Issue 17 : Fall 2009







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Really Good Juju:
An Interview with Craig Baldwin

by Erica Levin

9 Sep 2009

[The following is a previously unpublished interview, conducted in October of 2006 at Artists' Television Access (ATA).]

Erica Levin: Just start with the basic facts--when did Other Cinema begin, who were the key players, how did it get off the ground?

Craig Baldwin: There are hundreds of people involved; but I have always been the central one. It really started in the late 70s, and was totally identified with punk rock. There used to be a space right next door (to ATA, on 21st and Valencia) and now after 20 years we have returned. Now it's a Santeria place. That's why we make such good movies here: they do animal sacrifices over there, which produces really good juju! At one time, it was a community center called "The Offensive." They had a program called "Film Offensive," that was really the first iteration of Other Cinema. Then it was really more about political documentaries, about Central America for example. It was the Reagan era, the year would be 1982 or 1983. There were other versions of Other Cinema before it became known by that name. There was "Kommotion Pictures." There was "SubCinema." There was "Anti-Film." There was "Eyes of Hell." It's been 24 years now. Other Cinema has not only had other names, it has moved around. ATA was and is a kind of sister organization. There are several others: Intersection for the Arts, Oberlin Dance Collective (around the the corner). There's also Stealth Space, which came up later. There's "The Lab," as well as Langdon Street for the Arts. All those places are alternative spaces, youth cultural centers, and clubs, rather than fine arts galleries. That is why it would float around from time to time.

Now we share a space with ATA, but we are not the same organization (although I have programmed for ATA in the past). ATA used to be much more about video art. It was discriminating and cutting-edge, and at the same time more open to the community. ATA was a neighbor, two blocks away when I ran shows at my Minna St. place South of Market, at a place we called the Russians (the name of the bar it was above). I got kicked out of the South of Market, and ATA had a fire in 1986. We both had to move simultaneously, so at that point Other Cinema kinda became embedded within ATA. ATA came after Other Cinema, it probably won't last as long as Other Cinema, and Other Cinema has always been autonomous from ATA. Other Cinema is known for its programming, and is often asked to bring its programs to venues on the East Coast or in Europe. At this point, ATA is more of just a venue [utilized by various independent programmers and booking agents].

In all, during the early history of Other Cinema, we showed at at least ten different places through the Mission and South of Market. After the fire at ATA's SOMA space, Other Cinema was the only programming they had going on. It was a tremendous amount of work. We put a lot of sweat equity into this venue, the walls, the seats? I'm totally dedicated to to the communal cooperative thing, rather than the fine arts ethos. Other Cinema has always been a neighborhood, community, subculture thing. Other Cinema was always more interested in showing film. ATA showed more video. The guys that started ATA were from the Art Institute. They were into VHS 1/2" to 1/2" which was a more radical do-it-yourself kind of thing at that time. Now everybody's got a desktop editing suite at home. See, ATA used to be all about production. At this point I'm the only one here making movies.

I started this thing, which I recently resuscitated, called "The Mad, the Bad, and the Rad," which allowed me to program three shows a week. The original idea was that the "Rad" was the political stuff. I'd show that on Wednesday. The "Mad" would be the auteur, crazy genius thing. That would be on Saturday at 8:30 or 9. The "Bad" was the psychotronic films. We were always totally connected to Z movies, and we'd show those films at midnight on Saturday. I really filled up ATA's program while they got back on their feet and got jobs to pay off all the debt from the fire. ATA's own programming was always off and on because video just wouldn't draw [audiences] at the time, that's all there is to it. Maybe if you got some star taking off his clothes you could make an event. But, remember, these were the years before there was even a projector here. We would take eight monitors and set them up in the most absurd way all over the place! Anyway, ATA didn't have much programming. Aside from the video, there was also a spoken-word thing. And there was always a noise thing--that was a very big part of ATA. Those things came and went. Other Cinema was always the flagship because it was regular. And we had our own calendar, because ATA's calendar looked bad and never came out.

EL: If you had to break Other Cinema's history into chapters, are there specific periods that you would be able to identify?

CB: There is a continuity in the programming. I always had a vision, but my own tastes have changed a bit, even though we are always showing similar kinds of programs--industrial film is one example. The vibe also probably changed a little bit depending on the staff. People have come and gone. You could identify chapters based on the people working the front door. When I was teaching at Berkeley, I met Steve Polta. He's remained with me this whole time. He's just a solid guy, he's always volunteered. Now he's going to graduate school at San Jose to be a librarian, which is not all that different from what we do here. You've seen my archives [in the basement of ATA]. There were other people, people who went on to make great films. Bill Daniel is one. He is a big figure in the history of Other Cinema. He's not here right now; he's on tour, but he was instrumental in Other Cinema. He'd be phase 2. Jenny Perlin was with me for several years. You might call that phase 3. When Sarah Lewison came, phase 4 began. Sarah, like Bill, is a filmmaker. (She directed The Fat of the Land.)

There is another way to think about the phases in Other Cinema's development. Phase 1 was really more about a light show, club, after-hours kind of thing. Many times we did shows with multiple projections and sometimes even without sound. We often did live mixing. Other Cinema definitely belongs to a tradition of underground, West Coast, subculture, light show, rock and roll, youth culture, basement clubs. Right next door we would show work upstairs. They had a big vaulted ceiling. Most of these places here have a little projector over the door where things are stored. We'd always put the projector over the door and then the people would come in and look at all the art and have a couple of drinks. By midnight, everybody would be down in the basement on the other side of that wall there, moshing. We would project down there too. That was the punk rock phases. That was say 1982 to 1986 or so.

We always had an interest in industrial films, but in the early days there were a lot more documentaries, especially ethnographies. If I had to characterize another phase, that would be one. The problem was that ethnography never drew. Later I found some of that work so naïve. I thought they were colonial, even John Gardner for example. Though it was really sumptuous and unique, it was a little like a form of global tourism. We got out of ethnography and then more into agit-prop--ideas rather than just arty stuff. What I would like to do now is move much more toward ideas, because now there is an explosion of digital video. I don't think it is necessarily a bad thing, but everybody's making digital video. You have the Indiefest, the Indie Documentary Fest, the San Francisco Underground Film Fest, etc. It is fine with me; let a thousand flowers bloom. The point is that you could just put on a show at 111 Minna Gallery every month of new work, and it would pour in. (You could also just put that kind of work online.) That's not what we're doing. I like this idea of putting more of a frame around it. Organizing it, coming up with clear themes. It isn't just "this year's new model" that we're showing here.

In terms of programming we've moved much more towards a book talk, something almost like a conceptual essay. You don't have to be a filmmaker to show work here. Half the stuff that I booked on this season's calendar is book talks. That's what increasingly I'm moving to because I'm more interested in visual phantasmagoria and freak-out and goofy-wonderful-sensual [images]. I guess we are still into that too, and we will always do those kinds of shows. So though there has been a number of phases, there's been a very soft dissolve between them. There's no harsh dividing line.

EL: Are you the only person who has programmed for Other Cinema, or are there other people who have come and guest-curated?

CB: To be honest with you I'm the only person, but I wish I had more help sometimes. I like the idea of guests curating. In fact sometimes people have come in and done that, maybe 10 times in 20 years. Increasingly we are getting help from Christine Metropoulos, who is another person who helps a lot. She is increasingly interested in noise. What I'm interested in is getting out of the narrow confines of so-called experimental or avant-garde cinema, and moving this way or that way, either toward travelogue, experimental spoken-word, or noise performance. Christine sometimes does shows with people from the noise world and that draws that group. But I don't like to run this place like an open venue. There has always got to be a visual component. For example she asked me recently if we could do a Neo-Benshi show, and I loved the idea. So I guess I'd say, very rarely, but maybe one show a season at most is guest-curated.

EL: Will you talk about funding? Are there phases of funding that you could identify?

CB: We have never saved any money. Meanwhile ATA has gotten three grants, maybe more. I don't write grants for ATA because I'm writing grants for my own work. No one gets paid here, so people only contribute what they want. There were times when people got paid, but it didn't run any better. I imagine ATA was able to use some of our programming in its grant proposals for new equipment, and we have benefited from that. But Other Cinema's income has always been based on income from the door. This is an artist-run operation. There are benefits to that, but we also suffer the liabilities. Without income from grants, you need to establish a reputation and offer strong programming so that people will support you at the door. We just break even. No one's getting rich, but people are having a good time. It's an authentic experience. If we could get grants we wouldn't turn them away, but if we don't we still put on the program. We'll do it by any means necessary! We'll beg, borrow, and steal; we'll take the time we need, and maybe we'll do it on a smaller scale. We'll focus on great ideas, and throw a lot of energy into the show. We always get enough people here to pay the artist and make it to the next week. What I do is a labor of love. I live in a culture of film. I'm a filmmaker; many of my friends are filmmakers. I have fun watching films and making films. My whole life is wrapped up in this. If I weren't obsessive it wouldn't work. This kind of program is different from an institutional program. Many other micro-cinemas have come and gone. After a while you say it is just too much work to run a micro-cinema. You just can't put up with it for too long. Only if you are committed to it personally, obsessively you would do it. Basically I don't make any money. It breaks even. Even with the bar, because my staff drinks all the beer. That's fine, everyone has a good time. It gives people a reason to come back.

Money is the reason I'm trying to do the distribution thing. The programs are already made, so why not put together something that could be distributed by our label? It takes a day or two to program a show. You have to cut everything together, mount the show, and format it. There is an art to that. Then you have to break it down. That takes another day. So the idea is, if a show is strong, it will appeal to people in LA, Santa Cruz, San Diego. Why not send it out there? My hope is to mitigate the burnout. I'd like to get a little bit of traction and build some momentum on these side projects like the OCD distribution label. Right now it just barely pays for itself, but it is just getting off the ground.

EL: Can you talk a bit more about your process as a programmer? You've mentioned the network of people you are involved with, which is important since you seem to often be connecting with artists directly and not through their distributors. Obviously what you do is about a kind of social network. How would you describe your own process of putting programs together?

CB: We always do two seasons, 16 programs in a total year. If If you notice, it's 14 right now, because I'm burnt out. (I'm making a movie.) Anyway we are doing 14 and I have those ideas far in advance. Every time I have an idea I make a note. As you can see, there are a lot of notes around here. This is idiosyncratic; it wouldn't carry over to another individual. Often it happens that I meet so-and-so and she has such-and-such a film. There are also themes, for example psychogeography. We are always interested in particular themes: anti-war films for example. Another would be sex, eros, whatever you want to call it. There are just things that we can always use as a rubric, or umbrellas under which we can put different things. I always have them in mind, like a carton for a dozen eggs--you can just slot the shows into each space. I like to build my ideas into what I call suites or mini-series for continuity.

Things just come up in daily life. Sometimes you read something. I have all these catalogs, all this shit I haven't even read yet. I bet there is a film program in this pile somewhere. All these ideas just accumulate. That's the process. It's from the ground up and through my experience. Ideas don't just come from the film world. You can just walk right down the street to Modern Times Books (on Valencia Street) and there are ideas right there on the table. "My god I have to read that book, I just don't have the time, but maybe I could put a program together for all the people that think like me." People don't necessarily have time to read the book, but they know that these ideas are really resonant, they're in the air, and so people are thinking seriously about them. For our purposes there should be a visual facet to the idea. So I try to figure out how something could be addressed through visual means--cinematically, or even through a slide show. It means looking at books, tearing out articles, and pulling it together in the crudest kind of agglomeration. Good ideas are like gas clouds as they form into planets: first all you have is swirling dust and gas, then a miasma, and finally it comes together through the force of gravity to form something solid.

The one thing we won't do is open screenings. ATA already hosts an open screening, that's fine. I am more interested in being clear about the theme and curating it more exclusively because I think there's just a surfeit of stuff out there and you could just end up swamped with stuff if you did open calls all the time. I have my own personal tastes that other programmers might not share, but what we always try to do is draw from different audiences. You have to get out of the narrow casting of just fine art film (though I do like some of that stuff too). Our programming is not that formalistic. It is based really on issues of the day, power, resources, democracy, politics, not just formal aesthetics. For that reason you can come and see a completely different group of people from week to week. I think that that is really a measure of success. Anyway, you're only going to get 75 people in here at a time because the place is so small.

You mention social networks. There are people that I happen to know, and I know when they are coming through town or when someone is finishing a film. Sometimes activists or other forces in the community clue me in. Where do you think we get the films? From distributors? Less and less so. We get them from the artists. Me, I am distributed by Canyon Cinema. I have nothing bad to say about Canyon. But they basically just do institutional rentals. These days, you can hardly rent from them as an individual or a micro-cinema. So now we go directly to the people who are touring. That's why I call it the underground railroad. There's a set of micro-cinemas out there. I can now claim to be a part of this huge interstate infrastructure, set up in the late 1980s and early 1990s. We exchange programs with other micro-cinemas on this network all the time.

Support for what we do doesn't come from on high; it has to do with a way of living--living off the surpluses of obsolescence. Castoffs can always be re-used by artists. That's the culture that supports this kind of activity. It is marginal, other. That's what "Other" means. It is not avant-garde at all--rather it's to the side. It is marginal, peripheral. There is a kind of art here that is different from that of the East Coast. Film, assemblage, junk art and junk sculpture, all that kind of stuff that eventually became an identifiable and regional sort of art. Found footage is actually very related to that, especially by way of Bruce Conner.

EL: The last question I have is about the calendars as a record of what you do. Where does the text come from? I assume you write it. Are there program notes or just the text from the calendar?

CB: There are not really program notes. There should be, but there has never really been. We do have programs, which is a new thing. We didn't do that in the first ten years, but then at a certain point I just decided "let's formalize this a little bit, and let's let people have a document of the show and give a little more respect to the artist." That started about the time I got a computer. ...When it's a short show, sometimes we put the titles up on the overhead projector. Now as far as the text goes, yes I write it. I usually write it with Christine. She was a student of mine and is also the bartender here. She used to work at PFA and also worked on the Canyon catalog. Christine is a queen of style. She and I work together on the text. We started out doing more collectible calendars. Now they are more standardized, but with the text we try to pack as much as we can. We work it through together to come up with the best descriptions. Then we format it together. The calendar functions as program notes in a way. They have that level of depth, even though they're not formal. We try to keep it friendly; it is more inviting that way.