Several months back, I contacted various people I know about participating in an ongoing alphabet. Each participant was assigned a randomly selected letter, then chose a word beginning with that letter as a useful springboard to talk about influences, outlook, process, and/or sensibility. I asked everyone to include a visual attachment to further amplify the text. The answers provide a window into the work these people do, which includes animation, poetry, painting, acting, filmmaking, perfumery, and more I can’t think of at the moment.
The first up is filmmaker Penny Lane, who chose the word archives.
I don’t like making images. I don’t draw or take especially good photographs. It rarely occurs to me to film something. I can’t even storyboard effectively. It’s not that I don’t understand the principles of composition and visual storytelling (I actually teach this stuff!); I’m just not that into it.
And don’t even get me started about how much I hate production. Film sets are stressful and scary places where everyone knows if you fuck up. Dealing with gear is onerous and boring. Pointing a camera at people is incredibly uncomfortable.
Here’s what I do like: I like doing research. I like finding and curating things, especially old things. And I love everything about editing. So it’s not too surprising that I ended up who I am: an artist using almost exclusively “found” and archival imagery.
And Hallelujah: there are archives everywhere. Academicians argue about the precise definition of an archive, especially when it comes to the digital world, but like most artists I use the word pretty broadly to describe “a collection of materials relating to a theme, person or place.” So, to my way of thinking, YouTube isn’t an archive, but a keyword search in YouTube produces an archive (however ephemeral).
Archival research makes me smarter. I enjoy wandering down rabbit trails. Poring through idiosyncratically formatted finding aids. Looking for one thing and finding another, way better thing. Putting on white gloves and looking through cryptically labeled boxes in windowless basement rooms (“I’d like to see the contents of Box 334-1, please.”). The anticipation! The way that old paper yellows. The fingerprints and highlighter markings and annotations left behind by the researchers and collectors before me, who carefully taped a newspaper clipping to a sheet of white paper so that some person, many years later, might see it and benefit. The DVD that was made from a VHS tape that was made from an amateur telecine of a 16mm film – what a hideous, wonderful mess of marks left behind on that image.
Experiencing history in the present tense is a wondrous, irreplaceable gift. That is the philosophy that guided much of the process of making “Our Nixon,” my first feature. When I finally get my next feature done (“Nuts!”), it will represent years of archival research done at tiny historical societies in glamorous locations like Del Rio, Texas and Milford, Kansas.
As much as I love physical archives, most of what I do happens right where I’m sitting now: at my damn computer. I once spent an entire day watching videos of the Challenger explosion on YouTube. This turned into the best film I’ve ever made (“The Voyagers”). “The Commoners” would never have been made had I not discovered an online archive of pet starling home movies. “How to Write an Autobiography” and “Men Seeking Women” are both made of texts I found online (instructional websites about memoir-writing and Craigslist personal ads). “She used to see him most weekends” is animated entirely out of Wingdings, Webdings and other clip art I found hiding inside my font collection. (Is that an archive? Maybe? Sure, why not.) Even “We Are The Littletons,” which I actually filmed (!), is about an archive: in that case, it’s a country home packed tight with the ephemera of another family’s life.
Why make new stuff? There’s already so much stuff! More stuff than we’ll ever find the time to appreciate.
There’s this place in San Francisco that I want everybody to go to. It’s called the Prelinger Library. It’s an independent research library with an eclectic collection of trade journals, unusual books, pamphlets, photographs, old maps and all sorts of uncategorizable stuff. It’s not organized like a typical library. Instead it encourages an artistically stimulating free association and the forging of unexpected connections. You may find yourself admiring the gun ads in a 1970s law enforcement trade journal and then, moments later, wondering if anyone has ever even read this long-out-of-print book about crowd control philosophies. Think of all the new synapses that will form in your brain.
A lot of this archival research gets pretty lonely, though, especially since I do most of it in my apartment. I need to find out about archives that force me to travel and meet new people and see the world. I’m taking suggestions.
(Pictured above: Some things Lane found in the Geary County Historical Society, Junction City, KS.)
Penny Lane has been making award-winning documentaries and essay films since 2002. Her films have screened at SXSW, New Directors/New Films, Hot Docs, Rotterdam, AFI FEST, Full Frame, Festival, Rooftop Films, MoMA’s Documentary Fortnight and many other venues. She has been awarded grants from Cinereach, TFI Documentary Fund, LEF Foundation, NYSCA, Experimental Television Center, IFP and the Puffin Foundation. OUR NIXON is her first feature documentary, for which she was awarded several grants and a residency at Yaddo. She is a Creative Capital grantee and was named one of Filmmaker Magazine’s “25 New Faces of Independent Film” in 2012. Penny teaches video and media art at Colgate University. And yes, that is her real name.