Thursday, March 31, 2011

THE DISPOSABLE & THE DISCONTINUOUS: The Evening Class Interview With Stephen Parr

Stephen Parr is an archivist, imagemaker and writer as well as the director of Oddball Film + Video, a stock footage company based in San Francisco whose main business is licensing unusual stock footage to producers of feature films, documentaries, commercials, broadcast television, music videos, as well as web and new media productions. He is also hands down one of my favorite personalities in the San Francisco cinema scene. Every time I walk away from having a conversation with Stephen, I'm thinking, "Damn, I wish I'd recorded that!" So imagine my delight when Stephen accepted my invitation to lunch, recommended Chinese barbecue at Lung Shan on Mission, and agreed to let me record his take on the disposable and the discontinuous while we munched on tea-smoked eel and kung pao corned beef. [Photos of Stephen Parr courtesy of Anthony Kurtz, with Hardy Wilson assisting.]

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Michael Guillén: Stephen, you have frequently expressed in the past your love for 16mm film, but you've also indicated to me your receptivity to new media. In fact, Oddball Film + Video is hosting a seminar and workshop on using inexpensive cameras to promote social action as part of the 4th annual Disposable Film Festival (DFF). Can you speak to your embrace of both film and new media?

Stephen Parr: It all has to do with how you perceive the world and how you perceive images and your reality. I shot a lot of Super8 when I was a kid. Then when I started going to school, I started doing more work with video because it was immediate and I really liked the immediacy of it. So I come from a background of video art and new media where people were actually even building and making their own equipment, like their own video synthesizers.

But really I'm more interested in content than format. I'm interested in learning how to do nonlinear programming that hits a lot of people on a lot of levels. That's what my real interest is. The technology is just the means to an end. I embrace any useful technology.

Guillén: So you're not a technical purist?

Parr: No. I like film very much because of its tactile quality and I love the way it's projected and I love the concept of people sitting in a room sharing an experience. That's something that's really important. Also, I like film because it is the longest-lasting medium invented. There isn't any other visual medium invented that lasts as long as film. People can talk about whatever medium they want, but there's nothing that's been around 100 years like film. At Oddball, we have reels that are 60-70 years old and we play them all the time. But any medium that allows people more control over their art is useful. With digital media you can make an image for one penny or nothing. You can record over and over.

Guillén: When you say you're learning to create nonlinear programming, what do you mean by that?

Parr: Most people like to think of a film as a way to tell a story. In the early days of cinema a lot of people told stories, a lot of people re-enacted myths, and a lot of people created abstract images. But a linear way of looking at things is only one way of looking at things and I suspect things are a lot more nonlinear than people think.

Guillén: So a nonlinear film is not as concerned with narrative continuity? Which approaches the subject of viewing films discontinuously.

Parr: What do you mean by "discontinuous"? Do you mean watching more than one thing at once?

Guillén: That's one way I think of it, yes. Though I'm also harkening back to how "discontinuous viewing" was a term used to legitimize criticism of channel surfing, back when television was accused of diminishing attention spans. It's now being dusted off and used again to criticize the viewing habits of internet cinephiles accustomed to watching YouTube and Facebook content.

Parr: I have mixed feelings on this. There's a difference between having a short attention span and being focused on a variety of stimuli. Most people that I see who use a lot of new media appear as though they
do have a shortened attention span. Let me try to explain why I think that. Just because a cell phone is available, why is it when someone's out that they need to check their phone on a minute-by-minute basis? Or just because a camera is available, why would you want to take pictures everywhere you go? It makes me curious about what the media has convinced us we should do. If you can do something, why should you do it?

If someone tells me they're going to meet me at 10:00, I don't want to be interrupted from what I'm doing five times within the hour about when they're going to
arrive; I just want to see them at 10:00, y'know? I don't want to spend my time talking about what I'm going to do. I just want to do it.

Guillén: This is reminding me of a conversation I recently had with a new intern where he was upset with me that I don't carry my cell phone. "How am I supposed to let you know if I can't make it on time?" he asked. I told him to just be at the agreed-upon place at the agreed-upon hour and no issue. "But what if something comes up?" he persisted. Which touched upon a pet peeve of mine: that spontaneity is often self-serving. My motto: make a plan and stick to it. You say you're going to meet me someplace somewhere then meet me there at the appointed time. If you don't arrive, I'll figure something came up and I'll find out about it later. It surprised me how much this seemed to agitate him.

Parr: Cell phones only benefit those who are changing plans on their cell phones. For instance, the phone was ringing at my Mom's house and she didn't answer it and I said, "Mom, your phone's ringing" and she said, "Yeah, I know." I said, "Well, aren't you going to get it?" She said, "No." I said, "Why?" She said, "Because I don't want to." And then she said, "Y'know, I didn't get the phone for other people; I got it for
myself." And then there's those people who call you and you're talking and then they say, "Hey, can I put you on hold?" I have one friend who says, "No! Call me later."

Guillén: All this addresses the addictive allure of mobile devices and their impact on social behavior.

Parr: There's no doubt about it.

Guillén: We don't even need to talk about how this has impacted audience behavior in movie houses. But I do want to tease out this quality of the addictive allure of new media, both portable and social. My question is: what is the addiction really about? I do think people want to tell stories. I do think they want to talk about their lives and share information. I do think they want to communicate with others but they haven't learned how to do it in any other more meaningful direct way, and—because they haven't—I suspect it feeds a frustration and dissatisfaction that reveals itself in compulsive habits obsessed with hand-held devices. That's why I'm especially pleased by the free panels DFF is offering participants this year, two at Oddball alone, which are trying to propose creative alternatives to mobile devices. I'm particularly intrigued by the workshop on how to use mobile devices to further social causes.

The other day on Facebook I read a comment by documentarian Heddy Honigmann that stuck with me. She said that the only important filmmakers working today are the thousands and thousands of YouTube providers.

YouTube is a de facto archive for the world. We know that. Let me give you an example of what I'm hoping to get at with the upcoming DFF workshops. I just did a show in Bangalore, this place called Jaaga, which is a three-story building made with palette-rack shelving. It's an open-air place where they hold workshops on how to work with their laptops and create electronic devices, very youth-oriented, very immediate, high concept low tech, how to make low tech stuff that works. Actually, one of the main guys who runs Jaaga is from San Francisco. He just went over to India and started creating these spaces where people could work and create.

One of the things I would like to touch on is: people can handle more than one medium at a time. They can handle poetry and music. They can handle film and live music. They can handle a lot of different media at a time; but, are they
focused? The whole point is about being focused. When they're walking down the street, why are people not listening to the world? To paraphrase John Cage: "Every sound is music." But instead, people walk down the street completely plugged in to digital media where the signal is actually being compressed so that you're not really getting high fidelity sound. Then on top of that they're either on their phone or watching consumer-oriented media that plays back from their phone. People have become alarmingly mediated. In my experience, such people don't know how to interact socially.

Guillén: That's reminding me of my friend Sergio de la Mora, an associate professor at UC Davis, who recently complained to me that walking across campus is no longer fun because nobody says hi to each other anymore; they're all too busy with their private phone conversations.

Parr: Also, there's some really strong work being provided online; but, a lot of what people record is narcissistic; it's all about
them. It's not about other people. It's not about people coming closer to other people. Most social media at its core, at its base, is a substitute for human interaction. Many artists will tell you that words aren't enough. Many people will tell you that image on a film isn't enough. My point is that there are so many levels of intimacy. We've gone from being in person, being on the telephone, to being on email, to being texted, to doing the Twitter thing. When you look at people who are truly creative on Twitter—someone like David Lynch, let's say—you'll find he's following something like 30 people while 12,000 people are following him. He's not following 500 people. He doesn't have time. How do you create art and socially interact at the same time?

Guillén: They say no entourage is good for an artist.

Parr: Another example: somebody will remix something that's completely meaningless. I've said this before and I'll say it again: the meaningless and the trivial coexist with the meaningful and the vital. So a guy on YouTube will make a radio out of cheese and it will work and he'll get 500,000,000 hits.

Guillén: [Laughs] I want to see that radio!! Send me the link!

Parr: But then some guy in Argentina will set up his camera and do something beautiful and poetic and he'll get 25 people to look at what he does.

Guillén: I relate. [Laughs.]

Parr: So what does that mean? Well, it means that—to a large extent—people are quite distracted by the technology around them. They're flailing. I don't think people have an understanding of how you truly utilize the technology that's there. We're really at a stage of infancy for most technology.

For instance, there's no real etiquette for cell phone use. It used to be that if you wanted to make a call in a restaurant, you'd use the public telephone. And where would they put the phone? Back there by the bathrooms. You know why? Because they didn't want people to be disturbed if they wanted to carry on a private conversation. We've lost that age of privacy and now everyone wants to share themselves with everyone else; but, if you think about it, there's certain things that
should be private. There's no real ground rules anymore. I've been in India in the middle of a puja, a sacred ritual, where people get on their phone. I've seen people in restaurants talking on their phones while the waiter is trying to get their order. I've seen guys where people are about to get on an elevator and they ward them off saying, "Could you take the next one down? This is a private call." So they're taking their space and making it your space and they're taking your space and making it their space.

All these issues revolve around public and private space and the fact that a lot of people think that—if more people see their work—the work will be better. For instance, when I program and screen films I don't worry about the size of the audience. To paraphrase Jonas Mekas: the better the film, the smaller the audience. If you're going to make a generalization, that's probably not so bad. Sometimes I'll have a program and someone will say, "There should be more people here...."

Guillén: But it is what it is.

Parr: It is what it is!

Guillén: You're reminding me of CinemaScope editor Mark Peranson when he said the most interesting film is the one that no one else has seen. So the cinephilic challenge is to find a film that few people have seen and write about it: that's interesting!

You're also reminding me of something Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote: "In short, we live in a transitional period where enormous paradigmatic shifts should be engendering new concepts, new terms, and new kinds of analysis, evaluation, and measurement, not to mention new kinds of political and social formations, as well as new forms of etiquette. But in most cases they aren't doing any of those things." ("Film Writing on the Web: Some Personal Reflections", included in his collection Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia, but originally published in the March 2007 issue of Film Quarterly 60:3.)

Parr: There's no money in developing an aesthetic. That's the bottom line. There's no interest from someone who makes a product to develop an aesthetic around the product on how to use it if it doesn't benefit the bottom line. Take
Facebook as an example. Let's say I go in and open up a store—we'll use that metaphor—and I let people come in and we sell things to each other. What you do is get all their information and then you sell things to them while they're selling things to other people. You have no inventory. You have no product. The product is other people selling things to other people.

Television brought the viewer to the advertiser; it delivered an advertiser to the viewer. That's what television
is. It's supported by advertising. They're giving you a product. But what product do you get with Facebook? Other people. To me, it's a brilliant concept: you're selling other people to other people. Then you're taking their information and putting it into a box. "Oh, you like dogs? Well, you can be with the 'I like dogs' people. You like film? Great!" I mean, who doesn't like film? Who doesn't like dogs? How do you match peoples' interests? It's a cynical and sad way. What they say in Asia is that boredom is the sign of aristocracy. If you have a lot of money, you're not going to be on Facebook all day.

Guillén: No, it's just for us poor people who have nothing else to do.

Parr: It gives you an artificial feeling of control.

Guillén: To get back to our two main words—disposability and discontinuous—let's take a look at what's disposable. We were talking about linearity and nonlinearity. Speaking in the domain of history, linearity has an accumulative quality. The continuous and the historical record involve a process of accumulation. That's the weight of history. To throw off that weight is the redeeming value of disposability. It lessens the load of what has come before in order to accumulate anew. It comments on what can be jettisoned.

One of the specific reasons I wanted to talk to you is because of your involvement with found footage and your nonlinear programming that consistently rescues and recontextualizes footage arguably intended to be disposable. You use commercials, educational films, even home movies, to construct your programs. Can you speak to your creative reappropriation of the disposable?

Parr: Well, no one knows what's disposable and what isn't. I base my whole art on things that other people have thrown away and don't think have any value. Most of what people think is valuable, isn't. Is gold really valuable? My gut sense is that most of the gold we see is being used for
decorative purposes.

Our culture filters very little. A lot comes at people. I'll show some old campy drug film and people in the audience will say it's really funny and I'll tell them that the only reason they think it's funny is because it's 30 years old. You might as well laugh at yourself right now. It will probably be a lot funnier now than it will be in 30 years. Some people will say, "Oh, that was a really great film!" but it's not. It never was and it never will be. We just think it is because, in time, we look at what we have now. There's a certain linearity to time that—when you look back at something at the context it was in—it looks ludicrous. To me, it looks dumb when someone keeps looking at their cell phone. It's like a horse with blinders on. If you're spending more time looking at your phone than you are looking at the world around you, then you're kind of saying that the world around you is not really that valuable. It's just a place where you move through to get what you want.

In Asian culture if they have a picture of a fish in an aquarium, the native sensibility is that the fish belongs at the bottom of the sea. Western philosophy thinks that's wrong. They think the fish belongs
with other fish. Western culture doesn't really see things as a whole. Our culture is driven by needs. It's really a "me" culture in a lot of ways. Whatever can get me what I want. Imagine that you could have a phone that had every application on it that you could ever want.

Guillén: Why would I want to imagine that? I find that horrifying. The other day I was shopping in Safeway and noticed a magazine called Apps. That was its full content; nothing but applications. And I'm thinking, "Film magazines are going out of print while a magazine called Apps is flying off the shelves? Really?"

Parr: But that's what I'm saying: the whole concept of applications is geared towards consumption. In general, they say the iPad is a consuming device. It's made to consume. It's not made to produce anything. It's not like a laptop. Maybe you're creating and sharing pictures, but you're really consuming more than you're creating. That's something to think about. It's not so much how you're consuming but what you're consuming, how much you're consuming, and why?

Guillén: Let's return to your comment that disposability is your art. Can you expand on how you're working with these disposable items to create your art?

Parr: Everything has a life span according to our culture. Myself, I don't really believe in "genre-fying" everything, as if everything is a genre. Literally every week there's a different film festival in San Francisco: animation, film noir, independent, horror, sex. In one sense that's wonderful but I don't think those things necessarily work within the cultural framework we have right now. For example, I just did a program in Bangalore where people responded just as well if not better than they responded here in the United States. It's all about visual iconography, style.

Disposability is part of that awareness that developed in the '60s with environmental culture. At that time there was a lot of talk about planned obsolescence. People like Rachel Carson talked about the creation of objects that were being made just to be disposed. Nowadays especially people make products and no one expects them to last. If you buy a cell phone, you don't expect it to last for more than two years, which is not really a good way to look at things. So when I talk about disposability, I mean it metaphorically. As a metaphor, disposability can encompass a lot of different ideas. It can encompass the fact: what were these people thinking when they made all these commercials? Were they thinking that anyone would ever look back at them? Probably not. A lot of times people would make home movies but who did they think was really going to watch them? Their audience was very limited.

A lot of times people make big-budget films—something like
Avatar—whose aim is to last for 10,000 years. And yet James Cameron is using ideas that are totally timeworn ideas, beside the fact that it's a horrible script. Avatar has immediately dated itself in a very strange way because Cameron repeated all the same things that everybody else has been trying to do for 30-40 years, which is 3-D. He used state-of-the-art effects but he used the same story. So the strange thing is that—even though something is purporting to be new—it may last a week or it may last 100 years.

I'm interested in the viability of a lot of things besides portable mediums. For instance, if you've made an art installation using a floppy disk, how do you reinstall a system like that?

Guillén: You're basically talking about the imprecision of memory and its potential obsolescence. Case in point: I had a major hard drive crash this past summer and I lost every piece of writing I'd written since I was 12 years old because there was no way to get to it. The drives were outdated so there was no way to transfer the data to a new computer, short of paying big bucks to recover the hard drive, which wasn't guaranteed. And the irony was that I had faithfully been transporting this data from computer to computer over the years and, wham, suddenly it was gone.

Parr: There's only two kinds of people that work with computers: people who have lost data and people who are going to lose data. It touches everybody. The thing about disposable mediums or any medium that has this planned obsolescence built into it is that—when you buy it—you have to think, "What do I want this to do? And how long do I want it to do that?" Right now in our culture there isn't anybody who isn't an archivist. If you have a cell phone with a camera on it, you're an archivist. Because you're going to spend the rest of your life migrating that data. It used to be that you'd take a picture, print it, put it in a box and then sit on it for 50 years. Now you take a picture and you have to move it from one phone to the next and—when you stop doing that—you lose the picture. So now you're dealing with a much more fragile medium.

It's strange because people say, "Everything's in The Cloud" but who lives in the clouds? I'm being a little rhetorical here, but The Cloud is not a place where people who are focused go. I mean, I might feel a little bit better if someone said, "It's down in Hell."

A lot of new media is predicated on the fact that the distribution system is more important than the content creation system. For instance, I have a warehouse full of film but it's only useful to my clients if it's digitized. That's why an alternate arm of Oddball is to take the opportunity to screen films from the archives, to show people the fact that the material is there to be seen and shared by them in the way it was created; but, I'm not opposed to other mediums using that footage at the same time. I've done events where I've incorporated film, video, live performers, music and I'm fine with all of it. Generally, most digital recording—with the exception of high-end stuff—is somewhat inferior to analog recording. Film is almost always superior to digital media. That's why I like it.

My situation, the way I run my business, is that I used to be able to buy a film, transfer it to a videotape, make a copy, and that copy could sit on the shelf for 20 years. Fine. The film itself is going to be there and last 100-200 years. But nowadays, you have to digitize a film, then you have to make two copies, then you have to make a viewing copy and back that up too, and then every 2-5 years whatever "they" decide is the latest medium—maybe Steve Jobs dies and so
Quicktime dies—you have to transfer it all. So you're always going to be transferring data and moving data. You have to build that into making your work so that anybody now who's making work should also be thinking about how to archive it.

We're at a point where people think they have control over the medium but the medium has much more control. Look at who's controlling the landscape:
Facebook, Apple, Google, Microsoft. Do you really feel that those people are going to make clear, aesthetic decisions about what's best for the way that you want to create your work? For instance, if you shoot 5000 pictures and upload them into iPhoto, it will take you forever to get them out of iPhoto because they want you to live in their world. That's the whole thing about being an artist—making your sickness be everybody else's sickness; making your vision something that other people go see—and when you're in a confined space like that, then you have to play by those rules. On Facebook you know where the guy's picture is, you know what he does, you know where his wall is; but, in the early days of the internet, you could get on line and not know what a web page was going to look like. It could be upside down. It could be all black with white lettering. It could be anything. The only people who do that now are high concept artists and branding companies. Everybody else just wants to get their stuff out there. That's one of the problems. People are more interested in having people see the work than they are in having it last longer or taking the time to do it in a way that's really inventive.

Guillén: You've made a good argument against disposability. Is there anything you can say in favor of it?

Parr: Well, the word disposable—at least in terms of the Disposable Film Festival—is a really good catchphrase and it works well. It's meant to be in jest. It's playful and I like it. I tend to use words like "portable." I co-curated the Savannah Portable Media Festival. We liked the idea of disposable as something that's made as a one-off but it's actually being used to create art. You can create art with really cheap things; that is, theoretically, if it's actually art and not totally garbage. But even if it's garbage, perhaps that's good too because the portable media is doing its job: it's cheap and it's quick. I think the idea of portability, the idea of something that's low cost, the idea of accessibility, and the idea that something is so common—that's one of the reasons that I started collecting films: they're very common—the whole concept of disposability, the whole concept of portability, all those things, are very useful.

I was in India a few years ago and I had a cheap camera but I got great photos. When I shoot, I try to shoot with something really small because I'm allowed to get into places where a lot of people aren't allowed to go with big intimidating pieces of equipment. And I like things that have a low learning curve. I don't think it's a benefit that I know how to take a film, transfer it to video, digitize it, put it to two hard drives, make a
Quicktime, log it, put it in Metadata, and FTP it to my client. I don't think that's a very useful thing to learn other than the fact that that's how I make my living, okay? I think it would be much more useful to take a film, put it on a projector, and have it come out a digital clip. That's way useful because that gets it to people really quick. When I look at the creative process, the thing that gets me from A to Z the quickest wins. I want to spend my time thinking about something creative. I don't want to think about why this doesn't render properly. That's for some tech guy who designed the software to figure out.

Certain kinds of social media are overhyped, even though they serve a useful purpose. But portable media—something you use to record something?—it's always much more valuable. It has a different value. And some portable media advances social activism. For example, there's a group in New York called Witness. They give portable media to people in third world countries to document human rights abuses. There's a guy from Singapore who I met at the Orphans Film Symposium in New York a couple of years ago and his work—he documented a lot of protests in Singapore, which is a pretty right wing country—has been confiscated. He doesn't have it anymore. It only exists on
YouTube. The thing to remember is that people did not start a revolution because of Twitter, no matter how much their branding experts would want you to believe. Facebook didn't start a cultural revolution. People started it by talking to each other. People need to credit technology only insofar as what they do with it.

Cross-published on Twitch.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This is a really marvelous interview. Steve's a genius and you had an kind of amazing conversation with him. And it's long! Steve and me go way back and he's one of the best people I have ever met. I commend you for getting a word in edgewise.
Paul H-O