Transmission Interview with Filmmaker Craig Baldwin

hydrarchist writes

Spectres of the Spectrum and Sonic Outlaws

The Transmission Interview with Filmmaker Craig Baldwin

Craig Baldwin is something of an underground icon. With found art as his instrument, for over twenty years he has been creatively expressing his views about media democracy and "evil" applications of technology, important issues of our time that -- surprise, surprise -- fail to garner adequate attention by our mass communications corporate behemoths.

Hosting micro-cinema events and editing an online alternative "zine," Craig continues to bring compelling and bold written and filmed work to audiences that crave material beyond the mainstream.

As a new platform to distribute independent-spirited fare, Transmission Films is thrilled to have two of Craig's films on our charter slate. As evidenced by the following interview with Transmission, Craig's unique perspective deserves as many and as wide-reaching outlets as possible:

TF: Sonic Outlaws addresses issues like "fair use" and "free airwaves" long before issues now linked to the Internet like "open source" and "file sharing." Is the resonance surprising to you, or not?

CB: No, the resonance between the themes in "Sonic" and the "open source" movement do not at all surprise me, because in fact the central theme in "Sonic" is 'media democracy"--tracing the struggle between the forces that want to use community technology for the free dissemination of ideas against those that see the media platforms as a road to profit. That is more or less explicitly stated in one of the interviews (Erik Davis’). This battle has been going on for, well, centuries, and will continue for centuries, regardless of the media at hand--print, telegraph, radio, television, and now the Internet. What's sharpened the contradictions now is that we are at a historical moment where the democratization could be finally realized, what with cheap phones and computers and Xeroxes and Super 8 film, and video…but perversely , are seeing a very aggressive privatization/litigious climate along the corporate holders of intellectual property rights. It is this tension that my movie is driven by.

TF: Spectres of the Spectrum hints that technology has gone awry. Do you believe it has? What's your prognosis for the next decade? And beyond?

CB: Well, "S.o.S." is pessimistic, that's for sure, but that shouldn't be oversimplified into some blanket disavowal of technology. In fact, the film celebrates technological innovation--pioneers like Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Graham Bell, Nikola Tesla, and Philo T. Farnsworth--for their visionary abilities. It understands their inventions as artistry--the design for the alternating-current generator came to Tesla in a flash, while the sun was setting in Budapest, whilst reciting a poem by Goethe! It was more of the insight of a poet or a visual artist with a very vivid imagination, than it was the result of thousands of hours of trial and error, conducted by hired workers, that characterized the developments of Edison. He was the pragmatist, as was Sarnoff, while my film valorizes their respective muses Tesla and Farnsworth. As a child of the twentieth century, I must acknowledge the contributions that their machines have made to the quality of it is not the tech itself that is "evil" or flawed, but it is the human application! Tesla dreamt of free energy for all , by tapping into natural energy sources like the ionosphere. This is of course the communist dream--socialism plus electricity! But their patents were stolen and the corporations consolidated more and more power, turning the tools into siphons for draining wealth from the consumers to the owners (witness the current corporate scandals), and ultimately towards war( Sarnoff/G.E.'s production of nuclear weaponry).
As to a prognosis for the future, my answer would be similar--just as there are no "essentially" evil technologies, just their applications, there is no immanent, foregone future scenario, pre-fabricated and waiting to materialize. The present and the future come into being with every decision made by humans and groups of humans. It's a fair guess to say that scientific R&D might bring into our world improved solar cells, or hydrogen fuel cells, but technology alone won't be enough to save us. It takes reasoned decision-making and values that ensure equal access to the resources of this, really, tiny ship bobbing in the interstellar void. For example, even a "progressive " innovation like hydrogen-fuel cell development could be sidetracked into a power source for the individual automobile, instead of a networked system of mass-transit. Meanwhile, the Europeans have made tremendous strides in the development of an extremely efficient continental rail system. One step forward, one step back…and one to the side.

History has certainly not ended, but, for sure, it doesn't move in the same direction!

Never did.

TF: Who are your favorite heroes of heroes and martyrs of the electromagnetic revolution? What about worst villains?

RM: Well, I would refer to my previous reply when discussing heroes and martyrs--The film itself is in fact an attempt to shine some well-deserved respect on enlightened poet-inventors of the Electric Age, certainly starting with Benjamin Franklin, who is a personal hero of mine--did you know that the next two men who tried to attract lightning-electricity by flying a kite in a thunderstorm were each, on separate occasions, electrocuted to death? Tesla of course because of the absolutely stupendous range of his imagination, certainly well into crackpot territory, which so reminds me of...myself. Farnsworth's story is a true tale of pathos, a morality play that no fiction-writer could ever improve on. And some of the others discussed in the movie--Wilhelm Reich, again, not so much for his assertions of scientific truth-- he was obviously projecting his own fears and fantasies onto the natural world--but for the brazen intellectual courage for inventing his own version of the universe, and then very energetically acting on it. This is what artists do, but he happened to wear a lab coat. The villains, again, are named in the film--the Edisons and the JP Morgans and the David Sarnoffs and the Bill Gates', but really the point was not so much just to demonize them. That perhaps helps turn the narrative, but my critique goes deeper--into a system that promotes artificial scarcity/profit over sharing/cooperation. The film very deliberately takes on a sort of comic-book/B-movie style to provide melodramatic human dynamics to these ideological struggles, and in this way I hopefully am also able to make fun of heroic/hagiographic movie conventions like the biopic and space opera.

TF: Are your films more about cultural criticism or subversive fun?

CB: Of course the distinction between 'cultural criticism" and 'subversive fun" is a totally artificial one, a product of a guilt-ridden Calvinist political philosophy that went out with Dada, doncha know? Who was it that said "you can't fight alienation with alienated means"? And remember Emma Goldman's adage "I don't want a revolution that I can't dance to" [sic]. The Surrealists, the Situationists, the Yippies, the feminist movement and the punk rebellion have all taught us that the personal is political and the revolt of desire is an absolutely necessary plank in any political platform. My work educates as it entertains, understands humor and laughing as instruments for literally shaking up the status quo of the body...back to Wilhelm Reich! Ha! I realize that your bi-polar categorization can be a useful way of apprehending a media-artwork, through rhetorical opposition, a dialectic, so to speak, but why stop at two? My work--well, any work--can be "read" through any number of "critical matrices", and each reading is just as "true" as the other. The question remains then, through which film-critical lens do we choose to interpret the meaning of a work? When the audience starts asking itself these questions, well then, I have succeeded in pointing out the arbitrariness of cultural tastes and the ways in which meanings are linguistic constructions. Of course the found-footage goes a long way in that direction too.

TF: In a post-Napster world, what are your feelings about piracy?

RM: The Piracy question. Of course "piracy" is an(other) very rich and problematic term, meaning different things to different people, generally depending on where they are in the intellectual-property pecking-order. What I and Negativland and Emergency Broadcast Network, et alia advocate for in “Sonic Outlaws” is not "bootlegging"--the complete wholecloth lifting of another's creative work, so to re-direct his/her potential revenue stream into our coffers. Of course, this is the legalistic sense of the term. I choose to rather aggressively embrace the fantasy elements of the character, and cast it in the romantic South Seas to boot. Picture a sailor, a poor sailor, whose boat has gone down, and he's gasping for air among the watery peaks, and he manages to grab onto a floating spar. He grapples his way onto the top side of it, from which prospect he is better able to shout out his calls for help. Do you think that our poor mariner should agonize over whether that spar came from his craft or another's? Now let's take the allegory a step farther...let's say he's able to reach a desert shore, and with natural vines and a whole lotta invention (daughter of necessity, after all) he ties a bunch of beached spars together and fashions a sea-faring vessel, in the crude image of a luxury fact the luxury liner that originally steamed over his fishing boat. I would say that was pretty ingenious, and his savage satire a testament to human resilience and courage. I call my own films the products of a post-industrial cargo-cult. Now that his vessel is seaworthy, you better be careful who you call pirate, you arrgant neo-colonial tourist who have turned my fishing inlet into a bogus tiki-bar resort! Somebody's timbers gonna be shivered...Now that is jaunty."