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Remixing Culture And Why The Art Of The Mash-Up Matters

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Editor’s Note: Ben Murray is the editor for The Space, a digital art non-profit organization in the UK and was a former BBC digital editor. 

The line “good artists copy; great artists steal,” attributed to Pablo Picasso and appropriated by Steve Jobs in a 1995 interview, is in some ways at the core of much of the aesthetic endeavors that engage modern technology.

Jobs freely admitted to being “shameless about stealing great ideas,” and many of today’s bedroom artists might be said to have taken this mantra to heart. Meaningful appropriation remains a key tenet of creativity and innovation, whatever form they take, and Jobs understood this better than most; so do those whose natural form of expression is the remix or mash-up.

From Duchamp to Damien Hirst, artists have consistently challenged the idea that meaning ascribed to objects is permanently fixed. All cultural artifacts are open to re-appropriation. As with much else, technology has made this process easier and more visible. The news report, the cult TV show, the summer blockbuster, the chart hit or iconic photograph – all are open to endless reinterpretation by anyone with the right software. As Cory Doctorow puts it: the Internet is “the world’s most efficient copying machine.”

He goes on to make the point that “Copying stuff is never, ever going to get any harder than it is today. Hard drives aren’t going to get bulkier, more expensive, or less capacious. Networks won’t get slower or harder to access. If you’re not making art with the intention of having it copied, you’re not really making art for the 21st century.”

The best examples of this kind of creative work are often marked by a reframing of the original narrative, and so produce a fresh perspective on both the source material and the context in which it first existed.

One could argue that remix culture has been around as long as the idea of “culture” itself.

The art form known colloquially as “vidding” for example – editing found footage from TV shows and movies to music – actually dates back some 40 years and has often celebrated, what the theorist Francesca Coppa describes as, “a distinctly female way of seeing.” That progression represents an important engagement with the gender politics of pop culture, specifically as a critique on the historical dominance of the male perspective in dramatic storytelling.

Whatever your feelings about the artistic merits of the mash-up as a form or the efficacy of modern copyright legislation, there’s a far higher set of principles at stake here.

Firstly, there’s the question of the kind of Internet we want moving forward – one increasingly controlled by corporate gatekeepers who get to sanction what creative expression looks like, or one in which the freedom of this expression is valued above share price. Secondly, there’s the need to acknowledge and defend the processes of cultural evolution that have existed for millennia, in which the practice we now call ‘remix’ has long played a fundamental role.

A new online work by the renowned artist and YouTube star Kutiman engages both issues, by allowing people to mix together and record clips from solo performances of musicians across the city of Tel Aviv to produce new compositions.

Commissioned by The Space and British CouncilMix The City is a further development of his earlier project, ThruYou, a work that garnered over 10million page views in just two weeks.

A self-described “non-techy guy,” Kutiman had tapped into an online cultural practice that has become a distinct vernacular form. His work transformed the disassociated YouTube uploads of people around the world into an unwitting orchestra, and gave new life to material that might have ordinarily been lost in the tidal wave of content filling up distant data centers.

In music, and the arts more generally, collaboration has always been a boon to creativity, and the communications revolution has bolstered this in new ways. Specifically, it has allowed remix and mash-up culture to flourish like never before, with the work of exponents like CassetteboyGirl Talk and Kutiman gaining substantial audiences via social platforms.

The availability of the tools to make this content has proven a happy corollary of the artist’s natural inclination toward assimilating what has come before. One could argue that remix culture has been around as long as the idea of “culture” itself. One might even go back to ancient Greece to see this at work in the minstrels who performed The Iliad and The Odyssey, or spin forward nearly 2000 years to witness Chaucer’s co-option of Boccaccio. And let’s not even get started on Shakespeare.

In its multimedia form, the remix goes at least as far back as the surrealist movement and is evident in Joseph Cornell’s 1936 experimental film Rose Hobart. Similarly, the 1958 work, A Movie, saw artist Bruce Connor apply the techniques of assemblage and collage to film, featuring found footage taken from newsreels, soft pornography and B movies.

A specific sub-genre of this, vidding itself is commonly thought to have emerged from Star Trek fandom, with Kandy Fong’s 1975 slide mixes. The best known of these is an alternative take on Spock’s character set to Leonard Nimoy’s rendition of the Joni Mitchell song Both Sides Now. It was a clear influence on a later piece by T. Jonesy and Killa, a racy and subversive take on Kirk and Spock’s relationship set to the Nine Inch Nails track Closer.

Vidding evolved with the technology, from slideshows (Fong actually used to live “mix” using two projectors) to video recorders to computers. Aided by the evolution of editing software, it has fed into the diverse and vibrant field of DIY media production that includes GMV, AMV, Machinima and Political Remix Videos.

The latter provide critical (and often humorous) perspectives on social issues, the media, economics, gender, culture and the environment and can be seen as perhaps the most recent incarnation of the long tradition of political satire. Again this form pre-dates the Internet by many decades, but has flourished in recent years.

The work of Jonathan McIntosh is a case in point. His piece Donald Duck Meets Glenn Beck in Right Wing Radio Duck, which remixes fifty Disney shorts along with audio excerpts from Beck’s show, provides a curious critique on the nature of political rhetoric when placed alongside such an iconic character.

In a similar vein, his film Wayne Enterprises is a pitch-perfect pastiche of the corporate sales video in which any hint of immorality is airbrushed out of existence by the glossy tropes of stock-footage montage.

But, despite the remix becoming an increasingly normalized art form, the titans of the entertainment industry rarely see it that way. It’s a disjuncture that the copyright campaigner (and co-founder of Creative Commons) Lawrence Lessig outlines in his 2008 book on the subject in which the mash-up form is described as nothing less than an evolution in our cultural literacy.

The remix should be thought of as a method of quotation, citation and commentary; as a form of pastiche, parody or homage; as a means of picking our way through the media-saturated labyrinth in which we find ourselves; a vital expression of our living culture in a confused and confusing time.

For Lessig the “right to quote [to remix] is a critical expression of creative freedom that in a broad range of contexts, no free society should restrict.” Just as we have for years commonly accepted people’s right to cite text, we should extend this to other forms of media; a shift ultimately predicated on the material change to film and to audio brought about by their digitisation. For many, the problem is that we still have an outmoded version of copyright law that doesn’t take into account this new reality.

Cory Doctorow has also long been at the vanguard of this fight:

“I’m not anti-regulation. But we need to decide what kind of regulation we want. The Internet can have rules that encourage centralization – rules permitting network discrimination, rules protecting digital right management, rules providing for easy takedown – and with them rent-seeking, abusive sharecropping, spying and censorship. Or it can have rules that promote an open, pluralistic, networked public space where anyone can communicate…”

The remix should be seen as a transformative work of creativity that forms part of the fabric of our wider cultural environment. As with radio, recorded music and the VCR before it, the Internet represents just another technological shift that we have yet to fully reconcile with current regulation, which means a reappraisal of DMCA legislation and the concept of ‘fair use’.

For Doctorow it comes down to ensuring we have the freedom to create: “It has never been cheaper to make art, and it’s never been cheaper to reach an audience. There’s never been such a broad and deep access to the creative output of our artistic forbears. As always, almost everything anyone does to get a living out of the arts won’t work – the Internet doesn’t change that. What it does change is how many ways there are to make things, and to get them into other people’s hands and minds. It changes how many people can participate in culture and satisfy their creative urges.”

The remix should be seen as a transformative work of creativity that forms part of the fabric of our wider cultural environment.

As the recent Blurred Lines court case shows, music remains at the forefront of this battle because it has always thrived on derivation. To stymie this in the name of profit is a denial of the essential truth of the art form. The sampling culture out of which hip-hop emerged, for example, like blues and rock before it, represented a re-versioning of existing forms to create something new. It goes without saying that the same spirit informs the mash-up.

The appearance of works such as Dangermouse’s The Grey Album and The Kleptones’ A Night At The Hip-Hopera a decade or more ago represented another step forward in the creative possibilities of the remix. And artists like Girl Talk and Kutiman have continued this tradition in an era when self-reflexivity and participatory forms are becoming ever more part of broader cultural expression.

Kutiman has a well-established reputation now, but it’s interesting to note that back in 2009, with the release of ThruYou, one of the first to champion his work was none other than Lessig, who described it as “everything and more that I try to describe in my book,” a way to recognise that we “need new ideas” when it comes to the regulation of remix/mash-up culture in the networked world.

Kutiman’s Mix The City is at www.mixthecity.com. More information the project is available via www.thespace.org.

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