Tell Me Lies, Tell Me Sweet Little Lies


“It is the cinematic image that has expressed in a particularly profound manner this new condition of the image as the inscription of a blank beyond, a closure to the senses, internal to the world and to the very activity of the senses… this beyond that is part of our world, that which makes our eye experience its own blindness as the dimension of futurity (and of an immemorial past)”
— Eyal Peretz, ‘Becoming Visionary: Brian De Palma’s Cinematic Education of the Senses’, 2007

Brian De Palma is an angry man. His latest film, ‘Redacted’, leaves no question about that. De Palma has always been a passionate and critical filmmaker, making cinema that is in itself meta-cinema, smuggling ethical as well as structural concerns in blockbuster narrative films, making the viewer examine what happens in- as well as outside the frame (a friend actually called De Palma “the Michael Snow of Hollywood”). In most of his films he reflects in one way or another – although not always in a very subtle way – on the ambiguous power of images, the mechanics of image-making and the complicity of the viewer in the process, but in ‘Redacted’ (see also earlier post) his critical eye is not only directed to the role and impact of media, but to a world that is slowly but surely loosing its sense of humanity and thruth, a world that is no longer mediated by images, but is becoming all image. De Palma is, as Emmanuel Burdeau of Cahiers du Cinema writes, no longer solely interested in putting other images than the media’s in front of us; “it is no longer to put the truth behind the images that are hiding it; it is not the search for the right point of view, the quest for the initial shot of the film to be as thrilling as it is impossible. We are no longer in a Brian De Palma film. The task at hand is simply to offer a certain way of laying out existing visuals: horizontally, as flat and glistening as the screen these lines are written on.”

‘Redacted’ is a remake of sorts. The director refers several times, sometimes literally (the interrogation scene, the confession in the bar etc. – it’s funny to see how he’s copying parts of his own films now) to his 1989 Vietnam drama ‘Casualties of War’, which had a similar subject. But it’s also a remake of images that are available on the internet, on blogs, forums, social network sites; images that De Palma discovered while doing research and that shocked him to the bone. ‘Redacted’ is based on the true story of a teenage Iraqi girl who was raped, killed, and burned by American soldiers, told as if discovered in bits and pieces scattered about the Internet. The images are mostly recreations or reinterpretations of actually existing footage: an American soldier’s video diary (titled ‘Tell Me No Lies’), a French documentary about routine searches at checkpoints, surveillance camera footage, Iraqi television news casts, and video files on assorted web sites. Through this collage-like approach and the use of new media forms, De Palma explores the very implications of the documentary form and the tension between what we see and what we want to see – the sweet little lies we have become accostumed to.

“What fascinated me was that here was a new set of styles that provided a new way of telling a story I’d told before. I also tried to make you aware, as a viewer, that the images you’re seeing and the way they’re constructed can be presented to create any point of view. You think this is real because of the form it’s in, and of course it’s all fictionalised. So maybe you should think twice when watching a report by an embedded journalist who’s running around convincing you everything is real, authentic and spontaneous.”

De Palma shows no cynicism in using internet images and digital procedures, but rather embraces the potential of the net as a way of making visible the images that are refused by the mainstream media, a medium that is not (yet) as corrupted as television is.

“What I’m trying to do is to make the viewer aware of the techniques that are used to present supposedly the truth to them. They sit there and watch their television screens, and see these embedded reporters and infomercials from Iraq, and how well things are going in Iraq, and they think that’s the truth. In anything on television, somebody is selling something – whether it’s a product, whether it’s a policy. You look on television, this is a commercial medium and everything is for sale. Once you understand that, then you can understand the medium a little better. The web is not so corrupted because there is not that much money involved. Believe me, when the money gets in there, it will probably go the way of television. We’re living in an era where everybody is performing all the time, and posting their performances on the web. Plus there’s reality television, where you’re supposed to believe all this stuff is real, and of course it’s made up.”

The result is a provocative investigation of formal cinematographic conventions and the schizophrenic relationship between reality and fiction, while at the same time De Palma adresses his trademark themes: voyeurism, violence and the relationship between the individual, the image and history in a media environment (btw it might not come as a suprise that De Palma was slaughtered by the press and the audience in the US – f.e. Bill O’Reilly of the right-wing Fox Network called De Palma “a vile man and [‘Redacted’ a] vile film … If even one [new terrorist] enters the fight and kills an American, it’s on Brian de Palma … During World War II, President Roosevelt, the liberal icon, would have put De Palma in prison”). ‘Redacted’ is however also a contemplation on how, as cultural theorist Paul Virilio has remarked, audiovisual media have generated a new relationship with death and disaster, how the spectacle takes the place of critical distance. The space between the camera and the event, screen and viewer is so reduced that death is practically tangible. While De Palma hardly ever turns his camera away from the atrocity, at the same time he seems to propagate a critical, self-reflective distance. In ‘Redacted’ for instance there are some scenes that are staged like a amateuristic Brechtian theatre play.

“One of my favorite aspects of documentary film is how people have a natural way of turning into actors – and often very bad ones – when a camera is pointed at them. Redacted makes conscious commentary on this by breaking a pivotal scene in half, first with the characters aware of their being filmed, second with their being tricked into thinking the camera has been turned off.”

As other recent films, such as Romero’s ‘Diary of the Dead’, ‘Redacted’ is also a reflection on the implications of the all-video, all-the-time society, where reality TV is always on. As Romero said in an interview: “the world is a camera these days, and it seems to be part of the collective subconscious”. An article in Newsweek describes this culture of overexposure, talking about the “Look at Me Generation”, for whom image has replaced “essence”. As an example they quote filmmaker Errol Morris, director of ‘The Fog of War’ and ‘The Thin Blue Line’ who has just finished his new film ‘Standard Operating Procedure’ ‘SOP), about the torture scandals at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib Prison and the shocking photographs that lead to it. In his “non-fiction horror movie”, as Morris calls it, he investigates just how the Abu Ghraib photographs came to be taken, what they revealed and how they were interpreted by the media, exploring what he calls “the irony of images”. In the film we see the dozens of photos the soldiers—most of whom were in their teens and early 20s at the time—took of the prisoners they abused, and of each other, posing and goofing around. In some of the shots with the prisoners, other soldiers’ cameras are visible as well. Their eagerness to document themselves seemed to blind them to the consequences of creating a record of their actions. The pictures not only resulted in the guards’ downfall—without the photos, there would have been almost no proof of crimes—but they may have fed their ugliest impulses. As Morris says, “I often think that if cameras had not been present, these events would not have occurred.”

An Affair of the Heart


“Life ain’t nothing but a good groove / A good mix tape to put you in the right mood.”
— Beastie Boys, ‘Professor Bootie’

When an institution like the Ancienne Belgique here in Brussels devotes a special event to a music-cultural phenomenon, you know the bridge between the ‘underground’ and the ‘mainstream’ has been crossed, whatever that might imply. A concert evening titled CASSETTE CRUSTS ON TAPE TRIPS … (curated by (K-RAA-K)3) is all about cassette culture, with acts that either release their work on tape (like the Brussels based collective Buffle) and/or work with tapes themselves (like Nonhorse and the great Jason Lescalleet). The cassette is back, that’s for sure. Some people obessively hunt for vintage used tapes, on second hand markets, on the streets, in order to manipulate and integrate their sounds in new compositions (like some members of the R.O.T. collective), some use tapes to explore personal and public sonic memory (like Aki Onda, who has been working for over 10 years on his wonderful ‘Cassette Memories’ project, a series of performances and registrations in which he uses his diaristic cassette recordings, collected over many years and extensive travels, to investigate and create spaces that conjure up the essence of memory), and then there are the analogue enthusiasts such as Jérôme Noetinger, Lionel Marchetti and Al Margolis, who proove that there is still plenty of life left in so-called “obsolete” gear. Most of all, there is the re-emergence of cassette labels (in the footsteps of the mythic cassette underground of the 1980’s), which seem to spring up out of the underground like mushrooms, not in the least in Belgium, where labels such as Imvated/Dreamtime Taped Sounds/Bread And Animals or Sloow Tapes are at the heart of the Belgian ‘leftfield’ music scene, with wonderful (limited) releases of Orphan Fairytale, Ignatz, Benjamin Franklin, Silvester Anfang, Buffle as well as many international projects.

Aki Onda
(image: Aki Onda before his concert with Ken Jacobs at Bozar. See elsewhere on this blog for more info)

The cassette tape is growing out of the shadows, where it’s been enjoying its near-obsolete retirement-status for the past few years – born in 1963, it had it’s taste of decadent euphoria in the 1980’s (thanks in part to gizmos like the Sony Walkman), but got tired of fighting younger competitors, and was silently waiting for its final deathblow – and is beginning to creep back into the spotlight. Metal-reel cassettes are sold for hundreds of euros via Ebay, tapes are turned into USB sticks, belt buckles, cassette bags, all manner of fashion related retrofits and, also, the your-text-on-a-tape image generator (see image). We’ve never seen so many people wearing a t-shirt depicting cassettes before, with slogans like “I Love Music Tapes”, “8-track is back”, “Vintage Music Addict” or “retro cassette, OLD SKOOL”. What’s more: popular acts like the Notwist and Autechre are releasing their promos on tape. As a way of avoiding the leakage of recordings before the official release date, sure (in the case of The Notwist’s ‘The Devil, You+Me’, scheduled for May, it didn’t work, trust me), but Autechre’s Rob Brown has an explanation that sounds better: “Cassettes hold a significance for us because we grew up swapping tapes in a music sharing culture based on high-speed dubbing, not dial-up speed. Our early promos are on tape. They were the last universal format before everything went digital. People sling cassettes about and you find them on the floor. It’s totally different to the world of vinyl.” But it’s not just a gadget stunt or nostalgy trip: “Tapes give a good sense of the music without loads being shaved off, or the dynamics being altered.”

So yes, it’s about the qualities of analogue sound, the physical matter of tapes, the mechanics of the cassette apparatus, … but perhaps there’s more going on. In 2005 Thurston Moore edited the publication ‘Mix Tape: The Art Of Cassette Culture‘, in which the likes of Lasse Marhaug, Mike Watt, Tom Greenwood of Jackie-O Motherfucker, Jim O’Rourke, Richard Kern, Loren Mazzacane Connors, DJ Spooky, Tony Conrad and Christian Marclay contemplated the role of the cassette tape in their lives, as a portable, inexpensive, durable format which allowed them and all of us to record, mix and listen to music privately. For Moore the mixtape, or any form of music sharing, is an affair of the heart, a sort of “Cultural Love Letters”: “the message of the mixtape might be: I love you. I think about you all the time. Listen to how I feel about you. Or, maybe, I love me. I am a tasteful person who listens to tasty things. This tape tells you all about me…” The main character in Nick Hornby’s ‘High Fidelity’ has similar feelings: “To me, making a tape is like writing a letter — there’s a lot of erasing and rethinking and starting again (…) The making of a good compilation tape is a very subtle art. Many dos and don’ts. First of all, you’re using someone else’s poetry to express how you feel. This is a delicate thing.” The love is in the process, as the initiators of the International Mixtape Project state: “Mixtapes present a strange collision of the cerebral and the emotional, because they most directly satisfy the need, not of the seeker, but of the sender. They are the mixer’s art, while the mixer’s medium is the art of others”.

For Matias Viegener the mixtape is all about the relation between consuming and producing pop culture. “The mix tape is a form of American folk art: predigested cultural artifacts combined with homespun technology and magic marker turn the mix tape into a message in a bottle. I am no mere consumer of pop culture, it says, but also a producer of it. Mix tapes mark the moment of consumer culture in which listeners attained control over what they heard, in what order and at what cost. (…) The mix tape is a list a quotations, a poetic form in fact: the cento is a poem made up of lines pulled from other poems. The new poet collects and remixes. Similarly an operation of taste, it is also cousin to the curious passion of the obsessive collector. Unable to express himself in ‘pure’ art, the collector finds himself on obsessive acquisition. Collecting is strangely hot and cold, passionate and calculating.” Is it any wonder then, that recordings of countless mixtapes from the 1980s and 1990s are popping up on music blogs all over the world, offering listeners an opportunity to listen to the sounds of a specific moment in time? The ‘prosumer’ mentality, the DIY ethics, the comfort and intimicy of home-taping, the poetics of mixing, the personalisation via the creation of specific artwork, the resequencing and sharing of music to make sense of our most stubbornly inexpressible feelings, a way of explaining and communicating ourselves… does all of this sound familiar? Isn’t this, in a way, strangely related to the rhetorics of the so-called web 2.0 culture? The most ambiguous, but yet revealing, examples of this might be found in applications like Mixwit (tagline: “Yeah, it’s personal”), Mixaloo, Muxtape, Songza or Alonetone (this one is open source). Basically these are ‘virtual’ mixtape machines (most of them even use a cassette interface), trying (!) to revitalize the home-brewed compilation of songs as an “affair of the heart”. Trying, yes, because maybe, and I guess that’s the reason behind the cassette culture whiplash, in a music sharing culture based on the “whatever, where-ever, whenever” paradigm, it has just become too damn easy to be worth caring about… and it’s backfiring on us.

(PS: Some of the applications I mentioned seem to be quite succesful in “emulating” or “remediating” the mixtape experience: Leslie Poston writes: “All week people have been emailing me their favorite Muxtapes. I love it. Maybe I’m showing my age (36), but I’m a child of the 70s and teen of the 80s. Some of my favorite music in my collection is on old mixed cassettes made for me by my friends. This reminds me of that feeling, like your friend is sharing possible musical treasure with you”. Others write: “Dead simple, absolutely clear, quenches a common thirst (sharing a collection of songs with a friend), can’t-mess-up easy (username, email, password then upload MP3s). For a tiny touch of personality you can change the color of the strip at the top of the screen.I imagine this could get shut down, but I love the exercise in simple execution. There are so many ways this could have been complicated. Muxtape’s elegance demonstrates the power of sticking to the point” and, somebody else: “Maybe i’m just getting old but i think this is perfect, the way it mirrors an old school mix tape. if someone takes the time to make me a mix tape, i’m not gonna fast forward through a track. just put it on, sit back and enjoy. people want too much control these days”.)





21 Apr 2008, Sphinx, Gent.
Program produced by Courtisane as part of the Courtisane Festival 2008 (21-27 April 2008)

At the 2008 edition of Courtisane, British film director Ben Rivers is placed centrally. Rivers is the co-founder of the Brighton Cinematheque and has been making movies since 1999. His recent works are mysterious impressionist films in which loners, abandoned places and memory play the leading roles. Ben Rivers’ films are drenched in a spooky spiritualism, like bits of dreams that find their way into your consciousness. Rivers documents his subjects carefully. Abandoned buildings illustrate their own decay, landscapes draw themselves, stories from the past come in a shade of mystery, a cocoon breaks gently and becomes a subtle poetic portrait of an Einzelgänger. He hand-processes film and prefers black and white film stock with a thick, tactile grain, that’s why his films bare resemblance to documentaries from decades ago. Ben Rivers kicks off the festival with a compilation of his own work and a selection of his favourite filmmakers.

Old Dark House
2003, 16mm, b/w, 4′

“Rooms in an abandoned, burnt out house revealed by multiple in-camera superimpositions of a single torch-light. This marked the start of my hand-processing film, which I continued to use from then on.”

2005, 16mm, b/w, 5′

“My first sequel. Another old dark house, where only fragments remain of a once animated domestic history, reoccupied by a history of horror films. Crumbling interiors. Stained, peeling walls and forgotten furniture. Dust sheets on rotting floorboards. The unfolding process of abandonment, decay and renewal. All made on a 1:12 scale.”

The Bomb with a Man in his Shoe
2005, 16mm, b/w, 15′

“The closest I’ve come to doing a commercial – commissioned to show in fancy boutiques in Japan, USA and Europe. Initially supposed to be a few minutes long, the film began as a very loose kind of documentary, where I would turn up with my bolex and lights once a week over a two-month period, filming the various stages of making 400 pairs of shoes. All the superimpositions were done in-camera on out-of-date stock, hand-processed as I went along. As the filming progressed I felt we needed to get outside, to see what would happen on a few walks in the great outdoors. It’s pretty senseless.”

The Hyrcynium Wood
2005, 16mm, b/w, 3′

“I found the title in an out of date Thesaurus looking up the word ‘mystery’ – which is essentially what this film remains to me.”

The Coming Race
2006, 16mm, b/w, 5′

“A film in which thousands of people climb a rocky mountain terrain. The destination and purpose of their ascension remains unclear. A vague, mysterious and unsettling pilgrimage fraught with unknown intentions.”

2006, 16mm, color, 8′

“A portrait of Astika, who lives on an island in Denmark. He has lived in a run down farm house for 15 years and his project has been to let the land around him grow unchecked, but now he has been forced to move out by people who prefer more pristine neighbours.”

This Is My Land
2006, 16mm, b/w, 14′

“A portrait of Jake Williams – who lives alone within miles of forest in Aberdeenshire, Scotland. Jake always has many jobs on at any one time, finds a use for everything, is an expert mandolin player, and has compost heaps going back many years. He has a different sense of time to most people in the 21st Century, which is explicitly expressed in his idea for creating hedges by putting up bird feeders.”

Dove Coup/Greenhouse
2007, 16mm, b/w + col, 2×2′

Two sketches

Ah, Liberty!
2008, anamorphic 16mm, b/w, 20′

“A celebratory portrait of a family’s place in the wilderness – living, working, playing on a farm throughout the seasons; free-range animals and children, junk and nature, all within the most sublime landscape. The work aims at a sense of freedom, the scale of which is reflected in the hand-processed Cinemascope format, and focuses on the youngest of the family to show us what’s what. There’s no particular story; beginning, middle or end, just fragments of lives lived.”

Laurel & Hardy
Big Business

US, 1929, 16mm on video, b/w, 19′

A common routine Laurel & Hardy often performed was a “tit-for-tat” fight with an adversary. Typically, Laurel and Hardy accidentally damaged someone else’s property. The injured party would retaliate by ruining something belonging to Laurel or Hardy, who would calmly survey the damage and find something else to vandalize. The conflict would escalate until both sides were simultaneously destroying property in front of each other. An early example of the routine occurs in their classic short, Big Business, which was added to the Library of Congress as a national treasure in 1992.

Artavazd Pelechian
Obitateli ou Bnakitchnère (Inhabitants)

URSS, 1970, 8 min)

“Pelechian’s films are remarkable because they stare upon fundamental and cosmic themes, edited with a
mastery of scale and rhythm which makes all life on earth swarm and bloom through the celluloid. Inhabitants in 1970 is a hymn to the animal world which aspires to formal abstraction, clouds of silver birds pulverising the light.” (J.S.)

George Kuchar
The Mongreloid

1978, 16mm, color, sound, 10′

“A man, his dog, and the regions they inhabited, each leaving his own distinctive mark on the landscape. Not even time can wash the residue of what they left behind.” (G.K.) “The Mongreloid explores at the problems and joys of human-pet relationships from Kuchar’s typically cracked perspective. He engages in what appears to be a one-way conversation with his dog Bocko, his reminiscences intercut with photos and film footage from the times in question. Kuchar’s companion Curt McDowell also makes an appearance, albeit at one level of remove from reality.” (J.S.)

Walerian Borowczyk
Les Jeux des Anges

FR, 1964, 16mm, 12′

“Walerian Borowczyk was a twisted man whose films were infused with a unique cruelty and weirdness. He started out making extraordinary animations, graduated to directing classics such as Goto, Island of Love and La B te, and then ended up directing Emmanuelle 5, which I think is a perversely fitting end. Les Jeux des Anges was my first experience of animation that was utterly impressionistic. It didn’t show me anything specific, just sound and movement from which you create a world of your own.” (Terry Gilliam)

Margaret Tait
Portrait of Ga

UK, 1955, 16mm, 4′

A Portrait of Ga was the first of many portraits made by the Orcadian artist Margaret Tait during her long life of filmmaking. A portrait of her mother, it was shot on a visit home from the Film School in Rome. It signals the beginning of her commitment to making simple films about real life and real people.

Lewis Klahr
Daylight Moon

US, 2002, 16mm, 13′

“There are things I could say about Daylight Moon, but very few I want to before someone sees it. But I will say this: of all the films I’ve made using collage to muck around in the past, this one gets the closest to what I’m after.” (Lewis Klahr)

Luther Price
Same Day Nice Biscotts

US, 2005, 16mm, 5′

“A mournful dissolving jewel set in bruised magenta sends out votive glints of dying light. A lone bird chirps and branches cover our eyes. Working from a stack of abandoned multiple film prints (nearly identical and close to thirteen in number) Luther Price makes reiterative loops that underline futility, echo hope, and mark every camera movement with the vain promise of fresh outcome and inevitable predestination.” (Mark McElhatten)

Economies of the Commons


“Information wants to be free. Information also wants to be expensive … That tension will not go away.”
— Stewart Brand, 1984

Looking forward to the ‘Economies of the Commons’ conference, that will take place in Amsterdam on April 10 – 12. This conference on “the economies, sustainability, and opportunities for creative reuse of these public audiovisual resources and archives” is organised by De Balie, the Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision in Hilversum, in collaboration with Knowledgeland, Images for the Future, and Virtual Platform and brings together the likes of Peter Kaufman (Intelligent Television), Rick Prelinger (Prelinger Archives), Roei Amit (INA), Kenneth Goldsmith (UbuWeb), Florian Schneider ( David Bollier (On The Commons), and many others.

the main issues are:
– What kinds of strategies are available to facilitate the growth of these emerging public knowledge resources, and guarantee their longer-term sustainability?
– How is value created around the emerging digital commons, and how can this value be capitalised on for the public good?
– How can these resources be activated as a creative productive force for contemporary culture, and how can the reuse of these enormously rich resources be facilitated and stimulated?

Meanwhile, the flood of online audiovisual content is growing out of proportions: During a panel at the Media Summit in NY on March 12, YouTube Inc. ‘s Philip Inghelbrecht, strategic partner development manager, dropped this nugget of information: Ten hours of fresh content is uploaded to YouTube every minute! “If you can’t solve the search question quickly enough that’s a problem,” said Inghelbrecht.

In this article, Frank Smith, has some interesting remarks: “But this explosion of digital content could come at a cost. A study released by IDC sponsored by information management firm EMC Corp. (NYSE: EMC) found that the total volume of digital content being produced today has exceeded existing storage capabilities. IDC estimates that 281 billion Gbytes were uploaded in 2007, which amounts to about 45 Gbytes of content per each human on earth. Increased use of digital televisions and camcorders, part of YouTube’s stock in trade, is where the greatest amount of this content is coming from. It leads one to wonder if search rather than storage is going to be the biggest hurdle for YouTube to cross in the future.”

(by the way, I recently stumbled upon the Search-in-Video application, developped by Reuters and powered by Viewdle, a video indexing platform that includes face-recognition technology for true, real-time and contextually-relevant appearances of people on screen. “A new way to search, Viewdle gets you from query to relevant clip in seconds. No more waiting for download or buffering to check the relevancy of returned results. No more irrelevant search results. No more searching for just “files” when you can narrow in on precise moments. Search-in-Video helps you find the information you need — fast”)

Anyways, Smith continues: “Search factored in big at the panel Hollywood and the Digital Consumer, with Inghelbrecht suggesting that Google (Nasdaq: GOOG) isn’t done making big moves in advertising. ‘If you can solve the search question and then catapult into the advertising business, a Turkish airline can automatically know there’s a video of Turkish folklore dance on YouTube and create a bigger market.’ But what if this content is owned by someone else? ‘If the copyright content appears on YouTube or any other Web platform, the knee-jerk reaction is to take it down,’ said Inghelbrecht. ‘The person who uploads Entourage is probably the biggest Entourage fan. So the question we ask ourselves is not only how do we detect copyrights but turn them into opportunities?’

The question about business models is a pressing one – one that is being examined in lots of public sponsored projects worldwide, including BOM-vl here in Flanders and Images of the Future in the Netherlands. It’s clear to all parties, including publishers and broadcasters, that the traditional business model for the distribution of information has been challenged in fundamental ways, now that new audiovisual, digital and network technologies have made the production, reproduction and dissemination of all kinds of data relatively cheap and easy (although the current legal constructions aren’t equiped at all to handle the resulting social and cultural paradigmas). Harry Verwayen of Images of the Future gives the example of publishers in the academic field, who traditionally operated in a closed environment where they sold packages of journals and books through an annual license to libraries, are now exploring models in which authors are paying for the publication service in exchange for posting in so-called ‘open access‘ journals, where access is free at the point of use. “In this particular case it looks like a suitable business model has been found, as this model takes advantage of the power of the internet and leads to a greater return on investment for authors (visibility) while securing revenues for the service providers (publishers). The audiovisual industries are facing similar issues but have yet to find a grip on the situation; content is more often than not available for free through P2P networks therefore a large part of the incentive to go to a shop and buy a cd or film has vanished. As we are digitizing vast amounts of audio-visual cultural heritage we are facing the same questions: what models can be developed that fulfill the need for broad accessibility for the public while securing a solid return on investment for owners of the material (authors, producers, directors, etc).”

Some, like Chris Anderson (the propagator of the ‘Long Tail’ theory), in his forthcoming book’ Free’, believes that ‘free’ will be the leading business model in the networked media society. Until recently, ‘free’ was really just the result of what economists would call a cross-subsidy: You’d get one thing free if you bought another, or you’d get a product free only if you paid for a service. But now that the cost of processing power, bandwidth and storage is falling fast, the so-called “freeconomics” is growing out to be a full-fledged economy, and no longer a marketing gimmick. See for instance the recent booming of free music offerings, and of course the services of YouTube or Google, free to users while advertisers pay the bills. Anderson writes: “The Web is all about scale, finding ways to attract the most users for centralized resources, spreading those costs over larger and larger audiences as the technology gets more and more capable. It’s not about the cost of the equipment in the racks at the data center; it’s about what that equipment can do. And every year, like some sort of magic clockwork, it does more and more for less and less, bringing the marginal costs of technology in the units that we individuals consume closer to zero. (…) The Web has become the land of the free.”

The result is an “economy of abundance”, in which resources should be used with abandon, without concern for waste, so choices are actually deferred to the end users – but this also implies that succes is dependent on attracting and keeping users, as benefits are increased as the number of users increase. This is also related to the “freemium” model (term coined by Fred Wilson) that his being used by “web 2.0” companies like Flickr and Linkedin. It basically works by offering basic services for free, while charging a premium for advanced or special features – what Kevin Kelly calls “generatives”. Other categories of the pricelles economy are, according to Anderson, advertisements (google just released a beta service of video advertisements: Adsense for Video ), the good ol’ Cross-subsidies, and the free-to-all models, like communities sharing their music or videos just for the fun of it (“Zero marginal cost”), Free services in exhange for ratings like Digg (“Labor exchange”) or the real “Gift economy”, which goes to show that money can’t be the only motivator. But Anderson’s theory might not be as stable as it looks, as Andy Oram recently stated in his comments. He thinks that information’s current state is highly volatile and that the ‘free’ phenomenon will be driven in very different ways from the six models mentioned. to be continued.

(Image above: still scenes from Rick Prelinger’s ”Panorama Ephemera’ from 2004, composed of sequences drawn from a wide variety of ephemeral (industrial, advertising, educational and amateur) films form the Prelinger Archive. Available on, released under a Creative Commons Licence)

Adam Curtis’ Alarm-Clock films


“Le cinéma est fasciné par lui-même comme objet perdu tout comme il (et nous) sommes fascinés par le réel comme référentiel en perdition.”
— Jean Baudrillard, ‘Simulacres et Simulation’

Lately I’ve been doing some research on the recycling of images, mainly focussing of filmmakers who use pre-existing footage to explore how time, memory and perception is constructed, delving beyond the intended message, disarticulating and rearticulating media rhetorics, subverting the image, exploring the limits of representation, to problematise and decentre the gaze, to bring forward the contradictions and aporias in the image, to show what is being excluded, reduced, denied. More on that later.

Somehow related to that I got interested in the Adam Curtis films. Last year Ken Jacobs recommended me the powerful ‘Power of Nightmares’ series, which basically investigates parallels between the rise of the Neo-Con movement in the US and radical Islamist ideology (of course never shown on Belgian – or American for that matter – TV, but available for free on the net via, published with a CC licence), and now I’m systematically looking for and watching his other works, especially ‘Pandora’s Box’ (examines the dangers of technocratic and political rationality), ‘The Living Dead’ (investigates the way that history and memory have been used by politicical forces), ‘The Mayfair Set (looks at how the climate of the Thatcher years was shaped by a club of buccaneer capitalists), ‘The Century Of The Self’ (documents how the rise of Freud’s individualism led to Edward Bernays’ consumerism) and his latest ‘The Trap – What Happened to our Dream of Freedom’ (which is, as Brian Holmes suggests, about “coming to grips with one of the great enigmas of the present: how neolib goes neocon”). In all of these works (made for the BBC) Curtis uses the same method: he delves deep into the history of the 20th century and explores genealogies of power, how ideas and ideologies have grounded and spread over time, how our image of the world, reality and identity, is constructed, and history is (re)written. Although these stories are partially based on conventional models of ‘talking heads’ interviews and didactical documentary clips, they really stand out for their use of, in this case literally, “found” footage. Curtis: “‘The BBC has an archive of all these tapes where they have just dumped all the news items they have ever shown. One tape for every three months. So what you get is this odd collage, an accidental treasure trove. You sit in a darkened room, watch all these little news moments, and look for connections.” Curtis does not only use footage that is regarded as “historically authentic”, but also includes fragments of commercials, fiction films, scientific clips and popular music in an uncanny fashion, resisting the linear movement of the traditional documentary narrative, a method, as Curtis admits freely, that didn’t come very natural: “it was just a disaster until I suddenly realized you just throw anything in you like. It is out of desperation.”

Curtis communicates his critical perspective by building on the ruins of our audiovisual memory, realigning the dismembered body of the past with the constellation of the present, creating in his montage, as Errol Morris suggest, a powerful resonance, that really accents the fundamental message of his works: “Here stock-footage becomes expressionistic – never literal – an excursion into a dream – or, if you prefer – nightmare.” The results are, as Brian Holmes writes in his wonderful essay, audiovisual experiences that “come very close to reproducing the uncanny gap one often feels between the steady flow of inner discursivity and the startling movements of one’s own imagination (…) hour-long bursts of awareness that what we are living through today has been constructed, that behind common knowledge there are hidden sciences, and that government is basically the choice of a ruling epistemology, about which the public is never sufficiently informed. Curtis, like Foucault, consistently asks: “Do you want to be governed like that?” And he asks it with respect to the most contemporary forms of psychological manipulation, of military and security rhetoric, of economic doctrine and workplace organization. These are alarm-clock films, wake-up calls for passive populations whose only recourse would be to think sociologically: but not as their masters do.”

Read more:
Eli Horwatt, ‘Refuse is the Archive of Our Times. The Metaphorical and Expressionistic Use of Found-Footage in the Documentary Films of Adam Curtis and Craig Baldwin’
Brian Holmes, ‘NEOLIB GOES NEOCON. Adam Curtis, or Cultural Critique in the 21st Century’

and of course, watch.