Friday, February 6, 2009

Panic Hardware

The Archive Trilogy - Part One
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You can find almost anything on the Internet. You can find a friend that loves just that one janky Darin Morgan episode of "The X-Files" only you appreciated among your classmates. Even though she lives in Indonesia, you've now found a soulmate.

You can find the answers to tomorrow's test. The teacher didn't know how to protect her usenet account. You can find the secret to true happiness. (And Oprah will sell you the book if you like.)

You can find clips of the Marx Brothers' "Duck Soup." It's not being streamed on - they want you to buy it. It is available on DVD but someone's illegally ripped it and uploaded it to YouTube and elsewhere. They were able to find and take down only the most obvious infringers. Hint, don't name your file "Duck Soup" - or "illegal rip."

You can do whatever you want with it as well. You can edit it down, cut new shots in, play it backwards, or change the music and the dialogue.

It's the new avant-garde. New media is being fueled by appropriation of somebody else's intellectual property. It's the wild wild west, all right, but the robbers are using laptops instead of horses and pistoleros.

And then they post their crimes right up again, for a million people to enjoy and comment on what they've done.

The Internet is different than radio, or television, or even satellite. It's more than an infinitely larger distribution stream for all kinds of media. It's 2-way. All the previous modes to deliver content were controlled and fed by big companies, which depended upon managing access to their assets. The public had to go get it, and paid for the privilege.

Once a film had exhausted its theatrical run, the film traditionally (that is, until about 2 years ago) travelled through the various ancillary streams, from cable to home video to network t.v., a dollar or 2 changing hands every time, eventually ending up on the schedule of a rep house or in an archive, for when someone wanted to do a retrospective. Or a paper. Or a remake.

The Internet and the digital age has changed all that. Now there's a rend in the chainlink fence - that hardware on the exit doors is broken, and letting hundreds if not millions into the back door of the theatre. And the digital tools at our disposal now allow us to grab and re-use the content. I'm not just talking about re-mixing "The Simpsons" with "Scarface" dialogue. It also engenders much more innocent and appropriate uses.

Like watching "Gossip Girl" on my phone. Or studying mid-period Sergio Amadio for that paper that's due in Italian Film next week. Or old "Burke's Law" episodes.

Maybe I'll lay the Christian Bale soundtrack over my home videos of our family picnic.

Access to the material is becoming increasingly valuable and desirable, because its use has skyrocketed. Infinite access is a powerful seducer. So is infinite adaptability.

The archives are online. On YouTube, through BitTorrents, or on the online Moving Image Archive. It's the site of artistic, uncontrolled, academic and downright transgressive behavior. It is unregulated and unregulatable. And that's why it's exciting.

While the traditional archives were concerned with whether or not they should move their old film holdings to some kind of digital format to create access copies, anxious that these weren't the high quality traditional scholars or historians might like, suspicious that digital stripped the originals of their priviledged and ritualized modes of presentation (and in hushed tones), the rest of the world was quietly uploading everything of interest and streaming it.

Shortening it or cutting it into clips. Adding music and adding commentary. Sending, uploading, downloading, copying - stealing the clips to share, study, and rework.

Archives, as physical buildings housing materials, are becoming obsolete. The materials that are culturally relevant today - the researchers and artists - aren't there anymore. In large part because what's relevant needs to be outside. Not behind lock and key.

What's culturally relevant is now in the hands of the public. Along with the tools to appreciate it.

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