Category Archives: Remix Culture

Remix and Potential Criticism: CSA 2011 Talk

Here is the version of this paper I presented today at the Cultural Studies Association Conference 2011 at Columbia College Chicago. I am planning on revising this for publication. This version of the paper was crafted to fit into a 15 minute time slot so I try to hit the high points of my argument in just under 2000 words. As always, comments are most welcome, but I am most interested in where my argument is unclear or where it could benefit from expansion or concision. Thanks!

Epigram:

Potential reading has the charm of making manifest the duplicity of texts, be they oulipian or not.”

–Harry Mathews

In the July 2005 issue of Wired Magazine, the sci-fi novelist William Gibson offered his take on remix culture in the essay, “God’s Little Toys: Confessions of a Cut and Paste Artist.” In that piece, Gibson directly linked digital remix culture back to the 1950s and the Beat Generation, especially William Burroughs and Brion Gysin’s technique of “cut ups.” In so doing, Gibson was conferring aesthetic cachet on a new set of disreputable practices by finding an older set of disreputable practices that have become respectable and tame over time. Besides glancing backwards for historical antecedents, Gibson also looked ahead: “We live at a peculiar juncture, one in which the record (an object) and the recombinant (a process) still, however briefly, coexist. But there seems little doubt as to the direction things are going.” (2005) For Gibson, the recombinant is marked by “appropriation” and “borrowings,” and its key unit is the “sample.” As he explains: “Everything I wrote, I believed instinctively, was to some extent collage. Meaning, ultimately, seemed a matter of adjacent data.” (2005) These notions—the “cut and paste” artist, the dominance of collage, and appropriation as creative act—exert a powerful hold on the critical and popular imagination and comprise a conventional litany on the pros and cons of remixing.  However appropriative collage is not the only method for deriving meaning from adjacent data.

In this paper, I argue recombinatorial remix explores the “potentiality” that exists inside all texts. Rather than focusing on “appropriation,” “borrowing” or even “artistic pilferings” (all of which have a history of practice as long as art itself), I will examine how formal, restrictive, and mathematical approaches to recombinatorial play are transformative and creative in an Oulipian sense. Texts remixed under constraint are experimental and playful in different ways from “cut and paste” works.  Traditional uses of “sampling” or “borrowing” or “pilfering” overemphasize the creative role played by randomness and chance by focusing too much attention on the aleatory dimension as the key remix aesthetic. The abundant references to Dadaism and Surrealism, e.g., in remix culture attest to a framing of the remix as an heir to “automatic writing” and “exquisite corpses.” If we generate a remix through aleatory mechanisms, the resulting “information” will be dependent upon chance operations.

I argue that such approaches ignore the rich legacy of creative works that have focused on potential of another kind. In this other approach, “potential” is generated from formal, mathematic logics, rules of mean and variation, and restrictive and constrained artistic modes. One group in particular, the Oulipo, has been at the forefront of this conscious investigation into potentiality.

The Oulipo is an acronym for Ouvroir du Litterature Potentielle, roughly translated into English as “Workshop of Potential Literature.” The Oulipo is a group of French writers and mathematicians whose creative work and research focuses on “all writing that [is] subjected to severely restricted methods.” (Mathews 205) Some of the better-known members of the group include the writers Raymond Queneau, Georges Perec and Italo Calvino.

The Oulipo focuses on “creations that create” more than “created creations.” These “creations that create” are characterized by the use of formal, artificial, even mathematical constraints that are determined before the act of writing begins. The Oulipo believes that constraints help writers “escape that which is called inspiration.” (Lowenthal, xii) Lowenthal continues that Raymond Queneau, one of the founding members of the Oulipo, thought that “the typical act of inspiration draws from limited resources. Rather than restricting the possibilities of creation, [Queneau] argued, the use of artificial structure–mathematical and otherwise–opens the way to a vaster range of potential creation.” (xii) This idea of “potential” creation was specifically defined against Surrealism and very different in its operations from the technique of “automatic writing” or the random combinations of Burroughs’s cut-up texts.

Oulipian works reveal what they mean by “severely restricted procedures.” Georges Perec wrote A Void, a lipogrammatic novel, where he did not use the letter “e.” Italo Calvino wrote If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, a book made up of ten first chapters of imaginary novels. But Raymond Queneau might have written the most famous work of potential literature, his poem A Hundred Thousand Billion Poems. It is a 14-line sonnet with a twist: there are ten alternate lines for each line in the poem. [the previous link brings you to a digital version of this poem] Even though there are only 140 total lines of poetry, the potential of the poem is spectacular. It has been determined that it would take more than a lifetime to read every possible version of the poem. Therefore, most of the meaning of the poem lies in a “potential” state, waiting to be remixed.

It is worth noting that most remix artists would probably not identify themselves with the Oulipo or their legacy. But DJs and remix artists frequently have more in common with Georges Perec’s conscious use of constraints than William Burroughs’s chance-driven chains of meaning. For example, let’s look at DJ Freelance Hellraiser’s 2002 musical mashup, “A Stroke of Genie-us.” This song popularized the ‘A versus B’ mashup. In this song, Freelance Hellraiser took the musical track from Christina Aguilera’s “Genie in a Bottle” and recombined it with the Strokes’ vocals from “Hard to Explain.” The resulting mashup is not a random compilation of the two songs, but a seamless integration of the two competing musical styles into a new mix. To accomplish this new work, Freelance Hellraiser restricted himself to the limited resources of the “A” text and the “B” text.  This is much more in keeping with lipogrammatic constraint than the random rearrangement of the “cut-up.” In fact, the pop-worthiness of “A Stroke of Genie-us” would not have been accomplished if Freelance Hellraiser randomly compiled snippets of the music and the lyrics together. The success of the mashup is in its conscious and organic embrace of its constraint.

DJ Dangermouse extended the A vs. B mashup on a grand scale when he created The Grey Album. Like “A Stroke of Genie-us” Dangermouse’s choice of title self-reflexively puns about the constraint. Dangermouse remixed Jay-Z’s acapella version of The Black Album with musical samples from The Beatles’ White Album—creating that collision of opposites, The Grey Album. The ‘A vs. B’ mashup follows the logic of what the Oulipo call “The Prisoner’s Dilemma,” a lipogrammatic constraint that forces writers to compose a story using a limited set of alphabetic characters. Moreover, the “A vs. B” mashup is—in an Oulipian sense—a “creation that creates” and can be used just like the sonnet form is by both professional and amateur poets. “A Stroke of Genie-Us” and The Grey Album spawned numerous remixes, mostly from amateur remixers. The Grey Album inspired remixes using the music of Weezer, Pavement, Prince, Metallica, Radiohead, and the Wu-Tang Clan.

So far I have focused on how ‘formal constraint’ is another way to approach the ‘potential’ of remix culture. But there is another dimension at play here: the role of the reader (or the listener or the viewer or the interactant). The use of constraints to generate potential texts leads towards “potential criticism.” A fuller demonstration of “potential criticism” can be found in my forthcoming book The Maltese Touch of Evil: Film Noir and Potential Criticism, which I co-wrote with Shannon Clute. The book will be published this Fall by the University Press of New England.

Oulipian Harry Mathews states at the beginning of his essay “Mathews’ Algorithm:” “Potential reading has the charm of making manifest the duplicity of texts, be they oulipian or not.” (Oulipo 1973, 105) Mathews continues: “the resultants derived from these texts can be used to two different ends: either the ‘analysis’ of the texts put in play, or the creation of a new work” (1973, 105). As we have seen, with DJs Freelance Hellraiser and Dangermouse, the resultants of remixed texts are ‘the creation of a new work.’ What might not be as readily apparent is how these resultants operate as an ‘analysis of the texts put in play.’ Here it is important look more closely at how producing texts under constraint is both a creative and an auto-exegetical act, which explains why Mathews begins an essay about his recombinatorial algorithm with a discussion of “potential reading,” and claims it makes manifest the duplicity of texts produced through constraint.

Shannon Clute and I have identified three crucial elements to constrained textual productions: (1) intertextual allusions to other texts; (2) self-reflexive punning (often marked by quirky humor); and (3) formal mathematical logics that allow the text to explore and ultimately map its own typology. Taken together, these elements literally enact potential reading and reveal the duplicity of texts.  In my previous work on mashups and remix culture, Chuck Tryon and I began to develop the idea of critical digital intertextuality. Here, I extend my investigation into intertextuality by seeing it alongside self-reflexive punning and formal restrictive logics that together form ” a geometry of auto-exegesis.” In other words, texts written or produced under formal constraint can literally “read themselves.”

These three crucial elements are a particularly rich vein of creative work for scholars of remixes to explore. As Georges Perec notes in his Afterword to A Void, citational art, i.e. texts under constraint that contain intertextual allusions, honor and mimic traditions of punning and plagiary with longstanding roots in French Literature, going as far back as the 15th century and the work of Rabelais. Moving our frame of reference from 20th century artistic innovations, Perec identifies key characteristics of recombinatorial play within the humorous pun-filled plagiarism of stories like Rabelais’s Gargantua and Pantagruel and Sterne’s Tristam Shandy.

Examples of video mashups can illustrate this point. Consider mashups like “Vote Different” using Hillary Clinton’s video embedded in an Apple Macintosh Commercial, “Endless Love” featuring a musical duet between President Bush and Prime Minister Blair, or “Shining,” a remixed trailer for Kubrick’s The Shining as a romantic comedy. While all three remixes are quite different, they each form a geometry of auto-exegesis via intertextual allusion, self-reflexive punning, and the use of formal constraints. Moreover, they confirm Mathews’s main point that potential readings through remix have the ‘charm of making manifest the duplicity of texts, be they oulipian or not.’ These three remixes are quite duplicitous: they subvert the meanings of their original source texts, and do so using quirky humor and self reflexive punning driven by restrictive procedures. Moreover, self-reflexive punning and humor are not supplementary to the remix, but an outcome of what Perec calls ‘citational art.’ Quirky humor and self-reflexive punning are how texts remixed with other texts pleasure themselves under constraint.

In conclusion, we can identify remixes that engage even more thoroughly in artificial Oulipian constraints, as in Lenka Clayton’s remix video, “Qaeda Quality Question Quickly Quickly Quiet.” In a remix such as this, the power of potential criticism demonstrates a potential political dimension as well. Using a constraint quite popular among Oulipians—the alphabetic list—Clayton reorders every word of Bush’s 2003 State of the Union address in alphabetic order. The resulting twenty minute video is a new recitation of the State of the Union, literally word for word.  Through the use of alphabetic constraint, Clayton’s video enacts a potential reading of the State of the Union. Unmoored from their original semantic positions, the individual words are rattled off as a list that reveals the latent, even hidden, meanings of Bush’s speech. Clayton’s work demonstrates that potential criticism can move beyond playful combinations of pop culture and investigate and reveal the latent meanings and duplicity contained in the texts that constitute our civic and political lives. Clayton’s video calls to mind what Jacques Roubaud has said about Raymond Queneau’s “A Hundred Thousand Billion Poems:” Its constraint is rather elementary, but its potentiality is spectacular.” (2004, 100-101; trans. Jean-Jacques Poucel)

Works Cited:

Gibson, William. “God’s Little Toys,” Wired Magazine 13.07 (July 2005) http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/13.07/gibson.html

Lowenthal, Marc. Raymond Queneau: Stories and Remarks. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2000.

Mathews, H. Oulipo Compendium. Trans. and eds. by Harry Mathews and Alastair Brotchie, London: Atlas Press, 2005.

Oulipo. Oulipo: La littérature potentielle. Saint-Amand: Editions Gallimard, 1973. Trans. Shannon Clute.

Perec, Georges. La disparition. Paris: Editions Denoël, 1969.

––––––. A Void. Trans. Gilbert Adair. Boston: Verba Mundi, 1994.

Roubaud, Jacques. “Perecquian OULIPO” Trans. Jean-Jacques Poucel. Yale Studies, 105, Pereckonings: Reading Georges Perec (2004): p. 99-109.

The Greying of the Internet: The Grey Album and the Rise of the Mashup (Part 2 of 2)

This is the second part of this article. Please read Part 1 in the previous blog entry.

The Greying of the Internet: The Grey Album and the Rise of the Mashup (Part 2 of 2)

4. Downhill Battle and Grey Tuesday

“A time is marked not so much by ideas that are argued about as by ideas that are taken for granted. The character of an era hangs upon what needs no defense.”

–Lawrence Lessig

I do not want to suggest that remix practices are a priori liberatory in a political sense. Neither remix culture nor social computing are guarantees that progressive values will be advanced, that the Internet will be the locus of a renewed democracy and engaged citizenry, or that if we keep making remixes we will solve longstanding, intransigent problems associated with copyright law, globalization, or neoliberalism. But I do wish to note that remix and activism have and will continue to cross, and that there have been politically informed activities to protect remixed works valued by certain kinds of media producers and consumers. And without such activism in the early days of the mashup, we would be telling a very different story in this paper.

In this historical-political vein, it is worth noting that things could have turned out very differently for The Grey Album. Right after its release, its very existence was threatened by EMI. According to EMI, DJ Danger Mouse did not have rights to use the Beatles music. It was a classic David vs. Goliath battle. EMI lawyers sent cease and desist orders letters to outlets that were distributing the album. In practice, this meant that EMI wanted all record stores to destroy physical copies of the album, and for all websites that contained the digital files to immediately remove them from their servers. This approach is the most consistently used weapon in the copyright war as fought by corporate media companies. They choose to go after the “nodes and networks” instead of the creators, and usually instead of the end-user. They choose to choke off the source for further piracy and dissemination by making service providers accountable for whether their end-users are obeying existing US copyright law. As EMI embarked upon this approach, The Grey Album was about to become a famous “lost project” in remix circles. EMI’s desire was to criminalize downloads of the Grey Album that would make Danger Mouse’s effort a “digital media pariah” which few website owners, let alone music lovers, would want to risk putting on their servers or placing in their digital music libraries. EMI wanted the stigma of litigious retribution attached to The Grey Album. But the same energy that EMI was willing to expend because one of its most cherished copyrights was at stake (the Beatles music catalog) is the same energy harnessed by music and copyright activists on the web. How DJ and activist culture intertwined is an important part of The Grey Album story.

A historic online protest known as Grey Tuesday was the result. Grey Tuesday was organized by Downhill Battle, a music activism project begun in August 2003. As stated on their website: “Downhill Battle is a non-profit organization working to break the major label monopoly of the record industry and put control back in the hands of musicians and fans…[and to] counter the distortions of the RIAA and the major record labels.”[1] While there are echoes of utopian battle in the group’s description, most of its efforts work to productively inform music buyers about the business nature and legal maneuvers of the music industry. For the protest around The Grey Album, Downhill Battle wanted to stress the need for new laws governing sampling and loops, otherwise remix culture would be severely curtailed if this form of creativity had no ability to fairly use existing bits of music.

Grey Tuesday was a very successful day of protest that resulted in over one million downloads of tracks from The Grey Album. In ways that social computing portend, Downhill Battle successfully organized a massive protest using social networks and the architecture of the web as a key part of its strategy. Therefore, Downhill Battle sent out a call for sites that would be willing to host the files for the Grey Album on Tuesday, February 24, 2004. Hundreds and hundreds of sites participated in the protest[2], and the publicized generated around Grey Tuesday, helped to account for the number of downloads that took place. Grey Tuesday can be understood as a tipping point in what had been up until that moment a fairly small online movement.

A legal assessment of Grey Tuesday done by the Electronic Frontier Foundation demonstrates that EMI might not even had had a case regarding “cease and desist” orders of The Grey Album. nasIt is important to note the critical difference here with Napster, Grokster and other cases involving the peer-to-peer sharing of digital music. Ultimately, Grey Tuesday was not about illegal downloads, digital rights management, or CD piracy. The sites were not hosting the copyrighted files of the original Beatles’ white album nor Jay-Z’s black album, but a remix album called The Grey Album.

Even when copyrighted material is involved, the law does make a distinction regarding what constitutes “infringement.” In a court of law, EMI would have had to prove that The Grey Album infringed on the rights of Lennon-McCartney compositions. Legal statues are clear that for a violation to occur, “a substantial portion” of the original work has to be involved. It is unclear whether a court would have taken Danger Mouse’s snippets of Beatles music as “substantial” infringements. But even if a court of law deemed Danger Mouse’s samples were “substantial,” the protesters could still advance another legal claim: that their hosting of the files constituted “fair use.”

As Lawrence Lessig points out in his book Free Culture, fair use is a very nebulous concept, and the lack of clarify around fair use is one of the motivations behind the flexible copyrights of the Creative Commons movement. But within existing legal definitions of fair use, the protesters who participated in Grey Tuesday could claim:

1. It was a non-commercial effort

2. The Grey Album is not a substitute for the original albums

3. The Grey Album is transformative of the White Album

4. Grey Tuesday is a commentary on copyright law

Logo for E.F.F.

These arguments, advanced by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, are fairly persuasive and remind us that remix culture operates somewhere between the “free culture” of the public domain and the permission culture of copyright law. And the fair use argument picks up another ally when you consider that Jay-Z’s Roc-a-Fella record label did not follow in EMI’s footsteps. One key difference is probably Jay-Z’s roots in hip-hop culture; sampling has been a major element of his artistic output, just like other hip-hop artists. For example, the only way to understand Jay-Z releasing an a cappela version of his vocal tracks is in the spirit of encourage remixes, just like DJ Danger Mouse’s. And in ways that benefited Jay-Z, the popularity of the Grey Album lead to his Linkin Park mashup reaching number one on the US singles chart.

Furthermore, the real concern here–the issue that spurred on Downhill Battle–seems over how creativity will be allowed to develop in DIY culture on digital networks. Lawrence Lessig, among others, have persuasively argued that copyright laws have to be reconsidered in the age of social computing. Otherwise, culture itself might be compromised. Lessig’s line of reasoning, for example, argues that the US Constitution always intended to allow for cultural works to build off one another. While artist rights need to be protected, the trend toward microcontent challenges traditional notions of the copyrighted work, and how does copyright law operate in a world of Flickr and YouTube? Ultimately, Creative Commons and public domain archives like the Prelinger Archives are important in this regard, but beyond the scope of this paper to address in any detail.

Finally, now that some time has elapsed since the release of The Grey Album, it is clear to see that there was no harm to the Beatles music sales or their musical legacy. In fact, I think Paul McCartney’s response is instructive here. He has publicly admitted that he has listened to The Grey Album, and it encouraged him to collaborate with DJ Freelance Hellraiser, and the two produced an album called “Twin Freaks,” that mashes up the music of Wings and McCartney’s solo career.[3] And remix music is played before many of his concerts. It was his willingness to open his oeuvre to remix artists that can properly contextualize his Grammy appearance.

The work of Downhill Battle and Grey Tuesday helped open up the debates around copyright activism, and clarified how remix culture and musical samples needed new rules governing their use. While Grey Tuesday has not stopped the music industries pursuit of copyright violators, it did mark a visible turning point in the movement. I would argue that certain remix experiments, such as one pursued by Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails who has released many of his songs in Garageband and Acid formats, is a growing part of a movement by commercial artists that recognizes a key difference between peer-to-peer file sharing of complete songs, and the microcontent behind the remix aesthetic.

5. Ramon and Pedro’s The Grey Video

“Warning: The following was done as an experimental project”

–Opening words of The Grey Video


If the preceding argument surmised that The Grey Album is lucky to remain in existence, then The Grey Video is an object that never needed to exist at all. The very existence of The Grey Video intrigues me because it is not just another audio mash-up of Jay-Z’s vocal tracks. The idea of a mash-up of the music of the Beatles and Jay-Z is something that might have been confined to the sonic realm. But Danger Mouse’s tracks jump from the musical register to a high-end video project. How would any video designers be able to translate to a visual medium? What indexical footage would be able to capture a moving image mash-up of the Beatles and Jay-Z? This is part of the growth of remix culture. The video is a creative demonstration of the stimulative effects of DJ Danger Mouse’s remix activity; remixes beget remixers.

The creative design team of Ramon and Pedro made The Grey Video as a “bootleg homage” to Danger Mouse’s Grey Album. Ramon and Pedro are excellent examples of the pro-amateur and how the DJ metaphor is influencing the arts beyond the music world. The Grey Video is a dynamic and technically demanding work of the highest artistry. In what sense then, is it amateur? Here the notion of “experimental” project is provocative. Both DJ Danger Mouse and Ramon and Pedro assert that these are “experimental projects.” But what does that mean? Such statements can act as legal defenses against charges of copyright violations, and I am sure that is one potential motivation. But I would argue that such language highlights the works “amateur status” and singles out the important role that can be played by amateurs outside of the commercial sphere.

The Grey Video is a very sophisticated video. It is not typical of video mashups. It is not just the taking of an audio track from one source and marrying it to the video track of another object, like “This Place Sucks,” which mashes the dialogue of Office Space with the cartoon of SuperFriends. Nor is it a parody, in the spirit of the Brokeback Mountain spoofs that proliferate on the Web, such as the one involving recontextualized scenes from Back to the Future. And this is not the work of unskilled creative workers. Finally, in many ways, it is not just a mash-up of the song “Encore” from The Grey Album. While it seems like the video is going to restrict itself to playfully placing Jay-Z concert footage within the confines of the Beatles’ Hard Day’s Night, a major change occurs about halfway through the video. Beyond simply combining two pre-existing video tracks into a new melding, Ramon and Pedro use motion graphics and green-screen technologies to extend their video remix. They in essence create footage they don’t otherwise have. They use motion graphics to place words behind the Beatles performance–the words are the lyrics to “Encore.” They create a “hip hop” version of the Beatles and this is part of its most dynamic vernacular. We witness as Ringo Starr becomes “the Brooklyn Boy”—this linkage is achieved through word and image relations—and then Ringo starts scratching on the song. We watch as John Lennon breakdances. And surprisingly, we watch as Paul McCartney and George Harrison both leave the stage for two female back-up singers. Intriguingly, for all the visual excitement of The Grey Video, it actually has the wrong reference for the Beatles. Danger Mouse samples from the Beatles later musical period, and A Hard Day’s Night still shows the Fab Four in their early days with their matching suits and their Beatles boots.

It is unclear how Ramon and Pedro could be possibly compensated for The Grey Video. This is a work that had to take a tremendous amount of time and resources. There is no commercial venue where the footage was released, and if the video did by some method make money, the copyright holder of a Hard Day’s Night would probably sue immediately. Why do it then in the first place? First, Ramon and Pedro are highly regarded motion graphics artists who have several notable commercial projects on their resume.[4] Second, Ramon and Pedro definitely are expressing in a visually kinetic sense, an analogue kinship to DJ Danger Mouse. Like Danger Mouse, Ramon and Pedro is a pseudonym. Like Danger Mouse, this visual design duo is a rising star in the mainstream culture industries. And like Danger Mouse, they are probably better known for their work than for their “names.” In fact, if you watch the Grey Video, you will realize that it is an “unsigned” work. There is no obvious name attached as author of this project, but this is not unusual in remix culture. Even searching the Internet, it is not easy to locate the “authors” behind the Grey Video. Once however it is known that it is the work of Ramon and Pedro, the final shot of The Grey Video (R+P) makes much more sense.

The existence of The Grey Video strikes me as a kind of proof for theories of postmodern authorship; Grey Video = remix = QED. DJ Spooky ruminates that his “work asks about how the networks of creativity that we have inherited from the “bricks and mortar” world of the 20th century have imploded, evolved and accelerated the ‘im-material’ networks of the frequencies, fiber optic networks, and mathematically drive world of the 21st century. That’s the real ‘dematerialization’ of the art object’–it becomes patterns meshed, working between the spaces of pre-scripted behavior.”[5] In this regard, DJ Spooky recalls a description of the “postmodern artist” as articulated by Francois Lyotard, who stated that:

“The postmodern artist or writer is in the situation of a philosopher: the text he writes, the work he performs are not in principle governed by already established rules, and they cannot be subjected to a determined judgment by applying known categories. It is these rules and these categories which the text or the work seeks. The artist and the writer work therefore without rules, in order to establish the rules of what will have been done. Hence the work and the text have the quality of an event; they arrive too late for their authors, or–what amounts to the same–their realization begins always too early. The postmodern needs to be understood through the paradox of the post anterior tense.” [6] (Italics in original)

Lyotard’s deployment of the term “post anterior” is decisive here. Coming from Lacanian psychoanalysis, Lacan’s work on the future anterior suggests that “What is realized in my history is not the past definite of what was, since it is no more, nor even the present perfect of what has been in what I am, but the future anterior of what I shall have been for what I am in the process of becoming.”[7] It is in this sense, that the role of the DJ is instructive. The DJ, that designer of beats and rhythms, is driven by performance, is in “the process of becoming.” The DJ aesthetic does not necessarily know where it is going to end, and it is very event driven.

Ramon and Pedro demonstrate how the DJ can now challenge the film director as authorial force. They reveal the potential stories embedded in the previously sealed archives of our Hollywood memories, display the range of new tools of visual creativity, and open up the “already mixed” to new interpretations. The Grey Video is a template for the rise of the video mashups: a post anterior re-performance of a cinematic icon through a rap dialectic, conditioned by the reverberating logics of digital video recorders, channel surfing, music videos and the viral mentality of YouTube.

6. Today and Yesterday

Through tracing these moments in the tale of The Grey Album, I have suggested that remix is a style of cultural production that can influence the emerging directions of social computing, and that remix activities participate in a “greying” of the Internet itself. But I am not advocating a naïve belief in something like remixism or remixology. And while there might be some wisdom in tapping into the underlying ethos of the remix, there is no inherent virtue that resides inside the act of remixing itself. Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics reminds us of that: “Every art and every inquiry, and similarly every action and pursuit, is thought to aim at some good; and for this reason the good has rightly been declared to be that at which all things aim.”[8] As remixes circulate and amplify around the world there are no guarantees that such acts will be a progressive, trangressive, and generative. Remix, after all, might just stay in the register of “play” and fail to bring about any meaningful social and political change.

However, in closing, I would like to draw attention to a similar historical moment when an artistic movement contributed to meaningful social change. I feel that there are important parallels between the Situationist International (SI) and remix culture.[9] SI and its major innovator, Guy Debord, came out of a critique of the society of the spectacle, and some of its major aesthetic maneuvers, such as detournement, derive and psychogeography, are part of the legacy behind remix culture. And as SI burst into political consciousness in May 1968, one can imagine how remix culture might have similar impacts, if Grey Tuesday is more of the movement’s seedbed rather than its major political flowering. And while this type of stance might be more associated with the ideas of DJ Spooky–an avowedly political DJ–, more than DJ Danger Mouse, the act of DJing has its “virtuous” aspects.

Remix is filled with potential. Remix can resist totalizing narratives and open up texts to new meanings. It can be deeply multicultural. The Grey Album was more than just underground entertainment; it lead to new moments of activism and creative expression. Remix is an activity that can celebrate our diversity, explore our differences, and renew our histories. In these uncertain times, there are more reasons than ever to embrace remix culture and give mix a chance.


[2] There is no easy way to confirm how many sites participated, but it was at least in the hundreds.

[5] See DJ Spooky Interview with Carlo Simula for his book
MILLESUONI. OMAGGIO A DELEUZE E GUATTARI
(Cronopio Edizioni) http://www.djspooky.com/articles/deleuze_and_guattari.php

[6] Bennington, Geoffrey. Lyotard: Writing the Event. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1988. p. 104

[7] See Time and the Fragmented Subject in Minority Report by Martin Hall in Rhizomes 8, spring 2004. Though it is beyond the scope of this paper, I see Minority Report as a key remix allegory, especially in its innovative gestural interface. In many productive ways, and as I have argued in several of my course lectures, Tom Anderton (Tom Cruise) in Minority Report–though obstensibly a law enforcement officer– is coded as “a DJ” and a remix artist. His remix abilities are the basis of his skill in reading the clues given by the Pre-Cogs. The “Larval Subjects” blog has a great analysis of Hall’s argument if you would like to pursue this line of argumentation further: http://larval-subjects.blogspot.com/2006/11/future-anterior.html

[8] See Plato’s Nichomachean Ethics.

[9] See my previous blog entry on Guy Debord’s Memoires for more on the Situationist International.

The Greying of the Internet: The Grey Album and the Rise of the Mashup (Part 1 of 2)

I give Terry Gross and Jay-Z credit for the timing of this blog entry.

On November 16, 2010, Jay-Z appeared NPR’s “Fresh Air” with Terry Gross. Jay-Z was on a media blitz surrounding his new book that was released that day, Decoded–part autobiography, part analysis and discussion of his most provocative songs. As I was listening my ears perked up when Terry Gross asked him what he thought about The Grey Album, an unauthorized remix-mashup of his Black Album done in 2002 by DJ Danger Mouse. For fans familiar with previous comments on The Grey Album, Jay-Z’s response to Terry Gross was not surprising:

“I think it was a really strong album. I champion any form of creativity. And that was a genius idea to do, and it sparked so many others like it. It’s really good. … I was honored someone took the time to mash those records up with Beatles records. I was honored to be on quote-unquote the same song with The Beatles.”

DJ Danger Mouse’s “genius idea” is something I’ve been thinking about since I first learned about The Grey Album back on Grey Tuesday (Feb. 24, 2004). This is a paper in which I address The Grey Album as a critical moment in the cultural reception and popularity of the mashup in the digital age. As Jay-Z notes, “it sparked so many others like it.” In fact since 2004, the influence and the legacies of the Grey Album have come into sharper relief. What started out as an underground project is now fully mainstream. And as Jay-Z’s comments reminded me, The Grey Album is still a very relevant topic, one that continues to be brought up in discussions of culture, digital and otherwise. Moreover, there is a tendency in writing about digital culture–as a kind of history of the present–to focus on the latest phenomenon, the newest tech wrinkle, this day’s RSS feed. Today’s blog entry desires to fight against that tendency and I am curious to explore if time has given me any new perspectives on The Grey Album.

Today’s blog entry traces its roots back to 2006. This is a slightly revised version of a paper I presented twice in 2006, but never published. As always, I welcome feedback on these ideas. In revising this paper I realize that it bears many of the marks and quirks of digital culture circa 2006. It’s amazing how fast things have been changing lately. The earliest version of this paper was written prior to rise of Facebook, and while Youtube was still a fairly new phenomenon. But I am leaving in many of my original thoughts and potentially dated references in this time period since it is a kind of snapshot: a moment of early adoption of a nascent cultural practice.

Due to its length, I will publish it in two separate blog entries, but it is intended as one paper.

The Greying of the Internet: The Grey Album and the Rise of the Mashup


“Now can I get an encore? Do you want more?”

–Jay-Z, from the song “Encore”

1. Yesterday and Today

At the 2006 Grammys, rap artist Jay-Z and the nu-metal band Linkin Park won an award for Best Rap/Sung Collaboration for their hit single, “Numb/Encore,” which took Linkin Park’s musical riffs from their song “Numb” and combined it with Jay-Z’s lyrics for his song “Encore.” In essence, the collaboration amounted to something that DJs have been doing for a long time; namely, it was a mash-up, a musical remix genre that operates according to recombinatory logic. The mash-up takes the vocal tracks from one song and combines it with the instrumental tracks of a different song. As Jay-Z and the multiple members of Linkin Park crowded around the podium to accept their 2006 Grammy award, the first persons mentioned in the “thank you” speeches were not record companies, family members, friends, fellow musicians or even agents; rather Chester Benington of Linkin Park thanked the lawyers who made this mash-up possible. Welcome to the world of remixes and mashups, where this type of collaboration, even when pursued by the original copyright holders themselves, runs into a gamut of legal obstacles, and successfully navigating the labyrinth of the copyright industries is as important an artistic challenge as creating new music from the loops and samples of pre-existing lyrics, beats and rhythms.

However, that was all prologue to the moment when things got really strange at the 2006 Grammys. After winning the award, Jay-Z and Chester Benington gave a live performance of “Numb/Encore,” and towards the end of the song they where joined live on stage by Sir Paul McCartney who started to sing the classic Beatles song “Yesterday.” While it might have been just the usual superstar pairing of famous artists, which frequently occurs at these types of award shows, this appearance was different. There was clearly an intention behind the performance, even if that ostensible purpose was not being publicly declared in the moment.

Jay-Z, Sir Paul McCartney, Chester Benington (Grammys 2006)

Why did Paul McCartney perform with a rapper and a nu-metal band, and what in any case did “Numb/Encore” have to do with a classic Beatle tune? This live performance provoked strong reactions. It led more than one online fan to exclaim that it “might be a sign of the apocalypse,” and Tom Breihan of The Village Voice deemed it a “truly inexplicable cultural moment.” But even in less dramatic terms, “Yesterday”‘s appearance within the musical context of “Numb/Encore” probably left many members of the viewing audience simply scratching their heads. While it may have resembled something like a pop music Rorschach test, it really was a litmus test.

For anyone familiar with 2004’s Internet-based smash-hit The Grey Album, Paul McCartney singing alongside Jay-Z and Benington was an acknowledgement of a maturing and powerful cultural logic. But one’s reaction to the performance was contingent on one’s relation to remix culture. Record company executives had to be upset by the performance, which on some level, validated copyright violators and a post-Napster peer-to-peer music sharing mentality that many of them find anathema. It reminded many consumers who legally purchased Jay-Z and Linkin Park’s song that it came out of “free” or “folk” remix gestures, and moreover this was not the first time that Jay-Z’s lyrics were associated with the music of the Beatles. For the performers themselves, musical legacies were at stake: Paul McCartney continued to assert the importance of his Beatles’ work in the age of hip-hop, and Jay-Z publicly demonstrated his role as a risk-taking rapper and pop music mogul. However if one was completely unfamiliar with remix culture, it was likely that the performance sounded like a cacophonous confusion of rap, metal and pop–a failed supergroup moment that was much less than the sum of its parts.

And while it would be hard to quantify how many members of the audience knew about its connection to remix culture, for those who had listened to The Grey Album–especially millenials or net-gens brought up on mp3 downloads, hip-hop and iPods–the irony of the song’s title “Yesterday” would not have been completely lost on them, even though they were not even born when Beatlemania burst forth on American television screens on the Ed Sullivan Show. What ultimately brought Jay-Z, Linkin Park, and Paul McCartney together that night in March 2006 was something fiercely contemporary–an experiment just two years earlier by Brian Burton, better known as a British DJ who goes by the psuedonym of Danger Mouse.

2. DJ Danger Mouse and The Grey Album

“It was my intent to create an art project.”

–Brian Burton aka DJ Danger Mouse

Danger Mouse

DJ Danger Mouse got his name from his favorite cartoon, a 1980s British animated mouse of the same name, and Danger Mouse’s relationship to animated characters occurs throughout his creative output. In addition to a cartoon character supplying his DJ persona, Danger Mouse has worked with alt-rapper MF Doom on the 2004 release “The Mouse and The Mask,” which contains guest appearances from Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim cartoon characters like Brak from Space Ghost Coast to Coast. Also, in 2005, he worked as a producer with the Gorillaz on their album, Demon Days, and the Gorillaz are an “animated band” that does not really exist. When asked to describe his style in 2004, Danger Mouse called it “bastard pop” along the lines of his commercial successes like his early work with Jemini on the album Ghetto Pop Life. For his hit, “Crazy,” he collaborated with singer Cell-Lo Green as part of Gnarls Barkley. “Crazy” in April 2006 set a record in the UK for being the first single ever to reach the top of the British pop charts on the strength of Internet downloads alone.

Danger Mouse (Brian Burton) on set of TRL in 2008

For DJ Danger Mouse, it seems as if his contention that the “art is more important than the artist” is ringing true. His work spans multiple and ever-changing personas, including his recent involvement in Broken Bells, his collaboration with Shins lead vocalist and guitarist James Mercer.[1] While he has worked successfully for several years now in commercial music circles, a large measure of his acclaim comes from projects like “Crazy” and The Grey Album that begin their lives as Internet phenomena.

In early 2004, DJ Danger Mouse created The Grey Album, a mash-up of tracks from Jay-Z’s The Black Album with musical samples from the Beatles’ White Album. It was a high concept project. The blending of the high modernism of the Beatles’ White Album with the postmodernism of Jay-Z’s a cappela vocals from The Black Album has a wonderful dialectical ring to it, and in practice, the melding of these two musical artifacts–which might have seemed very incompatible–is a successful and groundbreaking effort. For example, in the song, “99 Problems” Jay-Z’s hard-core raps are matched by the sonic debris of the raging guitar riffs from Helter Skelter. For Jay-Z’s “Encore,” Danger Mouse sampled the vocal hook “Oh Yeah” and the guitar lead from the song “Glass Onion” with the infectious pop instrumentality of George Harrison’s “Savory Truffle.” In many ways, the samples turned the original Beatles songs inside out. Danger Mouse’s skillful mashups and the overall concept captivated fans of remix culture. Many of the tracks were considered “better” than the originally released version on The Black Album.

Originally, DJ Danger Mouse had planned on making only a few copies of his remix experiment (according to published reports, he planned on a limited run of 3,000 copies), so he did not bother at all with attempting to get rights clearances to the Beatles’ tunes he was sampling. And prior to digital music on the Internet, Danger Mouse’s remix would most likely have been released as a 12″ specialty vinyl EP, restricted to being played in a few dance clubs, sold in a few record stores in the import remix bins, and never moved beyond the bounds of its sub-cultural and/or underground origins and circulation. However, The Grey Album received widespread notoriety when EMI (one of the copyright owners of the Beatles’ musical catalog) sued DJ Danger Mouse for copyright infringement. This action had the opposite effect than EMI intended. As Mike D. of the Beastie Boys has said, “What can be cooler than being sued by the Beatles?”[2] Downhill Battle, a music activism group, took up Danger Mouse’s cause, and the resulting event was Grey Tuesday, where Downhill Battle lined up websites to host the digital files of The Grey Album to distribute the tracks as widely as possible on the Internet. On the protest’s biggest day–Tuesday, February 24, 2004–the tracks of The Grey Album had at least one million downloads, making it the number one album in the United States that day, outperforming such commercial artists like Norah Jones and Kanye West.

Subsequently, spurred on by DJ Danger Mouse’s “success,” other mainstream artists were remixed with Jay-Z’s a cappela tracks, resulting in similar projects with the music of Weezer, Pavement, Prince, and Metallica. One video project also emerged from this moment, Ramon and Pedro’s The Grey Video, which was a video mash-up of film clips from the Beatles’ Hard Day’s Night with concert footage of Jay-Z, and some original green screen effects and additional motion graphics. However, the project probably had its most interesting outcome when Jay-Z himself decided to release remixes of tracks from the Black Album. Lining up the nu metal band Linkin Park, Jay-Z embarked upon a project under the auspices of  “MTV’s Ultimate Mash-Ups.” Released in November 2004, the mash-up track “Numb/Encore” garnered a Grammy nomination, and the rest, as they say, is history.

The many lives of the Grey Album and its influence on remix culture in an age of social media is the focus of this paper. I believe that the “grey” in the title of Danger Mouse’s project is a useful metaphor for understanding changes now underway on computer-mediated networks. There has been a “greying” of the Internet in two senses.

First, embodied by the logic of a mashup, a “grey” Internet is emerging as people, laws, codes, corporations, governments and technology remix the very foundations of the Internet, and blur the boundaries between utopian and dystopian possibilities for the medium. Emergent online realities are neither the “white” cyberspace frontier fantasy of the pre-Dotcom era nor the “black” Big Brother corporate enclosure model. The Internet is more “grey” than ever, especially in its privileging of individual agency in the network architecture (participatory culture), in the tensions between social networking and privacy concerns, and in encouraging remix aesthetics in a legal and corporate system diametrically opposed to it.

Secondly, the Internet is “greying” as it ages. In this sense, it is a “living web,” a network of sites that learned from the youthful indiscretions, a network that grew up in the aftermath of the Dotcom era. This “greying” Internet is being bombarded by problems generated  by growth and necessity: questions of net neutrality, battles among Internet giants such as Google and Amazon, the rise of the mobile web, and the enclosures created by social networks such as Facebook. It is not surprising to me that Tim Berners-Lee has just come out to defend the youthful vision of his Web in a Scientific American article. 1989 seems so long ago in digital time. Intriguing, in the sense of “greying” that I am advancing here, Berners-Lee states in his article:

“Yet people seem to think the Web is some sort of piece of nature, and if it starts to wither, well, that’s just one of those unfortunate things we can’t help. Not so. We create the Web, by designing computer protocols and software; this process is completely under our control. We choose what properties we want it to have and not have. It is by no means finished (and it’s certainly not dead).” (Scientific American, Nov. 22, 2010)

The Grey Album is an intriguing cultural experiment to follow: it moved from relative obscurity to mainstream visibility, from a DJ-based subculture to mainstream commercial television, from a singular remix to a plurality of remixes, from an audio-only project into a host of creative enterprises. The Grey Album is not a monolithic story of alternative media production. Following traces of the project through the cores and peripheries of folk and commercial cultures, The Grey Album resembles not so much an object as a “net of nets,” a blurred and blurring cultural meme, moving rhizomatically through the “meshworks” of an increasingly distributed Internet platform.

3. DJs, Remix Culture and Social Media

“We need to think of music as information, not simply as rhythms, but as codes for aesthetic transformation between blurred categories that have slowly become more and more obsolete. For me, the DJ metaphor is about thinking around the concept of collage and its place in the everyday world of information, computational modeling, and conceptual art.”

–DJ Spooky

This paper is predicated on two premises. First, remix culture has become a dominant mode of cultural production, a nexus of activities through which we can better understand what is happening in today’s global, computer-mediated networks. Second, the Internet, as a site of cultural production, is in a period of change, most commonly referred to today as Web 2.0, but also known as social computing. Social computing finds its greatest examples in new forms of online collaboration and media sharing such as blogging, podcasting, wikis, photo-sharing services like Flickr, video sharing services as Youtube, online communities like Facebook and Second Life, and online merchants such as Amazon.com, Netflix and iTunes.

As a mode of production, remix activities continue to grow in popularity. I like Bernard Schutze’s observation that “in remixing, one acts upon existing cultural materials pilfered from the vast landfills of the already mixed and mediated landscape.”[3] Remix artists foreground social interaction and cultural communication, and remixes blur boundaries and privilege polysemy. But this is far from a new phenomenon. It has a long history. Contemporary remix culture connects to many aesthetic movements in the 20th century, especially certain privileged moments of modernist art. It comes out of an artistic continuum that contains a wide array of visual and audio precursors: Sergei Eisenstein’s montage, Marcel Duchamp’s readymades, Andre Breton’s surrealist games, William Burrough’s cut-ups, Joseph Cornell’s assemblages, Roy Lichtenstein’s and Andy Warhol’s pop art, Joseph Beuys’ performance art, James Tenney’s avant-garde music, Grand Master Flash’s scratching, and John Oswald’s plunderphonics, to just begin to scratch the surface. But it has been in the realm of digital media, that remix culture has truly flourished and moved from a mostly high art aesthetic into a practice of everyday life.

PCs and Macs now come equipped, right out of the box, with basic creativity programs that allow even the least artistic computer users to engage in some forms of remix. There are many available online tools that encourage remix practices. Plugging into remix culture has never been easier. End-users on millions of computers can be nonchalant about the “aura” of the artist, and decenter the “author function” to the very margins of the mode of production. Users of Adobe Photoshop can create image-collages that required sophisticated knowledge of photographic emulsion just a generation before. Apple Computer’s and its suite of iLife programs, including Garageband, iPhoto and iMovie, encourage remix aesthetics in their very programming and pre-set templates such as iMovie’s new trailer remix tool. Garageband comes pre-loaded with thousands of musical samples, and users are encouraged to make their own “original” compositions out of these pre-recorded musical bits. Articles in Wired Magazine actively promote this as an “age of remix,” where this is a dominant mode of cultural production. Never before have amateur media producers had such professional tools at their disposal as they do in the current moment. We are witnessing the rise of the “pro-amateur class” in media production.

The pro-amateur is not only a key authorial presence in remix culture, but in digital media culture and on digital networks generally. In many ways, the pro-amateur is also important in educational circles, where digital creativity is increasingly finding its way into the curriculum and is considered an important skill for productive labor in the 21st century. According to scientist John Seely Brown,

“Most of what we learn we learn with and from each other [involves] doing things, things that matter to us. For example, the capability of today’s more participatory web starts to enable us to form communities of interest and to build and share things together. The remix movements are an obvious example…what I see unfolding is an organic culture of learning for us all…. from sports fanatics to geeks to authors, artists and amateur astronomers. Let’s just call it the rise of the pro-amateur class–serious explorations and creations we do for the love of doing it. Remember the term amateur comes from the Latin ‘amatour’ meaning for love. This more learner-centric, socially based learning, will enable us to keep up with the pace of change and enable us to feel comfortable with having multiple careers as both we and the world unfold at a challenging pace.” [4]

In this sense, many DJs are pro-amateurs, as we will see in the case of DJ Danger Mouse. But bloggers, podcasters, and alternative news services like Indymedia.org, the Daily Kos, or Moveon.org are other great examples of the pro-amateur. It is not amateur as in the words most negative senses–“inferior,” “unprofessional” or “naïve”–but amateur as operating outside of the imperatives of industrial culture. Avant–garde filmmaker Maya Deren, among others, has persuasively shown that the amateur might in fact have certain advantages over paid professionals in the culture industries. In most cases, there are no or limited commercial imperatives behind blogging or podcasting or alternative news services. We are witnessing an explosion of amateur producers who are creating what Yochai Benkler would deem a “wealth of networks” that is revolutionizing the way we locate information, obtain our news, and participate in shared cultural activity. This has spawned a large diversity of creative productions that challenges existing notions of mass media and traditional communication apparatuses.

But these changes are not happening in a cultural or technological vacuum. We are in the era of social media. In 2006, this new term has had its “coming out” party in major periodicals like Newsweek, which calls social computing the “new wisdom of the web” or “the living web.”[5] Tim O’Reilly, of O’Reilly Media, is one of the major thinkers behind a new conception of “design patterns and business models” for software development involving online networks.[6] It is useful to remind ourselves of the initial expectations surrounding social media. Before the term had widespread currency, O’Reilly said that:

“Web 2.0 is the network as platform, spanning all connected devices; Web 2.0 applications are those that make the most of the intrinsic advantages of that platform: delivering software as a continually-updated service that gets better the more people use it, consuming and remixing data from multiple sources, including individual users, while providing their own data and services in a form that allows remixing by others, creating network effects through an “architecture of participation,” and going beyond the page metaphor of Web 1.0 to deliver rich user experiences.” [7] (emphasis added)

As this quote ably demonstrates, remixing was always already seen as a central activity in Web 2.0 culture. Lev Manovich, building on the work of Richard MacManus and Joshua Porter, argues that remixing will be abetted by another change: the web is going to be dominated by microcontent. MacManus and Porter see it this way: “Enter Web 2.0, a vision of the Web in which information is broken up into “microcontent” units that can be distributed over dozens of domains. The Web of documents has morphed into a Web of data. Now we’re looking to a new set of tools to aggregrate and remix microcontent in new and useful ways.[8] Importantly, as Manovich suggests, “…it is much 
easier to ‘aggregate and remix microcontent’ if it is not locked by a 
design. Strait ASCII file, a JPEG, a map, a sound or video file can move
around the Web and enter into user-defined remixes such as a set of RSS 
feeds; cultural objects where the parts are locked together (such as Flash 
interface) can’t. In short, in the era of Web 2.0 and social media, ‘information wants to be
 ASCII.”[9] In this sense, when Jay-Z released an a capella version of The Black Album, he turned his vocals into microcontent. His rap lyrics have been remixed frequently because his vocal tracks are not trapped within the sonic packaging of The Black Album. By transforming his vocals into microcontent he gave voice to hundreds of remix artists, and in doing so, also amplified the reach of his voice–a lesson that is difficult for some contemporary record companies to understand. Microcontent brings up the issue of niche, narrow, splinter or sub-cultural communities, and one could argue that by definition, microcontent supports the potential for a greater diversity of content than witnessed in Web 1.0 culture.

But the idea of ever-greater amounts of diverse microcontent might portend more problems than solutions in arenas of cultural production. If the audience continues to splinter into very small units, what will happen over the long term to the “mass audience?” In this sense, I am not arguing that microcontent alone will usher in a new period of “free culture” on the Internet. Given the history of co-optation of folk cultures by mass media industries, corporate media conglomerates benefit from a splintered folk culture and can take advantage of a network of pro-sumers that diffuses their collective bargaining power across a global network. Trends, like Apple’s Garageband and iMovie, shows that certain segments in the culture industries welcome microcontent which they repackage as “free” content, while users still have to pay for software, access, storage space and network bandwidth.

Here the notion of the “long tail” is useful. Chris Anderson first used the term in a 2004 Wired Magazine article, and in a subsequent book.[10] In an analysis of blogging, Anderson argues that only a handful of blogs have large readerships, while most blogs have very few readers. Even so, the total readership of the blogosphere is distributed across all of the blogs and that the aggregrate audience for the less-read blogs is larger than the audience size for popular blogs. Frequently, this insight is understood in terms of business models: it is used to explain the success of Amazon.com or Netflix, where their very structure of revenue-generation benefits from the distributed nature of this effect. When competing with “brick and mortar” stores, such as Borders or Barnes and Noble, Amazon can afford to stock books that have almost no large readership because there is no “limit” to how many books Amazon can afford to stock in its online “store.” Alternatively, Netflix claims that “unpopular” films create more revenue than all of the popular new releases.

But what does this have to do with DJs, remix culture, digital entertainment and social media? It matters because the long tail model suggests that cultural productions do not have to appeal to the largest potential audiences. This is in distinction to the traditional world of mass broadcasting, i.e. the way that a film has to recoup its hundreds of millions of dollars of investments in its opening weekend, or the way that TV shows have to have large audiences to generate sizable advertising revenues. In the aggregate of the “long tail,” niche tastes can be catered to, and folk, avant-garde or non-commercial productions can succeed with rather small audience sizes. In this regard, remix culture can be successful even when it is narrowcast or splintercast on the Internet.

As narrowcasting takes hold, what will be the dominant model of cultural production? Can alternative or non-commercial productions in this sense really compete with corporate media culture? As the work of Henry Jenkins suggests, we are more involved than ever before in remix activities, but is this really posing a threat to the interests of media corporation? It is far too easy to envision the corporate re-appropriation of much of the collaborative work behind remix culture. While the medium might be the message, we are still willing to pay for messages in certain media, such as the fees attached to text messaging on cell phones. Furthermore, while many musical remix projects do not require much capital, other media forms, such as Hollywood films and major label music releases, are dependent upon expensive and time-consuming production processes including access to large teams of personnel, high-end equipment, professional guilds and talented performers.

Remix culture is symbiotic with popular culture. The best known mash-ups require recognizable and popular entertainment sources to succeed. Part of the genius behind the Grey Album is that the Beatles music is culturally ubiquitous. It would have been a very different project, if DJ Danger Mouse mashed up Jay-Z to the music of John Cage. That would have also drawn a lawsuit–John Cage’s estate is notoriously litigious–but such a project would not have become a cause celebre. The popularity of the referent in a mash-up matters. And if there is vanguardism in remix culture, it does not strike me as avant-garde in the traditional sense. It is not so much about “shocking the bourgeoisie” as media-savvy work aimed directly at youth culture, a culture that has always explored the worlds of bricolage, fantasy, and sub-culture.

UP NEXT:
The Greying of the Internet, Part 2: Grey Tuesday, Copyright Activism, and The Grey Video


Footnotes:

[1] See for example the Wikipedia entry on The Grey Album for Brian Burton’s take on the artistic freedom of remix culture

[2] Quote from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul’s_Boutique

[3] Schutze, Bernard. “Samples from the Heap: Notes on Recycling the Detritus of a Remixed Culture.” inHorizon Zero: Issue 8. Remix: Generate, Regenerate, Transform.  http://www.horizonzero.ca/textsite/remix.php?is=8&file=5&tlang=0



Uneasy Arrangements: Looking at Guy Debord’s Memoires

This paper started its life back in 2000 in a course taught by USC Art History professors Richard Meyer and Nancy Troy. The course was on the topic of the writing the history of Art, and it was a marvelous experience. This summer course met at the Getty Research Institute, part of the Getty Museum campus in Los Angeles. You couldn’t ask for a better place to gather to think about or discuss art. At the time I had already begun writing my dissertation New Media Activism: Alternative Media Collectives and New Technologies from Video to the Internet. I also was actively researching Guy Debord’s works as models and inspirations for media activists. I was particularly drawn to Debord’s pre-Society of the Spectacle artworks and his collaboration with Danish artist Asger Jorn. But the book, Mémoires, like Paul Strand’s “House and Billboard,” drew my attention the most.

I am reprinting a revised version of that paper here for a couple of reasons. First, I find Debord’s work completely irresistible and utterly challenging, but also not as prominent as I would expect it to be in new media or digital media studies. Part of that problem, which I address in this paper, is that Debord’s work tends to get coded (and worse, dismissed) as “Situationist” and political (which it is), leading towards the neglect of its artistic legacy and its creative potential. Critic Greil Marcus has done a great job of showing Debord’s “lipstick traces” on the punk movement, but I would like to see more about Debord’s influence on the digital age, especially as one of the key figures impacting digital remix culture. In terms of progenitors of remix culture, I believe Debord’s art practices (he was an early multimedia artist) should be considered alongside the “cut-up” technique of William Burrough and artist Brion Gysin.

Second, this paper lays out my preference for a certain approach to analyzing complex artworks, whether a photograph, a book, a painting, or a film noir. I favor an analytical frame that focuses on a close reading of the work at hand and which minimizes one’s reliance on historical, biographical or theoretical frameworks. However, that is not the same as saying I am dismissing those other important frameworks. Rather I have found it useful in my own scholarship to rely on my own close reading of a work, for reasons that hopefully become clear in the essay below. A similar analytical approach is on display in my recent Paul Strand talk and perhaps more so in my long-running podcast series with Shannon Clute, where we perform close readings on films in the noir tradition.

Third, I want to expand discussions around Mémoires. It is a very complex and polyvalent work, but many people are only familiar with the book’s famous cover “gag.” The original book cover was made of sandpaper. Of course, a sandpaper cover has the effect of making the book literally “abrasive” when shelving it next to other books, and it can “scratch” a nice table. But I am more interested in what Debord and Jorn are up to under the cover.

Uneasy Arrangements: Looking at Guy Debord’s Mémoires

1.

let no one claim I have nothing new to say: the arrangement of materials is new

—From Mémoires[1]

One is never at ease before the works of Debord

—Asger Jorn[2]

Image found online at http://www.interencheres.com

 

You get the idea. You locate a copy of the book you want to analyze. You find it at the Getty Library, and you will write your description of the book based on your first hand experience, since until now you have seen only pieces of it: here and there a fragment appearing as an illustration in an article or an occasional color frame in a museum catalogue. And even though it will be hard to do, you will try to put aside what you know about the book from your readings. You want to write an extended description of the book based on your insights and your observations. Moreover, you will try not to think about having to view it in the Special Collections room at the Getty Library, since something seems wrong about looking at it in such a space—a betrayal of the book’s original intentions or perhaps something more banal: that this book had better be “special” after all the hoops (appointments and handwashing, to name just two) you have to go through to look at it. On the other hand, you are anxiously waiting for the book in all its archival glory and rarity. You are hoping for a glimpse at the original Pormild and Rosengreen edition, published in Copenhagen in 1959. You know that there are only about one thousand copies of this edition in existence, maybe less. You want to run your fingers over its cover made of sandpaper,[3] see the potency of its use of color, and hold it in your hands to gauge its original size of 27.5 by 21.5 cm. And you are disappointed when you are given a 1977 reproduction of the book, the Phosphore edition.[4] While you are glad to be able to see the book in its entirety, many aspects of the original edition are missing. The Phosphore edition contains a soft cardboard cover with a curious drawing,[5] the reproductions are often badly executed (resulting in unintentionally missing words or images) and finally, the whole edition is reproduced in faded blacks and whites. Now you worry that in attempting to describe this book, you will have to somehow imagine the book in front of you through your memory of full color reproductions or determine the meaning of some barely legible image from the readings you have done. Far from being able to put aside what you know about this book, you seem relieved to know something about it beforehand. You find some comfort in being able to mentally fill in some of the gaps in the Phosphore edition. You let your memory serve as a kind of map as you peruse the book. You sometimes find the book’s play of words and graphics conforming to the Lettrist International notions of dérive and détournement.[6] Other times, the book seems a willfully obscurantic text and not at all what you were expecting. You are on a slippery slope and feeling uncomfortable. This book poses multiple problems of description: original versus reproduction, black and white versus color, theory versus practice, as well as complicated issues relating to art, history, language, commodity culture, politics, etc. Somehow as you reach the end, the last words of the book come alive, revive themselves as challenge, threat and limit on your ability to describe this work: “je voulais parler la belle langue de mon siécle. (I wanted to speak the beautiful language of my times.)”[7] You get the idea.

2.

…turning a page is like waking from a dream, or falling into one.

—Greil Marcus discussing Mémoires

Image found online at wikipedia.org

Mémoires, by Guy Debord with Asger Jorn, is a difficult visual object to describe. Besides the issue of two different published editions,[8] the book itself is a long work of approximately fifty pages.[9] Each of its fifty pages is different. As the book proceeds (literally in the sense of moving from the front cover to the back cover), different visual and textual approaches are undertaken. The book’s breadth of artistic and literary invention seemingly confounds any attempt to reduce the work to a single page or even cluster of pages. Moreover, Mémoires is intentionally perplexing and vexing with wordplay and graphic touches that complicate linear thinking and fight against totalizing meanings. Finally, history itself poses difficulties for the description of this work. One of the few things most everyone agrees on about the book is that it is clearly divided into three different sections: June 1952, December 1952 and September 1953. These three dates coincide with the initial years of Debord’s involvement in the Lettrist International (LI). As such, in many critical accounts of this work, Mémoires is seen through a biographical, or at least a historical, lens that helps situate this work in a cherished position as both an archive of early Situationist thought and as a privileged instantiation of Lettrist and Situationist theory.

 

Before I analyze what problems of description other critics have encountered with this work, I want to discuss my own difficulties in describing it. I try to minimize theoretical or historical models in attempting to describe the page. I do not want to dismiss the necessity of seeing this page and/or book within other discourses such as the history of the Situationist International or the careers of Debord and Jorn. Rather I want to return to an object that is often “lost” when analyzed solely through these discourses. It is possible to get a skewed view of the book if you only know it through written sources or a few illustrations. The sheer polysemy of Mémoires gives it a certain feeling of being both about everything and nothing. The problem is that any particular page of this work can lead toward the impression of a Rorschach test: the beholder (or reader) may see (or read) what he or she wants.[10] This leads to methodological problems surrounding the book often given short shrift in the critical literature about Debord, Jorn and Mémoires. What is the relationship of text and image? Can you discuss the meaning of a particular piece of text outside its relationship to the page and the book as a whole? What precisely is the nature of this object—should it be understood as a book? A collage? A painting? A lithographic reproduction? Is this book art or an instance of social activism? Is the meaning of Mémoires to be found through formal art-historical techniques, for example the precise description of image/text relations and the book’s use of color, shape, line, etc that I focused on? Or is the meaning of the book located in a strategy of reading (a dérive of reading) and a reaction to Debord and Jorn’s collages (a détournement of viewing)? Or some combination of all of these approaches?

To begin to answer these questions, I need to discuss some of the difficulties I have in describing Mémoires. There are four important issues I wish to foreground that both constrain and construct my description of this work: the collage aesthetic, the transformative context of the book, the use of repetition and variation, and the problems surrounding the book’s use of language.

No single page can make a claim as being representative of the overall project. Each page is a complex collage of prefabricated elements. But the difference between each individual page needs to be understood in relation to the overall text and the organizing formal logic of each page, as well as the book itself, is a collage aesthetic. When looked at serially throughout the course of the book, the accumulation of the various collage pages creates a type of visual rhythm.[11] The rhythm, similar to the editing of a movie, is concocted through matching (and indeed, mismatching) elements of color, shape, texture, and size, as if pages in Mémoires could exist as frames in a motion picture. Independent of the words on any given page, the artistic construction of each page frequently recalls the brush strokes and use of paint in the Abstract Expressionist movement, such as the work of Jackson Pollock. The collage aesthetic also helps structure the book’s use of language. For example, some of the phrases that occupy any particular page may be understood as a type of fragmentary sound collage one would hear standing for a time on a Parisian street or sitting in a lecture hall.

Second, Mémoires is a book whose meanings on any particular page change as it is read over and over.  This makes sense since the overall context for any single page is the total framework of the book. For example, when I first read the book, it appeared as if there was possibly a progression from simpler forms to more complex forms. But upon a second reading, I recognized that this was not so. What I read as “complexity” was the insertion of different graphic elements (cartoons and photographs, e.g.) which made the earlier paint-and-text-only combinations seem simple. But that dismisses the complexity of the word/image relations of the earliest pages of the book. Another context is the role of maps and mapping functions in the book. Early in the book, one might not read the painted lines as lines in a map. But after finishing the book, it is almost impossible not to. Towards the end of the book, actual maps of cities become inserted and due to their graphic similarity to Jorn’s painted lines, force us to recognize that a mapping function is part of the book’s graphic design.[12]

Comparison of two pages in Memoires (right side is the original; left side is reprint) From http://www.virose.pt/vector/b_13/nolle.html

Third, an analysis of a single page of Mémoires cannot account for the importance of repetition and variation. For example, in the first section (June 1952), the name “Barbara” crops up on many pages. The appearance of the name reminds one of its previous presence, and helps connect various pages together. Diagrams of a prison floor plan surface throughout the second section (December 1952). There are multiple city maps used in the third section. Another good example of repetition and variation is Asger Jorn’s painted lines that flow throughout the work. Early in the book, the lines tend to connect words together. In later sections, the paint can cut across images or even imprison an image. On one page in the third section, there are illustrations of villages and towns.

However, the paint crisscrosses the image, creating a sense of prison bars and confinement. This type of variation in the paint strokes links up with the repetition of prison images in the second section. Like notes in a symphony, these repetitions and variations help give the book a lyricism that unites particular themes and ideas. The repetitions and variations help unify the work formally without demanding a singular meaning or theme be attached to any one instance of repetition or variation. In this sense, the repetitions and variations create a tone or mood for the overall book more than generate a determinate meaning or theme.

Finally, the status of the words and text blocks that appear on each page is problematic. How should we discuss the use of words in this book? For one thing, in places the words themselves become images, as when Debord crumples them up into graphic objects. For another, as meanings in their own right, do we accept the words as “literal” and attempt to account for them in the overall meaning of the book—as parts of an overarching discourse? Or are the words an instance of “detournement” and perhaps we should only remark upon their randomness, their new context and possibly their ephemeral quality. It is impossible to ascertain the answer definitively, since the answer lies somewhere between the two positions. But most critics have seemed comfortable taking the words out their original context and quoting them.[13] One way to contain the unruliness of this book’s language is (paradoxically) to read it through the increasingly structured discourse of contemporary Situationist theory and practice. And perhaps this is inevitable in a work that at some level is a Situationist project. The problem is that it becomes increasingly difficult to separate our own historical and theoretical understanding of the Situationist movement with an object that has a particular materiality and unique conditions of production.

My preferred method was to look at each single page, as standalone works, to determine if there was something that I was missing by already approaching the work for a particular theoretical or historical construct. Surprisingly, after I finished my analysis, I felt that I truly had looked at the object versus looking for an object. In the precision of a page-by-page analysis, I uncovered elements of its formal composition I had previously missed, especially the significance of how items were placed and how that created particular viewing effects that I describe metaphorically (floating, rays of light, etc.) Second, it recovered something else that was essential: a pleasure in looking. Why has this object attracted so much attention over the years? After wiping away the sedimentation of theory, the object itself has a beauty and an artistic intelligence that is riveting. Moreover, the politics of the Situationist International may be in part wrapped up in this type of pleasure—perhaps fetishizing this object in a politics of pleasure.

3.

has everything been said?

—From Mémoires [14]

The problem of description for Mémoires also needs to address published accounts as well. The subsequent reputation of Guy Debord has complicated descriptions of Mémoires. Debord became the renowned author of Society of the Spectacle. His stature grew after the events in Paris of May ’68, and he is also known for his work as a filmmaker. However, part of it has also do to with the Debord’s status within the Situationist International. He became that group’s best known member and Mémoires, in Greil Marcus’ words, is a “Situationist primer.”[15] Importantly, we can examine two descriptions of Mémoires and attempt to assess how these descriptions have constructed (and constrained) the object.

One of the earliest descriptions of the work was in fact by Asger Jorn. In his preface to Debord’s book Contre le Cinema (1964), Jorn describes Mémoires in glowing terms (Jorn collaborated on Mémoires as well, so we should take his words with some circumspection)[16]:

Thus the moment was ripe for our hero [Debord] to write his Mémoires, which was done with the grating effect of broken glass – a book of love bound in sandpaper, which destroys your pocket as well as entire shelves in your library, a nice reminder of the time past that refuses to end and distresses everyone with its obstinate presence.[17]

Importantly here, two ideas are summoned by Jorn that have more or less appeared as parts of other critical accounts: Debord as “hero”[18] and the lack of a formal analysis of the work itself. Jorn’s assessment of the book is fairly typical: the book as an artistic “success.” In other words, part of the problem of writing about Mémoires is the consideration that the book might fail to live up to these expectations. Alternatively, perhaps too much is read into this book in light of Debord and Jorn’s subsequent successful careers. Indeed, the book is readily deployed in many essays as if it may be a “perfect text.” The sandpaper cover is a good example of this phenomenon. While the sandpaper cover forces you to recognize that this book might literally have a “grating” quality, it is unlikely that it would destroy “entire shelves in your library.” But it is precisely that type of desire and utopian optimism that imbues descriptions of this book.

Greil Marcus’ description is probably among one of the most widely known. His description appeared in the museum catalogue for the 1989 exhibition of Situationist art works: “On the Passage of a few people through a rather brief moment in time: The Situationist International 1957-1972.”[19] Marcus’ descriptions of Mémoires are very celebratory. A brief sampling of comments from his essay include:

Mémoires affirms that everything needed to say whatever one might want to say is already present, accessible to everyone; the book defines a project, and tells a story. (page 126)

…the book feels like a drunken sprawl through the encyclopedia of common knowledge. (page 127)

Mémoires is about the sense that along with the struggle to change the world, to make or find a new civilization, comes the conviction that one will fail those hopes, that the true struggle will be to remember what, once, one meant to do. (page 128)

A recurring idea throughout Marcus’ analysis is that Mémoires tells a story. This has to do partially with the common idea that Mémoires, on one level, is a history of the Lettrist and Situationist movement. But I am not sure what story is being told (at least not in a standard narratological sense). Second, I feel that Marcus reads the book through the lens of Situationist theory and practice. As such, I am not sure if Mémoires supports the theory or the theory supports the book. Moreover, there are no critiques of the book offered by Marcus and most of his writing about Mémoires does not contain close formal analysis. When he does discuss particular pages, it is usually in general terms and then in conjunction with biographical or historical information. Finally, there seems to be no attempt on Marcus’ part to analyze how the book as a whole has been constructed as a visual (art) object. Again, this is not necessarily his goal, but Marcus’ essay does demonstrate the difficulty of describing this text and how intertwined interpretations of this text have become with Situationist theory and practice.

4.

fin

In terms of my broader project regarding the role of new technologies and alternative media, I have always seen Mémoires as a prefigurative model for a particular type of communication. If we remove the accumulated layers of Situationist theory, the description of Mémoires that I forward in this essay can be aligned with issues that influenced Web 1.0 (hypertext) and the remix aesthetics and social media of Web 2.0. Mémoires, in this sense, explores issues of how communication, political economy and desire will become increasingly interconnected through networks. It also warns about the danger of the commercialization of information, and the transformation of personal information into mere data. The network becomes the mode of communication and connection central to Mémoires. Debord’s notions of the derive and detournement, first explored on the city streets of Paris, can now find new and unexpected uses in the digital pathways of the remix and the mashup.


[1] Translation from Marcus, p. 125.

[2] Jorn, Asger. “Guy Debord and the Problem of the Accursed” Preface to Debord’s Contre le Cinema (1964). Translated by Roxanne Lapidus. Reprinted at http://www.panix.com/~notbored/cursed.html. 6/23/00.

[3] Greil Marcus comments about its sandpaper cover: “…bound in heavy sandpaper, Mémoires pretended that, when placed in a bookshelf, it would destroy other books…” See Marcus, Greil. “Guy Debord’s Mémoires: A Situationist Primer,” in On the Passage of a few people in a rather brief moment in time: The Situationist International 1957-1972. Ed. by Sussman, Elisabeth. (The MIT Press: Cambridge, MA, 1989), p. 130.

[4] See Debord, Guy. Memoirs: structures portantes d’asger jorn. Editions du Phosphore, Paris, France, 1977.

[5] For no discernable reason, the Phosphore edition has a large pencil sketch of a male figure on the right hand side of the cover.  This inclusion of the male figure becomes all the more puzzling in light of the original cover of the Pormild and Rosengreen edition, which simply gives the name of the two authors, the title of the work in simple block letters, and a line in French translated as “composed entirely of prefabricated elements.”

[6] Greil Marcus’ definitions of derive and detournement are among the best and most succinct I have seen: “Detournement (literally ‘diversion,’ with connotations of criminality and delinquency) meant the theft of aesthetic artifacts from the Old World and their revitalization in contexts of one’s own devising…The derive (literally, ‘drift’ in the nautical sense) was a matter of opening one’s consciousness to the (so to speak) unconsciousness of urban space; the derive meant a solo or collective passage down city streets, a surrender to and then pursuits of alleys of attraction, boulevards of repulsion, until the city itself became a field of what the LI called “psychogeography,” where every building, route, and decoration expanded with meaning or disappeared for the lack of it…” (p. 127).

[7] The last line of Mémoires is translated in Greil Marcus’s article as “I wanted to speak the beautiful language of my time.” Marcus, p. 125

[8] Please note that this does not preclude the possibility of even more published editions of Mémoires. My research indicates that there is a third edition (by a different publisher) of Mémoires in the 1990s, but I was unable to locate a copy of this edition to verify what changes or differences it may have.

[9] The problem of page length and the problem of identifying specific pages in this book are complicated by the lack of pagination in the work. In most published accounts, there has not been an attempt to give the book a definitive length. Most critics appear to favor to describe its length with a certain indeterminacy. For example, Claire Gilman refers to the work as “approximately fifty pages long.” Gilman, Claire. “Asger Jorn’s Avant-Garde Archives,” October 79, Winter 1997, p. 43.

[10] As an aside, the allusion to a Rorschach test might apply to my experience of the 1977 Phosphore edition. On several pages instead of the vibrant colors intended in the Rosmild and Rosengreen edition, the Phosphore edition renders the graphic elements as blotches of black ink. I saw a distinct parallel in the abstractions of Debord and Jorn to the purpose of a Rorschach test, that is made more concrete with the desaturated and faded black and white hues of the Phosphore reproduction.

[11] While Greil Marcus uses the word “rhythm” in his essay to describe the work, I feel I am using the word in a slightly more formal way than Marcus is. For example, Marcus states: “The rhythm of Mémoires becomes one of isolation to contact, contact to community, community to broken contacts, broken contacts to isolation.” See Marcus, page 131. This footnote also highlights my sensitivity to published accounts of the work that are continually playing in my head as I write this account.

[12] In light of Svetlana Alper’s analysis of the mapping impulse in Dutch art it seems interesting to me that two of Debord’s books, Fin de Copenhague and Mémoires were published in Copenhagen. Moreover, Craig Sadler in his book, The Situationist City, makes explicit connections between maps and Situationist theory in Debord’s art, which is not surprising given the Situationist’s interest in the dérive and psychogeography.

[13] See Marcus, p. 125. Greil Marcus lists several phrases that he lifts from different places in the book with no apparent concern for their contextualization (or decontextualization). There is no attempt, as far I can discern, to initiate a project similar to Marcel Duchamps’ Green Box, whereby a  typotranslation (in some sense a guide to a text that is difficult to obtain) is attempting to abide with certain types of word/image relations found in the original object.

[14] Translation from Marcus, p. 125.

[15] Marcus, page 124.

[16] Also, we have to take its publication context into account since he was writing a preface to a book for Debord. However, the important point is not Jorn’s positive assessment of the book, as much as how that positive assessment seems axiomatic for this work and how later critics accept Jorn’s views. For example, Greil Marcus quotes Jorn as support for his own arguments.

[17] Jorn, “Preface to Guy Debord’s Contre le Cinema,” no page number.

[18] For example, see the following quote from Marcus: “…the book has its own voice: the voice of romantic, heroic, questing, dissipated, reflective, melodramatic, even schoolboy adventure.” (p. 126)

[19] The exhibition was shown, on a rotating basis, at the Centre George Pompidou in Paris, the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London and the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, MA.