by Geoff Olson
At one time or another, we’ve all found a stranger’s letter, note or photo lying in the street, filed inside a library book or tacked to a corkboard. Or we may have come across an anonymous VHS tape containing an amusing home movie. Depending on the content, we might find ourselves captivated for a moment or two, before tossing the item aside. But who in their right minds would devote a gallery show, magazine, blog or book to such finds?
There are a few minds who’ve done just that, enshrining personal messages in new media. Rescued from oblivion, this marginal material becomes strangely compelling when it’s seen by eyes it was never intended to reach. Some of it is jaw-droppingly funny. Some of it is peculiar and strange. And some of it is surprisingly moving. In this article, we look at four ways self-made archivists have resurrected these oddments, from the ridiculous to the sublime.
The ridiculous: the Found Footage Festival
This is the tape you’ve been waiting for and heard about. In this video, we’ll show you 14 of the sexiest Southern California beauties in string bikinis and high heels firing the sexiest fully automatic machine guns in the world. – Clip from the Found Footage Festival
New Yorkers Nick Prueher and Joe Pickett have been buddies since high school. Between them, their credits extend from The Onion to Late Night With David Letterman to The Colbert Report, but their fame really lies in the niche they’ve carved out resurrecting found footage. The worse it is, the better, including obscure corporate training films, bad public access shows, bizarre home movies and cringe-worthy dating videos. For the past 20 years, Prueher and Pickett have travelled across the US, scoping out thrift stores, yard sales and dumpsters in search of VHS absurdities, which they showcase at public screenings across North America.
The clips must fulfil two conditions to make it to the Found Footage Festival. Firstly, they must be found on hard copy – You Tube videos are out. Secondly, they must be unintentionally funny. Whatever the intent behind their messages, they must fail spectacularly.
And fail they do. Among the artless finds on the Found Festival website is an infomercial from the late eighties, in which Vietnamese immigrant and real estate mogul Tom Vu tells listeners how to become rich through buying and selling distressed property, all the while cursing the “losers” who tried to bar him from wealth and fame. “I’m famous from Miami to Quebec!” he barks.
It Only Takes a Second, an industrial safety film that re-enacts workplace accidents, is another gem. In an ascending spiral of violent absurdity, workers run their hands through table saws, plunge off cranes and immolate themselves in car crash fireballs.
The Found Footage Festival was inspired years ago by Prueher’s discovery of a demeaning corporate training video in a McDonald’s washroom. He began screening the find at home to friends, with Pickett providing the running commentary. There’s no denying that the partners were committed to their project right from the start. Prueher once took a job at a video rental shop in a mall, solely because he heard its training films were so ludicrous. He stuffed a copy into his backpack and quit the next day.
Prueher’s work in the comedy world offered him greater access to the shadow world of marginal footage. He once had a research gig on Late Night With David Letterman, tracking down obscure videos of celebrities in their early years. Among his discoveries was a late seventies video of Arnold Schwarzenegger, on a junket to Brazil shortly after his Mr. Universe win, to investigate the carnival in Rio. The future California Governator is seen playing grab-ass with his female consorts, who are clearly appalled by his behaviour. Letterman played the film on his show, during a time when there were multiple accusations of sexual harassment against Schwarzenegger. “It’s amazing he got into office with this video out there,” says Pickett in an interview with Wired magazine.
In an appearance last year at Vancity Theatre, Prueher and Pickett screened their newest finds, including atrocious dating service videos and amateurishly rendered cartoon characters. The show’s highlights included a clip of “Thor,” a buffed, heavy metal star with a blonde mane, serenading elderly casino patrons at a Las Vegas dinner show. Nick and Joe arranged for the now unrecognizable local entertainer to attend the premiere. Thor proved to be a good sport, joining the hosts onstage for some banter with the audience.
After the show, the partners manned a table selling DVDs of past Found Festival screenings. “What’s your best video?” I asked Prueher as I rummaged through my wallet for cash. “Don’t make me choose; they’re all like my children,” he replied, before selecting Volume 2. His choice didn’t disappoint. Among the compilation’s unhinged preachers and unbalanced public access television performers, there’s Jack Rebney, a furious, sweaty RV salesman who cannot get his lines right for a television commercial shoot. The outtakes reveal him spewing a string of expletives before becoming apoplectic with rage and descending into outright gibberish. “Ferns and docks! Ferns and docks!”
The sublimely ridiculous: Found Magazine
The light at the end of the tunnel has been shut down due to budget cuts.
– Note discovered and sent to Found Magazine
The Found Footage Festival mines the pop culture trash heap for vanished video subcultures. The unrelated Found Magazine has a more voyeuristic spirit, inflected with small-h humanism. “We collect found stuff: love letters, birthday cards, kids’ homework, to-do lists, ticket stubs, poetry on napkins, doodles – anything that gives a glimpse into someone else’s life. Anything goes,” proclaims Found Magazine’s website.
The content, collaged by the American midwest company into its quarterly publications, ranges from aching intimacy to opaque absurdity, with every shade of human emotion and self-deception in-between. The magazine began life when cofounder Davy Rothbart went out to his car and found a note on his windshield, meant for someone named Mario from someone named Amber. The note, littered with f-bombs, accused Mario of parking his car nearby another woman’s place, when Mario claimed to be working. After damning her nominal boyfriend to Hell, Amber closed with the non sequitur, “PS Page me later.” That was enough to turn Rothbart into an urban archaeologist of scraps and snippets.
There are no pretensions to literary style or any other writing convention in Found’s rain of ephemera, which only increases its charm. Not that all the messages are charming. A letter recovered from Ann Arbor, Michigan, presumably meant for someone’s roommate reads: “Hi Evelyn, I have a problem. There was a jug of water that I seem to have left in the kitchen partially full. It was a dented one-gallon jug that said Poland Spring. However it did not contain “Natural Spring Water” – it contained contaminated water from Bhopal, India, one of the most contaminated sites on the planet.” What starts like a bad joke ends on a disturbing note, with the roommate claiming she is the founder and coordinator of Students for Bhopal. The absence of the jug of water, meant for laboratory study, has made its owner’s job more difficult – and may have put Evelyn’s health in danger.
With their scribbled labours preserved like flies in amber, the anonymous authors are held up to the world with all their foibles, fears and follies, and their humanity exposed like a raw wound. A hardcover compilation of Found features several pages from a notebook recovered from the streets of Austin, detailing a young chef’s ongoing struggle with drug addiction. Recipe lists alternate with the misery of trying to stay off heroin for one more day.
The magazine appears to have a large fan base and readership; issue seven contains found letters sent in by actor Steve Buschemi and writer Jonathan Lethem. Once a year, Found Magazine’s founders tour across the US, reading their finds and performing songs based on their discoveries, to great public response.
The sublime: PostSecret
“I steal small things from my friends to keep memories of how much I love them.” – Anonymous postcard sent to PostSecret
The most critically acclaimed and commercially successful effort to publicize anonymous messages is Frank Warren’s PostSecret, which began life as a community art project in Chicago in 2004. “In November 2004, I printed 3,000 postcards inviting people to share a secret with me: something that was true, something they had never told anyone. I handed out these cards at subway stations, I left them in art galleries, and I slipped them between the pages of library books. Then slowly, secrets began to find their way to my mailbox,” he writes in the preface to one of his PostSecret compendiums. To date, he has received more than 400,000 postcards from all around the world.
Warren got a bigger mailbox to deal with his growing submissions and launched a blog, PostSecret.com, which now gets over a million hits a week. Shortly afterward, HarperCollins publishing came calling and released a series of luminous books that are astounding documents of human frailty, fear and hopefulness. What Warren began as a “lark, even a prank,” has turned into a global phenomenon.
PostSecret exposes “the common landscape of our private lives – from our embarrassing desires to our hidden acts of kindness; from the private prayers of atheists to the voiceless doubt of believers,” observes Warren.
He requests senders to think of the postcards as their canvas, resulting in some surprising creativity. “I wish I could be someone’s hero,” scribbles one sender over a forlorn picture of lifevests on a dock. “The hands I was afraid of when I was a kid now are just part of a frail, lonely, sad man,” reads another, attached to a picture of weathered hands. “Our nation is spoiled, corrupt, ignorant…. but I would die to protect it,” proclaims another.
Many of the cards express senders’ fears that their lives are being misspent or wasted, especially on the job. “I can’t deduce if I’ve stayed in the same job for ten years because of loyalty, stupidity, laziness or fear,” reads one card. But some postcards defiantly proclaim the senders’ small acts of curriculum vitality. “By day I work in public relations for a hospital… by night I’m a graffiti artist,” reads another. “I give decaf to customers who are RUDE to me!” one sender wrote on a paper Starbucks cup successfully posted to Warren.
Not surprisingly, a number of senders own up to their unusual sexual fantasies. “It really bothers me to admit this. It freaks me out. I am not a bigot! I love people, I am a good person. But I think Hitler was sexy.” Or how about this head-scratcher: “I masturbate to pictures of Civil War soldiers.” There’s never a problem with too much information with PostSecret – the extraordinary confessions are brief and it’s up to the reader to imagine any details in the anonymous sender’s lives.
Occasional despair is balanced with confessions of hopefulness and moments of grace. “I’m a Christian who is falling in love with someone who doesn’t believe in God… I think it’s a beautiful love story,” confesses one postcard writer.
“I found this inside a magazine on an airplane. As soon as I arrived home, I took the ring I’ve had in my pocket for two years and proposed to my girlfriend. She said yes.” (The found note, written in another stranger’s hand, is pasted next to the text.) “This is your moment. The right time is NOW.”
Many of these messages reveal the weight many carry in their anonymous hearts. Warren received one message written on a death certificate: “I never kissed my son after he was born because he was sick and I was scared. He died two hours later.” These secrets have more force when you realize they are likely unknown to anyone but the anonymous sender and the strangers reading them. This creates a powerful, empathetic resonance with people you only know through their greatest secret. If only for that reason alone, Warren’s PostSecret project is art in the deepest sense.
Like the minds behind the Found Footage Festival and Found, Warren regularly tours North America giving presentations of PostSecret material, often leaving audience members in tears. “I like to believe that whenever a painful secret ends its trip to my mailbox, a much longer personal journey of healing is beginning for all of us,” writes Warren, a man sometimes called “the most trusted stranger in America.”
The ridiculously sublime: Death Bear
We all have someone or something we would rather just forget. Things fall apart. Love hurts. Dreams die. But when you summon Death Bear to your door, you can rest assured that help has come. At first you may be intimidated by his stature and colour (7 feet tall with a hard, black bear head, black jumpsuit and black boots), but absorbing the memories of others is a dark art, and Death Bear must present himself appropriately for this solemn duty. Death Bear will take things from you that trigger painful memories and stow them away in his cave where they will remain forever allowing you to move on with your life. Give him an ex’s clothes, old photos, mementos, letters, etc. Death Bear is here to assist you in your time of tragedy, heartbreak, and loss. Let Death Bear help you and absorb your pain into his cave. – From Death Bear’s website.
“Death Bear” is the brainchild of 35-year-old performance artist and New Yorker Nate Hill. When he isn’t supporting himself with odd jobs, the soft-spoken Hill dons a black uniform and a large bear mask and heads off to recover items from people who contact him by cell phone or through his website.
According to a recent article in the Los Angeles Times, Death Bear offers to ritually remove unwanted tokens of memory. The article follows the black-clad figure on his missions of mercy, as he relieves strangers of memento mori that are “too tortuous to keep but impossible to discard.” He has had calls for love letters, postcards, underwear, photos – and all the oddments of memory that might haunt someone in pain. Death Bear performs his service for free in the Brooklyn area, carrying off the discards in a black canvas backpack to dispense later at his “cave” in a Northeastern section of Central Park. “It absorbs things like a black hole,” Hill told the Times.
Valentine’s Day weekend was jammed for Death Bear, according to the story. One man gave Death Bear a photo of himself and his ex-girlfriend on a beach, adding that they served in the army together. The man also gave over his military dog tags and a single bullet. Was the woman shot in war? Did she kill herself? Death Bear doesn’t ask for reasons or explanations; like the silent ferryman on the River Styx, he is there to help carry souls across a dark passage.
Found Magazine and PostSecret showcase private, personal messages and reinvest them with meaning in the process. Their efforts seem almost like a small-scale revolt against the information age, a time when handwritten letters are in decline. By rescuing this cursive material from oblivion, these archivists make a small strike for historically useless, but humanly important, documents. It’s because they’re such modest, disposable things that we sense our shared humanity through these messages. Death Bear reverses the figures in the equation, by retrieving the stuff of memory from strangers in pain and disposing of it in his “black hole” of a cave. The Found Festival performs a more modest service, by allowing us to sit back and laugh at ourselves – or at least those among us who once had a video camera and a bad idea.
Recently, my wife and I watched Volume 2 of the Found Footage Festival, giggling helplessly at an encore of the world’s angriest RV salesman, who descends into meaningless gibberish after forgetting his lines. “Abalaba!” Phhhht! “Ferns and docks!!”
“We’re a strange species,” I said to my wife in wonderment, as Jack Rebney shooed flies from an RV grill while speaking in tongues. “We sure are,” she agreed.
Found Festival online: www.foundfootagefest.com
Found Magazine: in stores and at www.foundmagazine.com
Frank Warren’s mailing address: PostSecret, 13345 Copper Ridge Rd, Germantown, MD 20874-3454
Death Bear: www.natehillisnuts.com
photo by Geoff Olson