Craig Baldwin is a San Francisco-based experimental documentary filmmaker and film archivist who, in 1984, co-founded the non-profit art gallery and screening space Artists' Television Access, from which he's shown underground and experimental shorts under the Other Cinema umbrella, which was established in 1978. Working out of a varied mix of fringe, intellectual, aesthetic and anti-establishment movements—from DIY punk to the Situationist Internationalists to his self-described found-film Cinema Povera style—his most famous film is 1995's Sonic Outlaws, about the legal and ethical issues surrounding the agit-prop sound collage band Negativeland's appropriation of sound and images from the band U2. Baldwin comes to teach and present on July 23 at CSUMB as part of the Summer Arts program, and he comes highly respected and recommended. He is a trip.
What and who are some of your influences?
Bruce Conner. He came to San Francisco in the '50s with the Beat art movement. He was part of this subcultural thing, associated with Beat culture. He was teaching film history [at San Francisco State University]. I was doing these collage films before [I took] his class. It was in the air. My generation was looking to the street, West Coast informality, outside, for culture, nature, sex, humor. Not official art history.
We're more influenced by war resistors, beats, hippies, punks, less academic, less formal, more street culture, less bourgeois culture. Conner's an influence, but less so than a tinker's subconsciousness. San Francisco is extremely diverse. [There's] youth culture, gay, labor. Collage is part of my sensibility, collecting obsessively. To find things from the gutter, a debris box, that's what I call Cinema Povera. There's Art Povera, a recognized movement after World War II. Like in Italy, the idea of producing a beautiful classical nude sculpture was preposterous. The people there started making art out of the stuff available to them. Like brick or concrete or rebar that had been destroyed during the war, with the history that had been ingrained in them.
They called Conner a Dada—a love of trash and garbage. Fluxus, neo-Dada, punk rock. There's a lot of people who've done Dada films, especially now—hahahahaha!—when there's so much trash.
What will you teach at CSUMB's Summer Arts?
This class is visual media, documentary. The workshop is definitely a documentary class. In film, documentary is part of it, so is animation, experimental, essay. Because just like what we're doing right now is language based, so much is grounded in the words I use. Film is more graded on the visual. It doesn't make sense to make film in film anymore. People doing documentaries aren't so interested in doing 16mm. My strength is 16mm, but perhaps in the context of this class…
If you have a documentary about me, my life, if you use this straight out, it might be boring in tone, which it is—hahahahaha! You might want to show a picture of me. You don't necessarily have to explain it all in words.
How has growing up in California influenced your work?
I would have to say, I'm a dyed in the wool Californian. It's produced this human being, a child of the West Coast sensibility. In the East Coast, I might have gone to another school, I might be thinking about my family, thinking about Europe.
Here, I grew up around surfers, skateboarders, drug dealers, rock and roll. Pictures are very strong here in California. Film history, it really flourished and was characterized by West Coast roots. I taught at Davis, Berkeley. I've travelled around a lot, away from monoculture, towards polyculture. What we have here is not necessarily straight up American. That's a straight up lie. I celebrate what's different about the West Coast, the humor, sexuality, funkiness, nature, using the things around you. Not necessarily waiting for someone to give you money, but something already at hand. Not cynical. That's my sensibility.
Where did Other Cinema/Artist Television Access come from?
It was an idea whose time had come. Not planned. An expression of my own sensibility. I always stooped down to pick up a penny on the street. I would always keep a film I saw. The way these materials would be thrown out, I would collect it for some possible future use. I was working at theaters in San Francisco. I used to sleep in the projectionist booth. I don't have any illusions about it. Now it's digital, hard drive. I came up in film when it was tactile, like a sculpture, yeah, yeah. Sooner or later I had enough of a critical mass that people would give films to me.
Surging the wave of media obsolescence. You have to obey the rules, sign in with your password. That's the impulse of this gradual growth of this so-called [Other Media] archive. The exhibition thing, the 'zine online. The films we show aren't all found collage. We show the edge of contemporary fine art filmmaking, whatever you want to call it. We show more digital media—more than film now. It's an alternative space. People opening up galleries without the middle man taking a piece of your action. Painting. He or she would present it in their own way. When people came back to cities in '70s, they said, "We'll take that warehouse." That's what I have here and that's what I've always lived in. We didn't need a gallerist, a bureaucrat. We presented ourselves. Like punk rock. Anyone can do it in three chords. It's less about academic training and more about passion, intimacy, honesty and authenticity, all identified with California. DIY. The explosion of micro cinemas. There are classes in it, by the way. '85 to '86 there was enough action around my warehouse we could show films three nights a week.
That's where I live. That's the gallery I'm talking about—for the last 25 years in the Mission. Cool neighborhood. Younger, poorer, not anymore. It's beginning to be gentrified. [The space] used to be bakery. I repurposed it. We would take this former bakery and collectively, collaboratively, be able to afford the rent on it and put on our own shows. That's what this space is. We used to live in South of Market, but it got expensive. Four of us started this space.
What will be your public presentation at Summer Arts?
The movie I made, Sonic Outlaws. I won't dwell so much on my career—six-seven films, mostly in 16mm. [Sonic Outlaws is] my most documentary film. That's the film I'm showing for these students and the community. I made it in '95. It still holds up. It's about these issues. Formally it'll have the most to teach these kids, but about the creative commons, intellectual copyright, how cultural property is shared, the selling of public space to private developers. Like the Arboretum here in San Francisco, which is obscene. Copyright is the life of the artist plus 90 years. If I wrote a book, nobody would be able to use it until the next century.
Sonic Outlaws. When [the band was] busted for that, I rose to the occasion. They're doing the same thing I'm doing. They're doing it on magnetic tape. I did the documentary in collage, the content and the form being fused. It's as great story. Funny guys. Photocopy art, early video, culture jamming, collage. If you painted over a billboard or did a paint bomb, that turns people off and they say "vandals." But if you use the same font, and change the message, appropriate the form of the original, it intrigues people. The issues of Negativeland. What is fair use? Who owns the [work]? Parody is an exception to the monopoly. I think the so-called guest artists…here's a film that I think is important to documentary filmmakers, who want to show historical films.
These issues floated into public consciousness, now with China stealing information, information being so precious. Mine was one of the first and most exploratory, experimental, playful. It tries to demonstrate through montage. Culture jamming. Reuse and repurposing.