Collect Calling

Since selling his world-famous film archive to the Library of Congress, Rick Prelinger's been busy saving 40,000 magazines, newspapers, and government documents from history's dustbin. He wants you to take a look.

Prelinger felt he needed to make a statement. He needed to tell people that they should respect history, that it offers clues about the present and the future. But he was too much of an anarchist to do it in an obvious way. For years, the need gnawed at him. Then he took a long, hot drive through northern New Mexico in 1997, and it came to him: "I thought, 'Oh, I've got to do a coin. I just gotta make a coin.' It was a way of making a statement about how to appreciate the space around us historically. But I also wanted it to be enigmatic."

By 2000, Prelinger and his wife -- who met while co-writing an article on freeways and landscape histories for a zine -- had begun working together to design and mint 10,000 "landscape coins." On one side of the coin is an image of a road, accompanied by the words, "Landscape is our memory; a map of hidden histories." On the other side is a picture of a nondescript rural setting of railroad tracks, a grain silo, and a brick building, with text that reads, "Value me as you please."

Every year for the next decade, the Prelingers plan to "drop" as many of the 10,000 coins as they can in locations across the country to prompt people to ponder the histories embedded in landscapes. So far, they have liberated 900 coins, and four people have contacted them through their Web site (www.prelinger.net).

Rick Prelinger can't fight the impulse to hoard in the 
name of history.
Paolo Vescia
Rick Prelinger can't fight the impulse to hoard in the name of history.
Prelinger started his collection of industrial and 
educational films after seeing When You Are a 
Pedestrian.
Prelinger started his collection of industrial and educational films after seeing When You Are a Pedestrian.

"We drop coins where people have interesting interactions with the environment," Prelinger says. "Where conflicts have taken place, where nature and culture meet or collide, or exist harmoniously. Some scenes of disaster and crimes; some scenes of good things, places where people are workers, modifying or changing their environment; some post-industrial or post-militarized places."

They have left coins in Seattle; Kyoto, Japan; Santa Barbara; Vancouver; and cities in Alabama, Georgia, and Tennessee. And of course the coins are dropped all over the Bay Area, often during weekend coining excursions.

On a warm October Sunday, Prelinger, Megan, and their dog Scanner get into the family car, along with two water bottles, a portable Global Positioning System device, a black notebook, a radio scanner, and a bag of the landscape coins. Prelinger steers his electric-gas hybrid through the mist on Highway 35 toward the Peninsula. He and his wife make a quick stop to coin the Tanforan Shopping Center, the spot of both a former racetrack and the Japanese Assembly Center, where Japanese-Americans were processed before they were sent to internment camps during World War II.

They don't pause very long to admire their handiwork, quickly jumping back into the car and driving south on El Camino Real toward the San Mateo Bridge. The next stop is the Hayward Regional Shoreline. Prelinger rests the GPS on the dashboard, purely for the pleasure of watching the electronic landscape on the machine shift as the car continues to shuttle forward.

Near the entrance of the shoreline, Prelinger parks in a dirt lot. Scanner is put on a leash, and Prelinger and Megan head toward the beach, a 15-minute walk down a simple dirt path with saltwater marsh on one side and an overgrowth of yellowing weeds and grasses on the other. As a plane flies low overhead, Prelinger takes out his radio scanner and listens for cockpit-airport tower conversation, but gets mostly static.

As they approach the beach, the ground begins to glimmer in rainbow hues. The Prelingers explain: The shining, multicolored beach was created when incinerated garbage that had been dumped in the bay in the early 1900s was dredged and used for shoreline landfill. Since most of the garbage had decomposed, all that was left was worn chips of china, ceramic, and glass from another era.

Today, the beach is covered in these timeworn shards, some pieces of aging glass turning beautiful shades of lavender. "This is a wonderful site for a landscape coin," Prelinger comments. Megan agrees, and she begins looking for a jar that has remained intact so she can place a coin inside.

They hunt through the beach, delighting in glass pieces that were twisted and mutilated by the incinerator. They admire the gorgeous colored glass and intricately patterned ceramic -- at one time dishes, teacups, soda bottles, and mayonnaise jars -- lying at their feet amongst rocks and sand. They pick up segments of old bottles and jars, trying to ascertain their provenance.

One jar bottom reads: "Patented 1915, Oklahoma." Another scrap of glass has only a few letters intact: "... nge ... cr." "Orange Crush!" Prelinger exclaims, deciphering the letters.

Megan finally spies a small glass jar near the water, tinted green with moss. She places a coin inside, leaving the jar near where it was found.

Though their mission has been accomplished, the two spend another hour sifting through the beach, looking for interesting shapes and intact lettering, as if trying to read a history through these disjointed remnants of the past.

"This is a wonderful little museum, isn't it?" Prelinger says, surveying a shoreline that would, no doubt, horrify many an environmentalist. "It's like an Easter egg hunt from when you were a kid, when an ordinary landscape is filled with interesting colors and objects. This is the same thing. It's really uncanny. I know I say 'uncanny' a lot. But it is."


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