People Like Us, the project of multimedia artist Vicki Bennett, uses found footage from audio-visual archives and other sources to generate unique sound works that create new associations and meanings. Central to Bennett’s practice is the appropriation of works from the past. Her collage- and cut-up-like compositional approach recombines sounds from sources such as newsreels, commercials, television, and radio. As the sources become altered, re-edited and mixed together, novel connotations arise. While the previous context for the “raw” footage often becomes obscured, a residue commonly lingers. These works create an audible non sequitur that ranges from humorous to horrible, sentimental to dispassionate, while playing with notions of memory and cognition.
The work in People Like Us fits within the broad universe of sample-based composition, which Bennett often describes as “plunderphonics.” The concept is predicated on the idea that all musical instruments are created to reproduce music and that recent technologies that allow for both the documentation and reproduction of sounds are also new kinds of musical instruments. Plunderphonics entails taking one or more existing recordings and altering them to make a new composition, with no attempt to disguise that the sound has been borrowed. Unlike other types of sample-based compositional strategies, such as hip-hop, where existing recordings are often mixed with newly made material, plunderphonics typically consists of only sampled material. The concept was conceived by John Oswald in a 1985 essay, Plunderphonics, or Audio Piracy as a Compositional Perogative, and later executed in an 1988 EP and 1989 album of the same title.
The strategy of plunder phonics, which confounds copyright law, proved highly useful for Bennett’s practice. While Bennett acquires her material through legal means, she licenses her work through the nonprofit organization Creative Commons, thereby allowing anyone to use her work, as long as they license it as she does.
Expanding on Oswald’s audio-based concept, and other types of collage techniques like the cut-ups method developed by the Dadaists and later re-employed by beat poets like William S. Burroughs, Bennett has applied her own manipulations to collections of both audio and video sources. One of her major sources for material is the Prelinger Archives, founded in 1982 by self-described media archeologist Rick Prelinger. This collection of over 60,000 items was created to preserve a wide variety of ephemeral media. It consists of audio and video media from corporate advertising and promotional films, television commercials, theatrical trailers, advertisements, newsreels, and other items. Preligner believes this often ignored genre is important because it can be used as a kind of social barometer with clues about how we live. The intended uses for these materials included classroom instruction, corporate job training, and community or business meetings, which often featured messages about expected social mores and behavioral responses. Since these items were never registered for copyright or the copyright expired, Prelinger was able to legally access and amass the collection and have it serve as an archive as well as a pick-and-pull for media junkies, historians and artist alike. In 2002, the film collection was acquired by the Library of Congress, Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division.