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Craig Baldwin: Science in Action

Steve Polta

Promotional image for Craig Baldwin's Mock Up on Mu by Sylvia Schedelbauer. Courtesy Other Cinema.
The mercurial mind of filmmaker, curator, and ideologue Craig Baldwin swarms with frenzy. Overload and overwhelm have always been part of his oeuvre. Baldwin’s modus operandi—in life, art and action—is to refute blind allegiance to ideological authority, to question beliefs and belief systems, to talk back to media. A voracious consumer of ideas, Baldwin has a tendency to claim all that he surveys, to ingest every idea that comes his way and to reuse and repurpose culture with jiu-jitsu moves, knocking cultural immensities off balance. To Baldwin, the ideologies of monolithic and authoritarian culture are always questionable, always under attack and subject to revision, re-imagination and redress, with the repurposed detritus of material culture becoming the weaponized building blocks of countercultural media resistance.

Common characteristics within the body of Baldwin’s work (which includes the “found footage” underground classics Tribulation 99: Alien Anomalies Under America and Sonic Outlaws) are the films’ relentless urgency, the rapid-fire barrage of sound/image collage, and the vertiginous sense of bottomlessness to the deluge of audiovisual information and experience they convey. In these films, narratives overlay documentary, facts fuse with speculative fictions, familiar footage from favorite (or forgotten) films distract viewers, reeling in the entirety of the outside world. Furthermore, the films’ formal elements—including radical collages of disjunctive elements, as well as intra-filmic and meta-filmic commentary—can confound and interrupt, competing with the already rapid flow of the films. Viewing these works can indeed be an exhausting experience, with many viewers left between states of bewilderment and exhilaration.

If anything, Baldwin’s films—as they allude to a mountain of cultural detritus, the fossilizing legacy of our sinking post-industrial society—possibly give too much in terms of information and sheer experience. This is not at all surprising, given the artist’s belief in the potential powers of countercultural media (as well as his obvious faith in viewers’ capacity to synthesize this information). This sense of deluge is also representative of the diverse set of influences Baldwin brings to his projects, which range from art to philosophy to activism to the histories of media and media practice. While these influences are far-ranging and not always clear, Obsolete Media Miami’s (OMM) recent pairing of Baldwin’s 2008 film Mock-Up on Mu with his personal “lecture-demo” Orphan Morphin’ provided great opportunities to pick apart his process.

In elaborating the myriad ideals and influences to his life and practice, Baldwin’s epic, illustrated, pseudo-performance Orphan Morphin’ comes close to being the artist’s exploded manifesto. Superficially, the presentation—which takes the form of a PowerPoint lecture, including digital slides, video excerpts and Baldwin’s live narration—provides a whirlwind review of twentieth century avant-garde art and countercultural political movements as well as other, more surprising influences: “important lenses” (to quote Baldwin) by which to fully understand his approach. Piling up a litany of referents, Orphan Morphin’ articulates a position in which oppressive societal demands towards conformist cultural participation (read: consumerist consumption) equals spiritual death, with mainstream media culture and the Society of the Spectacle being the main organs of oppression.

In his admiration for these forebears, Baldwin articulates a personal aesthetic (applicable to his life as well as his art practice) that incorporates the anti-social and nihilistic attitudes of punks and beats, ironic reclamation of public imagery by Pop artists, the regionalist immediacy of Baldwin’s Mission School contemporaries, the deflective strategies of Situationists, and the non-monetary exchange networks developed by participants in electronic folk culture scenes. In practical terms, this aesthetic advocates for work which “uses the weight of the enemy against it,” work which subverts or critiques hegemonic media. Most notable in the case of Baldwin’s own work is the expansive use of “found footage”—the appropriation of elements of pre-existing films in constructing new meanings, new articulations, new narrative situations in ways that make ironic, critical commentary on media structures and allow for subversive tactics such as parody and humor.

Interestingly, in the delivery of his manifesto, Baldwin avoids unnecessary allegiance to the canons of “avant-garde film” and its troubling concern with artistic self-expression and formalism, instead expressing identification with underground and regionally-identified subcultures, countercultural media movements, and the fringe genres of film, including horror, sci-fi and “orphaned” educational/industrial film. A somewhat surprising yet obvious-when-you-see it inspiration to Baldwin’s practice is none other than Frank Capra, whose Why We Fight series is cited as exemplary in its collaging of unrelated audiovisual elements into ideologically motivated non-narrative missives. Another deep inspiration, the filmmaker Bruce Conner, is in fact identified by Baldwin in Orphan Morphin’ as Capra’s bad conscience.

The mid-century Americanism of both Capra and Conner is reflected in Baldwin’s Mock-Up on Mu. Ostensibly something of a narrative, the film’s plot concerns a scheme in which a moon-colonizing occultist (based on Scientology’s L. Ron Hubbard) dispatches a beautiful and brainwashed female captive to earth to seduce two men—the evil industrialist Lockheed Martin (a fictitious personification of the profit-driven military-industrial complex) and Hubbard’s former friend-turned-romantic-and-ideological-rival. On encountering said rival—real-world rocket scientist/Crowleyite magus Jack Parsons—Hubbard’s agent experiences a series of recovered memories and is revealed as Marjorie Cameron, Parsons’ long-lost Thelemite lover and alleged archetype of the Divine Feminine. The epiphanic union of the lost lovers erupts in a barrage of cross-spoken, ritualistic beatnik performance-poetry and brings about the dawning of a demilitarized new age, as the plans of the evil agents are thwarted. Alaister Crowley himself, depicted as a cave-dwelling lizard king, rises into the land of the living against a chant of “make love not war.”

In the investigation into these twentieth century pseudo-histories, Baldwin champions uncertainty, browses prurient gossip relating to mid-century occultism, and spins a tale of speculative counter-history. This opens space for utopian future while dramatizing the ongoing ideological struggles between utopianist technologists, particularly Nikola Tesla, and their capitalist, warmongering counterparts (as seen in Baldwin’s 1999 film Spectres of the Spectrum).

The preceding summary, however, does not do the film justice. And this writer will be forgiven for his run-on sentences. In describing the work of Craig Baldwin, it is extremely hard to determine where things begin or end, what is true and what is false, what was intended and what may have been hallucinated. Like a story-fied simulation of the Orphan Morphin’ experience, Mock Up on Mu is a cascade of cinematic fragments, a sprawl of cultural referents, thrown at the viewer with nary a pause. Notably, Mu, in intercutting clips from spy movies, horror films, and romances, manages to fuse multiple actors and films into a shuffling mix of endlessly de-centered personae, presenting its characters as a series of interchangeable (if heterosexual) avatars—suggesting a staggering multiplicity of realities. Similarly, the film’s verbal bombardments—hovering uncertainly between omniscient narration and ambiguously indeterminate characterization—sprawls with uncountable references, some intentional, some accidental, yet all utterly attributable to the whirling generative gyre of Baldwin’s all-consuming creative project.

Attendees at OMM’s Craig Baldwin double-header likely left both events with a sense of having survived a cult induction or a indoctrination session, such as described by the Hubbard character in Mock-Up on Mu. This experience is par for the course in all of Baldwin’s work—his long-running San Francisco film series Other Cinema represents this maximalist approach to programming as well (by the way: Mu is, arguably, his mellowest movie). And of course this is part of their thrill. His personal deliveries are no less haranguing in that—somewhat recalling the late David Foster Wallace’s frustrations at the restrictions placed on expression by the linearity of linguistics and the mundane unidirectionality of our time-bound existence—Baldwin often seems eager to jump out of his own skin while expectorating his own frantic enunciations of commitment and obsession. There is just too much knowledge to share, too many ideas exploding in his brain.

This can be a lot to take. Much like the Cameron character in Mock-Up on Mu, however, the indoctrination ritual is part of the larger cosmic journey. Those fortunate enough to intake OMM’s twinning of Baldwin’s film and philosophy no doubt staggered out reeling and dazed, but inspired by the insights into the mad genius of Baldwin, and the spectacle of his personal application of science in action.

Steve Polta is a filmmaker, occasional writer, occasional historian and former taxi driver, living in the San Francisco Bay Area. He is also the Archivist and Artistic Director of San Francisco Cinematheque and the curator of the annual CROSSROADS film festival.