Archival Spaces 263
Jaimie Baron: Reuse, Misuse, Abuse
Uploaded 19 February 2021
In her first book, The Archive Effect: Found Footage and the Audiovisual Experience of History (2014), Jaimie Baron analyzes the effects of appropriating archival film and video footage on historical representation. How do the meanings of archival images change when they are inserted into new contexts?
In her new monograph, Reuse, Misuse, Abuse. The Ethics of Audiovisual Appropriation in the Digital Era (2021, Rutgers University Press), follows up with a more focused discussion of the ethics of visual appropriation. This discussion is certainly timely, given the fact that there are now literally billions of photographs and moving images digitally accessible on the internet, which users are downloading for their own audiovisual works, oftentimes without contacting the real or implied rights-holders. There is a supposition in “remix” or “Read/Write Culture” that montages of previously published quotes fall under fair use or artistic freedom, without digging deeper into the ethical issues such appropriations raise. This is particularly the case with documentary and actuality footage, where personality and privacy rights beyond copyright come into play.
Basing her argument on Vivian Sobchack’s work on ethical gazes engendered by death, Baron differentiates in her introduction between various, layered gazes: that of the original producer, that of the filmmaker appropriating visual material, that of the viewer of the newly contextualized use. She expands this taxonomy of gazes to include audio material, for which there is no corresponding audial term. Baron notes that “every re-use of a pre-existing recording is, on some level, a “misuse” in the sense that its new use was not intended or at least not anticipated by its original producer.” (p. 8)
In Chapter 1, “(Re)exposing Intimate Traces,” the author turns to home movie footage, which was originally produced solely for private, intrafamily consumption, but is now routinely recontextualized by a host of documentary filmmakers, utilizing someone’s private moments as public evidence. The degree to which the appropriationist’s attentive gaze protects their subjects, by blocking a voyeuristic impulse, revealing or hiding identities, or making public that which was secret, are all a measure of ethical behavior. The complex ethical questions of such appropriations are revealed in the example of Jane Gillooly’s 2013 film, Suitcase of Love and Shame, which uses audio recordings of a couple’s secret love letters, placing the viewer “in the ethically compromised position of the eavesdropper.” (p. 41) By protecting the anonymity of the filmmakers, though, Gillooly presents an ethical occluded gaze.”
In “Speaking Through Others,” Jaimie Baron discusses the issue of ventriloquism, placing words in the mouths of an appropriated subject often for comedic effect, leading to either a playful, satirical or denigrating gaze. As these various gazes indicate, such appropriations are often harmless because they involve public figures, such as politicians. Indeed it is often a matter of power relations. When the target of the appropriation is someone who holds less power than the monteur, the appropriation may slip into exploitation or, worse, racial ventriloquism, as in the case of Dominic Gagnon’s of the North (2015), which appropriates from You-Tube First Nations footage: “Gagnon’s film solicits an objectifying ethnographic and potentially denigrating gaze vis-á-vis the unidentified Inuit people in the clips he appropriated.” (p. 89)
In the following chapter, “Dislocating the Hegemonic Gaze,” Baron is concerned with original footage that may have been unethical to begin with, but is viewed critically through the appropriation, rendering it ethical, by disrupting the original gaze. She demonstrates, e.g. how Christopher Harris’s Halimuhfack (2016) disturbs the white gaze on persons of color by spatially layering images and text to subvert any residual stereotyping inherent in the white gaze. Utilizing the example of the gay-themed Falling in Love… With Chris and Greg: Work of Art! Reality TV Special (2012, Chris Vargas, Youmans) and Soda Jerk’s feminist project, Undaddy Mainframe (2014), Baron then discusses the disruption of the straight and male gaze, respectively.
As the title indicates, “Reframing the Perpetrator’s Gaze,” discusses footage that is a priori unethical, because it reflects the gaze of criminal perpetrators, for example, Nazi documentary footage. Yael Hersonski’s A Film Unfinished (2010) reedits Nazi Propagandakompanie (PK) outtakes of the Warsaw Ghetto in 1942 to transform into an accusatory gaze the unethical and dehumanizing gaze of the cameramen who are in a position of absolute power in regards to their incarcerated Jewish subjects. Brian L. Frye’s experimental film, Sara Nokomis Weir (2014), on the other hand, appropriates in a reformative gaze a seemingly unethical victim video, People vs. Kelly, to advocate for the perpetrator whose harsh sentencing may have been unduly influenced by the video’s sentimental montage of images of the victim.
In her final chapter, “Abusing images,” Baron takes a completely different track, analyzing the complex moral and ethical issues of a white artist appropriating an iconic image from African-American history. In the case of Open Casket (2017), a painting by Dana Schutz, the artist appropriates not only the image of the mutilated body of Emmett Till in his casket, based on a photograph by a black photographer, but also the “endangered gaze” of all African-Americans looking at the image: “… the endangered gaze is not encoded in the act of photographing but is nevertheless elicited in the act of looking at the image – but only for Black viewers who have lived the experience of being visibly Black in a racist society.” (p. 162) The abusive appropriation occurs because the white artist’s gaze is protected, yet she hopes to communicate suffering she herself cannot experience. While the painting resulted in justifiable African-American protests, Baron’s argument may engender some controversy, given that it posits an inability of whites to empathize with black suffering. Much less sticky is Baron’s closing example, the proliferation of antisemitic Anne Frank memes, which openly solicit an endangered gaze from their audience to joke about the Holocaust.
In the final analysis, Jaimie Baron argues that while appropriation of images in a remix often lead to very productive outcomes, the remixer should always place themselves in the shoes of the subject to decide whether they would mind someone taking your images, whether their remix is an ethical use of appropriation? Jaime Baron’s Reuse, Misuse, Abuse thereby takes us beyond the mechanics of what used to be compilation films into the age of digitality, where the ease of appropriation now demands a moral stance. It is all too easy these days to appropriate perfect copies, making the moral obligation towards the original subject and/or filmmaker all the more important, that is Baron’s plea. That makes this an important book, actually Pflichtlektüre for digital film scholars, filmmakers and curators wishing to produce ethical programming.