Rick Prelinger (Washington, 1953) is an archivist, filmmaker and professor at the University of California. Since the 1980s he has worked as a film archivist and in 2000 reached agreement with Internet Archive to make 2,100 films accessible in the Web, and this number has not stopped growing. He is the author of the films Panorama Ephemera (2004), No More Road Trips? (2013) and All-Is-Well (2016) and has created several film programs or “historical interventions” called Lost Landscapes of San Francisco and Lost Landscapes of Detroit. Together with Megan Prelinger, he is the co-founder of Prelinger Library, a research library in the centre of San Francisco that is open to the public.
I. “Audience participation”
“Please be loud”.
What sounds like the exhortation in the sleeve notes of a Rolling Stones album is in fact the recommendation of writer, filmmaker, and self-described meta-archivist Rick Prelinger at the start of a screening of his film Lost Landscapes of Detroit. Prelinger primes a small but packed screening room for an experiment in "live cinema" in which viewers are encouraged to speak —or even shout— their responses to the collection of amateur and industrial film that documents fragments of the city's history between 1917 and 1970.
In this exercise in audience participation, viewers can yell out stories, anecdotes, factoids, and questions, creating an ad hoc, collective psychogeographical mapping of some of Detroit's forgotten places.
II. “Archive as a source of visible evidence”
While much of the critical discussion of documentary aesthetics has focused on issues of veracity, ethics, representation, and performance —issues derived mainly from the study of cinema verité— an overwhelming number of nonfiction moving image works are composed, in whole or in part, from pre-existing material rather than more direct, filmmaker-subject encounters. From the vast array of theatrical and broadcast biopics about artists, athletes, and politicians, to the more elaborate studies of archival material produced by Adam Curtis and Harun Farocki, documentary films have long relied on the archive as a source of visible evidence.
III. “The future of documentary”
Rick Prelinger made thousands of films from his enormous collection available online for free at the Internet Archive and continuing to furnish archival footage to many documentaries that play online, and in theaters and festivals around the world. For him, the future of documentary—and, indeed, all kinds of media—will involve a "scaled-up engagement with the archives," thanks to the proliferation of such tools and resources in the digital age.
IV. “Everyone has the right to excavate, edit, and surprise”
With the Lost Landscapes series, Prelinger's interest lies more in topography than chronology, cutting across history to compare locations at various moments in a city's history. Through audience participation, Prelinger tries to create a “4D model” that mimics the kind of user annotation one finds on the Internet —call it a live crowd-sourcing of metadata— identifying locations and time periods, and sharing anecdotes and forgotten histories. In Prelinger's view, this is like a cinematic geotagging, where the audience is able to “attach spatial coordinates to an image; not just where it was shot, but what it sees”. This reconception of both cinematic space and form suggests how Prelinger's work with online archives has informed his thinking about fresh correspondences between old and new media. “Today we can document daily life with almost infinite granularity”, he explained. “In fact, we're approaching the Borgesian, one-to-one correspondence between the world and the map. But documentation of the past is of a different class. It's finite, it's often precious—we wish we had more”. In this sense, the group experiments of the Lost Landscapes series offer the chance to fill in some of these historical gaps, and to reroute the usual historical narratives. Here again, Prelinger is equivocal about the nomenclature: “Maybe Lost Landscapes is a misnomer: we're not just getting together to watch old footage; we're a focus group on what the future could be”.
Rather than the grand historical trajectories that most documentaries sketch out, these micro-narratives are the ones Prelinger feels are worth revisiting as a way of rereading the past and reimagining the future. And this process begins with greater access to and interactivity with the archive. For Prelinger, as he explained at Full Frame, "this marks the fulfillment of a kind of civic right that too often goes unrecognized: that every generation and group is entitled to reinterpret history from wherever it stands and towards its own ends, and that everyone has the right to excavate, edit, and surprise."
“Recycling Programs: Rick Prelinger and the meta-archival documentary”
by Leo Goldsmith was published on Moving Image Source (Museum of Moving Image), 2011.