Rick Prelinger
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Rick Prelinger
Rick Prelinger in the Prelinger Library, photo by Cory Doctorow

Rick Prelinger in the Prelinger Library, photo by Cory Doctorow

APEngine caught up with Rick Prelinger, Archivist, Writer, Filmmaker and Founder of the Prelinger Archives at AV Festival 10 to talk about archives, home movies and iPhone apps.

I recently saw online a screening of your collage film Lost Landscapes of San Francisco where you were asking the audience to respond to the footage – is this one of the many ways you are enabling people to access the Prelinger Archives?

We’re really interested in different kinds of access to cultural material. I’ve always done screenings and I did CD ROMs and laser discs back when those were bubbling hot media. But I had never thought about the access possibilities of the web because when I moved to California in 1999. I was an Internet user but I wasn’t deeply into net culture. But then I met Brewster Kahle who founded the Internet Archive and he challenged me to put my material online, and so I said, “Yes” without knowing what that would really involve, although I knew that it would mean giving it away, which was a twist. But then after that it seemed obvious. And since then we’ve been constantly rehearsing new ways of distributing material.

There’s the online archives, there has been screenings all over the place, my spouse Megan and I started the Library as a means of taking our print collection, which is quite massive, and sharing it, to see whether it would be a lever for other things to happen. We’ve taken the Library around as well – we’ve built specialised libraries, and we take them into Maker Faire in California. We are going to go to Maker Faire in Newcastle, to see what it’s like.

When you start to define one of the highest callings of the archive is consumptive use, really interesting things happen and you begin to relate to people in a completely different way. All these remarks that we were hearing at the Recycled Film Symposium about tired archivists who are alienated Civil Servants, who are not necessarily helpful, this just doesn’t figure anymore. It becomes much more of a straight across transaction with people where no money changes hands. Collaboration I would say.

I was quite surprised when Vicki Bennett (People Like Us) was saying at the Symposium how difficult she had found working with archives, how they would demand money.

But I think Vicki might have been talking about a time she went to a commercial film archives looking for material. There is no perceived advantage for them to give footage to an artist because it’s not going to lead to sales and their time is at a premium.

You were saying at the Symposium that you are changing your collection policy to focus on home movies. Will you be keeping it restricted to US films rather than opening it up to become a worldwide collection?

We’ve always focused a little more on material from the States. It’s not that we are xenophobic or anything, it’s just that it’s what we do better. We have some materials that are produced internationally, but a lot of our international material is image of the world shot by Americans and I think that’s most appropriate. Footage of Japan probably should be archived in Japan. I’m focused on American history, the American psyche, American consciousness and I think that’s where I would like to stay.

Home movies isn’t an exclusive focus, it’s just what’s excited me and increasingly Megan much more than anything else.

You were saying at the Symposium that you are not trying to contextualise or curate the online collection. Have you ever thought of actually putting together online exhibitions of the work?

I have, I just haven’t had the time to focus on it. I’m really interested in just making more work now.

I made a film in 2004 and I’m starting another larger work soon that I’ve begun collecting for and will have to start editing soon.

You’ve made your latest feature film The Lives of Energy for AV Festival 10. How long did the film take you to edit all the archive footage together?

It took about a week of selection from the database. It took about a week of capture time, because I actually captured over 180 films to work with, it’s easier to look through them beforehand that way, and then I spent about a couple of weeks editing according to a scheme that I had established.

It would be different and it would probably be better if I had six months to really reason it over and think about it. In a lot of ways this is a first draft, but that’s the amount of work that’s appropriate and possible for this project.

I imagine with an archive over 60,000 films having a deadline must help you to make decisions…

Right, the liberation that arises from constraint and all that. The other thing is that other interests percolate – there’s this other film I’m thinking about that’s about mobility and Megan’s working on space-related projects right now.

On the Prelinger Archives site there are over 200 mashups that other people have made with the archive footage. How do you feel about the mashups? Is there any quality control about what’s posted?

That’s what the whole thing is designed to encourage.

There’s no quality control. Anybody can post anything to that collection they want, which is great. If I had the time I would actually trawl the web to try to find more. I started doing it, I went to YouTube and looked at everything that credited us and I wrote to them and I said, “Hey, why don’t you also post to Mashups?” and a bunch of people did, but I don’t have the time to do it.

The physical collection absorbs a lot of time. Besides the meta-archival stuff that I do, I’m really hands-on with the collection, as is Megan, who is also the taxonomist and arranger of the Library. This last year has been a huge year for logging, for selecting new stuff to transfer for viewing.

What we do when a film comes in is we evaluate it by watching it, then if it seems as if it is something that we might want to work with, or might support our sales activities, we will transfer it to video, and ultimately we digitise the video. Then we have to log it and get it into the database – it’s quite labour intensive.

So you are still very much involved in the archiving process?

Oh yes, I didn’t touch film for a few years because I got involved with other stuff and our collection had mostly gone to the Library of Congress – it was a relief to get away from this huge mass of material. But now the huge mass has once again descended, we are collecting home movies now and we have in our front room almost 40 cartons of home movies that we have yet to look at.

Where do you find the home movies?

We buy stuff, people give us stuff, and we find stuff…

Home movies, in the same way that people since the 70’s have been collecting vernacular photography and snapshots, home movies have become now something that connoisseurs collect as well.

Is there a culture in San Francisco of people making work using their home movies? With Mock Up On Mu, filmmaker Craig Baldwin combines found footage and live action, but he doesn’t use his own home movies to tell his story does he?

He shoots some footage, but he doesn’t use archival footage of his own, but he shoots a lot. His Mock Up On Mu has tons of stuff that he shot expressly.

San Francisco is one of the world capitals of appropriation and found footage.

So what artists and filmmakers should we be looking out for?

Ask Craig! I don’t know…we like Brian Boyce. Brian helped Craig on his titles. He works with found material from the mass media and he does very beautiful work.

I’m not the person to ask, I’m a little hermetic. I was a big film buff when I was young. I started collecting film in 1982 and it just pushed everything else out. I stopped listening to rock and roll, I stopped going to the movies, there was just too much to focus on. There was a world of 400,000 or more non-theatrical films that hardly anyone knew anything about it, it was all I could focus on.

Do you go to the movies now? Or do you avoid big budget blockbusters like Avatar and focus on the more obscure home movies?

We (myself and Megan) haven’t seen Avatar but we try to go to the movies, we like going to the movies. This year what did we see? We saw District 9, we saw… what was the other Apocalypse film we saw?


2012, of course, 2012 was great. What else…? We saw Julie & Julia…

I get a little fed up with documentaries because so many of them are just the same, “My incontinent grandfather, on the morning of his eviction…” They just get too character driven and focused on narrative arcs. Though they may treat different subjects, their structure and execution are so often the same.

So with films like Avatar, how do you feel about the whole hysteria around HD & 3D? Do you feel in some ways that the Internet Archive and the found footage is almost the antithesis of this movement?

Not really, because colour was once a move of that seismic sort, movement to sound was a seismic change of that sort… 3D, which goes back a while; there has always been this move towards greater immersivity.

I live in a fairly non-immersive media world, if you look at my stuff you have to make the jump to it; it doesn’t tie you up in its sensory web.

The other thing about our footage is that to a great extent it’s going to be the matrix for building worlds. I know that people have already used our footage as some templates around which other kinds of effects based stuff is going to be done. So I think it’s all part of a continuum really, I don’t see any great divide.

You mentioned yesterday at the Symposium how music videos use found footage in a very decorative way these days.

Increasingly. It’s similar to how graffiti became a fashion accessory. I guess the issue with appropriation-based work is that a lot of times it has lofty aims. It’s supposed to be critically based or it’s supposed to be a revolutionary intervention in the language of representation or the strategies of representation. Let’s ask more of appropriation. If we are going to do it, let’s keep our loftier goals alive.

Do you think there is a line? That there’s some work that is sacred and shouldn’t be messed with or do you think anything goes?

I think most anything goes. We could reject something if we don’t like it, we can criticise… We can have our doubts about where Kenneth Anger stands on the Hitler Youth but that doesn’t mean he shouldn’t be able to do that. We can judge his work after he makes it, not before.

And with your collage films The Lives of Energy and Panorama Ephemera, you avoid adding a narrative; you let the material to tell the story…

Not exactly. First off some people can do that really well. Look at Craig Baldwin’s Mock Up On Mu. Mock Up is narrativised beautifully and he says that it’s made easier because of his numerical sequencing and because he divided it up. But he actually did something that is beautifully narrativised. It really works; it’s a mature work, smart.

Panorama is different, Panorama is 64 segments and when you put it together there is an implicit narrative. It’s like – you ever listen to a rock and roll album where you build a narrative between the 11 or 12 tracks? It’s kind of what’s happening with Panorama. And actually I think the narrative is present, in some cases I think it’s up front, other cases it’s maybe a little more veiled, but it’s definitely there.

And you would never make a work of fiction with the footage or…?

I’m not against working with fiction; I’m just not smart enough yet to know how to do that. I think it takes great discipline.

My objection to storytelling isn’t inherent or anything like that, it’s to this idea that storytelling is the only way, that conventional narrative is hard wired. A lot of people say it’s the only way to express a thought, an idea, and a tale. I think that’s just bogus, it’s acculturated.

So what other online archives do you like?

I don’t spend enough time on the Internet, but I think UbuWeb is totally great.

Have you thought of an iPhone application for the Prelinger Archive?

Yes, we were very interested in a Prelinger Archives app and it turns out there is actually a few of them. The Weather Underground media player, which is a web-based app, has a Prelinger Archives section. You know how those apps are, they just look at a website or the XML and they just put a nice skin over it and allow you to touch that.

We are interested in historicising the present. One of the things we would like to do with our fast growing collection of historical images, maps, pieces of text is to figure out ways to superimpose them on the landscape, as a augmented reality thin. Tons of people are working on this kind of stuff, so it’s not giving anything away to say this. But that’s the logical direction for us to move.

Then I guess being based in California it must be a great place to meet these sorts of technically minded people.

There are lots of people who are technically competent and interesting. Also, lots of people who are technically focused, who are interested in real world issues as well. That was one of the great discoveries about moving to the Bay area; that you are never terribly far away from geeks who are doing interesting stuff. I think both of us have gotten more technically focused.

And what do you think of Twitter? I see you have an account.

This hasn’t been a big tweeting crowd at AV. I don’t think a lot of people really understand Twitter’s potential. I’m not trying to boost a commercial service here or anything, Twitter is derived from an old Unix shell command called ‘wall’ where you type ‘wall something’ and then it goes out to everybody in your workgroup. So it’s not a new idea by any means, it just happens to be executed in such a way that it caught on. Of course being California and all that, you know in my field which is MLA, Museums, Libraries and Archives, every morning there is just a hefty handful of tweets that point to really interesting work that people are doing.

Do you think there are always going to be closed archives or do you think archives will move to be more generous about how people work with the archive materials?

There will always be both.

So the Internet Archive always has taken this position that we are going to be very open and very flat, and that anybody who wants to build their own skin is welcome to do so.

It hasn’t happened in the moving images sections. A young man made an app for the music collection, which is huge, around 250,000 items, and he built a skin, a web service that fronts for the Internet Archive music collection. It’s a lot better than ours and I wish somebody would do it for our collection.

One of the things that’s actually a burning issue, is that we have these 2,100 films up and there is active participation – the reviewing and the annotation – but it’s all pretty much fan based, and while the collection is used heavily by scholars, researchers and educators, it’s not a friendly portal for them and they don’t participate, even though they use the stuff. I’ve often thought that it would be great to build an educational portal or research based portal onto the same work where anybody would be welcome, that would have a different focus.

Do people who have used the archive for research ever post their essays up or do you just find them out there on the Internet?

No, there is tons of writing out there. I do a vanity Google search every so often just so we can print out stuff for our personal archives, and there is so much stuff that gets written. Sometimes people even post little essays about specific films or filmmakers as part of the reviews but I think the online archive has been written about thousands of times.

I love reading the student blogs about it when they are doing something – a remix in a class or reviews – it’s very interesting for a 19 year old to write about, coming culturally from a very different place. I just love that kind of bridge building.

With the collection in the Prelinger Library in San Francisco, are you trying to digitise the non-media work as well?

Yes, we partnered with the Internet Archive and we’ve done 3,700 items – books, volumes of periodicals, print ephemera, etc. That project is resting right now because there was a lot of excess scanning capacity that we could take advantage of and there isn’t right now because all the Internet Archive scanning centres are very busy. But I am sure we’ll do more.

We did a body of key works that were out of copyright that are part of a bunch of different collections within the IA. So some of them are part of the American Library’s collection, some of them are part of our New Deal/WPA section – all these amazing, regional guides to the USA that were produced, they’re an incredible repository of information about America, we digitised about 40 of those and we’ve done a lot of ephemera that is quite unusual as well.

The neat thing about our library is if you walk through it you will see if a book has a certain bookmark it means that it is digital as well, so that you can see a book that you like and then you can go and actually download a high quality searchable facsimile of it. So the physical collection serves as a set of pointers or a kind of index to the digital collection rather than the other way around.

It’s an interesting place, it’s not about saving print per se, it’s about reframing how print and digital work together. We love it.

Do you get people working on feature films visiting your Library for research for period films?

No. With the film archives we sell footage to everybody because Getty Images reps us.

Lately, we’ve done Michael Moore… we’ve been in many feature… I can’t even remember what feature films we’ve been in. We sell to feature films all the time.

And that’s what supports the Library?

Yes, that supports us. It’s advertising, it’s cable TV documentaries, it’s feature films, it’s interactive, it’s presentations… We always did that and Getty represents us quite well. And we do certain kinds of jobs on our own that don’t fall under the Getty rubric.

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