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Copy...right?

Negativland vs. The Man
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Craig Baldwin
Sonic Outlaws
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Why I Left Burning Man -- and Why I'm Returning


No Copyright? Sonic Outlaws Director Craig Baldwin

by Deuce of Clubs

(First published in Planet Magazine, 04jul1995)

 

Sonic Outlaws is the product of self-described "film bum" Craig Baldwin, who for almost two decades has been scavenging snippets of film and video and transforming them into "film collage-essays," as he calls them (his first film, Wild Gunman, was completed in 1978). Baldwin's 1991 film Tribulation 99 (with a soundtrack featuring the music of Yma Sumac) attracted a lot of favorable attention. "It was a very successful film, if I do say so myself," says Baldwin. "It did really open up a lot of doors for me." One of those doors led him to a spot on a lecture panel with Negativland's Don Joyce, from whom Baldwin learned of the band's troubles with Island Records.

Baldwin immediately saw that his own work was open to the same kind of legal challenge as Negativland's—and that the whole issue would make a great film. "This was just a good story," he says. "Not only was it a good issue to do a documentary on, but there was a kind of narrative hook to the whole thing...it had this humor and irony built into the story. It was a real drama. It wasn't just a discourse, it wasn't an intellectual treatise. It had this kind of pathos to it. And I was always interested in making films about ideas."

It took Baldwin about two years to make Sonic Outlaws, which was not originally intended to be a feature film. "I thought it was going to be a short film, thirty, forty minutes, like my other films. But when I finally put this thing together, I had three thirty-minute reels."

Baldwin's film could easily be three times that long—the relationship between art and ownership is not a simple one, and the filmmaker's position on the subject is not as clear-cut as one might suppose from such things as his adoption of Negativland's "NO COPYRIGHT" symbol (the "C" copyright symbol inside the international "slash" sign). Some of the film's subjects take radical positions, and Baldwin subtly suggests an affinity for extreme anti-property thought by inserting in the film such things as a clip of Ed Sullivan using the word spectacle, which I took as an intentional reference to the Situationists, a group of radical anti-property European artists and intellectuals of the Fifties and Sixties (a 1967 book by Situationist co-founder Guy Debord was titled The Society of the Spectacle). "Yeah, definitely!" Baldwin says. "Very intentional. You got that right. I kind of buy a lot of the Situationist ideas." In particular, Baldwin likes the ideal of breaking down the barrier between popular and fine art. One might see it as a cinematic version of punk rock (not coincidentally, punk itself was heavily saturated with Situationist ideas, mainly by way of punk impresario Malcolm McLaren).

Baldwin considers his anti-copyright stance to be somewhat more extreme than Negativland's. "[Negativland] is probably more established in the art world than I am," he says. "I probably have more of an anarchistic attitude than they do. I don't have a position—I've never written a manifesto, like Don Joyce has. And the Tape-beatles are great at that, too. But I can hardly be bothered with the legal end of things. My logic's a little fuzzier. I just don't have those hard edges about this. I kind of have an anti-art kind of aesthetic—[I'm] more like a Dada or Situationist kind of guy. I can see through it and say [of art careerists]: `Well, that's a good schtick. You know: better than digging ditches. If you can make a living making music, or collages, that's cool."

I asked Baldwin if he participated in the Situationist/Neoist-inspired "Art Strike" (led by Stewart Home), which was a gesture towards the de-commoditization of art. "Oh, good question! Well, as a matter of fact, in the basement here"— Baldwin lives in an art gallery—"there's a plaque from the Art Strike. I'm very close to some of those people. In fact, it's great that you would know Stewart Home, 'cause he was here about a month ago. He's on tour. He also has this idea of exploding the art category. I actually showed him the rough cut of [Sonic Outlaws]."

Presumably, Home approved. Yet is the anti-copyright stance of this Situationist-inspired "Profeta de un cine subversivo" (as a Spanish-language article included with Baldwin's press kit calls him) really more radical than Negativland's? I asked him what copyright law would look like if the ideas he favors were to prevail. "That's a good question," he says, laughing. "I wish I could give you an answer! It's kind of a technical question, and I don't profess to be...." Baldwin pauses to think a moment. "The thing is, I'm not going to come in like some wild-eyed idealist, without any kind of legal background and say, `Well, you've got to wipe all the copyright laws off the books!' That would be unreasonable. I think there has to be an... adjustment, shall we say. And there will be, there's no doubt about it."

Baldwin is non-committal about his adoption of Negativland's "NO COPYRIGHT" symbol. "I didn't make up [the symbol]," he says. "I go along with it [but] I don't mean it so much literally. I think it can be fun and playful—but I wouldn't start a business on the basis of it!" He says he recognizes the difference between bootlegging and borrowing. "I'm a schoolteacher," he explains. "I get papers back from students who have basically filled out ten pages that are just lifted from [other sources]. The point is, that's kind of in bad faith, [bad] intentions. And it's impossible to evaluate someone's intentions. But that so completely misses the mark. Obviously, you have a paper, you want to quote. But at a certain point you say, well, hold it, you're just doing this rather than generate your own ideas. And that's basically how I feel about it. I don't know how that would be translated into law."

Though Baldwin doesn't think anyone should be bootlegged, a desire to legitimize bootlegging would seem to be implied by a symbol proclaiming "NO COPYRIGHT." "Right," he concedes. "Then I do believe in copyright, to some degree. It's a question I can't give a very meaningful answer to. I guess if I had to take a formal position, it would be, let's open up the Fair Use clause." Baldwin's position, then, isn't really any more radical than Negativland's.

The difficult question, however, is: how far should the law be "opened up?" Take for example Woody Allen's 1966 film What's Up, Tiger Lilly (a Japanese spy film with humorous dialogue dubbed in by Allen) and the Comedy Central show Mystery Science Theater 3000—both cases in which the "borrower" has asked permission from the original copyright owner. I asked Baldwin whether he thinks such permission ought to be required by law. "I don't think they should be prevented from [borrowing without permission], no. I think they should make an effort to talk to the [copyright owner]. I like that kind of idea, of discussion. I can see where it would lead to someone completely taking advantage of another artist. But if it was transformative or whatever—if there was a comment on it—then I think it would be healthy, in the long run, for discussion."

Interestingly, some anti-copyright enthusiasts get a little peeved when they are the sampled instead of the sampler. In Sonic Outlaws, Arizona's own Doug Kahn, who made the hilarious sound collage "Reagan Speaks for Himself," seems a bit annoyed at Fine Young Cannibals for sampling his work without acknowledging or compensating him. Similarly, Lloyd Dunn seemed a little perturbed at The Orb's unacknowledged sampling of his Tape-beatles material—a sampling Baldwin is excited to hear about. "Unbelievable! I didn't know that! Wow!" he says, obviously relishing the irony yet at the same time understanding Dunn's and Kahn's reaction. "It's sort of an ego-loss into the mass...I get you. Yeah, I'm kind of into that. I'm sort of damaged enough [laughs]."

Would Baldwin be so understanding if he were the one being pillaged? He says yes. "I don't have any kind of career, you know. I'm just a bum. I ain't gonna get rich anyway. I wouldn't be terribly pissed-off if someone took—in fact, they do all the time—a piece of my work and put it in something else. That's okay. It's kind of the new landscape. But when you have these really powerful entities [read: U2] moving into the scene, then it's not the same as me using Negativland—and they gave all their stuff to me for free—but when you have these people who obviously do have a lot of money to spare, maybe they could kick something back. Not so much because of copyright, no—it's just because we recognize the work you did, and we'll just share the wealth a little bit."

Not that Baldwin harbors a grudge against U2. "My film doesn't want to come off as a slam against U2, though a lot of people take it that way," he says. U2 is "caught up in this whole thing because they're successful. Just like the Beatles." The irony, though, is astonishing: a band that wants to be seen as cutting edge, a band that hires subversive media pirates The Emergency Broadcast Network (also featured in Sonic Outlaws) to work on their "ZOO-TV" tour, a band that itself indulges in illegal pirating of copyrighted broadcasts during its live shows, sues another band for doing the very same thing. "Yeah...you couldn't have written a better script!" Baldwin says, laughing. "It's a realistic, truth-is-stranger-than-fiction kind of thing."

Baldwin would have the law judge by intent—which of course it is notoriously ill-equipped to do. After all, someone could take Lawrence of Arabia, change a few frames and say, "Hey! I transformed it!" And suppose someone were to take Sonic Outlaws and add narration over the top, transforming the film into an attack on the film's original position? Baldwin laughs, recognizing the problem. "That's a really good question. Which is why it's impossible to answer! I don't have an answer for you. The whole thing about should...the fallacy in this thing should. Artists will probably do it, and the documentary I made shows them doing it. It's not so much, 'This is good and this is bad.' It's that they do do it, and we should know about it. I saw my role as to show people that they're doing it."

© Deuce of Clubs


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