” music videos is for Christina Aguilera’s “Ain’t No Other Man” (misheard as “Ain’t No Weather Man”):