Monthly Archives: November 2010

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
(Cronopio Edizioni)

[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:

[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, 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, the Daily Kos, or 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 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.

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


[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’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.

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


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


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.


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

—Greil Marcus discussing Mémoires

Image found online at

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

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.


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.



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 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.

Noircon, Part 1: A Criss-Cross Theory of Noir Adaptation

This essay was originally written for Noircon 2010. If you don’t know about Noircon, it is an amazing conference dedicated to all things noir. It is held every two years in Philadelphia, and was originally known as Goodiscon back in its inaugural year of 2006. You can visit the Noircon site by clicking here.

Noircon 2010 produced a great conference booklet with contributions by such writers as Michael Connelly, Dennis Lehane, Ken Bruen, Otto Penzler, Charles Willeford, among many others. I was honored to have my article included in this collection. Moreover, the Noircon conference booklet was cleverly printed and packaged as a throwback pulp paperback as seen in this photo of the book’s cover art (done by artist Jeff Wong, based on the cover art for Goodis’ Black Friday):

Finally, I am interested in revising this article for publication in a film journal. So, I welcome any and all comments on this piece. Thanks again to Lou Boxer, Deen Kogan, and all who make Noircon a truly remarkable one-of-kind event. Looking forward to 2012.



A Criss-Cross Theory of Noir Adaptation by Richard L. Edwards

“I do your murder. You do mine. Criss cross!”

Bruno Anthony, Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train

Strangers on a Train (1950). Still from

Given that many of the greatest films noir have been based on short stories and novels, you would expect more attention paid to the issue of noir adaptations. In fact, adapting a previously published work into a screenplay is a challenging artistic task, and this type of writing is given public acknowledgement with its own award every year at the Oscars. However, studies of noir screenwriting and noir adaptations are still too few, and the roles of screenwriters in the production of films noir tend to be footnotes. Even knowledgeable film noir fans may think writers’ greatest contribution to the noir style involves their crafting of hard-boiled dialogue. But screenwriting is a complex process, frequently done collaboratively in the Hollywood system. And the process of writing a screen adaptation is more than merely transcribing or rearranging a novel or short story into a screenplay format. Writers matter, and bring with them to the writing process a constellation of ideas and practices that impact what ends up in the final screen version. The development of film noir benefited from the criss-crossing of writing talent. Each time different writers and directors criss-crossed, the potential of film noir increased, creating new stories and new possibilities.

Screenwriters tend to get short shrift due to the predominance of auteur theory in film circles. First articulated by French cineastes in the 1950s such as François Truffault, auteur theory claims that the author of a film is its director. This reinvention of film authorship does much for the stature of film directors, but tends to minimize the importance of screenwriters. Even from the outset, as Robert Carringer points out, auteur theory diminishes the truly collaborative nature of film authorship. Carringer argues that what is needed is an approach to film authorship that entails “the temporary suspension of single-author primacy” and that has “the primary author…reinscribed within what is now established as an institutional context of authorship.” (377) Interestingly enough, Carringer uses the film Strangers on a Train to explore his thesis. I will also use Strangers on a Train as my main example, but investigate this question from a different point of view. I am interested in how noir adaptations often entail a “complicated network of similarities overlapping and criss-crossing.” (Wittgenstein §66).

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “criss-cross” as “a network of intersecting lines.” This is a useful way of thinking about the process behind noir adaptations, of thinking about screenwriters as part of a “network.” Screenwriting (like many forms of creative writing) can be a solitary activity with minimal interactions with other creative personnel. While there is some truth in the “lone writer” model, a criss-cross theory of noir adaptation explores areas of collaboration and commonality in the screenwriting process. In this regard, a criss-cross theory has connections to Ludwig Wittgenstein’s notion of defining things by way of their “resemblance” to other things. In other words, noir writers working on an adaptation have similarities to each other, just like members of a family resemble each other while also being distinct and separate personalities. Such authorial networks can be quite complicated, but teasing out the resemblances—a kind of “family tree” of noir—between different writers yields new insights into noir adaptations. In many ways, the writer of a noir adaption is engaged in Bruno Anthony’s notion of “criss cross.” The hired screenwriter is literally “doing” someone else’s murder (albeit in a fictional writerly sense!). Furthermore, screenwriters do not tend to coalesce randomly around certain types of films. Rather, writers are drawn to film noir by a shared interest in similar kinds of characters, themes and stories associated with hard-boiled or mystery writing.

First edition cover of Highsmith's Strangers on a Train

Strangers on a Train brought together a killer ménage-a-noir in Patricia Highsmith, Raymond Chandler, and Alfred Hitchcock. Strangers on a Train was Highsmith’s first novel. Even though she was paid a mere $7,500 dollars for the screen rights, the money paled to the prestige and visibility her novel received by being made into a major motion picture. Hitchcock, on the other hand, was in mid-career and in a bit of a crisis. His latest films had been flops (Under Capricorn and Stage Fright), and the great director was in need of a comeback. Strangers would fit that bill superbly and kick off Hitchcock’s greatest decade of filmmaking. Finally, the screenwriter chosen by Hitchcock to adapt Highsmith’s novel was at the end of his celebrated career. For the Strangers screenplay, Hitchcock and Warner Bros. hired one the most accomplished noir writers of the 20th century, an author synonymous with hard-boiled detective fiction. While the film would be a boon to Highsmith’s nascent career, it was Raymond Chandler’s fallow finale to Hollywood screenwriting. Chandler ended up having to fight for screen credit on Strangers, and he co-received an onscreen credit swith the little known Czenzi Ormonde, an assistant of Ben Hecht’s who worked on the script after Hitchcock largely threw out Chandler’s draft. Therefore, Chandler’s writing efforts are largely absent from the final film.

For sake of simplicity, I will focus on the three highest profile authors, and avoid discussing other writers who worked on aspects of the screenplay, such as Whitfield Cook’s work on the treatment or Czenzi Ormonde’s final script revisions. Furthermore, I want to say only a few words about the larger-than-life personalities of Highsmith, Chandler and Hitchcock, as these are topics taken up elsewhere at length. Published accounts often highlight the antagonistic aspects of this collaboration and recount the interpersonal battles between Hitchcock and Chandler.

Hitchcock picture from Tom Sutpen's blog,

While Chandler took the job because he thought he might like “Hitch,” it didn’t turn out that way. There is the oft-recited story that Chandler called Hitchcock “a fat bastard” as the director was getting out of his car during a story visit to Chandler’s home in La Jolla, California. Hitchcock apparently repaid the insult by ignoring Chandler completely during the screenwriting phase and Hitchcock supposedly threw Chandler’s delivered script into his trashcan. Highsmith, for her part, wrote almost twenty-five years later that her book “gave Chandler fits during his Hollywood script writing period…” (5) Nowadays, most scholars tend to point the finger at Hitchcock for giving Chandler “fits” rather than Highsmith’s novel. As his unpublished script testifies, Chandler had some very strong ideas for turning Highsmith’s scenarios into a successful film adaptation. But Hitchcock, in his story conferences with Chandler, offered up a very different treatment than the one in Highsmith’s book. It is not hard to imagine that Hitch’s ending on the merry-go-round and Guy’s final exoneration resulted in the Chandleresque lament that working on this screenplay at times was “damn foolishness.”

While there were incompatibilities and antagonisms between Hitchcock and Chandler in their adaptation of a Highsmith novel, I am more interested in their points of commonality and their networked intersections. What does the criss-crossing of these three authors contribute to the development of film noir? Clearly, all three were drawn to the source material. Hitchcock has said that he found in Highsmith’s novel “the right kind of material for me to work with.” (Truffault, 193). The transference of guilt from one character to another (the core idea in Highsmith’s novel) was already a staple of Hitchcock’s films. For his part, Chandler was probably drawn in by the thematic similarity to his own screenplay for The Blue Dahlia, where a man’s life crumbles due to the mysterious circumstances surrounding his wife’s murder. And while Patricia Highsmith wanted nothing to do with the writing of the screenplay, some of the film’s most memorable moments are already found in her novel. Highsmith even included the music cues for “And the Band Played On,” utilized so memorably by Hitchcock in the film version.

Seldom mentioned about the criss-cross of Highsmith, Chandler, and Hitchcock is that taken as a network of writers, the screenplay of Strangers can lay claim to three different, but major, traditions that contributed to the noir style. Highsmith was not only an exceptional novelist, but she began her career writing for comic books.

Two Covers of Comics by Patricia Highsmith, shown by biographer Joan Schenkar at Noircon 2010

As Highsmith biographer Joan Schenkar points out, Strangers owes much “to the crude Alter Ego psychologies which glazed the plots of her comic book scenarios…” (259) Chandler, as is well known, began writing for pulps such as Black Mask, and was a pre-eminent hard-boiled novelist. Hitchcock’s mastery of filmmaking can be traced back to silent era classics such as Blackmail, as well as through his growing embrace of the noir style in films such as Shadow of a Doubt, Notorious, and Rope. These authors, then, brought to the screen version of Strangers an amalgam of ideas from popular story forms—the comics, the pulps, and film noir—and in doing so, break new ground and generate an exciting new story.

The criss-crossing of these authors resulted in significant changes from Highsmith’s novel. As primary author, Hitchcock was responsible for the largest changes, including changing Guy’s (Farley Granger) character from an architect into a tennis player, moving the majority of the film’s action to Washington D.C. and creating a brand new ending for the story. In fact, after the halfway point of the film, the novel and film bear little resemblance to each other. Why did the film depart so strongly from Highsmith’s novel? As Chandler writes in his letters from that time, the problem was an issue with character motivation. A film audience would have trouble believing Guy (played by Farley Granger) would murder Bruno’s father, which is what happens in the book. As Chandler writes: “The premise is that if you shake hands with a maniac, you may have sold your soul to the devil.” (206) And Chandler literally begged Hitchcock to consider the “motivation” problem. In a letter he writes to Hitchcock, Chandler says: “Sacrifice a camera shot if necessary. There’s always another camera shot just as good. There is never another motivation just as good.” (142) But Hitchcock was not overly concerned about plot problems or character motivations in this film. As a film director, Hitchcock was perhaps more interested in the formal means by which he tells his stories. Strangers has some brilliant and exciting set pieces including Miriam’s murder reflected in an eyeglass, an unforgettable tennis match, and a thrilling finale on an out-of-control merry-go-round.

Graham Petrie argues that Hitchcock might have gotten the ending of the film from a classic English mystery novel, Edmund Crispin’s The Moving Toyshop. Petrie argues that Hitchcock would have been aware of the novel, and the similarities are too similar to be accidental. Crispin’s novel ends with a climatic scene on a merry-go-round (or roundabout) which goes out of control when its

Merry-go-round ending from Strangers on a Train (Hitchcock, 1950)

operator is shot during an escape attempt. While Petrie’s claim might still be speculation more than proven fact, the filmed ending of Strangers on a Train moves away from the noirish and fateful ending of the Highsmith novel. In the novel, Bruno drowns in a drunken stupor, and Guy ends up being caught by a private investigator and sent to jail for the murder of Bruno’s father. Of more interest to criss-cross theory is that Hitchcock’s change of the ending probably did give Chandler “fits.” Chandler liked the idea of having Guy punished by the end of the story. Regardless of where Hitchcock came up with the new ending, the director exchanged a noirish ending for an ending that would be appropriate for an English mystery cozy (a genre Chandler detested). But the choices made about the film’s ending demonstrate how many different noir and mystery traditions were being evoked out of the authorial networks behind this particular adaptation. And amazingly, when one watches the final film, the adaptation does not come across as a bunch of independent ideas nor as spare and disparate parts thrown together, but a fully realized film noir under the primary authorship of Alfred Hitchcock.

Finally, a criss-cross theory of noir adaptation might help us account for how the noir style matured and deepened long after different groupings of writers collaborated. In this vein, it might be useful to ask what happened to Chandler’s discarded screenplay? Did it really just end up, forgotten, at the bottom of Hitch’s wastebasket? Or did Hitchcock’s fortuitous criss-cross with Highsmith and Chandler affect him and his filmmaking in ways not immediately apparent in 1951? Might there be a film in Hitchcock’s body of work that benefited from Chandler’s critique of Strangers on a Train? Did Hitchcock ever subsequently direct a film where he foregrounds character motivation and risks a downbeat ending centered around a person haunted by an earlier murder in an obsessive compulsive way? Hitchcock probably knew that if he pursued Chandler’s ideas to their fullest in Strangers on a Train, the result was likely to be box office poison. While Chandler’s adaptation tried harder than Hitchcock’s to be faithful to Highsmith’s novel, his ideas for the film, like his own The Blue Dahlia, would be a tougher sell to audiences. In 1951, Hitchcock was desperate for a hit, partially accounting for why the final script for Strangers might not have had “enough” Chandler, and departed so strongly from Highsmith’s novel. But in the creative potential activated by the criss-cross of screenwriting talents, another Hitchcock film might playfully be considered as the filmic realization of Chandler’s unused script ideas and is now a critically acclaimed masterpiece of film noir. And yet even almost ten years after Strangers on a Train, the audience still wasn’t quite ready for that kind of story. So that latter film did end up being a commercial flop that Hitchcock himself removed from circulation for over 20 years: Vertigo


Highsmith, Patricia. “Introduction,” The World of Raymond Chandler. (New York: A & W Publishers, Inc., 1977).

Hiney, Tom and Frank MacShane, eds. The Raymond Chandler Papers: Selected Letters and Nonfiction, 1909-1959. (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2000).

Petrie, Graham. “Transfer of Guilt: Hitchcock and Chandler on Strangers on a Train,” Sight and Sound, July 2009, 46-49.

Phillips, Gene D. Creatures of Darkness: Raymond Chandler, Detective Fiction, and Film Noir. (Lexington, KY: University of Kentucky Press, 2000).

Schenkar, Joan. The Talented Miss Highsmith: The Secret Life and Serious Art of Patricia Highsmith. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2009).

Truffault, Francois. Hitchcock. Revised Edition. (Touchstone Book: New York, 1983).

An Inexhaustible World: Looking at Paul Strand’s “House and Billboard”

House and Billboard, Paul Strand, 1916

“What exists outside the artist is much more important than his imagination. The world outside is inexhaustible.”

–Paul Strand

On November 10, 2010, I gave a noonday talk at the IU Art Museum about a single Paul Strand photograph as part of their ongoing Invited Speakers series. The IU Art Museum has extensive holdings on photography. As I was going through their binders listing the photographs in their collection, I was excited to see that they had photographs from the early period of Paul Strand’s career, and several photographs from around 1916. Paul Strand (1890-1976) was a figure I first came to study and admire during the writing of my documentary-influenced dissertation, New Media Activism from Video to the Internet. His pioneering documentary work exerted a great influence on numerous politically engaged media producers in the 20th century. Moreover, much of my current scholarship engages and explores media experiments born in moments of early technological adoption. This particular photograph provided me an opportunity to probe into the development of art photography as it entered its modernist phase in the 20th century, and help me further understand a formative moment in the long and stellar career of Paul Strand.

For the purposes of my talk, I ended up selecting “House and Billboard” (Strand, 1916) for both scholarly and personal reasons. What follows is a summary of what I covered in that 30 minute talk. As the photograph itself seems to invite, I had to approach from several different directions, each time appreciating another aspect of the photo. As a new media scholar, my investigations into a single 1916 photograph actually brought me right back to the present where similar photographic techniques have become ubiquitous in the 21st Century. We can still see Strand’s impact on representations of our digital worlds.

1. Introduction: Coming of Age

Wall Street, Paul Strand, 1916

I find it hard to pick just one photograph from this period in Paul Strand’s career. He was quite prolific around 1916, and this work is among the most important in his entire oeuvre. And while “Wall Street” is justifiably famous for its brilliant use of form and social commentary, or “White Fence” has an unforgettable formal dynamic, or “Blind” captures some ineffable singular essence of our humanity, I have always had a personal fondness for “House and Billboard.” This photograph captures Strand’s love of New York City and possesses a bedeviling, bedazzling formalism—and it doesn’t give up its stories easily. I like the layers of meaning in “House and Billboard.”

For me, this photograph captures intersecting moments that are “coming of age” at about the same time: Strand as a photographer; New York as the 20th century city; modernism as a major cultural logic; photography as an important art form.

2. The Billboard: Punctum and Prophecy

At the outset, I would be remiss if I didn’t address a very personal reason for selecting this photograph: three generations of my family have been in the billposting business. I was drawn to the image of the billboard in this photo. As Roland Barthes would say, that advertising sign was my “punctum,” the personal detail that created my special relationship with this image. I became interested in images at a very early age, and I know a big part of my fascination was watching my father put together images high on a billboard platform off the busy highways of Chicago. I think billboards tend to get very short shrift in visual studies because they are seen as rather banal roadside monstrosities. But they never felt that way to me since I could literally see how they were carefully stitched together to render messages to drivers who might literally glance at them for a brief moment on their way to somewhere else. I also think that their ubiquity is the essence of their invisibility in visual culture studies. I rather enjoy that one of Paul Strand’s modernist masterpieces includes, quite deliberately and quite radically, a billboard.

So what of that billboard? In the bottom corner of the image, it anchors the entire composition, but it is only partially seen. From our current vantage point, we can’t even really make out what the billboard is actually advertising. Luckily, Strand himself, in one of his later interviews, remembered this particular billboard and the full names we only partially see: Charles Frohman and Julia Sanderman. With that bit of data, we can deduce that we are looking at an advertisement for a play that just opened in New York that year (1916). It was the play, Sybil, and it ran for 169 performances on Broadway [As a brief side note, Sybil is also the name of my wife, and it was a bit startling to learn that her name appeared on the billboard that so caught my attention—talk about your structuring absences as punctums] Anyhow, to return to the billboard: Sybil the play was adapted from Victor Jacobi’s operetta Szibill. It was produced by Charles Frohman and starred Julia Sanderman. The show itself was set in Russia and tells the story of a prima donna who assumes the identity of a Grand Duchess, and the Grand Duchess assumes her identity. It is a play of masquerades and role reversals. Even if Strand didn’t know the full content of the play, he would surely have been familiar with the classical concept of the sibyl—in other words, a sibyl is a prophetess. I think it is very clever of Strand in one of his most prophetic images—an image that literally inaugurates a modernist vision in photography—that he carefully elides a direct mention to prophesy, but leaves enough clues for the reader to discern that this photograph has a powerful connection to prophesy.

The billboard also serves as a false façade in the photograph, something Strand wants us to look above and beyond, but also it is an early indication that the urban landscape would soon be filled with advertising. I think this begins to show how modernity and advertising co-existed from the beginning, and the rapid changes of modern communication would be built upon a backbone of advertising.

3. The 125th Street Viaduct: Setting the “Waiting Trap”

125th St. Viaduct, New York City (Current Picture)

Where is Strand standing when he is taking this picture? It’s a good question, because it would appear that there isn’t a building tall enough in that neighborhood to give the 26 year photographer this vantage point. And indeed, this photograph was a literal impossibility a dozen years earlier because the structure upon which Strand is standing did not exist. This is New York as the “City of Ambition” because Strand is not standing on a rooftop, he is actually standing on the 125th St. Viaduct–the train platform built in 1904, still in use today for the 1 Train in New York City. Strand takes another famous photograph from this viaduct that emphasizes the modernist structure of the train platform.

125 St. Viaduct, Paul Strand, 1916

Of particular importance to the “House and Billboard” photograph, the viaduct afforded Strand something he was also seeking: invisibility. He was setting one of what Maria Hombourg calls his “waiting traps.” Strand was at a period in his photographic development where he wanted to photograph people unaware of his presence. The viaduct provided ample urban camouflage, so he could set up his camera and wait undetected for the unsuspecting subjects of his gaze to stage themselves naturally in front of his lens.

4. F/22: Depth of Focus

Another of the initial puzzling aspects of the photo is what time of day is it when Strand snaps his picture? Is it early morning? Is it late afternoon? Is it slowly creeping towards night time? In fact, it is likely that the photograph was taken near noontime on a very, very bright day. So what accounts for the relative “darkness” of the photograph? As Maria Hombourg notes in her book Paul Strand circa 1916, photography around the Photo-secessionists (a movement started by Alfred Steiglitz) emphasized the active intervention and manipulation of a photograph and soft focus lens to give photography a misty, dreamy quality in the early 20th century, a kind of impressionistic photographic palette. By 1916, Strand was experimenting with much sharper images and bold geometric shapes (esp. in his photographic still life work). And contra the Seccesionists, he didn’t want to manipulate the image, he wanted to capture reality in a much more objective fashion.

What I really like about Strand’s choice here is that he is using a technique more common in landscape photography at the time rather than urban photography. He is shooting at F/22.

Aperture Scale (note how closed down the aperture is in F22)

Every stop down cuts the light received by the camera in half, and F/22 is stopped way down. This aperture requires an amazing amount of light in order to capture the image (hence the idea that the photo has to be taken closer towards noon rather than later). F/22 creates a fairly detailed image that keeps both foreground and background in relative clarity. For example, you can read both the billboard and the garage sign in the far background. And while the photo still has vestiges of soft edges and shadows, the overall composition has a stark quality of definition to it. It has a wonderful depth of field—one that seems appropriate to capturing “an inexhaustible world.”

F/22 does another interesting thing: all of the even-toned areas of the photo turn to black when this setting is used. Thus, even though the photo is black and white, even-toned parts (such as the clothing on the people) are rendered more starkly as black.

But F/22 is a great choice for this photograph. It brings the urban landscape into an observable whole. Your eye can wander across the picture and see details that you might not even notice if you were standing on the 125th St. Viaduct. And importantly, it adds a degree of mystery to the people standing on the left side of the frame.

5. Freezing Time: Muybridge and the Photographic Gaze

Eadweard Muybridge, Race Horse Photograph

The scene in “House and Billboard” might seem to have little connection to the photographic experiments of Eadweard Muybridge. But as in Muybridge’s famous experiment to capture a horse will all four hooves off the ground, this photograph is literally “freezing time.” What is the point of “freezing time?” For Strand at this moment, I would argue it is about revealing what is hidden from casual views. Strand is pushing objective realism to its limits (both aesthetically and technically). The depth of field of F/22 and the “waiting trap” on the viaduct merge into an exquisite cross between the macro and the micro: the complex interrelationships of the urban environment and the stunning play of light and shadow that he explored so memorably in the close-up style of his still life photographs.

6. 291: Photography as Art and the European Avant-Garde

291 in 1906 (Kasebier and White Exhibition)

This photograph was first displayed publicly at Alfred Stieglitz’s 291 art gallery. That is significant since 291 also displayed the photographic works of Edward Steichen, Gertrude Kasebier, and Stieglitz himself. Stieglitz also published the photograph in his influential journal, Camera Work. There is no doubt that Stieglitz understood the significance of this photograph (and other photos from around 1916 by Strand). This photograph is part of the body of work that started to gain recognition for photography as a major art form. And the 291 gallery was an important site where a young Strand saw avant-garde painting from Europe, and important works by Matisse, Rodin, Cezanne, Picasso and Duchamps. In fact, while some scholars might want to read cubist elements into “House and Billboard,” from my perspective, the lesson that Strand took from Cubism was compositional complexity and the visually dynamic relationships that can be built from geometric patterns in different visual planes, compositional strategies that are on full view in this photograph.

Moreover, through his contacts at 291, Strand would begin to see the connections between modern art and progressivism. They both involved new ways of seeing the world, of proposing new possibilities for culture. Strand is well known for his political activism, and the early seeds of his progressive vision and his urban sensibilities are on display in “House and Billboard.” It seems an early working out of ideas that he would express more fully in his 1920 film Manhatta.

7. Transience: Catching the Human Element

“Things become interesting as soon as the human element enters in.”

–Paul Strand

Part of what I find so captivating about this photograph are the people in the frame. This is a pro-filmic event. Strand is not staging this action, he is waiting patiently for it to happen. He is waiting for that perfect moment to take his picture. I think this would be a much different picture without the human element. The people help animate, give life to this mise-en-scene. It is not just a beautiful architectural still life, it is a portion of the metropolis teeming with life. I think what makes it so memorable is that it is capturing a moment of transience. What those people are discussing or meeting about is not important.

It is one of millions of meetings that occurred that day in New York City. But for Strand, they are choosing to stand there at that moment, they are not posing. They are carrying on the business of living in the city. The moment is fleeting, ephemeral. And yet, almost a hundred years later, we stare at it and try to comprehend its meaning. I think it lends the photograph an almost lyrical element. Things do become interesting once the human element comes in, and you can imagine Strand, high up on the viaduct in his “waiting trap” just preparing for this very moment, life caught unawares in all its transcience.

8. Pattern Recognition: The Formalism of Paul Strand

I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the strong sense of composition and design in this photograph. It is very carefully arranged. Look at the edges of the frame. He clearly has a light pole framed on the left, the skylights in the top right hand corner, the letters in the billboard. It is hard to imagine how this picture would work a foot to the left or the right, a shift in the foreground objects, etc.

Top portion of "House and Billboard:" Notice its very careful geometric constuction and edge framing

But it also has a strong alternation of rectangles and right angles that play with a burgeoning sense of the solidity of the 20th century city. It has a great play of light and shadow to bring an element of impermanence into the tableau. It’s a formalism that finds itself in earlier experiments with still life photography.

Porch Shadows, Paul Strand, 1915

It’s an expression of the lived reality of the modern city. And rather than capturing the hurly burly flux of Wall St. Bankers against an imposing façade, here Strand the artist shows a much more human scale, which elicits a very different emotional response to me. This seems to be more about the day-to-day realities of the working class in the modern metropolis.

White Fence, Paul Strand, 1916

As in his wonderful photograph, “White Fence,” the lines in this photograph play with issues of recti-linearity. In fact, the main line that bifurcates the frame is not entirely straight, it is a slightly askew line. The line’s wiggly nature energizes the frame, like a bolt of energy running down the middle of the frame.

The left edge of the frame is a road. This is a picture that actively encourages the viewer to wander, to travel into the frame. But it is an inexhaustible world: one gets the idea that there are many more places to go. This is a nexus, a junction in the city.

There is also a very witty visual pun that plays with the issues of light and shadow in the photograph. The house in the middle ground has three windows and it appears that two of the three windows have “the lights on.” It creates a wonderful moment of asymmetry, reminiscient of “White Fence.” But it turns out that those are not lights, but rather white curtains/shades, and that only two of the three rooms have that window dressing.

9. Activating Rooftops: Revisiting Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid

Strand dedicates significant space in this photograph to rooftops. Rooftops are not necessarily the most interesting architectural piece of a building, and they are invisible to most viewers, especially at street level. They have little of the visual grandeur of a façade. But it seems that Strand is on to something with showing rooftops. I think a film like Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid, which came out four years after this photograph, shows the potential of rooftops for the urban psychogeography. They are spaces that can be activated both in reality and in the imagination. It is a space in the asphalt jungle that seems to connect to nature (especially the sky). It is a space of adventure, a place of danger, a mode of escape, a method of transit. I think that the way the photograph is framed (road on the one side, a set of rooftops on the other) suggests two modes of traveling. And when I think of Charlie Chaplin escaping from the police by running across the city’s rooftops, something akin to a similar impulse is present in Strand’s photograph. This photograph activates rooftops as a space of imaginative play.

10. Google’s Street Views: Urban Photography in the Digital Age

I wonder if someone just stumbles across “House and Billboard” today if the photo would excite the spectator the way this photo excited Strand’s mentor Alfred Steiglitz in 1916. I would say probably no. But for good reason. The type of visuality that Strand is creating here has become commonplace. His type of urban surveillance (his “waiting trap”) is literally how we are mapping urban space in the digital age. Strand’s surreptitious camera work finds its digital parallel in Google’s Street View technique that is quietly going around the world and photographing urban street views (like “House and Billboard”).

And like Strand’s photography, Street View becomes really interesting when “the human element enters in.” There are websites dedicated to showing people who have appeared in Street View. These are people caught unawares by Google’s camera people in their high-tech vans.

The Google Street View Van

I would argue that the kind of objective photography desired by Google as part of its digital mapping project finds its basic template in the photographic innovations of Paul Strand


Hombourg, Maria Morris. Paul Strand circa 1916. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Distributed by Harry N. Abrams. [Exhibition Catalog], 1998.

Pecha Kucha in the Classroom: Tips and Strategies for Better Presentations

I have been using Pecha Kucha (click here to hear it pronounced in Japanese: in my courses for a couple of years now, and I have found the basic constraints of this presentational format to be very useful for my student presentations. If you are not familiar with Pecha Kucha, basic information about the history of this presentational style can be found here:

The essence of Pecha Kucha is to intentionally set limits on speakers using slideware (i.e. PowerPoint or Keynote). Pecha Kucha is the Japanese term for “the sound of conversation” or “chit chat.” I like this metaphor because it does suggest that the purpose of certain kinds of presentations is to encourage dialogue and response, and not merely the delivery of new bullet-point information in pre-designed slideware templates. I feel Edward Tufte’s critique of the cognitive style of Powerpoint is still valuable reading for educators who frequently use slideware in their teaching and/or student work. (

But another layer of meaning around Pecha Kucha’s relationship to “the sound of conversation” should also appeal to teachers. It begs the question: what does your classroom “sound” like during a PowerPoint presentation? If you are in most classrooms, the dominant sound is the ceiling mounted digital video project, blaring its white noise over the students’ heads. Next, a student is typically reading (not speaking) bullet points from text-heavy slides projected on a video screen. Finally, I have noticed the sound of restless students, typically sitting around in a semi-darkened room: the sound of bodies shifting in seats and the clacking of computer keys on laptops. What should enliven the classroom—a thoughtful slide presentation—ends up being a rather perfunctory and increasingly disengaging classroom experience. There is a bit of PowerPoint fatigue as it becomes a ubiquitous classroom assignment. A Pecha Kucha is an attempt to break through this “fatigue” and make the entire speaking experience more engaging. So, how does it do that?

I have found that the basic constraint of 20 slides each lasting 20 seconds adds “zip” to any student presentation. 20 seconds is a marvelous amount of time, 1/3 of a minute. Enough time to make a solid point, but not enough time to drone on and on about any point. It forces concision in speaking, and that need to be concise has a corollary effect on the audience: it forces the listener to be more active. I also think that 20 slides is just about the right amount (not too few and not too many) to get a solid grasp (or at least a meaningful gleaning) of a topic.

I think of traditional PowerPoint presentations as “lean back” performances in academic settings–they encourage a kind of “vegging out” by the other students in the room. Traditional PowerPoint slides are text-heavy, frequently with quotes and citations, and in a semi-darkened room, encourages a kind of “mental scanning” that allows the listener to drift in and out of what the speaker is actually saying. I think of Pecha Kucha presentations as “lean forward,” more interactive performances. 20 seconds is not enough time to have text-heavy slides. You can’t speak more than a few choice sentences in 20 seconds. Therefore, the value of this mode of presentation becomes getting the audience interested in what you have to say; in other words, when the speaker is “chit-chatting,” the ideas can be both more informally presented and more engaging. Think about how you engage with chit-chat or informal communication in every day life. You know when some is spouting their ideas at you, and you also know when someone is riffing on good ideas and seeking a real dialogue and sharing of ideas–informal conversation can yield strong benefits as  one MIT study has suggested. For me, Pecha Kucha is about “riffing” on ideas, sharing one’s thoughts on a topic, and trying to get certain ideas to “spark” for the listener. We will come back to the importance of that “spark” at the end of this blog.

So how to get students to buy into the Pecha Kucha format? First, it is important to recognize that a student is not coming into this process as tabula rasa. I have found my students are conditioned to a certain style of PowerPoint (see Tufte note above) since this is the experience they have had in the majority of their classes. This is not to say that most PowerPoint presentations are bad, merely that they have become disconcertingly familiar in discernable ways. Student slides evince a rote learner’s mentality: a consistent template (usually selected from the template menu in PowerPoint or Keynote); they are text-heavy; they tend to be bullet-point structures (though not necessarily following logical outlines or building in a consistent rhetorical direction). In terms of their use of images, things get worse in my experience. Students tend to use images or graphs as supporting elements only, frequently selecting images and clip arts from the first page of Google image search on any given topic. The images are mostly visual dressing for drab text, and seemingly interchangeable with any number of other good images. Students rarely (ever?) are asked to defend why they chose one image over another. If you ask most students, you will get the response, “I chose this image because I liked it.” And regardless of discipline, there tends to be limited critique or evaluation of the formal properties of slide presentations (use of color, font choices, image selections, template choice, etc.)

From my perspective, I approach Pecha Kucha as a meditation (in fact, as an example of meta-teaching) on the technique and art of presentation. There’s a good post by Jason Jones on his use of Pecha Kucha in his classes that we wrote about as part of the Chronicle’s Prof. Hacker Series. You can read that here: I agree with what Jason says in his article, but I do want to add a few things about Pecha Kucha that I picked up in my courses.

First, students need to be aware that this isn’t a “typical” PowerPoint presentation. I stress to my students that the 20 slides X 2o seconds format is particular to this style of presentation and that it will impose unique constraints on what they construct. But I really use this as a teachable moment: constraints are good. In fact, constraints frequently help liberate content and stimulate creativity. It forces the student to make thoughtful choices, not random choices.

Then I start by stressing what students should not do in a Pecha Kucha:

  1. Don’t use too much text
  2. Avoid bullet points
  3. Avoid reading directly from the slides
  4. Avoid images that don’t advance your topic or contribute meaningful visual information
  5. Avoid text-images relations that would take more than 20 seconds to digest (i.e. overly crowded slides will be a blur in a Pecha Kucha, unless you want to intentionally create a sense of “blur”)
  6. While a consistent slide design is good, avoid most PowerPoint templates. Neutral backgrounds and easy to read sans serif fonts are best.

Then I follow up with what students should consider in a good Pecha Kucha:

  1. Consider your 20 slides as 20 panels in a graphic storyline. How do your 20 “panels” flow together to create a cohesive statement or a consistent through-line.
  2. Consider the impact of text on your audience – Is there a single word or a short phrase that captures the essence of what you are saying in that 20 second time span? Frequently, a single word can be used metonymically — t0 “stand in” for your entire 20 seconds of information.
  3. Consider your images very carefully. In a Pecha Kucha, images are frequently the only information on the entire slide. Yes, visual data is just as valuable as textual data. A well-chosen picture is likely worth a thousand words. Why did you select that image? Did you manipulate an image you found to make it even more compelling and precise? Would it be better if you cropped the image? Is this image easy to substitute for another image? If so, have you truly considered why you selected this image and not the other one? How does this image connect to other images in your slide set?
  4. Don’t use slide transitions. Use direct cuts from slide to slide. Avoid all dissolves, and clever transitions like “curtains” or “barn doors.”
  5. Avoid sounds or video clips. There just isn’t time, and these features are just distracting in a Pecha Kucha. Your voice is your sound instrument in this presentation.
  6. What is your design style? What is connecting these 20 panels? Is there a similar textual strategy? A consistent visual design? Are you playing with or against audience expectations? Have you completely considered the arrangement of these 20 slides? Would your presentation change dramatically if the slide order was reversed, or changed in any way? If so, why did you select the order that you did?
  7. Rehearse your spoken remarks. 20 seconds is an amazing short period of time. Most students who do not practice end up speed-talking as the slides change over. A good Pecha Kucha is not about talking faster or talking over the wrong slide. Timing is of the essence of a good Pecha Kucha. Practice really helps. You will set the slideshow on automatic advance, so the slide will change in 20 seconds even if you don’t finish your remarks. Think about how your slides and your spoken remarks match up. They are two parts of a whole, and a successful Pecha Kucha is both well designed and well spoken. In many ways, you should consider yourself a performer, and you are attempting to deliver a compelling performance.

Once I address the “do’s” and “don’ts,” I move onto the objective of a Pecha Kucha. A Pecha Kucha is not an in-depth analysis of an issue. It is a practice started by designers to help creative people get to the point when they were presenting new architectural designs, for instance. It forces speakers to get to the point, making these presentations much faster paced, and much more evocative than a standard PowerPoint. What do I mean by “evocative?” I mean that you get the gist of something from a Pecha Kucha. It introduces ideas better than it analyzes them in depth. And in fact, this is one of the pleasant surprises of this mode of “chit chat.” It is actually quite hard to “chit chat” about something that you don’t really understand. To be concise and evocative means you have really done your homework, that you understand what you are presenting. A novice has trouble distilling information. I find that students who give strong Pecha Kuchas have done their research, have really distilled or “groked” ideas into an essence or a worldview. These are all higher level of intellectual behaviors according to Bloom’s taxonomy. To make a good Pecha Kucha, a student has to be able to analyze, evaluate, and create. In this regard, it is fun to consider how a Pecha Kucha reflects your point of view about a subject—this style of presentation is good at formulating points of view.

A few more aspects to consider:

  1. Like any set of student presentations, less is more. Even though each PK is only 6 minutes, 40 seconds long, I try to stagger PKs over several course meetings rather than have 5 or 6 in a row. I tend to find students can “lean forward” through about 4 PKs, or even 5, but by the 6th fast paced presentation, they start to tune out. So figure that into your syllabi and course planning to get the maximum attention out of PKs.
  2. PKs work well in teams of 2 or more. In my courses, I frequently have PKs that involve 2 students using the same constraint of 20×20. This means functionally that the PK is split into two 10×20 segments. Student teams can alternate slide by slide (the hardest version in my opinion) or split the presentation into two ten panel segments (much more workable for most students). This keeps the PK spirit alive, but let’s larger classes of students perform PKs without taking up too many class sessions. In order to make this option work, I usually let students meet at the end of a few classes for planning, but they usually still have to meet outside of class time to make team-based PKs really work.
  3. I believe one of the real benefits of PKs is to take advantage of the “leaning forward” student is paying attention and engaged by the event. Therefore, I like to build into my courses time for discussion and questions after a PK. In fact, I like the final slide of a PK to be a bit of a provocation to get students talking. And since PKs are very structured, I find it useful to have a time limit for discussion. Depending on class size and course schedule, I try for 6 minutes and 40 seconds of discussion (i.e. the same time for discussion as there was for presentation). Longer discussions works as well if the PKs are spread out over several class meetings, and/or replace other kinds of discussion-based learning (such as using PKs as a replacement for reading reports or project proposals)
  4. PKs tend to get better as students see what other students are doing. Since it will be new to many students, I tend to see more creativity and more willingness to “think outside the box” after the first few PKs of a semester.
  5. In my experience, students really like PK as a presentation style. The faster pace is quite appealing, but I think it tends to bring out the best in speakers. Even students who are a bit less polished as public speakers can use the 20×20 method to come across as a more organized speaker. And when you are talking in shorter bursts, I think many students can even use the PK style to build in a better sense of pausing and reflecting since they can take a breath or a moment as each slide changes on screen.

Finally, like any class assignment, there is plenty of room for experimentation and modification. The only true constraint is 20×20, but much of what I have been speaking about fits my pedagogy and my learning objectives. I know that other teachers may emphasize other types of argumentation and have different expectations regarding stylistic or formal concerns.

In closing, Pecha Kucha should be a fun activity in the classroom, but one that shouldn’t be treated lightly. PK doesn’t mean that anything goes. I find it is best suited to courses that are trying to get students to speak and act like experts on their disciplinary knowledge. This becomes a moment when they share something they know about a topic with their peers. And here is where I return to the idea of “spark.” The moment when PK becomes more than a presentation, students feel that they have “sparked” a good discussion, or brought in knowledge to the class that wasn’t there previously. It makes them co-mentors in the educational process, and that feeling goes a long way towards building deep and complex appreciation not only for course content, but why that course content is relevant to them and their peers. That moment can happen in any presentation, of course, but it seems especially well suited to the sound of conversation that emerges from a Pecha Kucha.