Strange Transmissions: Craig Baldwin’s “Spectres of the Spectrum”

Sending Beams from the Other Side: Craig Baldwin's "Spectres of the Spectrum"

Historically, working with found footage hasn’t been easy. When filmmaker Bruce Conner made A Movie (1958), a pioneering work of found-footage cinema, he had to scavenge to find materials for his collage. When video artist Dara Birnbaum was repurposing television imagery in the late 70s, she had to arrange back-alley deals with low-level network employees to get the footage she wanted. Many early filmmakers who used television imagery simply filmed it off the TV set, like Marie Menken did in Wrestling (1964) or Hollis Frampton in Remote Control (1972). But the expansion, during the 80s and 90s, of networks for collectors of vintage 16- and Super-8mm, along with the advent of VHS distributors raiding the icebox and marketing to connoisseurs, permanently altered the terrain of found-footage movie-making; it seemed like artists could finally steal from anywhere.

"Spectres of the Spectrum" by Craig BaldwinNo American filmmaker took advantage of the sheer breadth of this available media in quite the same way as Craig Baldwin, whose movies stitch together huge ranges of material— B-movies, commercials, kinescopes , quiz shows, educational shorts, A-movies, industrial films—to create indictments of contemporary culture that are brutal and nervy and confusing and that are unified by a self-reflexive, finely-grained paranoia.

All of Baldwin’s movies are in some way about information technologies, but none more so than Spectres of the Spectrum. His 1999 epic is simultaneously a partially coherent science-fiction parable and a re-telling of the development of mass media, from the first sparks of electricity to the Internet. In the parable part, it is 2007 and all is under control of the New Electromagnetic Order; two telepathic rebels, Yogi and his daughter BooBoo, are able to resist psychic domination. BooBoo presents the best hope in the fight against the NEO because she’s immune to “electromagnetic control.” Throughout, Baldwin indulges in his trademark obsessions: the higher theoretical reaches of hard science; para-science; pseudo-science; mysticism; conspiracy theorizing.


All these obsessions offer variations on theme, which is the way mass media works on our brains and all along our nerve endings. Ghosts, spirits, atoms, sub-atomic particles, light rays, electromagnetic fields: all offer ways of thinking about transmission, the flow of signals, the spread of images and information and ideology.

Baldwin’s taste for outré ideas and the occult is complex; on the one hand, these things instantiate the peculiar paranoiac mindset brought on by inhabiting an over-stimulating world of signal and image and, on the other, they envision an alternative way of existing within that world. They posit bizarre forms of transmission, a strange flow of signals. In doing so, they tend to empower the individual, to render her not just a receptor but a potential re-interpreter or creator.

The character of BooBoo, effortlessly resistant to corporate mind control, is an allegorical figure for Baldwin himself and, more importantly, for his ideal viewer. Reconfiguring the past as he sees fit, Baldwin’s energy transforms the world on a sub-atomic level; faced with a monstrous montage of attractions, the viewer becomes a mystical conduit of ghostly energy. We are all telepathic; we are all immune to electromagnetic control.

If we really want to be, that is. If only we put our minds to it, we could blow up the sun and end this fiction once and for all.

Tom McCormack is a film and media critic whose writing has appeared in Cinema ScopeRhizomeThe Chicago ReaderThe L Magazine, and Moving Image Source.



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