Coffee on Coffee, Still, Courtlin Byrd
Coffee on Coffee, Courtlin Byrd

Courtlin Byrd reflects upon the process of discovery that comes from using found footage gleaned from youtube.


It does not start with: “There is something I want to say…”

It starts with: “There is something I want to investigate…” Like a detective, one in a postmodern neo-noir, I search and study, surrounded by false starts, red herrings, loose threads…but bound to it all through tenuous connections and interwoven elements, delicate and chaotic.

The video essay. The essay film. The cine-poem. Found footage. Archival material. What is this form? Why did I start working in it?

When I began, I am not sure I knew I was making any thing of the kind. I was not particularly familiar with the genre and its veteran works when I started. It must have been some combination of intuition, interest, (in)ability, and ignorance that lead me here – to a place where things I have made fit into such a genre.

Most of the time, I sit down to make what I consider “a film”, and I am surprised by how it turns out. But I like surprise. And maybe that is a reason why I keep returning to this form; it is unwieldy but malleable, with elements to unveil, ideas to carve out, and possibilities to spare.

When I look back to some of the first films I ever made, they bear the marks of what I might now dare to refer to as “my” style: voiceover narration, visual vignettes that hew close to language. In undergraduate, I took a documentary class, and made “North vs. South,” about my close friend Carolina, who was struggling with depression. This film was not quite like the documentaries we had watched in class. I layered personal narration under abstract or conceptual footage I shot around campus and in my dorm room. I was looking for ways to visualize inner experience, the experience of depression.

Here, I must try to describe not only the motive and style but the subjective experience of my making and being, which greatly affects my choices in filmmaking. I was and still am an anxious person, interior and avoidant, but with great desire to breech the limits and discomforts of my bodily being. I hate to ask people for help or to do things for me. I have yet to command a set or direct a large crew. I avoid interviews if at all possible. Therefore, most of my artwork has been done as much as possible on my own, in my room or easily accessible locations. I now own a camera, equipment, and editing software, so I do not have to go to a lab or hire a collaborator. In many ways being such a person (a person with generalized anxiety and avoidant personality disorder) limits my ambitions, as I often shy away from ideas for films that require such engagement. I would like to not struggle with this; it is something I am working on. But, interestingly, there have been ways in which such limitations or restrictions have helped me discover and develop a very personal style that is intimate, lyrical, introspective, observational, and idiosyncratic.

Mondaugen's Law Still Courtlin Byrd
Mondaugen’s Law, Courtlin Byrd


So, why do I use other people’s footage? What first led me to download someone else’s video off YouTube? Is it because I am shy or, worse, lazy? Or did I take to heart Hito Steyerl’s essay, “In Defense of the Poor Image”?

There is certainly something behind it that has to do with class and accessibility – about how, at the start, I wanted to make movies and art objects, but I was sitting alone in a studio apartment, without the means of production, without community connection.

And I found it is an incredible feeling to “discover” something in the strange mass of the internet. I type a half-articulated desire into the search bar and something related but totally unexpected pops up. It is not exactly what I envisioned, but it is something else entirely. Something new that neither the uploader nor the downloader intended. In this way, there is more of an opportunity for chance, for surprise, for discovery.

While there is still a great pleasure for me in the process of narrative filmmaking: in setting up a camera and tripod and seeing something I imagined in my mind play out before the lens, there is something so wild in typing out words into a search bar and seeing what comes up from makers and users around the world. It feels right to become entangled with others in this manner.

Making Meaning

Once I have the footage, there are two driving forces behind the creation of the final edit: language and association.

Though I am enamored of the power of the moving image, I have always found it easiest to express myself in writing, to follow the flow of my thoughts, let them swirl out, expanding, and then draw them tightly back in. Sometimes it all comes quickly. I let the words form the shape of images, strumming into me, down through my brain and to my fingers. Sometimes the search is slower, a rumination, a frustration, trying to vector out to grasp the right turn of phrase, both for its meaning and its sound. Extra descriptions, commas, dashes, are important to me. It is not redundancy I am after, but a repetition that evolves into differences, gaps, and ambiguities. Language is imperfect; I try not once or twice but three times to articulate what it is I am after. And what I am after, always, is fleeting. And what I am after is to describe that fleeting feeling.

My first “real” video essay, “Vito:Bill 4:3,” actually began life as a poem, and I built its visual language and associations up from that base – a base of words generating more than themselves. I find the combination of words and images – their matching, clashing, colliding – to be very powerful, so I use voiceover and text in collaboration with video. When words do not work, the visuals evoke something more. When my visuals wander, language helps me reel them back. For example, I was attempting to work with only visual association in one of my works-in-progress, Mall Madness and Civilization, but the project quickly became unwieldy, because I was not using language to smoothly transition between topics, to tie the whimsical deviations back to the central line. I was trying to rely only on visuals, and the visuals weren’t saying enough, quickly enough. They became bulky objects, stacked next to each other, content without form.

Both visual imagery and language work on me in a way that triggers associative thought. I can barely hear a word without thinking of something else – not its signified object but some other cultural reference or personal memory, some sonic rhyme or visual pun. A sentence spoken is parsed, in my mind, into multiple threads of possibility. One thing makes me think of another and so on down a line until I am somewhere else entirely. (This perhaps explains my fascination with the YouTube search; it mimics the experience of my mind. One thing searched, another thing found.)

For example, in Mall Madness and Civilization, I was working with ideas of “the dead mall” (a term for the decline of the indoor shopping center in America). I was researching globalization and international shipping habits, and I discovered a video about the “Dead Zone” in the Gulf of Mexico (an area of water so polluted, everything is dying). This term made me think of the movie The Dead Zone starring Christopher Walken, which is apropos of nothing except the title, and yet, in saying, ‘I’m going to follow my associative instinct,’ I found a moment in The Dead Zone where Christopher Walken shouts, in his best Christopher Walken impression: “The ice is gonna break!” which in the context of the film means something else, but in the context of my film, I saw, could easily bring us from dead malls, through globalization, international shipping, into a theme of environmental disaster. And so I cut to video of a large sheet of ice falling off a glacier into the ocean.

Another example of my associative thinking resides in my video Mondaugen’s Law. Why was it that I made a video essay that combined Thomas Pynchon, Naomi Osaka, Andrei Tarkovsky, and Zen Buddhist philosophy? I had just finished reading Gravity’s Rainbow by Pynchon and was fascinated by a pseudo-scientific principle in it: Mondaugen’s Law of Personal Density: “Personal density…is directly proportional to temporal bandwidth….‘Temporal bandwidth’ is the width of your present, your now….The more you dwell in the past and future, the thicker your bandwidth, the more solid your persona. But the narrower your sense of Now, the more tenuous you are.” I had also been personally thinking about staying centered in the present tense, rather than leaning too far into either anticipatory anxiety about the future or the dangers of romanticizing the past through nostalgia. Nostalgia made me think of Tarkovksy’s Nostalghia and then of these interviews with Tarkovsky himself. I also happened to be playing and watching a lot of tennis at the time, and Naomi Osaka, the young tennis champion, was having a lot of trouble giving interviews after her matches. When a tennis player is on-court, the sport is a Zen practice of presence; afterward, in the “real” world, however, it can be a different story. All of these different topics came to me quickly, and I thought: ‘I can’t possibly put them all into one 5-minute video essay…’ but I could not think about anything else. Once I latch onto an idea (or it latches onto me) I find it nearly impossible to let it go until it is complete.

The Materiality of Media

Why do I make found footage video essays? Is it because I am shy and lazy, and just want to stay in my room, making points into the void? Or is it that I’m a neo-noir detective –investigating my subjective position and its entanglement in the world of culture and media, that I am drawn to the power of images and words, and I understand their mesmerizing ability to take me over, and so I want to take a piece of that power into my own hands, to mold and manipulate it into another magical object. The material of media is malleable. It always has been.

Just today, I found a video on YouTube of my great-uncle, Charles Counts. I did not know this man well; he mostly lived and died in Nigeria when I was a child. But he was an absent presence in my grandmother’s house in East Tennessee. A potter and ceramist, interested in the folk traditions of this craft, he taught and ran a studio, Rising Fawn. When I was young, I did not know much of this, or did not care. My family were teachers and journalists; there was a household interest in reading and writing, but no one really talked about making “art.” I found film on my own, when I was young, and later, through friends and relations, developed an interest in music and visual art. But now I see that perhaps I am not as “different” from my family as I thought; I have always had, whether I knew it or not, an entanglement with craft, form, and making.

In the video on YouTube, Charles sits at his wheel, a plump man with an East Tennessee accent – a country accent, I call it – not the beautiful Southern drawl of Georgia and South Carolina – but something more condensed, nasal, Irish. He begins to throw a pot, talking as he does so. In part of the video, my great-grandfather Arthur appears, sitting at his son’s side. I remember him. Very thin, with a big mustache, and that wooden cane. He was a whittler, always sculpting small objects out of wood – leaves and spoons and pins to wear.

Charles Counts Pottery Lesson 1
Charles Counts Pottery Lesson

There is obviously a family interest in taking something large and formless and finding a shape in it. Maybe Charles and Arthur already saw a shape when they looked at a piece of wood or a lump of clay, saw something nobody else saw, until they made them see it. Or maybe, they even surprised themselves at what came from that small piece of earth.

As I watch the video, I think about how Charles was a difficult man who struggled with bipolar disorder, and, despite being married twice to women, was a closeted homosexual who liked younger men. He went to Nigeria to get back to the source of pottery, and died from malaria there. My grandmother, his sister, was upset when he died that way, so far away, leaving her responsible for propriety. She did not know why anyone would leave East Tennessee. I remember how she loved her Fiestaware – those brightly-colored, mass-produced dinner plates – which stand in total opposition to the passion of her brother – local, handmade crafts. A brief type into Google to remember the name of the brand Fiestaware, and I find that some of the early pieces are considered “radioactive” because the glazes that were used to make their bright colors contained uranium oxide. Somehow, strangely, this is a link back to JoAn and Charles, siblings raised during World War II in the gated community of Oak Ridge, Tennessee, home of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, production site for the Manhattan Project: the Atomic Bomb.

How did this all tie together? It is not fate. The coincidences are not meaningful on their own. They are just separate facts – the chaotic reign of life. But I find it easy to become fascinated by the funny, ironic details of living. Here, I chose to follow a trail and tie these separate facts all together in one place; that is what creates the illusion of fated connection. I think a close look at the details – following carefully, the words and associations of my family, or yours, or anyone’s would reveal these kind of odd connections and coincidences. But we make the meaning.

I am making the meaning as I go.

At the end of this YouTube video is something extra for me. Whoever shared the video “Charles Counts basic pottery lesson,” [uploaded by user “rewrewd” on Aug 24, 2013, (13 years after Charles had died), with 712 views, 9 thumbs ups, 0 thumbs downs, and 2 viewer comments], left a long tail on the end of the video. The run time on YouTube is 48:47, but the video footage of Charles in his studio runs out at 26:15. That means that there is 22:32 of genuine video static and noise following it. I do not believe in fate, but this static is for me: a great-niece, a video artist. Genuine noise. Chaos. I make the meaning.

More about Courtlin Byrd.

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