“We add meaning to culture by remixing it”: Rick Prelinger on the value of preexisting material

Rick Prelinger, creator of the invaluable Prelinger Archive of ephemeral films which so many videopoets have drawn upon, has issued a newly updated and expanded version of his evolving manifesto at Contents magazine: “On the Virtues of Preexisting Material.” (There’s also an interview with Rick and Megan Shaw Prelinger in the same issue.) There are so many good points in this essay, it’s hard to resist the temptation to quote it all. But here are a few passages that stood out for me:

I don’t at all mean to criticize experimentation, but I think we need to experiment harder. Let’s ask more of ourselves rather than asking more of our software. And, while this is really hard when working with appropriated media, I’d suggest that we stop trying so hard to criticize existing media forms, and let them die by themselves. Instead, what might future forms look like? In other words, redeem recycling from a reactive mode and move it into a formative mode. Can we think about recycling as a point of origin?

My partner Megan and I run a research library in San Francisco that we built around our personal book, periodical, and ephemera collections. At some point it got a life of its own and started growing like mushrooms in Mendocino. We joke about how it’s a library full of bad ideas; I characterize it as 98% false consciousness. It’s full of outdated information, extinct procedures, self-serving explanations, ideas that never passed the smell test, and lies. And yet that’s where you find the truth.

Archives promise the possibility of a return to original, unmediated documents. I think this is part of their attraction to artists—the idea that we can touch and appropriate records without also having to inherit the corrupting crust that they’ve accreted over time. This is an Edenic fantasy, but it can also be a productive point of origin.

We add meaning to culture by remixing it. Putting something in a new context helps you see it with new eyes; it’s like bringing your partner home to the parents for the first time, or letting a dog loose to run in the waves.

While not shrinking from remixing the present, let’s enjoy the freedom that comes with working with public domain material. The public domain is the coolest neighborhood on the frontier. Use it or lose it.

Read the whole thing. And if you’d like to get into remixing public-domain and Creative Commons-licensed material to create your own videopoetic works, see our compilation of web resources for videopoem makers.

Dave Bonta

Dave is the founder of Moving Poems, and posts videos for his own poems (along with lots of other stuff) at Via Negativa. Here’s a bio.

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