A MOVIE BY ... Appropriation, authorship, and the ecologies of the moving image
First Monday

A MOVIE BY ... Appropriation, authorship, and the ecologies of the moving image by Leo Goldsmith

This essay positions two works of experimental moving-image appropriation art — Bruce Conner’s seminal 1958 found-footage film A MOVIE and a recent ‘remake” by the artist and filmmaker Jen Proctor — as models for a hybrid artistic-scholarly form of materialist media theory through which to examine the ways in which media are produced and circulate. The essay argues that both Conner’s and Proctor’s respective works deploy strategies of appropriation and remix not simply as a form for playful commentary upon contemporary media objects and texts, but crucially as an implicit theoretical framework through which to articulate and expose, on the one hand, the media infrastructures in which the works were made and, on the other, the artists’ own labor within these infrastructures.


Appropriation and media infrastructure
The work of authorship
Appropriation as labor
Appropriation as media studies
The universal appropriation




This is an essay about two movies. The first is A MOVIE, directed by Bruce Conner in 1958, widely considered a classic of the post-war American avant-garde cinema and frequently cited as one of the progenitors of the experimental sub-genre of “found footage,” [1] which appropriates and recontextualizes moving images from a diverse range of sources in a typically jagged, contrapuntal montage. The second is A MOVIE BY JEN PROCTOR, made by Jennifer Proctor in 2010, a meticulous “remake” of Conner’s film, which takes up the basic structure of the original and replaces Conner’s imagery with newly sourced contemporary analogues. Both works derive their imagery entirely from pre-existing footage: Conner’s from film prints of B-westerns, stag films, news digest films produced for the home-amateur market by production companies like Castle Films which he found in camera stores and private collections; and Proctor’s from a variety of amateur and professionally made moving-image media found on user-driven video-sharing platforms like YouTube and LiveLeak using keyword searches to match or approximate the images in Conner’s film (Wees, 1993; Goldsmith, 2016). Both works assemble a wide assortment of documentary footage of human and natural disasters (car, boat, and waterskiing accidents, iconic catastrophes, war and devastation) alongside other curiosities (including amateur pornography, countdown leader, ethnographic films, inapposite title-cards, and even, in the latter work, video game imagery) to create rapid montage sequences that are alternately ironic and tragic, set in both cases to the dramatic swelling orchestrations of Ottorino Respighi’s iconic 1924 composition Pini di Roma (Pines of Rome).

The practice of moving-image appropriation — of making use of pre-existing film or video material to compose a new moving-image work — has a long history within the many international strands of the twentieth century avant garde and experimental filmmaking traditions [2]. Conner is an important figure in this history, and his work foreshadows that of a great many contemporary media artists and casual video remixers, both in its emphasis on appropriation as a subversive aesthetic strategy and in its ludic engagement with conventional pop-culture forms. As the knowingly generic, all-caps title of his film suggests, part of Conner’s intention in making A MOVIE was to hint at the spectacular themes and the processes of montage and assemblage that constitute all films. Thus, much like other found footage films, Conner’s film plays with cinematic conventions on several levels simultaneously: at the level of content, in its manic oscillation between spectacles of violence, sexuality, and tragedy; and at the level of form, with its witty mix of editing styles, from classical modes of continuity associated with the Hollywood studio system to the more experimental modes of dialectical montage associated with the interwar Russian and European avant gardes.

This is one of A MOVIE’s most remarked-upon features, and why it remains an entertaining and provocative work of experimental cinema: the extent to which it points up, perhaps even lampoons, the conventional content and form of the cinema. Less frequently noted, however, is the extent to which A MOVIE addresses another aspect of moving-image production: the material properties of the film industry as a whole, from production to exhibition. In an interview with scholar William Wees, Conner claimed that the inspiration for the film came from watching “Coming attractions” trailers in movie theaters, short teasers that could condense entire feature-film narratives into just a few minutes, as well as the experience of cheaply made Hollywood B-films, which would persistently reuse the same footage from stock libraries to evoke certain events or locations in a kind of cinematic short-hand. He explains:

When there was a scene in New York introduced, you would see the same shot of the Brooklyn Bridge from the same position ... . So I became aware that there was a ‘universal movie’ that was being made all the time! It’s the Mona Lisa, it’s the Sistine Chapel, it’s the Statue of Liberty, it’s all these symbols, except it is in film. [3]

Here, Conner suggests that all movies are in effect patchwork constructions that owe their existence to the same mass proliferation of moving images from which Conner himself was drawing. In this sense, his effort was to make not simply “a movie,” but “the movie.” Marrying the diverse fragments of cinematic image production through a continuous montage, Conner creates a film that gestures to a putative “universality” at the heart of all of cinema — it is one assemblage among many from the already vast and rapidly burgeoning archive of recorded moving images. In this way, A MOVIE hints at the totality of the moving image industry and to its underlying infrastructure, dispersed in many distinct objects and iterations, from production to circulation to reception.

In this way, we might think of Conner’s film as a kind of core-sample of the cinema, offering by way of synecdoche a remarkably expansive view of image circulation and the infrastructure of moving-image media in 1958. But what is the significance of this gesture when taken up by Jennifer Proctor in 2010?

Proctor’s MOVIE effectively repeats Conner’s version, approximating its images with contemporary ones while retaining the form of the work almost shot-for-shot, but in the intervening half-century the context for this gesture of appropriation has radically changed. With the proliferation of networked digital media, the appropriation and reuse of images, sounds, texts, and other media objects is now a ubiquitous practice in contemporary art and vernacular online culture alike. As Manovich (2007) has noted, modernist practices such as appropriation, assemblage, collage, and montage have become not simply prevalent aesthetic practices, but default settings in digital communications tools and online environments. If Conner’s film came at a moment when the mass circulation of images was just beginning — the dawn of the proliferation of moving images in various formats, for both professional and amateur uses — Proctor’s emerges in an era in which images and image technologies are everywhere — even, in a sense, inescapable.

This essay considers cinematic practices of appropriation, or found footage, and how they have been deployed at two distinct moments from the last half-century — 1958 and 2010 — arguing that these practices become, for Connor and Proctor, means of analyzing the material infrastructures undergirding the media industry. I argue that, by looking at these two works, we get a better sense of the changes in the flow of media between these two moments.

But how can an aesthetic strategy such as appropriation function as a means of investigating and analyzing media infrastructures? Can artists use their work to perform analytical work on the same systems within which they circulate?

One answer to this question is that experimental film and media have long been engaged in interrogating the conditions of media production and reception. Following in this tradition, the work of Conner and Proctor implicitly articulates and exposes the media infrastructures in which it was made and the artists’ labor within these infrastructures. This essay argues that the work of appropriation serves as a way to examine the questions about production and labor, about the relationship between the “raw material” and the conceptual and technical labor of the artist, and about the ecologies and reincarnations of moving images across media platforms. In this way, each of these works performs a kind of materialist media theory, staging its own materialist analysis of media infrastructures across its many scales, and making evident the ways in which media objects move across platforms, and become themselves incarnated in new media forms.



Appropriation and media infrastructure

In recent years, some media studies scholars have pivoted away from an interpretive approach grounded in the traditional methodologies of the humanities, which privilege notions of authorship, intention, and aesthetics, and toward a study of media infrastructures themselves. In the introduction to their anthology Signal traffic, Parks and Starosielski argue for a shift away from the objects of a more traditional, hermeneutics-based humanities and toward “situated sociotechnical systems that are designed and configured to support the distribution of audiovisual signal traffic” [4]. This concept of “signal traffic” — for which they have named their anthology — de-emphasizes “the analysis of screened content alone” in favor of understanding “how content moves through the world and how this movement affects content’s form” [5].

While I welcome this call for a shift in methodologies and expansion of practices of media studies to incorporate much more than textual analysis and hermeneutics-based critical approaches, I argue that artists themselves — and perhaps especially those working in the experimental film tradition — have long been involved in making visible the infrastructural substrata of the media in which they work. A close reading of production practices and media texts, rather than simply ignoring the material substructure of media production, might in some instances allow us to explore the underlying logics of media infrastructures, their systems of production and consumption, transmission and display, storage and reuse, and the ways in which individual artists and filmmakers interacted with them.

In particular, appropriation — a central practice of modernist, post-modernist, and contemporary aesthetics — has consistently functioned as a means of investigating the nature of media infrastructures, economy, and circulation, particularly during times of dramatic changes in modes of mechanical reproduction. In his book on art after Duchamp’s readymade, Roberts argues that appropriation stages an intersection of the artistic domain of the sculpture with that of the mass-produced object-commodity in order to make visible the chain of value production inherent in each domain, thus serving as “a striking point of ‘rendezvous’ for ideas ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ of art” [6]. Crucially, however, this interrogation of artistic and mechanical reproduction is carried out along the vector of authorship and authorial agency [7]. As Roberts argues, “the readymade’s technical invasion of the heavily protected realm of artistic skill is at the heart of a discourse on labour. For the readymade not only questions what constitutes the labour of the artist, but brings the labour of the others — ideally at least — into view” [8]. In other words, appropriation’s unique intervention turns upon its analysis of the interaction between two systems of production and circulation: that of the artist-creator as individual and that of the worker within the industrial production model. Appropriation, Roberts argues, acts as a point of intersection at which differing modes of production and circulation can reveal one another.

As an aesthetic practice that foregrounds the media-ecological place of its raw materials, appropriation anticipates Parks and Starosielski’s (2015) call for new infrastructural modes of inquiry both by making media forms distinguishable from one another and by making visible the means by which these works are produced and circulated. Works of appropriation art — including Bruce Conner’s A MOVIE and Jennifer Proctor’s remake — thus represent a form of media-infrastructure scholarship avant la lettre, making apprehensible the differing modes of media production and circulation in play [9]. Thus, I propose here an analysis of these MOVIEs that link cinema studies to media studies by participating in this expansion of the boundaries of what “a movie” is and where it is situated within a wider media infrastructure. Historically, socially, and materially, how does thinking about the (ever-evolving) place of cinema in a larger mediascape help us to think about the flow of media more generally? How can cinema studies and media studies share resources in this regard, by emphasizing the general milieu of media flows on the one hand and the particular labor of the artist on the other?



The work of authorship

The question of the artist’s labor in the work of appropriation is particularly complex, both because of questions of originality and intellectual property, and because of the notion of how to distinguish the work of the ”original“ artist from that of his appropriator. Here, I argue that appropriation for both Conner and Proctor creates a space in which to explore these distinctions of creative labor, which illuminates more generally the ways in which media are created, circulated, and reworked.

Crucially, both Conner’s and Proctor’s works use appropriated images, editing structures, and clichés to foreground the notion of authorship within industrial media forms. One of the recurring gags in Conner’s film — closely replicated in Proctor’s remake — is the continual repetition of a title card bearing the filmmaker’s name in a large, bold typeface. Both films absurdly overemphasize the names of their respective authors — sometimes flashing on and off like a neon sign and, in Proctor’s remake, glimmering with a kitschy, computer-generated sparkle — as if to suggest the lingering persona of an egotistical artist. The irony of this signatory gesture arises from the complex nature of both films’ authorship: both as works of found footage, and, additionally, Proctor’s as a remake of Conner’s film. In both instances, and for slightly different reasons, the authorship of the works is complex, even paradoxical relying as it does on a set of preexisting forms, genres, and media works, nearly all of which are without clear attribution.

Both versions of A MOVIE perform a kind of paradox of authorship: the name of the all-important artist emphasized out of all proportion to the massive quantity and variety of more anonymously or collectively produced images that flood our sensibility through mass media. One of the striking elements of Conner’s film is its canny sense of play both with ideas of cinematic authorship emerging at that time and with contemporary modes of moving-image circulation and reception. Through a simple visual joke, the film seems to address two important ideas of authorship relevant in this context. First, it points up the contradictions inherent in the politique des auteurs — that notion of cinematic authorship that identifies a single artist, the film’s director, as a film’s principle author — by comically foregrounding the disparity between the iconic, self-promoting author and the largely anonymous cameramen and newsreel makers whose work that Conner is actually appropriating. And, second — and perhaps more subtly — it makes evident the ways in which the work reaches its audience, not simply via the intervention of the author, but through all of the channels of production, distribution, and exhibition contemporary with the film’s making. Thus, the “author” of A MOVIE is merely one (albeit important) link in the chain of making and circulating moving-image media.

Thus, as with Duchamp’s readymade, Conner’s film forces the viewer, in a playful way, to consider the labor of the artist as distinct from that of all the invisible cinematic workers who make the film possible: the cameramen, production companies, film processors, distributors, projectionists, and so forth. A MOVIE may ironically present itself, with ridiculous overemphasis, as a work “BY BRUCE CONNER,” but from the outset its mode of production makes it inseparable from the work of film industry workers. In a sense, the film continually forces us to ask just what Conner’s labor as author entails and how this is defined in contrast with industrial and artisanal forms of labor.

As with Duchamp’s readymade, however, it is crucial that this question of authorship and attribution remain open: that the viewer must constantly reassess the relative positions of filmmaker, cameraman, editor, and the industrial system in which they work and interact.



Appropriation as labor

What, then, does the labor of appropriation, the work of “found footage,” entail?

As Conner’s statement on the “universal movie” quoted above makes clear, all movies are to some extent assemblages of preexisting footage — the history of moving-image media is one of montage and appropriation, the present moment’s perpetual reconfiguration of the traces of the past. And, indeed, as Conner often stated about the work, “I only own the splices.” [10] This is to say that, while the work absurdly overemphasizes the author’s presence through the repetition of his credit, the labor of the author is precisely defined and embodied (as “splices”), and thus dependent upon and embedded within a much wider system of production, circulation, and reception.

And yet, the experimental tradition of found footage filmmaking — or the genre variously identified as “compilation film,” “collage film,” or “appropriation film” [11] — is a practice with historical roots and aesthetic aims that are distinct from other forms of cinematic assemblage and montage, not least for the ways in which it tends to call attention to, rather than conceal, the process of its own making. With its roots in early modernism — from the archival documentaries of the early Soviet period and to the appropriation practices of the Dada and Surrealist movements — experimental found footage filmmaking or moving-image appropriation only became widespread as an artistic practice with the greater proliferation and availability of film stock in the post-World War Two period. Thus, Conner made his first films at precisely the moment at which the mass, commercial circulation of moving images was first truly beginning: with the rise of television and small-gauge film marketed for home projection.

While A MOVIE’s opening credits point to the essentially heterodox nature and complex authorship of all cinematic constructions, Conner’s mash-up of these materials is all the more notable for its homemade quality: Bruce Jenkins (Boswell, et al., 1999) reports that the film cost Conner a mere 15 dollars. Baldwin, himself a San Francisco-based found-footage filmmaker, describes Conner’s process:

Off-the-shelf prints of news digests were readily available on 100-foot and 400-foot silent (and sound) spools, produced for the amateur market by Castle Films and the like. These screen reports, like the trailers and comedies they often accompanied, had been familiarized through the regime of the neighborhood theater, and the pastime of home projection, before the domestic viewing of 16 mm. (and later, regular and Super 8 mm.) was eclipsed by television. As well, many of these documentary and human-interest shorts were re-presented on TV in the 1950s as the networks were padding out their sparse programming (Baldwin, 2010).

A MOVIE is notable for its dissociated images from anonymous and monumental histories alike: B-movie Western stampedes are paired with images of stock-car racing disasters, and girlie movie stripteases are intercut with phallic torpedoes; a frightful newsreel closeup of Teddy Roosevelt later gives way to images of battlefield carnage and the lynching of Italian fascists at the end of World War II — a grim, condensed history of the world as a sequence of disasters. But despite its sourcing of images from History and Hollywood — both with a capital “H” — the film also gestures to the wider sphere of industrial moving-image production and exhibition by making visible that which usually remains out of sight in the cinema: notably countdown leader, reel markers, and other elements and indices of celluloid exhibition ordinarily only seen by projectionists [12]. This emphasis on the diverse material sources upon which the film relies, as well as on its very mode of assemblage, places Conner squarely in the same sphere as that of Duchamp, Joseph Cornell, Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, and Robert Rauschenberg. Indeed, A MOVIE was featured alongside these very figures in William Seitz’s groundbreaking 1961 exhibition “The Art of Assemblage” at the Museum of Modern Art.

A MOVIE points to the essentially double nature of experimental found footage filmmaking: its appropriation of and play with images (images as media content), and the way these works address the means of transmission of these images (images as media objects). Conner’s film functions as an intervention into the voluminous flow of feature film and newsreel production of the mid-twentieth century, spotlighting their multiform codes and conventions of signification and partaking in montagist visual gags (and even the occasional Freudian dirty joke). The material, photochemical basis of these images also continually gestures towards the industry of people and machinery that supports and circulates them.

Until somewhat recently, the scholarship on experimental found footage filmmaking has tended to prioritize the former characteristic, its play with images and forms. In his book Recycled images, for example, Wees is primarily interested in analyzing the ways these works function as metacritical readings of the content of the original, repurposed film — in particular, the ways in which “the film’s montage exploits discrepancies between the image’s original and present functions,” making plain a juxtaposition of the intentions of the original filmmakers and those of their appropriators [13]. For Wees, these works primarily appropriate footage in order to create new meanings through recontextualization, playing with discrepancies between the original and new contexts, and reworking the material to give it new meanings unanticipated by its original makers. This is a familiar reworking or remixing of “original” material: to take a famous example from Conner’s film, making an image of a torpedo take on overtly phallic symbolism when intercut with images of a scantily clad woman from a stag film.

Interestingly, however, while the emphasis of Wees’ short study remains squarely on the interplay of content and context — how such juxtapositions can reveal hidden or underexamined content within the original footage — he also takes note of how such films “invite us to recognize [the appropriated footage] as found footage, as recycled images” [14]. In other words, he acknowledges that such works also imply that the images being (re)used have a materialist history and that this implication is an important dimension of appropriation as a practice. More recently, scholars of appropriation films have taken up this line of inquiry in order to shift the analysis of such films away from the mere content of the images and towards the more complex lives of the footage as footage. Baron’s recent book The archive effect, for example, emphasizes the ways in which these films play upon the viewer’s sense of the “foundness” or “archivalness” of the appropriated image. This sense is generated in part by the experience of “temporal disparity” or “intentional disparity” between the original document and its new context, but Baron here implies that this requires a degree of interpretive work on the viewer’s part: namely, considering the material history of the footage, its status as found or appropriated media, and the artist’s work of locating and recontextualizing the footage into the form of a new work [15].

Here, I’d like to extend this line of thought still further to argue that, as experimental filmmakers, Conner and Proctor deploy the strategy of found footage both as a practice of formal play and as a means of foregrounding — and even analyzing — moving-image production and distribution. Their works do not just make us conscious of disparities of the meanings of the images in different contexts; they also force in us an awareness of the distinct media infrastructures in which the images originate and circulate. Crucially, taken together, each MOVIE helps to make visible the media infrastructures of distinct technological junctures of media history: the rise of mass media proliferation in the middle of the last century and the more contemporary moment of networked digital media of the early twenty-first century.



Appropriation as media studies

To return to my earlier question: what, then, is the significance of Proctor’s gesture of remaking Conner’s film with contemporary footage? Why does she, in a sense, appropriate Conner’s work of appropriation, and what does this act reveal about the distinctions between the two moments in media history in which these works were created?

To be sure, Proctor’s A MOVIE can be read in much the same way as Conner’s original: In her work, there are many one-to-one approximations of daredevil skydivers and doomed waterskiers, as well as images of war and devastation to match the original film. There are also clever updates of some of Conner’s more pointed and historically specific images: for example, Proctor substitutes Conner’s image of Teddy Roosevelt for that of George H.W. Bush; images of the Hindenberg explosion for those of airplanes hitting the World Trade Center on 11 September 2001; WWII bombings for the bombing of Baghdad; and so on. And then there are more idiosyncratic approximations, as well: instead of starving African peasants, crying white teenagers; instead of actuality footage of a firing-squad execution, a similar scene from a video game.

Proctor’s remake extends and compounds the problems of authorship already in play in the original film. Hers is both a found footage film and a remake, which seems to further remove her agency as the principal author/creator of the work, despite her still more ironically proprietary title: A MOVIE BY JEN PROCTOR. Proctor’s emphasis on her own authorship serves to underscore still further the unusual, even hubristic gesture of remaking so iconic a film as Conner’s. In an interview with noted experimental film scholar Scott MacDonald, Proctor rather slyly downplays her role as an artist and filmmaker, noting that her film explores

[w]hat it would mean if a real nobody — someone like me — put her name in huge letters on the screen: “A MOVIE BY JEN PROCTOR.” It’s ridiculous, especially because it seems to place me on the same level as someone who is now recognized as one of the great artists of the twentieth century. And I’m a woman — given how few of us get our names in huge letters as directors of mainstream films, the ridiculousness is even more pronounced. [16]

Complicating these questions of the status of the author even further, Proctor’s work seems to align itself rather more with the domain of fan culture — as in amateur re-edits of films, YouTube mash-ups, or “supercuts” — than the traditions of the cinematic avant garde or artists’ moving-image work.

Proctor thus sets up a comparison of author roles that extends the concerns of Conner’s film for a contemporary mediascape: the iconic white male modernist artist, the contemporary “prosumer” or “content creator,” the “nobody” female filmmaker. Of course, Conner was arguably already subversively addressing this position of privilege in the 1950s. But Proctor’s remake renews this subversion, destabilizing the ossified stature that Conner has since attained (as “someone who is now recognized as one of the great artists of the twentieth century”). Thus, while Conner’s film throws into relief the relative artistic agencies of the artist, the cameraman, and media infrastructures of the mid-twentieth century, Proctor’s updates these questions for networked systems of production and distribution, those involving individual users, digital media, and video-sharing platforms.

Thus, while Proctor’s witty, precise reassemblage points up the essential question within all of Conner’s films of the value of the original images — the raw material — and the control and critical power of the artist’s overriding vision, by replicating the original more or less shot for shot it places special emphasis on the form those images take, their qualities as often compressed, low-resolution images, and their provenance, for the most part, in the world of amateur digital videography. Proctor belongs to an entirely different moment in the history of image circulation, one in which the Internet has vastly increased the capacity for production, circulation, consumption, re-mixing, re-circulation of moving images. In contrasting the two films, what is most striking is that the changes in the ways in which images are found is as significant as the change in their content. Rather than drawing from discard bins or junk shops or filming off a television (as Conner would do in his next film REPORT [1963–1967]), Proctor’s findings are the result of keyword searches on YouTube and LiveLeak. Thus, as the artist herself has stated, A MOVIE BY JEN PROCTOR is not so much a work of found footage, as “searched footage” (Goldsmith, 2016). Proctor used keyword searches to source images to associatively or graphically match those in Conner’s film. In a sense, this reverses the appropriative strategy of Conner’s original film: instead of finding within a set of given footage certain associations, linkages, and meanings, Proctor’s work searches within a vast network for media images that can stand in for or be plugged back into the form that Conner himself has established.

The types of ephemeral footage that were available to Conner — newsreel footage of sporting or historical events, trashy entertainment — are now all around us, almost unavoidable, and so the value — and perhaps also the power — of Conner’s gesture of appropriation has shifted since he deployed it in 1958 [17]. In this way, the cinematic form that Conner did much to establish has receded into the everyday functionality of our computers. It’s in fact what our computers are primarily used to do: capture, rework, and recirculate media.



The universal appropriation

What, then, might we say is the function of Proctor’s found footage remake? The simplest answer would be that Proctor’s work merely updates the content of Conner’s original work, and that in so doing it makes clear certain changes in the nature of mass-circulated moving images in the intervening half-century: Proctor updates the particular content of the images (the Hindenburg disaster becomes 9/11, for example) as well as the particular type of images (B westerns become video games). As Baron has argued, Proctor’s work offers the spectator “the ‘relative’ experience of watching similar images produced through different moving-image media, indicating the ways in which digital media technologies have altered the very conditions of knowledge about the world — both past and present — as it is obtained through images” [18]. Proctor’s act of selection, in this sense, is the mark of her status as author of this remake, an index of her labor of assemblage.

This work is made especially evident in the slight differences between the structure of Proctor’s work and Conner’s: indeed, Proctor’s replacement of Conner’s images is actually not precisely one-to-one. In the remake, the number of images increases as Proctor frequently replaces one of Conner’s images with several she has found, a subtle indication of the acceleration of both moving-image production since Conner’s film, as well as new norms of editing. Whereas Conner was working from a relatively limited collection of films, Proctor has at her disposal a vast archive of images that match the criteria of the original film. Now, just a quick Internet search away, there are simply many more images of a woman removing her stocking, or of go-cart races gone haywire, and we are more used to consuming them in fast-cut montages or in smaller durations through platforms such as Vine or Instagram. Thus, one indication of Proctor’s intervention is her reimagining of the material conditions of Conner’s process for the “age of search.”

Proctor’s remake foregrounds yet another key difference between 1958 and 2010: namely, that the proliferation of appropriation itself has become a central means of media creation and circulation in contemporary digital culture. As I have noted, Proctor’s version “accelerates” Conner’s original by offering a faster montage with more images, but there are other minute differences, as well. According to Proctor, her remake was created using a low-resolution bootleg version of Conner’s film, sourced from the Internet, as a guide for the structure. But because of the poor quality of the bootleg version, Proctor’s edit of her version does not precisely match Conner’s original film — when watched side-by-side [19], the viewer will notice that the edits do not line up exactly (Goldsmith, 2016). This is yet another way in which Proctor’s work helps to make visible the underlying structures of contemporary media circulation. Proctor’s work is, like Conner’s, the result of a complex set of collaborations, modes of authorship, and acts of productive labor. But it is also, to an extent, a bootleg. If Conner’s work points to the way in which all films are ultimately assemblages of pre-existing media, Proctor’s updates this for the uneven terrain of twenty-first century image circulation: all media works are appropriations that to a large extent “remake” their originals. Everything we find online is a copy of copy, an appropriation of an appropriation, endlessly remediated through acts of sharing and forwarding, uploading and downloading, posting and re-posting.

Here, it is worth returning to Parks and Starosielski’s (2015) call for a turn away from the analysis of the content of media objects and toward the question of “how content moves through the world and how this movement affects content’s form” [20]. Writing about contemporary art, Joselit (2013) has noted a similar shift away from an “object-based aesthetics” towards “a network aesthetics premised on the emergence of form from populations of images” [21]. But this shift in attention — from objects to networks — suggests a parallel shift in the practice of hermeneutics without doing away with it. Form itself, Joselit (2013) argues, changes from an object to a “population of images.” Crucially, Joselit’s (2013) call for an attendance not just to the meanings of singular objects with clear formal boundaries, but also to the ways in which these objects move, their circulation within industrial, commercial, and discursive networks, is a call as much for artists as it is for scholars.

In this regard, Proctor’s MOVIE is a redeployment of a practice already nascent in Conner’s own work: the possibility for appropriation to function as a methodology for exposing and interrogating the way media circulate. Proctor’s remake redefines A MOVIE as a kind of code or delivery system. In her remake, it takes on, to paraphrase Joselit (2013), the form that emerges from populations of images. In this respect, if the project of contemporary media studies is to shift its focus from media objects to their circulation, it may be necessary to enlist the work of artists and filmmakers like Conner and Proctor as precedents in their attempts to develop alternate frameworks through which to analyze and reveal the interrelated mechanisms of media industries and the labor of individuals within them. End of article


About the author

Leo Goldsmith is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Cinema Studies at New York University, and co-editor of the film section of the Brooklyn Rail. He is a co-author of Keywords in subversive film/Media aesthetics by Robert Stam with Richard Porton (Wiley, 2015), and is working on a book about the radical documentary filmmaker Peter Watkins with Rachael Rakes, a project that was awarded an Arts Writers Grant from Creative Capital and the Warhol Foundation. He writes on film and media for Artforum, art-agenda, Cinema Scope, and the Village Voice, and has organized exhibitions and film series for the Museum of the Moving Image, Ann Arbor Film Festival, Video Data Bank, Anthology Film Archives, and Contemporary Art Centre (Vilnius, Lithuania).
E-mail: llg246 [at] nyu [dot] edu



1. See, for example, the language used to promote the recent retrospective of Bruce Conner’s work at the Museum of Modern Art, http://moma.org/calendar/exhibitions/1614, accessed 27 July 2016.

2. Given the varieties of appropriation in the culture of the last century — from collage to photomontage to music sampling to YouTube mash-ups to animated GIFs — its manifestations vary widely in their politics, propriety, and legality. In this essay, however, I am not advancing a reading of appropriation that addresses questions of ethics or legality (for example, whether appropriation of certain images and forms is properly “original,” or constitutes an act of plagiarism). Rather, I am interested in discussing appropriation’s utility as a strategy deployed by artists to reflexively engage with media and media infrastructures as a subject.

3. Wees, 1993, p. 78.

4. Parks and Starosielski, 2015, p. 14.

5. Parks and Starosielski, 2015, p. 11.

6. Roberts, 2007, p. 26.

7. For an alternative analysis of the relationship between authorship and the infrastructure of the art world, see Becker (1982).

8. Roberts, 2007, p. 24.

9. In the case of Conner’s film, this would include mid-century American narrative cinema, the newsreel, stag films, and omnibus films circulated for the home market; in the case of Proctor’s video, experimental found-footage cinema, commercial pornography, amateur-produced Internet video, television network news media, and video games.

10. Quoted in MacDonald, 1988, p. 255.

11. I should point out that I am writing specifically about the experimental sub-genre of using pre-existing moving-image media to make new films as opposed to the now-widespread horror sub-genre whose storylines rely on the (intra-diegetic) discovery of footage purportedly of supernatural or otherwise horrific events, of which The Blair Witch Project (1999) is frequently recognized as the progenitor. There is much to say about the relationship between these “fake found footage” films and found footage as it is understood as an aesthetic practice typically deployed by artists and experimental media makers, but this exceeds the scope of this essay.

12. In discussing his 1963 film COSMIC RAY, Conner referred to countdown leader as “the information which you are not supposed to see. The projectionist who controls the projector is not supposed to let you see that, it’s verboten” — thus quite literally positioning his found-footage work as revealing the hidden infrastructure of moving-image exhibition (Conner, 1969, p. 20).

13. Wees, 1993, p. 12.

14. Wees, 1993, p. 11.

15. Baron, 2014, p. 17.

16. MacDonald, 2014, p. 328.

17. I’m indebted to Colin Beckett for this observation from his talk “Avant-Garde as Kitsch” at the Ann Arbor Film Festival, 28 March 2014.

18. Baron, 2012, p. 468.

19. One can view a side-by-side comparison of Conner’s and Proctor’s versions of A MOVIE on Proctor’s Vimeo page: https://vimeo.com/155594408.

20. Parks and Starosielski, 2015, p. 11.

21. Joselit, 2013, p. 43.



Craig Baldwin, 2010. “From junk to funk to punk to link,” In: Steve Anker, Kathy Geritz, and Steve Seid (editors). Radical light: Alternative film & video in the San Francisco Bay Area, 1945–2000. Berkeley: University of California Press, pp. 95–100.

Jaimie Baron, 2014. The archive effect: Found footage and the audiovisual experience of history. New York: Routledge.

Jaimie Baron, 2012.“The experimental film remake and the digital archive effect: A Movie by Jen Proctor and Man with a Movie Camera: The Global Remake,” Framework, volume 53, number 2, pp. 467–490.
doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1353/frm.2012.0020, accessed 15 December 2016.

Howard S. Becker, 1982. Art worlds. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Peter Boswell, Bruce Jenkins, and Joan Rothfuss (organizers), 1999. 2000 BC: The Bruce Conner story, Part II. Minneapolis, Minn.: Walker Art Center.

Bruce Conner, 1969. “Post-screening discussion with the audience at the 1968 Flaherty Seminar,” Film Comment, volume 5, number 4, pp. 16–25.

Leo Goldsmith, 2016. “Interview with Jennifer Proctor,” unpublished.

David Joselit, 2013. After art. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Scott MacDonald, 2014. Avant-doc: Intersections of documentary and avant-garde cinema. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Scott MacDonald, 1988. “Bruce Conner,” In: Scott MacDonald. A critical cinema: Interviews with American independent filmmakers, volume 1. Berkeley: University of California Press, pp. 244–256.

Lisa Parks and Nicole Starosielski (editors), 2015. Signal traffic: Critical studies of media infrastructures. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

John Roberts, 2007. The intangibilities of form: Skill and deskilling in art after the readymade. London: Verso.

William C. Wees, 1993. Recycled images: The art and politics of found footage films. New York: Anthology Film Archives.


Editorial history

Received 15 December 2015; accepted 15 December 2016.

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A MOVIE BY ... Appropriation, authorship, and the ecologies of the moving image by Leo Goldsmith.
First Monday, Volume 22, Number 1 - 2 January 2017
doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.5210/fm.v22i1.7265

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