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ange on 10/02/2012 at 12:00PM

Interview: Rick Prelinger Encourages Remixers To Break New Ground

Michael Edson

As you prepare your entries for our Past Re-Imagined As the Future remix contest, we thought you could use some tips.

We asked moving image archivist, filmmaker and contest judge Rick Prelinger to share his thoughts on what makes for an incredible remix. Is it lots of looping and repeating footage? Machine gun single frame montages? Prelinger suggests that there's new ground to broken as you sculpt your new Creative Commons masterpieces. In our interview, Prelinger explains how ephemera can help us avoid the trap of presentism, his new interest in collecting home movies, and more about the history/future of the Prelinger Archives.

Why preserve ephemera? How have you grown to understand its historical and cultural significance?

Nothing gives a better sense of ordinary peoples' experience in the past than evidence drawn from daily life. And most of this material wasn't meant to survive -- we have it only by lucky accident. Ephemeral material, like the kinds of films in our archives, is permeated with a strong sense of time and place. It shows how people interacted, worked, presented themselves and partied, and it's also filled with evidence of past persuasions -- how we were told to behave, study, work, and believe.

I also like ephemeral material because it's extremely vivid and accessible. It's a seductive gateway to the many histories that combine and recombine in America, and more than that, it gets people thinking in historical terms. It's one way to avoid the trap of presentism -- the idea that life was, and always will be, as it is now. It also helps us realize that we're not living in a time unlike any other. Much of what we're going through now as a society has already happened in other contexts.

One of your many titles is Outsider Librarian. How so? What makes the Prelinger approach to running a library different than the average institution?

My spouse Megan and I started an independent research library in San Francisco 8 years ago. Unlike the archives, which doesn't really have a physical nexus, our library is a real space that's open to the public every week at regular hours. It's appropriation-friendly, which means that we warmly encourage people to scan, to shoot and to copy our materials so they can use them in their own work. We don't have a catalog -- materials are arranged in subject clusters -- so serendipity and browsing play a big role. And we think the library has gone way beyond being just a repository of interesting materials; it's evolved into a workshop where people come to talk about their ideas with others and work together. All of these are pretty nontraditional compared to legacy libraries, and that's why we call ourselves outsider librarians.

Come visit when you visit San Francisco!

When did you first consider bringing a portion of your collection to Internet Archive? Did you anticipate the project being so successful?

I moved to California in 1999 and met Brewster Kahle, founder of Internet Archive. Within the first 20 seconds of our conversation, he asked me if I wanted to put my archives online for free. I started to stutter, Ralph Kramden style, but soon realized this was a great idea very much worth trying. At the end of 2000 we put 1001 films online and immediately the servers broke under the strain. Now we have 3,500 films online, and soon that number will stabilize around 4,700 items. We're also starting to put up home movies -- which is what I'm focusing on collecting these days -- and expect to have 3,000 to 4,000 individual home movies online by late next year.

I think our download total is up to about 80 million, counting mirrors on YouTube and elsewhere. This is pretty incredible for a bunch of pretty obscure archival films. And, best of all, people are making stuff with them. The full spectrum of reuse is completely beyond comprehension, but I think tens of thousands, maybe even hundreds of thousands, of new works have used our footage. I constantly run into people who've used the collection in imaginative and unusual ways. Just about all of them would never have been able to access this material in other ways.

We still sell stock footage through Getty Images, for those needing higher-quality material and written license agreements. And I'm certain that our sales have been dramatically helped by the easy availability of our material online.

Is there a limit to how much material you'd like to see online?

Nope. The cultural heritage is common property, and everyone should be able to access and reuse as much of it as we can offer with a minimum of friction.

I hope online moving image collections will integrate better into the Web, linking out into related resources. In the same way, I hope for many more links into our collection and others like it, so that we truly have an open web with a rich linking structure.

The Prelinger Archive was one of the first significant collections to offer material to the public under a Creative Commons license. Some of our contest participants might be using Creative Commons for the first time. How do you explain how Creative Commons works to those who have never used it before?

We signed up with Creative Commons in 2002 and were the first large collection of material to bear a CC license. A CC license is like putting a "Welcome" mat at your front door, except that it's just a bit more precise. You use CC licenses to say: "Use me in these ways for these purposes, and you don't have to ask special permission." So a creator can put a CC license on her work and say: "Use this for anything you like, but make sure to attribute it to me so that people know it's my work." It's not perfect, but it's a move in the direction of a culture where money doesn't do all the talking.

A lot of our contest participants are going to find themselves combing though hours and hours of footage. What are the chances that they'll find their 1930's doppelganger or recognize a long lost relative? Have you ever heard of that happening before?

It has indeed! People have seen themselves in films and called me up to get their own copy. And I actually try to find people whose images we have so that they can see them again.

You are one of the judges for our Past Re-Imagined As The Future Remix contest. Do you have any advice for our contestants as they begin looking for materials to work with in the Prelinger Archives? What makes for a great remix?

First, be uninhibited! We've only scratched the surface as to what we can do with archival material.

Second, try to break new ground. Remixing has so much potential to point out the little-understood ways by which images and sounds affect our thinking and emotions. Don't just loop and repeat footage, and don't just make machine-gun single-frame montages. Try if you can to get beyond kneejerk media criticism -- that's much more mainstream now than it ever was. Lots of remixing work today looks more stylish than substantial. Try to get below the surface and expose what's really going on. Read the characters' lips. Why are they doing the weird things they do in these old films?

Third, be funny! Find the infinite possibilities in the footage, and run with them. Build your own new world with these antique building blocks.

Fourth, check out the films with low download totals that no one else has seen. There are BIG surprises there to reward the diligent researcher/editor.

Have a great time! I can't wait to see what you make.


This contest is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.



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