What happens when the Prelinger Archives, a collection of over 3,000 advertising, educational, industrial, and amateur films, meets the Free Music Archive, an ever-growing interactive library of high-quality, legal audio downloads? In a contest titled “The Past Re-imagined as the Future,” participants were asked to answer that very question. According to the FMA, the 122 resulting videos mashups “are deeply disturbing, abstract, violent, beautiful, and often half-naked.” In pairing the two archives, contestants edited images from the past with technology from the present, merging video with sound in repeated demonstrations of the rich resources available within these open digital libraries.
The San Francisco-based Prelinger Archives, is a stockpile of ephemeral films meant to record, instruct, and sell. In founder and collector Rick Prelinger’s opinion, these tell us more about the history than feature films — or at least more about the ideals and role models of the past. But such material is generally marginalized in favor of more established, highly produced narratives. As a result, the Prelinger Archives contain many reels of original film stock and master negatives that do not exist anywhere else in the world.
The goal of the Prelinger Archives is to make public all this previously inaccessible material. Film by nature necessitates equipment, but after digitization, no more than a computer and a pair of headphones is needed to appreciate such gems as A Trip Down Market Street Before the Fire. Instead of preserving and sequestering these often one-of-a-kind films, the Archive seeks to provide preservation and access.
Conversely, a seemingly infinite stream of digitized music is readily available for download with a few clicks of the mouse. The trouble is not finding it for free, but finding it legally, respectfully, and in keeping with the artists’ wishes regarding use. Launched in 2009 and directed by the great New Jersey freeform radio station WFMU, the Free Music Archive is a tightly curated library of free downloadable music. What you can do with a song after downloading it depends on each track’s specific license. With the motto “It’s not just free music; it’s good music,” the FMA provides a hub for musicians, audio curators, podcasters, remix artists, and audiophiles looking for new, rare, and guilt-free tunes.
The range of submissions to “The Past Re-Imagined as the Future” is as diverse as the material represented within the archives themselves. Guidelines for the contest were fairly broad: at least half the sound and video used had to come from the archives and the final product needed to clock in at under fifteen minutes. All the videos are currently online, where the judges — a group of audio, video, and artistic professionals scattered across the globe — will pick their favorites, and where you can weigh in on the popular choice winner.
In just a small sampling of the contest video mashups, I watched short documentary narratives, abstract reflections on image and sound, comedic juxtapositions, frenetic collages, and what could only be described as hardcore punk music videos. Pacing varies from glacial to neck-break speeds. Music choices capture the eclecticism of FMA’s offerings.
For one very self-reflective contribution, On Time, Todd Wiseman sampled an incredible number of sources from the Prelinger Archives, matched with the song “rain scope down” by the artist Leggysalad. The end result is a buoyant non-narrative video that beautifully captures the passage of time, the ways in which it is filled, and how quickly or slowly it can go by. The old-timey footage and variety of people and activities represented by the Prelinger films make perfect sense in this format.
The contest is a fantastic creative prompt, but it also provides participants with a practical lesson on the responsible use of digital resources. Each participant was required to list their many sources and select their own Creative Commons designation, protecting and promoting their work in an informed way. This is something current remix culture of both music and amateur video making is sorely lacking. The Free Music and Prelinger Archives prove there is a middle ground between small- and large-scale distribution that is fertile, inspiring, and just waiting to be remixed.
View all 122 video mashup submissions at videoremix.freemusicarchive.org and vote for your favorites. Voting will continue through November 25, 2012. Winners will be announced online and in a public screening at New York’s Anthology Film Archives on November 29, 2012.