Sunday, March 17, 2013

Call It Home, our 1993 laserdisc on history of suburbia, reissued

In 1993 I collaborated with architect, playwright and professor Keller Easterling to make Call It Home: The House That Private Enterprise Built, a history of suburbia and suburban planning in the U.S. The project took the form of an interactive archival documentary on laserdisc that held some 55 minutes of historical footage, 2,800 still images, a narration and contextual soundtrack, and two tracks of archival audio. The disc was accompanied by a lengthy booklet of program notes that contained an index to the collection and a comparative atlas of suburban town designs. The disc was published by The Voyager Company, whom many of you will know as the partner and joint parent of the Criterion Collection.

From Easterling's description:

The material resets the story of suburbia in the US by focusing on its origins in the depression rather than the post war era. Originally conceived as an economic instrument to stabilize banks and a flagship industry capable of providing jobs, the early suburban house was poised to become both the germ of explosive post war exurban growth and the economic indicator that it remains today. Call it Home provides evidence of suburbia’s DNA in: New Deal planning, federal promotion of home ownership, FHA protocols for community, prefabrication experiments, new construction technologies, the Interstate Highway, early marketing techniques, and the styling of domestic interiors among many other things. Viewers can navigate the DVD as either a continuous set of footage sequences or as a more contemplative document that moves between clips and stills. The ten major topics that organize this two-disc set serve as a base from which to create many branching explorations through the collection.

Laserdiscs have been difficult to play for some years now, and the disc has been all but unobtainable except for occasional eBay auctions. But aided by a grant from the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts, Keller Easterling and producer Tal Schori have reformatted the disc's contents as a two-DVD set. I'm delighted to announce that the collection is now available through Amazon as a three-piece set, each piece of which must be ordered separately.

Program Book
Disc 1
Disc 2

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Thinking about the commons in 1997-98

In 1997-98 I lived in New York City, where I thought information wanted to be expensive. But while I made my living selling stock footage to media producers (I still do), I'd begun to realize that the system of enclosure surrounding cultural and historical materials was broken and needed to be changed.

I'd been reading about the history of landscape and land use in the U.S. and began to think about environmental metaphors for thinking about the distribution of culture. In 1997, I drafted this piece, which I continued to work on through 1998. But then I moved to San Francisco, met Brewster Kahle, started to put my films online, and action substituted for theory. The theory, and my fuller realization of what it meant to give things away to the public online, would come later.

Meanwhile, Eric Eldred and Larry Lessig had met one another. Eric, a reader and scholar of Nathaniel Hawthorne and many others, wanted to make free electronic versions of classic books available to the public, but was stymied by copyright extension. As I understand it, Eric elaborated the idea behind what would become Creative Commons, and Lessig worked to put together the team that made it happen.

Here, warts, naivete and all, is the last draft of the piece I wrote in 1998, salvaged from an old email:

- - - - - - - - - -

For an Intellectual Property Preserve

Rick Prelinger January 27, 1998

The Problem

Our history and culture are increasingly becoming private
property rather than public resource.

As the potential for widespread and rapid access to our
cultural heritage dramatically increases, corporate control
of intellectual property threatens to inhibit the freedoms of
inquiry and expression.  In the past few years, copyright
proprietors have pushed for term extension, narrower
definitions of fair use and heightened prohibitions against
digital copying.  "Harmonization" of U.S. copyright law has
removed millions of international works from the U.S. public

Concurrently, key collections of historical still and moving
images have been acquired by powerful entities like The Image
Bank (a subsidiary of Eastman Kodak), Getty Images and
Corbis.  These collections are generally inaccessible without
payment of substantial research and licensing fees.  Textual
material, music and works of art are now owned or controlled
by a dwindling number of rightsholders.  It is now highly
probable that most access to cultural and historical
materials will follow the paradigm of "billable events," with
few exceptions or discounts for nonprofit or noninstitutional

The function of not-for-profit entities like libraries,
museums and archives is also changing.  They no longer exist
simply to offer reference or reader's access to their
holdings.  With the proliferation of authoring tools in all
media and the vast increase in all modes of cultural
production, many access requests now anticipate the
reproduction of materials for reuse and public distribution,
and this is running headlong into the limitations of
copyright law.  Although the Internet is dramatically
increasing the population of authors and publishers, there is
no concomitant increase in the amount of preexisting content
that these people can legally access.

The Precedent

Private corporations exerted unprecedented pressures on the
"public domain" -- American land and natural resources -- in
the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  The aggressive
pursuit of extractive interests such as mining, logging and
agriculture threatened to exhaust public lands and encroach
upon naturally or culturally significant sites.  In response
to this threat, the conservationist movement lobbied to
organize a system of national forests, parks and monuments.
By preserving a limited public sphere not subject to the
exercise of private property rights, the benefits of
wilderness and cultural sites were preserved for all.

The Preserve

It's time for a intellectual property preserve that protects
words, pictures, sounds, moving images and digital
information as public property.

Although this idea might sound strange, glimpses of it
already exist here and there.  Massive repositories of public
information (much not subject to copyright) reside in
government agencies like the National Archives and Library of
Congress.  Private initiatives like Project Gutenberg aim to
make public domain texts available to the world in electronic
form.  Many rightsholders and custodians of cultural
materials have renounced exclusive right to the content they
nominally control.

How might an intellectual property preserve work?

The Preserve wouldn't seek to be a library, museum or
archives, although it might possibly collect physical
materials in some cases.  Rather, it would be a repository
for intellectual property rights that had been donated by
rightsholders.  These rights would include copyrights, or in
the case of public domain materials, the right to reproduce
and disseminate the materials.  The activities of the
Preserve would be closely coordinated with existing
institutions, who would often still hold physical materials.

The Preserve would contain textual material, still and moving
images, works of art, sounds and digital information of all
kinds.  These assets would be acquired in two ways.  First,
the Preserve would purchase certain key resources to build up
a core collection of content.  This activity would
necessarily be supported by private funding.  Second, after
developing a curatorial plan, the Preserve would solicit
donations of content.  These donations might not necessarily
include the physical materials representing the content, but
would definitely copyrights or rights to reproduce.

Why would copyright owners (or owners of public domain
materials) ever cede their properties to the Preserve?
First, and perhaps most important, tax incentives.  Amend the
tax code to allow substantial deductions or tax credits for
donating valuable copyrights or materials.  Second, key
donors might be compensated with funds raised by foundations
and private organizations.  Third, by recognizing the act of
donation as a prestigious deed benefitting the national
cultural heritage.

The Preserve aims to make a finite but significant portion of
our intellectual and cultural property available to one and
all -- both individuals and corporations -- for nothing more
than the physical costs of duplication and transmission.  Its
concept supports freedom of inquiry and freedom of expression
by preserving the right to quote, to duplicate, to
appropriate preexisting material.

The Preserve is not an anti-corporate scheme, and it is not
meant to compete with existing copyright-based industries.
By setting up a parallel public sector where rights to key
works (especially historically and culturally significant
works) are available at no cost, the Preserve actually
strengthens the copyright system.  Publishers, media
companies and the information industry would enjoy the same
right to duplicate and remarket information in the Preserve
as anyone else -- but the seventh-grader incorporating
historical film clips in her multimedia term paper would no
longer have to wonder whether she was violating copyright


At this point, there are as many questions as there are
answers.  Some of the questions that might be addressed in a
comprehensive study follow:

-- Who, and what interests, would need to be convened in
order to organize the Preserve?
-- Should the Preserve be constituted as an independent
organization or as a project of an existing entity?
-- How will the Preserve's activities be funded?
-- How does the Preserve relate to existing institutions
and initiatives, such as the American Memory Project at LC;
existing digital library initiatives; and task forces on
intellectual property rights, such as the forthcoming
National Academy of Sciences study?
-- Is the concept of public/private partnership relevant
to how the Preserve might be organized, especially in terms
of how public access to the Preserve's materials might be
-- How should the Preserve collect materials?  Should it
collect physical materials of any kind, or should it just be
a rights clearinghouse that charges no fees, or nominal
handling fees?
-- Should the Preserve defray the costs of digitization
and making works ready for dissemination?
-- How will members of the public reproduce works in the
Preserve?  By contract with institutions that possess the
physical works themselves, or by duplicating digital copies
held by the Preserve?
-- What tax questions arise out of the donation of
rights, and is legislation necessary?
-- How would rightsholders or custodians of key
collections be compensated for ceding their resources to the
-- On curatorial issues: what kinds of content should be
targeted or acquisition?
-- Questions of copyright vs. questions of contractual
control:  many public domain collections reside in public and
private repositories, but are protected from reuse by
contractual considerations
-- Could "orphan works" (works whose copyright holder is
out of business or unknown) find their way into the Preserve,
if legitimate property rights are somehow protected?
-- Should works that go into the public domain
automatically default into the Preserve when they are no
longer protected by copyright, thus rendering the Preserve
responsible for providing access to users as needed?
-- Would the Preserve be a national or an international
organization?  Would its benefits be available

Monday, June 22, 2009

Taking history back from the "storytellers"

About a month ago, a group of moving image archivists that participate in AMIA-L, one of my favorite listservs, started talking about the problem of poorly-produced (and poorly-thought-out) reenactments, and how they had grown to infect historical documentaries. I was on vacation and couldn't participate in a timely way, but the clear desert air incubated a bit of a rant, a slightly revised version of which I'm now sharing.

Please bear in mind that when I say "we," I mean moving image archivists.

While there seems to be agreement that the reenactment trend has spread way too far, I think there's a deeper problem facing historically/archivally oriented docs, and it's actually something we can help to solve.

Some of the most interesting documentary films take their structures from organic phenomena like the hours of the day, or the trajectory of a river from source to mouth. Others are essays that follow a structured thought process. Still others divide into sequences or parts that need to be understood and compared as discrete units for the film to generate meaning in the viewer. In fact, there are nearly infinite possible documentary structures, of which I think we've only seen a small fraction. By contrast, the mainstream documentary focuses on what's now called "storytelling," a highly traditional representational strategy that in recent years has come to imply the omnipresence of characters (good and evil), a narrative arc and a conventional act-based structure in which seemingly insurmountable problems are frequently solved.

Of course, there's nothing wrong with storytelling, whatever it may be, and not all stories are bad. What's wrong is the assumption, which has become not only pervasive but compulsory, that documentaries need characters, that the narrative arc must reign supreme, and that we're obliged to show people wrestling with and resolving problems. I've sat with PBS gatekeepers and heard them refer to programs as "stories," not films or shows. Ultimately this insults potential audiences by assuming they're only able to ingest a limited narrative menu. Is it really true that, when it comes to media, "the best surprise is no surprise?"

The vernacular language of documentaries is freezing in place. If I tried to pitch The River today, they'd say "A river? Where's the story? You need to find characters with great stories who live along the banks." If I sought money for The Man with the Movie Camera, I'd be sent back to research more about the cameraman's inner life and emotions, and to find or invent interpersonal (rather than interframe) conflict. Now, there are indeed essay-based makers, like Adam Curtis, perhaps Errol Morris, and many others (forgive my lack of knowledge, but I'm not a Netflix guy). Sam Green is now making a film on utopia that I think is not shrinking from ideas, even though it does follow a few people around. And then there's James Benning. But it's just harder to make different work and have it seen.

So, where do archives come in? The last 20 years have witnessed the emergence of new kinds of documentation, such as home movies and other unofficial materials. Much of this kind of imagery reflects personal historical perspectives, unlike other kinds of archival material that emanate from institutions, governments, studios and corporations. This is great, but what's happening (especially with amateur material) is that film is being used to construct histories that emphasize personal experience, that rely on the depiction of struggle and transformation at an individual level, and that constitute "stories" in a narrow rather than broad sense. I'm not advocating socialist realism here, just criticizing the reduction of world-historical events and phenomena to the story of "a day in the life of my cranky grandfather who survived the war and is just about to get evicted."

Many of us who collect or take care of moving images and sounds feel that original materials tell pretty good stories on their own. Aside from some courageous DVD collections of uncut archival films, a supplement here and there, and several sketchy sites presenting downloadable archival materials, most original materials don't reach the public without being run through the storytelling Cuisinart. While context is essential to really understand and work with most moving images, overbearing narration, emotionally invasive music and highly personalized visions of history don't constitute context. Bits and pieces from our collections are being woven into works that don't really speak to the value of their components.

So, where do we come in? I propose two ideas.

The first is easy. Let's put original, unedited archival material out in the world in such a way that it competes with documentaries. This isn't going to kill our stock footage income, because producers and directors always feel they can improve on reality by imposing structures of their design, and they'll still come around. But it will insure that audiences can see original documents without the imposition of artificial layers of narrativity. (Plus, I have always wondered how archives can ethically let historical mediamakers use clips without making the original works from which the clips come available to anyone who wants to see the complete continuity. When someone cites a passage of text or a still image, there's a powerful implication that someone can check the citation themselves. We don't make this easy.)

Archives are part of the system of cultural production. So are archivists. Which brings me to a second suggestion.

We have all noted that the cost of production and distribution is going down quickly, even though it isn't zero. Why then aren't archivists making more documentaries, and why isn't production seen as an integral archival mission? Why on earth do we observe invisible barriers of specialization that cause producers (whose interests are often fleeting and superficial) to become the chief interpreters and contextualizers of our collections?

Librarians write books, too. Museum curators make text and media. Why don't we make more movies? Everyone else in the world feels entitled to.

As more and more archivists become curators and preservers of digital files, and as working with physical moving image materials becomes an unjustly underfunded artisanal specialty, we may have to figure out what exactly it is that we do. I suggest we consider becoming moving image authors too.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Seen at the Detroit Public Library last month

Media in Transition conference

OK, I'm going to try to be a better blogger. But it's been hard — the combined effort I pour into Facebook, Twitter and email feels like an unpaid, half-time job.

Anyway, I'm attending the Media in Transition conference at MIT next week. It looks great.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Anyone want a partial run of Printer's Ink magazine?

Ad historians, culture historians, collectors: We have a partial duplicate set of Printers Ink (the weekly, not the monthly), starting about 1927 and running through 1957. Some volumes great condition, others not. We would be delighted to offer it to someone with an interest in this material and the ability to pick up in downtown SF, as it's too much to ship.

It is full of interesting copy and fascinating ads about the ad industry. Let me know!

--> Printers Ink found a home.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

New films starting to trickle online

Thanks to AV Geek Skip, new films from our collection are starting to come online. Many of them are as new to me as they will be to you. Check out the latest uploads here.

Oh -- this is a repeat post, I see. Whatever.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

New films coming online

For most of the year we've been promising that we'd upload 500 new films to our collection at the Internet Archive. This has taken longer than we anticipated, and we're sorry to have dangled this possibility in front of our archival fan community for such a long time. The reason for the delay has been that this year we started our "tapelessness" project — a project to convert all of our material presently living on Digital Beta and Beta SP videotape to high-bitrate digital files — and wanted to make the digital files for the Archive at the same time we were making our own. This is a complex workflow and we're still experimenting with getting it right, but I'm delighted to say that new films are starting to trickle onto the Archive site. It's going to be a diverse bunch of material with many items that haven't been seen in quite a few years.

Watch this link for new items as they appear.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Remembering Bill O'Farrell

Bill was an uncommonly kind, generous and convivial person, a sympathetic enabler of archival activity and a collector and redistributor of evidence that might help to contextualize films that seemed without history. We will all miss him. We're thinking of his loved ones.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Coming to Berlin and Budapest

I'm doing a mini-Grand Tour in June, presenting at the Deutsche Kinemathek's Kolloquium on Friday, June 13; doing a screening that afternoon and then two evening screenings on Sunday and Monday, June 15 and 16. The schedule is here. Berliners and travelers, please come and say hi.

Note that the June 16 program will be an all-35mm show, featuring the recently restored Master Hands, the even-more recently restored Tuesday in November (a project of Mark Toscano at the Academy Film Archive) and a vintage IB Technicolor and SuperScope print of Chevrolet's Populuxe classic, American Look.

Then on June 19-21 I'll be in Budapest for the NECS (European Network for Cinema and Media Studies) conference.

Microsoft ends Live Book Search program

This morning MSFT announced it was ending its Live Book Search program, and will be taking the site down next week. They're also ending their support of key digitization initiatives, including many of the library scanning projects operated by the Internet Archive.

Prelinger Library books that MSFT paid to scan will still be available through the Internet Archive and the Open Library, which also offers full-text search and download of over 300,000 public domain books.

The blogosphere is buzzing on this and I anticipate hearing more today.

Brewster has just posted an announcement, with some good news.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

We had fun today at MakerFaire

About 200 people visited our little satellite library in the Fiesta building. If you can, come by tomorrow!


Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Mock Up On Mu

Just saw Craig Baldwin's new (and, he says, unfinished) film. It is beautifully done. Whatever limits it may have, and I can't pin down any walls it might hit until I've seen it again, will be the limits of found-footage films, not any deficits of his skill and imagination. The first interview is pretty good.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Google peers into our living room, and sees...

M first found this on Google Street View. It points up at our living room, and you can distinctly see the split reel behind the window, though you can't see the Elmo (a special kind of projector used to make quick-and-dirty film-to-video transfers) to which it's attached.

how could I forget?

Pix from the Orphan Film Symposium in March.

Murketing's Virtual Festival of Sponsored Film

Rob Walker writes "Consumed" for the NY Times Magazine and keeps up quite a pace with the Murketing blog. In the last week he's been viewing, reviewing and contextualizing a bunch of films from the Field Guide, five so far. This is exciting.

Recent presentations

I recently attended the Economies of the Commons conference at de Balie in Amsterdam. This was at once a provocative and congenial meeting, and it was fascinating to hear from people who are working on major national moving image digitization projects in Europe and from members of the "freer culture" community. The sessions were blogged here and elsewhere.

My keynote, "Audiovisual Archives and the Social Contract" is downloadable here, but beware, as it is a 24MB pdf.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Future Histories keynote

This was a great conference, intimate enough to get to know almost everyone and to have really interesting discussions. The organizers put together a memorable event and the Northern hospitality was heartwarming.

A few resources:

My keynote (pdf, 10.8MB)
My photoset, mostly people
The conference program and abstracts

Many of the papers will probably be published in a future issue of Convergence (which unfortunately seems to be behind a paywall).

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Future Histories of the Moving Image

I'm off to the UK to speak at this very promising conference (you will have to click on "conference" to see the program). Stay tuned for more from Sunderland.

San Francisco Bay oil spill

Megan (who is trained as an oil spill responder) has been activated and is working up at International Bird Rescue Research Center in Cordelia. IBRRC's blog is updated regularly and gives a good sense of what they're dealing with up there.
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