The Double {+} Anchor: Notes Towards a Common Cause

By Jem Cohen

plus.jpg

Sometimes we need to remind ourselves that the relationship between those who make creative work and those who receive it should be one of mutual support.

I call it the ‘double anchor.’ Each end holds up the other.

My starting place is the belief that our connections to the music, writing, films (and so on) that we love are not luxuries, they are sustenance. (I’m talking about art itself, not the distortions of “the art world.”) It’s hard to speak about this without falling back on well-worn truisms about common language or finding community or even the notion of the sacred. Be that as it may, for many of us art is a rope drawn through time. It gets us out of the quicksand of the daily grind, yes, to a higher place. And we entwine this rope with our own work – which hopefully lengthens the cord for others down the line. In a wreck of a world, this is a matter of essential communication, joy, and survival. There is no shame in taking this seriously and wishing to protect it.

And what does this mean in the new digital landscape? Will this landscape strengthen or weaken the anchor?

I write this as a filmmaker who has tried to make essentially non-commercial work for almost 25 years and still believes in “independent filmmaking” not as a marketing term but as a hard fought way of working or, at least, a constant goal. It’s addressed to those who value work not dictated by corporate meetings and focus groups, made for reasons other than financial profit; work which, by default, may have to be born and exist outside of the mainstream. I’m not writing to further argue the semantics of the word “independent.” I’m well aware that many have tried to render it meaningless. Some of you know that can’t be done.

I’m not a purist. Resistance to doing commercialised work can be a luxury, especially to those with families to support. That said, proclaiming the inevitability of, or even celebrating such commercialisation is also a luxury, coupling the convenient payoffs of joining the much bigger club with relief at not having to fight so hard. And it has always been a fight. Despite proof that art bolsters local economies, in a financial downturn already marginal arts support will be even further jeopardised.

double-anchor.jpg

Over my short quarter century in the arts, several media “revolutions” were supposed to save us, but the latest digital upheavals seemed to have the greatest potential. The internet was to provide access to a massive new audience; need for middlemen and costly hard copies would diminish; we’d connect directly to those most interested in what we make. But this isn’t quite what has happened, or it has happened for too few.

Instead, I fear that an ugly dichotomy is sliding into place. On one side, there’s a receiver for whom, with a few clicks, everything is available, free, and exists to be shared without consideration or consequence. On the other side there are interests, usually corporate, envisioning how with more restrictive copyright and insistent branding, everything can become even more commodified than it already is.

The first instance encourages unfortunate disconnections: the artwork gets severed from the individual and labour that created it, and the way that work was intended to be experienced is sabotaged by the digital reality. A film made with great care and funded with great difficulty is barely done before it’s uploaded without its maker’s knowledge or assent. The artist’s own intentions for distribution and sales are ignored if not damaged. It then appears as a tiny box on computer screens, surrounded by text or ads, viewed in brightly lit rooms. Films that unfold slowly, are contemplative, complex, or hold detail and sound to be of paramount importance are at enormous disadvantage here, as is such basic cinematic language as the wide shot. Some work can still be made and enjoyed in this context, but much ceases to function as intended, if at all.

double-anchor-2.jpg

On the other, commercial hand, where artwork is seen in terms of “monetisable content” and routes of access as “real estate,” branding rather than inspiration is the language of connection. The digital world brings with it a circular ease wherein once all things become products, they can be tethered to consumers and other products. As digital media, essentially permeable, allows logos, links, and ads to actually become part of the pre-existing image, and as more of our preferences are covertly collected, we’ve barely seen the tip of this iceberg.

Much discussion about digital availability centres around copyright vs. the Commons. Some argue that all ideas come from other ideas and therefore none warrant special protection or that copyright is simply the baton wielded to police or corner the market on information and creativity. There’s some truth to this, and much to be said for limiting both length of copyright term and absurd criminalisation of filesharing. Still, off-hand rejection of the very notion of originality (and therefore of its protection) is deeply problematic. It throws out the baby with the bathwater, erasing the value of labour and ignoring how a medium can be a matter of crucial, personal development rather than secondary discovery. Why did someone take the trouble to record this with a hollow-body electric, shoot that in Super 8 film, print that on a letterpress …?

Anti-originality arguments can be suspiciously convenient to those whose work is based primarily in appropriation and wish to remain oblivious to the existing work’s labour value. A string player’s sound may not only be her handwriting, it connects to all the times she dragged a real wooden cello up actual subway stairs to get to rehearsals and gigs. Peer-to-peer sharers should include that history in their decisions about uploading her music without permission. It’s not a matter of saying they simply shouldn’t do it; the course of change has moved past that. It’s about looking for ways it can be done in a spirit of thoughtful reciprocity. Yes, the wider the pool of access to existing work, the more inspiration may spark new forms, but legitimate opposition to the way works are increasingly blocked from the Commons by restrictive gatekeeping shouldn’t neglect the fact that if artists aren’t recompensed for their work at all, they may not be able to keep making it, and this too deprives the Commons.

Filesharing is hardly the only problem. With theatrical distribution an impossible dream for most features, filmmakers turn to dvd to get the work out. In the U.S., dvds are most often rented through Netflix, the world’s largest online rental service, with about 9 million subscribers. Audiences are thrilled by the access and many filmmakers with the visibility, but the hidden catch is that due to the obscure legislation called Doctrine of First Sale, Netflix can buy a few copies of a film at retail price (or more likely wholesale) and then continuously rent them out across the country without paying any royalties to the creators. Netflix’ gross profit for 2007 was 419 million USD. The service is incredibly convenient, but at what cost?

double-anchor-3.jpg

Increasingly, we’re told the solution is for most of our work to be given away while we sell some of it, or ourselves, to advertising. So a kid hears his very first Hendrix song (or that of some ‘underground’ band) in a car ad and forever associates the song with that brand of car. Or a living singer-songwriter connects with fans online and then performs for them at special “tasting” parties hosted by Pepsi. Are these really the kind of “solutions” we wanted?

These scenarios weaken the double anchor. The question is, what strengthens it? Rather than despair, what we need are some practical ‘best practices’ that can help us to keep each other afloat.

When we view, download, or burn copies “illicitly,” we can push ourselves to seek out a hard copy as well, especially from a source that most benefits the maker. ‘Burn one; buy one.’ (Or even buy one, burn three: I can’t dictate the exact equation for others, I only ask that ‘buy one’ be part of it, or that they find another concrete way to support the artist).

So excited about someone else’s film or music that you want to share it online? Again, if the actual work can be bought, upload an excerpt instead of the entire thing, and then include a link to the purchase point. On a website you like, is there a button for donating directly to the creator of the site, film, music or software? Make it a habit to hit it.

Online exhibitors: use the best encoding and correct aspect ratios. Get rid of the crap that surrounds on-screen work, and link to the maker’s own sites.

University teachers lacking budgets to rent independent films every semester can march to the school library and request their institutionally-priced purchase rather than show bootlegs or personal copies. These can then be used in the future, and by other classes.

The difference between watching a postcard-sized, poor resolution image of a film and truly experiencing that film can be correlated to students with seeing a photograph (or photocopy!) of a painting vs. the genuine item. Teach this as a form of media literacy.

Art Institutions and curators: whenever possible, pay artists for work you exhibit. Museums are like restaurants filled with other people’s food. Support the farmers while they’re still alive so they can grow the crops your institution depends on. Why do some of the most prestigious institutions, some charging exorbitant entry fees, not even put payment to artists on the table?

double-anchor-4.jpg

If we all want more real “food,” then we need to start skipping the snacks that fill us up but don’t sustain us. Vote with your dollars and feet. Support presentation of independent work, especially when the maker is present and getting a cut of the door; rally around independent cinemas, music, and bookstores as you would around a fire in a hard wind.

Film festivals, get over the competitive lunacy of insisting on premieres for work which may never be seen outside of the festival circuit. You’re cutting off access not only to audiences but to other exhibitors who would’ve seen the work and kept it alive.

And so on.

I for one remain fallible, distraught, full of contradictions, and sometimes even hopeful. And I’m certainly not beyond enjoying Youtube. Rather than attend to any kind of business properly, I spend most of my energy just trying to squeeze out the next little film. But we’ll either make our own road or get knocked flat by someone else’s logo-covered truck. By shifting the focus from maximizing profit to basic sustainability, there may well be a realizable dream here, a new economy of fair trade for artists and audiences.

I’ll call it the double anchor.


Jem Cohen is a filmmaker whose works include Chain, Instrument and Lost Book Found. He plans to begin placing the double anchor symbol {+} on his work as a reminder and a spark. He hopes that others might do the same.

His new work Evening’s Civil Twilight in Empires of Tin (featured in this issue and made for the Vienna International Film Festival 2008) is now available in a very handsome dvd edition from Constellation Records.

The images featured in this article are ‘hobo symbols’, apparently still in use and somewhat international, that constitute a code of the road. As Wikipedia says, 'to cope with the difficulty of hobo life, hobos developed a system of symbols, or a code. Hobos would write this code with chalk or coal to provide directions, information, and warnings to other hobos’.