"It's creativity, Jim, but not as we know it": Authorship in the age of the remix

"It's creativity, Jim, but not as we know it": Authorship in the age of the remix

Carolyn Guertin: carolyn.guertin@gmail.com

Peer-reviewed by: Elton Fukumoto, Syracuse University College of Law; Daniel Paul O'Donnell, University of Lethbridge.

Accepting Editors: Mark A. McCutcheon, Athabasca University.


Abstract / Résumé

The remix demonstrates that creativity is alive and well, but also under attack by corporate copyright holders trying to shut down media sharing and remixed media. Artistry now lies in how pre-existing materials are remixed and rendered new; it is through acts of transformation of the original that the remix's value is found. Artists reuse other works to reveal or transmit political messages, and not simply to re-create them. The remix is not killing narrative but instead is fostering a transformation and renaissance of creative practice, outside of the legal boundaries of copyright. The criminalization of new kinds of creative practice is a growing barrier to the remix's creative renaissance. Remix reimagines pre-existing texts, plots and genres as a way of interrogating the future of culture, via digital collaborative authorship and a distinct remix aesthetic of interruption, disturbance, and capture/leakage.

Le remix démontre que la créativité est bel et bien vivante; mais qu'elle est aussi en butte à des attaques par les détenteurs de droits d'auteur des entreprises, qui tentent d'arrêter le partage de médias et des médias remixés. La pratique de l'art se trouve maintenant dans la façon dont les matériaux préexistants sont remixés et rendus neufs. C'est l'acte de transformer le matériel original qui contribue à la valeur du remixage. Les artistes réutilisent d'autres textes pour révéler et pour transmettre des messages politiques, et non pas tout simplement pour les recréer. Le remix ne tue pas la forme narrative; au contraire il favorise une transformation et une renaissance de la pratique créative, à l'extérieur des limites juridiques du droit d'auteur. La criminalisation des nouveaux types de cette pratique créative est un obstacle croissant à la renaissance créative du remix. Le remix réinvente les textes préexistants, aussi bien que les intrigues et les genres comme un moyen d'interroger l'avenir de la culture, et cela, par le biais de la paternité des travaux numériques réalisés en collaboration, et par une forme esthétique distincte du remix qui est basée sur l'interruption, les perturbations, la capture et les fuites.

Keywords / Mots Clés

Remix, creativity, copyright, authorship, Internet, video



Introduction

In contemporary networked cultures in the West, the relationship between originals and copies has been reversed. Where Renaissance artists used to create originals and their apprentices would spend years slavishly copying masterworks before they ever created anything from their own imagination, now the contemporary masters—known as remix artists—use pre-existing works (not just ideas) as building materials for new undertakings. The art of remix is not new (see McIntosh 2012, or Navas, Gallagher, and burrough 2015, for example). It went by many names in analogue forms including appropriation art in highbrow culture,[1] scratch video art in the U.K. in the 1980s (see Gorilla Tapes 1984; Duvet Brothers 1984), fan vidding in feminist participatory and queer cultures,[2] situationist détournement in French avant-garde culture,[3] and culture jamming in guerrilla media activism. This new modus operandi for art practice does not mark the end of creative practice so much as it reflects a genealogy of technologies that have made it easier and easier to make copies. As a result, copying—or, more precisely, the art known as remixing—has become a dominant vernacular aesthetic of the 21st century (cf. my earlier book-length study of this phenomenon, Guertin 2012). Everything digital is a copy of a copy (i.e. there are no originals as such because every pixel is constantly being replaced as it is saved and saved again to the hard drive or server); but it is only with the digital age that the perfect copy surfaces: that is, a copy with no originals. Historically, making copies of things was difficult and labour-intensive. This is one reason why artists' likenesses were so highly prized. Photography altered this complex creative process with the instantaneity of a shutter click. Appropriation art played with ideas, not just images, and, since digital technologies have made the whole history of human materials available to those who have access, the new artistry now lies in how pre-existing materials are remixed and rendered new. In a digital age, more than any other time before, 21st century digital culture is a remix culture.

Perfect replicability and "Narrative Collapse"

Postmodern stylings may have brought about the death of the author as Roland Barthes maintained (Barthes 1967), but it is the shifting terrain of increasingly strict copyright laws that is killing creativity. In fact in a digital age of perfect replicability, we might begin to question whether creativity even remains a useful concept. In a time when networked users (theoretically at least) have all recorded information in the history of the world available at the click of a mouse, creation threatens to become irrelevant—irrelevant because the Web demonstrates that nothing can no longer be anything new. Writer Douglas Rushkoff calls this "narrative collapse" a symptom of presentism or Present shock in his book of the same name (Rushkoff 2013, 9). Presentism, he says, is marked by five symptoms. These are narrative collapse, digiphrenia or the phase-shift of multitasking between flow and storage, overwinding or "springloading" complex events into small packages, fractalnoia or lateral shifts attempting to make sense of spaces that formerly would have been occupied by grand narratives, and apocalypto, a need for closure or a finale (Rushkoff 2013, 7). Seeking to revise and contrast Alvin Toffler's concept of futurism from the influential book Future shock (Toffler 1971), Rushkoff proposes that the abandonment of the old future-oriented, analogue culture has been accompanied by the embrace of an "always on" culture. Relentlessly present tense culture, he argues, is difficult for nondigital natives to adjust to because it is most concerned with the now, with inhabiting the current moment. Rushkoff's narrative collapse is marked by the decline and fall of the Aristotelian and other pre-digital models of narrative—which tended to argue for clear beginnings, middles and ends. In a post-millennial, media-saturated culture, attention spans have shortened under a crush of data, and in the wake of the loss of the ultimate American grand narrative of military invincibility, Rushkoff argues, narrative falls into a few major categories: diffused (like hypertext), networked (as in crowdsourcing), looping (as in infinite games), repetitive (formulaic genres like police procedurals), and compressed (such as sound bytes) or elongated (as in transmedia) narrative.

I would argue not for narrative's death as Rushkoff does, but for its transformation. Rushkoff's model is flawed because he uses only one genre—works of satire, like The Simpsons and Family Guy—as his example for all forms of narrative everywhere (2013, 25-27). In fact, narrative has undergone such a metamorphosis into a much more complex form in the last few decades that it is hard to recognize the new trappings of 21st century narrative stretched over the old bones. Narrative is no longer the terrain of a single storyteller, but spans multiple media and entire seasons of television programming or franchises of film serials. Outside of the mass media, 21st century narrative has become something participatory and complex that we might, for example, map, chart, and graph. Narrative has become so complex that we seek out communities and fan boards to discuss it, argue about it, and to pool our collective intelligence to (re)write it. Think, for example, of the increasing prevalence of tales with multiple media, plots and storylines, with the different parts distinct or even—as in the case of The Walking Dead—contradictory. Think about the popularity of shows made for binge viewing after their initial release that nest accordian narratives within the shows, and revel in the intricacies of complex narratives that encompass many characters and span an entire series, such as Lost or Heroes. Narrative has become, in the words of Henry Jenkins, "spreadable" (see Jenkins, Ford, and Green 2013).

Spreadable media

Jenkins sets the concept of spreadable media in opposition to Rushkoff's media virus or viral media and Richard Dawkins' memes (1976)—prior concepts that he finds misleading because they seem to impart power to passive circulation rather than to the creative use of the ideas to make new media or new narratives. Jenkins says, "ideas get transformed, repurposed, or distorted as they pass from hand to hand, a process which has been accelerated as we move into the realm of perfect copies within network culture. Arguably, those ideas which survive are those which can be most easily appropriated and reworked by a range of different communities" (Jenkins 2009a). This survival is ensured through spreadability via a constant cycle of user innovation and transformation within network culture. Unlike memes, which merely circulate,

a spreadable model assumes that the repurposing and transformation of media content adds value, allowing media content to be localized to diverse contexts of use. This notion of spreadability is intended as a contrast to older models of stickiness which emphasize centralized control over distribution and attempts to maintain 'purity' of message (Jenkins 2009a).

Jenkins uses the term spreadable media in contrast to its polar opposite, the corporate notion of 'sticky media'. Stickiness is about catching a consumer's attention and holding it. It is about how long a would-be client stays at a website. Stickiness is about compelling consumers to use a site in a particular way; it is about measurable metrics; it is about usage rather than interactivity (Jenkins 2009b). Spreadable media is about social interactions and (re)usage. It is not about consumption or passive use, but instead about production. Spreadable media assumes that we have agency over media, and it comes about as a result of the impulse we all have to tell stories and to create social networks.

Where Rushkoff sees the compression of elaborate narratives into short, episodic fragments that are the telltale signs of satirical forms exemplified by the likes of The Simpsons or Family Guy, he also mentions (but fails to see the significance of) the rise of technologically-driven more complex narratological structures that remix pre-existing material. Rushkoff, for example, cites the example from an episode of Family Guy called "Breaking out is hard to do" (Season 4; Episode 9). He says,

The show's gags don't even relate to the story or throughline (such as they are), but serve as detours that thwart or halt forward motion altogether. Rather than simply scripting pulp culture references into the scenes, Family Guy uses these references more as wormholes through which to escape from the temporal reality of the show altogether, often for minutes at a time, which is an eternity on prime-time television. In one episode the mom asks her son to grab a carton of milk "and be sure to take it from the back." Apropos of nothing, a black-and-white sketch of a man's hand pulls the child into an alternative universe of a-ha's iconic 1984 "Take On Me" music video. The child runs through a paper labyrinth with the band's front man for the better part of a minute before suddenly breaking through a wall and back into the Family Guy universe (Rushkoff 2013, 26-27).

Only, I would argue, it does in fact relate to what the character is experiencing. The episode is about Chris's mother Lois dealing with kleptomania. The part of the A-ha video that is remixed is about a character being pulled into a cartoon world where he (in this case; she in the original) is chased by the police for theft (not paying for a meal in the original). The segment is a Freudian segue that makes Chris's fears or nightmarish thoughts about his mother's behaviour actual or at least visible. Chris is already a cartoon character, but he gets pulled into another's narrative, a narrative that would resonate with his mother's generation as a consequence of her illegal acts. The clip also creates a time shift of 40-odd seconds for the not-so-childish viewer who recognizes the remixed clip and music, pulling us back into another moment in animation, media and time. Ultimately, this is an inclusive narrative that shatters the timeline, and an interactive narrative that is far more complex than simply the Family Guy episode or show we would expect. The active role is forged in the viewer as she makes the connections between the two stories—techniques familiar from sophisticated print narratives. It uses a full spectrum of popular culture references, remixed materials, and childhood and parental fears (about snatchings, about child molesters) to engage the viewer on multiple levels for an extended period. This example is not the death of narrative, but an example of how sophisticated contemporary readers are at reading threaded complexity in narrative. Neither Present shock nor the remix are killing narrative as Rushkoff claims; they are instead, I argue, fostering a renaissance.

Like narrative, the creative act, inflected and informed by digital technologies, is undergoing a metamorphosis driven by the remix as it moves into cultural, economic and political commentary. The remix demonstrates that creativity is alive and well, but it is also clearly under attack by corporate legal machines as copyright barons try to shut down media sharing and remixed media alike. The ability to create from pre-existing materials is increasingly restricted for individuals by changes to global copyright laws. Shows like Family Guy and The Simpsons are so popular because they use the methods of the remix within a satirical framework, which is a legal form of recycling and critiquing original digital materials. Satire, unlike other kinds of remixing, falls within the parameters of fair use. In fact though, not just satire, but all creative work builds on what has come before it, even if the lawyers of corporate copyright monopolies would have viewers think differently. Even appropriation, as an art form and a practice, has a history. Appropriation art has a long and well-documented tradition (cf. Guertin 2012) as a critique of representation as well as the cornerstone of any creative act. This process of intermingling old and new materials spans centuries in art, in architecture, and in literature—from the collaborative works of 'Homer' produced over generations to Shakespeare's fluid adaptations of historic tales to Melville's mashups to Helene Hegemann's social media-borrowings for her novel, Axolatl roadkill (Connolly 2012). And this practice has gone by many names over the centuries, including spolia (in reference to architecture), commonplace, merz, collage, readymade, bricolage, tweaking, intertext, sampling, mashup, plunderphonics, and postproduction. It was another writer, Oscar Wilde, who reputedly summed up the process as "talent borrows, genius steals." In fact, Wilde seems to have never actually said this, and similar quotes have been attributed to Leonardo Da Vinci, Pablo Picasso, Igor Stravinsky, William Faulkner, Lionel Trilling, and Steve Jobs—who in some cases merely remixed the original. The original source seems to have been W. H. Davenport who said, in 1892, that "'to imitate' was commendable, but 'to steal'…unworthy" (Quote Investigator 2013); T.S. Eliot seems to be the source for the reversal of Davenport's idea that is so often quoted:

[In] "The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism" [1920], …[Eliot] presented his own version of the maxim. Eliot interchanged the terminology used by Davenport by suggesting that: "to imitate" was shoddy, and "to steal" was praiseworthy. This change moved the expression closer to the modern incarnation employed by Steve Jobs:

One of the surest of tests is the way in which a poet borrows. Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different from that from which it was torn; the bad poet throws it into something which has no cohesion. A good poet will usually borrow from authors remote in time, or alien in language, or diverse in interest (Quote Investigator 2013; see also McCutcheon 2012, 85).

It is through the act of transformation or decomposition of the original that the remix's value is found.

Decomposition

Remixing has been defined as the "transgressive and critical manipulation of media technologies" (McLeod and Kuenzli 2011, 13). This manipulation is not so much composition as it is what French theorist Bruno Latour would call "compositionism." In "An attempt at a Compositionist manifesto," Latour writes that the term composition "underlines that things have to be put together…while retaining their heterogeneity" (Latour 2010, 474). Compositionism, he says,

carries with it the pungent but ecologically correct smell of 'compost,' itself due to the active 'de-composition' of many invisible agents. […] Above all, a composition can fail and thus retains what is most important in the notion of constructivism… It thus draws attention away from the irrelevant difference between what is constructed and what is not constructed, well or badly composed. What is to be composed may, at any point, be decomposed. (Latour 2010, 474)

To Latour, this act of decomposition is the reverse of a critique. As Guy Debord and the Situationists argued in their theoretical writings and practices, critique is problematic because it stands always already in opposition, never on its own. Critique is not creative, but destructive:

The difference is not moot, because what performs a critique cannot also compose. It is really a mundane question of having the right tools for the right job. With a hammer (or a sledge hammer) in hand you can do a lot of things: break down walls, destroy idols, ridicule prejudices, but you cannot repair, take care, assemble, resassemble, stitch together (Latour 2010, 475).

Remixing both takes apart and reassembles. It uses the original digital file as a building block from which a transformation so startling happens that something new is created. So, for instance, Chris Rule's Scary Mary is not just a revisitation of the Disney film Mary Poppins, but in fact a whole alternative narrative of a horror film about a nanny with dark powers—a film that might have been born of a darker imagination in a different time period (Rule 2006). It is a film that we might even want to see, but instead only need the 1 minute, 7 second long trailer because the original is already familiar. That is why Rule's remix has had 14.8 million views on YouTube (as of July 2015). This spreadable form of remix mastery is not easily replicated either. Another master remixer, Pogo (Nick Bertke), notes that both he and Addictive TV have had corporate "copycats" seek to imitate their craft. Pogo says,

I've seen many agencies now try to copy what it is we do, but their failure is always in the assumption that it's a formula to be mimicked and not an artwork that in fact took many weeks of craft and musical composition. The result of that assumption is generally nothing more than a messy, meaningless edit with neither soul nor sense that was probably formulated by 20 board members in an afternoon (Pogo 2013a).

Remixes sometimes mimic the media themselves (as we will see with Israeli artist Omer Fast's work) as well as adapt content to explore alternate threads embedded in a pre-existing work. Artists reuse other works to reveal or transmit political messages, and not simply to re-create them. A famous example is filmmaker Jöhan Soderberg's Endless love (2002), which was created for a Swedish television show named Kobra. (Endless love might even be a remix of sorts of another remix: Gorilla Tapes 1984, which explores the metaphor of an illicit love affair between Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher as represented by their sympathetic political agendas). A lipsynched remix of news footage of President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Endless love uses the sugary ballad by Lionel Richie and Diana Ross to present their military alliance in the wake of September 11th as a love affair. This is not reusing, but reseeing. It invites us into the conjunction of familiar material (both visual and auditory) to reassess their political alliance in a new light. That retelling is critical, deeper, and more multilayered than critique, asking us to rethink the original through the new. In these next few pages, I will explore the renaissance of creative practice outside of the legal boundaries of copyright, and discuss several digital reimaginings of pre-existing plots and genres as a way of interrogating the future of culture via digital collaborative authorship. I will focus on three artists in particular: the British electronic duo Addictive TV, the Australian pair known as Soda_Jerk, and Israeli artist Omer Fast. Their videos can be seen as new models for digital creative practice. These artists' works are collaborative models of authorship that use the three creative aesthetic techniques of the remix explored in Guertin (2012). These techniques are interruption, disturbance, and data capture/leakage.

Creativity and copyright

The contemporary remix is a revisitation of the traditional metatext with actual copies of its forebearer(s) interwoven. It was ostensibly born with the arrival of video and video recorders, but the cognitive and literal practice of remixing is clearly as old as culture—as can be seen in both musical and storytelling practices from fairy tales to folk music to Homer. Humans have always thought visually as the prevalence of descriptive language, metaphors, and symbols in artistic output demonstrates, and now we can create in this mode as well with digital tools. YouTube-quality digital video is what Jean Burgess calls "a vernacular creativity," a practice like scrapbooking, journaling and family photo albums. These videos are ordinary

cultural practices that perhaps we don't normally think of as creative, because we've become so used to thinking of creativity as a special property of genius-like individuals, rather than as a general human—some would say—evolutionary process. … there is much about the current explosion of amateur content creation online that has a long history, that isn't particularly revolutionary, and that relates to specific local contexts and identities. Vernacular creativity is ordinary (quoted in Jenkins 2007).

This is an outpouring of ordinary creative energy that, by 2014, translates into 300 hours of new video uploaded to YouTube every minute (Brouwer 2014). Being a vernacular, it is a participatory and complex chorus of voices. With one billion users of YouTube and Facebook every month, this is a symptom of a class Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri call "the multitude." And this is what they argue the multitude does on a daily basis: it occupies a space of "constant innovation" in order to produce cultural products (Hardt and Negri 2004, 193). These products are intellectual property, regardless of who owns the copyright of the original, i.e. foundational, materials. The underlying original ideas of intellectual property challenge and undercut the adapted, borrowed and recycled ideas of the remix, just like Western capitalism's purloining from other cultures. Copyright law, which was designed to protect publishers not authors (Bennett 2005, 51), defers to the owner of the copyright, not the cultural framework in which the idea arose or (necessarily) the individual who had it. Unlike remix culture (which is illegal and therefore free culture), copyright wants intellectual property to be a profit-driven venture.

Intellectual property as a concept was implemented originally as a way of fostering and protecting creative practice and innovation through privatization. Instead, increasingly draconian and counter-intuitive copyright "reforms" have privileged corporations over individual creators, and put private property and the public domain in a chokehold (cf. Guertin 2012). Copyright was first introduced in North America in 1790, but it was not criminalized until 1897 in the United States, according to the Harvard Law Review, when the concept of intent was introduced into the law. This brought jail time of up to one year with it. In 1909, fines of $100 to $1000 were added to a possible jail sentence. The entire copyright act was revised in 1976 legislating the destruction of equipment and materials, and adding fines of up to $10,000 and $25,000 for the infringement of films; repeat offenders could be saddled with $50,000 fines and a two-year jail sentence. The concept of financial gain was introduced as a motive that would colour the severity of the sentencing. Various revisions were added to the laws increasing the severity of the punishment until 1992 when counterfeiting and piracy became felonies for the duplication of as few as 10 copies. This could carry with it a jail time of 10 years and fines of up to a quarter million dollars. The largest challenge for the copyright enforcers though was the fact that most so-called pirates were in fact practicing vernacular creativity for fun rather than for profit. Since the late 1990s, peer-to-peer filesharing has been dealt with via harsher and harsher measures, as with the shutting down of Napster and the persecution of Aaron Swartz. The Harvard Law Review states:

The digital era has witnessed the rise of a new type of pirate, against whom it is often impossible to enforce criminal copyright provisions. Anyone can now commit major copyright infringement because of the widespread accessibility of copying technology and the technology's ability to make perfect reproductions. Furthermore, the development of the hacker culture, in which people seem to abuse intellectual property as a means of challenging authority and showing off their expertise, has created a group of infringers who are not seeking to make a profit, thus making traditional criminal copyright laws inapplicable (Harvard Law Review 1999, 1712).

In fact, the act of privatizing creative works erects a barrier not to copying, but to creation. Privatization privileges existing creators (often massive multimedia multinational conglomerates) over the new. This is not just about creative practice and innovative works being choked to death, but about the silencing of a whole generation as it becomes illegal to reuse raw cultural materials to create new culture. The creative class or multitude has risen up in protest of these corporate reinventions of the cultural sphere, most visibly in the guise of the global protest culture, including Anonymous and the #OCCUPY movement. We can see this push-pull philosophy play itself out politically as well: "Tea Partiers mean to wipe out the chaotic confusion of a world without definitive stories; the Occupiers mean to embed themselves within it so that new forms may emerge" (Rushkoff 2013, 55). Those new forms are new structural ways of making and telling stories. As the privatization of intellectual property threatens the public sphere where ideas and objects are shared and used in common, the multitude's resistant and relentless creative energies are by contrast networked, communicative, collaborative and cooperative. It is this practice that is producing a new kind of culture, according to Hardt and Negri (2004, xv), and that is facilitating a new model of creative appropriation.

Digital narrative has always juggled this inherent tension between private property and public space, between particular medium and fluid storylines. Narrative, as it has been idealized, seeks the long arc of the fly fisherman, a forward-reaching trajectory that carries us forward, hooks us and reels us back in. This polar nature is always a seesaw, with the fragmentary nature of the digital stuttering and stopping the fluid nature of the story's forward momentum. This forward trajectory may have always been something of a myth, as stories rock us forward and backwards in time and place. But, it can also be said that there is no grey area for digital narrative: the end product of narrative collapse and complexity are stutterers. They stop and start, reflecting back upon their own creation and their source(s). They are self-referential and repetitive, interrupting themselves to stop and repeat their message or meaning. They create a disturbance, by way of making a political statement, questioning a prevailing philosophy or the status quo or a corporate image. They push and pull, performing both data capture and leakage. The more tightly information has been controlled, the more likely it is to be remixed and re/released out into the dataflow. And as a digital medium, they are inherently metatextual, visual and sonic, rather than leaning on the primary medium of their forebearers, the textual or the oral.

As metatexts, sampled or remixed digital artworks enable the ability to talk back to the mass media and to corporate culture through a variety of stuttering and repetitive techniques. Original materials delete, circle back on, recontextualize, compress or stretch existing footage to create new emphasis on the process of creation and critique rather than on the recycled content. The act of sampling is an active critique of cultural artifacts, consumerism, copyright, and of digital tools themselves. Sampling can also introduce a musicality too, of course, and a rhythmic undertone that emphasizes particular elements of a work. So, for example, Pogo's What I Likes (Pogo 2013b) becomes an entirely new updated, electronic music version of Disney's Mary Poppins; Pogo composes with images and transforms the original soundtrack through sonic hiccups, coughs and stutters to produce a startlingly original reading of not just musical numbers from the film, but of the underlying music in the original script and audiotrack.

Pogo's technique has its antecedents in music sampling (which consists of taking bits and pieces from pre-existing works and recombining them; see Oswald 1985) and the kind of composition that veejays do on the fly in clubs from archived or previously edited material—a kind of live audio and video composition as a mediated musical performance. Both sampling and the arrival of the veejay predate the digital, but these techniques only went mainstream with personal computers. Hip-hop music began with vinyl and techniques that are now called turntablism (see Rose 1994 for a discussion of the rhythmic and rhymed storytelling methods of this vernacular form) before samplers and synthesizers engendered electronic and industrial music in the 1980s and beyond. Rave culture popularized veejays' digital compositions, but it was YouTube that gave these compositions a mass audience and social media that put the tools of creation in everyone's hands. Celebrity performers have arisen out of this culture, like Girl Talk and Addictive TV (and it hasn't stopped a lowbrow version from flourishing either: see the compilation of small screen versions of Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho in Whyte 2010). Addictive TV hails from Britain and they produce extremely polished and professional work. Beam Up The Bass is one of their most polished and popular performance pieces.

Using the trademark weird science effects of the series, including communicators, phasers, and transporters as musical beats, and pairing them with some of the worst scenes from the series, they create a wickedly funny commentary on media and communications themselves. By toying with the sounds and protocols of ship communications, they explore telephony, noise, and broadcast. They also render James T. Kirk's preparations for his fight scene with the Zork as a percussive musical interlude revolving around much repetitive stick banging. Stutters and idiotically bad lines get repeated over and over as rhythmic stammers (Guertin 2012, 144).

Addictive TV is clearly not attempting to steal the ideas or plot or characters of the Star Trek franchise, but instead to hitch a ride on their familiarity. It uses the classic Trek images and sound effects (transporter, lift, switches, buttons, phasers) as beats to make them musical. Beam Up The Bass is representative of the spreadability of a particular kind of YouTube aesthetic that incorporates a pre-existing complex narrative, complete even with characters, yet rejects any attempt at a plot of its own. Instead it choreographs the interruptions of many recognizable psychedelic bits, little stuttering fragments and audio bytes in favor of a composition that is pulsing and danceable. The repetition is a kind of rhythm designed for a rave or for gyrating, but it is also an act of affection for the original material. Beam Up The Bass expresses its preoccupation with shipboard communications, with signals, with channels, with information made tangible. Something different and apart than a critique, it is the inversion that Latour talks about (Latour 2010, 474). It is a compositionist act that constructs and deconstructs, it assembles and disassembles, it creates and undermines all at the same time. As Paul Miller a.k.a. DJ Spooky says it is a form in which "[s]ound and image divorce and reconfigure before they reunite in the mix" (Miller 2004, 22). The recognizable material interrupts us and catches our attention.

Even as laws and sentences for copyright infringement become ever more strict for creating from recycled digital raw materials, the practice of remixing continues to grow. What is ignored, misunderstood or misrepresented by the legal system and corporate copyright owners is that in the new medium the image is not the point: the borrowed image is neither subject nor object. The remixed work is not a product, but a process. It is a dynamic work that invites us to step inside and engage with the ideas that emerge from the reuse of pre-existing materials.

Some of these ideas form a distinct set of culture-making and -mixing methods that I have theorized as a new "aesthetics of appropriation" (2012, 37). Three key methods of this digital remix aesthetic are interruption, disturbance, and capture/leakage.

Interruption: Stop and repeat

Recognizable images seen and seen again are interruptions designed to catch our eyes and attention; like a musical refrain or chorus, they keep reminding us of what we are seeing and where it originally came from. These repetitions call up a host of associations that plug us in still further to the recycled material before our eyes and ears. The stop, repeat, rinse action invite us to critically engage with the material, for, reseeing is also rethinking: the site of critical awareness. According to Giorgio Agamben, it is in the pause between the seeing and the knowing that the power of the remix lies (Agamben 2008, 332). In Digital prohibition, I explain:

It is the datastream in conjunction with documentation that is the 'new' original work. In a time when remixing, sampling, and mashups have become the definitive creative acts, the seminal component on which the critique hangs is the interruption or stoppage. It is in the rupture, pause, and repetition that works of art are now being born. 'Stoppage' and 'repetition' – the terminology of Italian political philosopher Giorgio Agamben – are the spark that give birth to critical awareness. It is in that hesitation between image and meaning that the power of the remix is unleashed. It is in the hinge between stoppage and repetition that a door is opened for the reader or spectator to insert herself and become an active participant (Guertin, 2012, 51; see Agamben, 2008, 332).

The hesitation births active intervention in the act of seeing/hearing. In Beam Up The Bass, we look and look anew at the familiar images and faces as they become restructured as syntactical and grammatical elements. This new vernacular allows us to see differently, exposing structural elements that would have been invisible if new material got in the way as subject of the piece. The disjointed segments are linked not through sequence, but only through our memory. And even visual meaning fades and is lost as the Enterprise crew "lose the picture" and are frozen in a state of expectation as they await Captain Kirk's return (Addictive TV 2011).

Figure 1: In Addictive TV's 2002 video remix, the Enterprise crew members "lose the picture" and are frozen in a state of expectation as they await Captain Kirk's return. (Still-frame image from Beam Up The Bass used with permission of Addictive TV.)

In Addictive TV's 2002 video remix, the Enterprise crew members
                                    lose the picture and are frozen in a state
                                of expectation as they await Captain Kirk's return. (Still-frame
                                image from Beam Up The Bass used with
                                permission of Addictive TV.)

Disturbance

The second of remix culture's aesthetic methods, disturbance, seeks to undermine consumerism's suffocating presence and methods. As a political alternative to legal forms of creative practice, disturbance brings together rhetoric and aesthetics in a bid to keep resistance alive. Its goal is to unite the critique and the event, making the political undercurrents of events and actions visible. This plays out as a literal political strategy in tactical media groups concerned with copyright, as for example in the works of Electronic Disturbance Theatre, but it is also an embedded aesthetic in remixed works themselves. While you might not think Beam Up the Bass is overtly political, its disturbance is a self-referential one. It is concerned with the parameters of its own frame and with how the picture is rendered, with technology and with what happens when the image is slowed down and repeated so many times that it is, after a fashion, no longer visible. It is repeated so many times that we see its frame and hesitations instead of its content.

In an age of digital media, aesthetic objects are being replaced by socially mediated aesthetic events or hacks like Beam Up the Bass. Hollywood Burn (formerly known as Pixel Pirate 2: Attack of the Astro Elvis Video Clone) is just such an aesthetic and rhetorical disturbance (Soda_Jerk 2011). Created (it claims) by the "sworn enemies of copyright," it depicts their foe as the file and video security office and MGM, not the movie studio but its literal embodiment in "Metro-Goldwyn Moses." It starts with the Universal logo transformed into "Universal Piracy." Then, in the pyramidal style of classic Star Wars opening credits, it announces that, in the year 3001, a secret army of pixel pirates or "super elite fighting men whose weapons are the most powerful pirate tapes science can devise" will arrive. Their mission is "to preserve freedom and justice" by battling copyright enforcement. Their secret weapon is an Elvis clone who, as a pirated copy, is impervious to the counterattacks of the copyright office. This 52-minute video was created by the brothers Dan and Dominique Angeloro, collectively known as Soda_Jerk, over a 10-year period with Sam Smith. They use sampling as a way of critiquing the contemporary drive to create through what would be dubbed piracy if they were selling this work, and through questioning copyright enforcement practices. The first sampled feature film, Hollywood Burn uses more than 300 samples from B sci-fi and action movies, Biblical epics and other films. The video is about three characters: an evil tyrant, Moses (played by Charleton Heston), an antiquated law, a.k.a. copyright, and the freedom fighter, anti-piracy crusader, a cloned Elvis Presley. Moses is the Copyright Commander and is the arch-rival of a band of video pirates, based on the moon, crusading for creative liberty. Waging war against his oppressive Commandments, Elvis is the sampler's hero. Elvis is beamed into the future from 1955, and, when angry, he turns green and metamorphosizes into the Incredible Hulk to fight for the future of video. Waging battle against the pantheon of classic television and film characters, Elvis-Hulk takes on Luke Skywalker, the Karate Kid, Lara Croft, Bette Davis and others to ultimately assassinate Moses. After himself being defeated by the Ghostbusters, Elvis borrows a resurrection from the Biblical epic genre and, after three days, rises from the tomb. Christ-Elvis then crusades for creative practice and remixing as the vital spark of humanity. With the aid of computer-driven robots, Elvis kills Moses to end his war against pirated materials. The Pixel Pirates are disturbances in the flood of data who want free access to digital materials. If they don't get it, they will "hack the planet," as Elvis turns green and Hulks his way across the screen.

Capture/Leakage

The third aesthetic method, data capture/leakage, is a distribution model: material is captured and then, remediated and released for reviewing. Capture/leakage is a process not a product, and, as a performance of information, it is the documentation of the event that ultimately matters. In a time when the American National Security Agency long operated in secret to capture every online keystroke and to listen in on all phone calls, hacktivists like Julian Assange and Edward Snowden strive to make the documentation of these acts and processes visible. These hacktivists set out to make the trajectories of power behind the scenes perceptible. Wikileaks, Openleaks, Anonymous are the highest profile and therefore most visible types of whistleblowers, but hacktivists are everywhere. Cryptographic software codes (which disguise a user's identity) are increasingly important to uploaders of information who wish to remain unknown. The process of documentation in the dynamic of capture and leakage goes against the grain in a time of surveillance and secrecy, and that is one reason among many why Wikileaks and Assange, for example, have been dealt with so severely.

The three methods of political action and aesthetic engagement—interruption, disturbance, and (data) capture/leakage—are all participatory and nonvisual. Seeking not (simply) to critique, they are a call to action. This is why the use of familiar images in remixes is so important. The remix cuts to the chase. The interruption stops us in our tracks—hails or interpellates us, in Louis Althusser's terminology (1970/1971)—and requires us to puzzle out the relationship between the old image and the current content. Beam Up The Bass is about both the capture and release (or leakage) of familiar images. It is through their performance, as a form of documentation of a protest, that the act of transgression is committed. For, this and other remix works are illegal art under current copyright laws. They cannot be sold unless royalties have been paid for each image or clip. Acquiring those permissions is a Herculean if not impossible task. Even though Hollywood Burn and Beam Up The Bass are clearly transformations of the original works (which should be legal under the principles of fair use) they work with perfect copies of copyrighted materials and current copyright enforcement practices deem this kind of creative work illegal. It does not seem to matter how unreasonable, illogical or just plain crazy corporate methods of enforcing these laws are, what Soda_Jerk especially tries to do is make that craziness explicit and takes it to its logical extreme, rerouting logic in surprising ways. They do not simply negate, but reuse materials to write a manifesto in the name of copyright reform. At Soda_Jerk's website, they describe themselves as using "audiovisual sampling to create speculative narratives that review and interrogate historical events and cultural trajectories. By atomising and reassembling recorded culture they aim to manufacture counter-mythologies of the past that open new possibilities for thinking the present" (Soda_Jerk n.d.; cf. Guertin 2012, 145).

Art critic Christiane Paul has observed that the work of digital art has different standards than those of traditional art forms as it "takes instant copying, without degradation of quality from the original, for granted" (Paul 2008, 28). She goes on to say that

Digital technologies add an extra dimension to the composite and collage, for disparate elements can be blended more seamlessly, with the focus being on a 'new', simulated form of reality rather than on the juxtaposition of components with a distinct spatial or temporal history. Digital collages and composites often constitute a shift from the affirmation of boundaries to their erasure (Paul 2008, 30).

But where the drive in Western art has been precisely this kind of quest for merging the boundaries of art and reality (according to Jack Burnham in Paul 2008, 30), the low-brow remix aesthetic seeks to highlight the edges and preserve the artifice in the boundaries between the components, keeping the original visible.

This conceptual strategy informs Soda_Jerk's practical methodology where sampling becomes a means of synthesizing space-times to create alternate historical realities. Cloned Elvis is a man out of time, and Hollywood Burn is a form of radical historiography that preserves artifice while bringing together research, documentary and speculative fiction (Soda_Jerk).

By rethinking the whole process of creation through copied materials, Soda_Jerk produces witty and seamless multilayered sampled videos with the labor-intensive process of frame-by-frame image masking. Always in the foreground of this illegal film is the problem of copyright. None of the samples have been cleared—and once a videotape replaces Kubrik's staid monolith on the moon or Elvis' face is superimposed over Heston-as-Moses'—they feel it is not likely that the corporations would be willing to allow this sort of manipulation (Guertin 2012, 157).

Many of the film's connections are made through a visual iconography, like the red 1966 Thunderbird, that surfaces from a variety of films, including classic Elvis romps and Thelma and Louise. These visual links are threads that connect past and future, just as turntablism becomes the universal language in this work that speaks across the centuries to posit the possibility of a conversation between the past and the future.

The ability to capture and leak information without degradation is taken for granted in Omer Fast's work too, but in this case the very innocuous familiarity of the evening news is mined for unwritten messages as the television becomes haunted by psychotic voices. His work stands apart from the first two works as more highbrow by design—if not in nature—because Fast is a gallery artist, whereas Addictive TV produces works for dance clubs and Pixel Pirates produce for the indie film circuit. Fast's compelling remix of news anchors, CNN concatenated (2002), draws breaths, pauses, words and expressions from a massive database of more than 10,000 clips to deliver a paranoid rendition of the unspoken messages we hear on television. The anchors' words are a barrage of feelings of low-self esteem, of despair, of depression, of suicidal and murderous thoughts. The anxiety-generating mainstream media definitely contributes to negative attitudes, but this is the first time that their screen has talked directly to its intended audience. Bad news is overwhelming, and Fast manipulates this so that the subtext becomes the main message, uttered by pundits, each of whom speaks only one word, or pause for breath, at a time:

This is CNN. Listen to me. [Breath.] There's a few more things that you need to hear. [Breath.] Don't talk. [Breath.] Don't move. [Breath.] Don't even react. [Breath.] Actually, don't do anything at all. [Breath.] Just get near me already, you hypocritical opportunist, fake, phony, con artist, sellout, lip-serving, limousine liberal, white chicken shit mother fucker. [Breath.] What's the matter? [Breath.] Have I hurt your feelings already? [Breath.] Can't you speak? [Breath.] Can't you say anything? [Breath.] Have you lost your voice all of a sudden? [Breath.] Maybe you never had anything to say to begin with. [Breath.] Has that occurred to you? [Breath.] Well. [Breath.] Let me tell you something. [Breath.] You are shallow and weak. [Breath.] You are constantly criticizing everything, but the truth is you have never produced anything of enduring significance, and now you're finding out just how inconsequential your opinions have been all along (Fast 2002).

The power of the media is to become the voices inside viewers' heads, speaking insecurities, hopes, dreams, paranoid delusions. Fast's 18-minute video demonstrates that in an age of information overload, all data, every remark or gesture is subject to capture and observation. At the same time, the desire for secrecy is a trap. The more tightly data is controlled, the greater the possibility that it will spill out like toxic waste into a sensitive information environment. The greater the desire to see information and make it visual and visualizable, then the more volatile, complex and interactive information space becomes. And the more active the creative population becomes.

In Multitude, Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt argue that the spillage, the excess value of the tremendous surplus of passionate commitment, hands-on knowledge, real world experience and raw intelligence will drive the tides of change toward a new shore of being and working in the world. We have already seen the beginnings of this powerful force as the creative class has applied fresh ideas to drive the #OCCUPY Movement, Idle No More and the Arab Spring (to name a few contemporary examples of emergent political formations) to change the status quo. The criminalization of new kinds of creative practice, however, is one of the big barriers in the way of the flowering of a remixed creative renaissance. According to Hardt and Negri, privatization is the problem, for "[w]hen communication is the basis of production, then privatization immediately hinders creativity and productivity" (Hardt and Negri 2004, 185). The new laws that define different kinds of creators—corporate versus individual or group—are a barrier to thinking outside of consumerism. Networked DIY cultures—that include remix culture—are forces that are more and more defined as being deliberately in opposition to corporate policing practices around copyright laws. Such is the nature of digital resistance in a material world. Interruption, disturbance and capture/leakage all enable particular kinds of fluid and participatory political action, rather than mere critique. This massive creative shift is being fueled by new technologies and new movements, and, in the process, they are recreating authorship. As art critic Antonio Caronia says, "[t]he very moment when the availability of technologies for production and publication soars the number of images creators [sic], the figure of the author staggers. When everyone produces media, hence becoming a media 'author', there is no author anymore" (Caronia 2010). While this is true, storytelling itself is also expanding to support new structures and new kinds of authorship, including crowdsourcing, storification, cinemagraphs, and Zeegas. It just remains to be seen who wins the copyright wars.


Notes

[1] Avant-garde art also has a history of gallery based experimental remix works, both pre- and post-digital, by prominent artists like Sherrie Levine, Kenneth Susnal, Douglas Gordon, Chris Marker, and Candice Breitz (cf. Guertin 2012). Appropriation art itself can be dated back to at least Sumerian culture. For the long view on appropriation art and spolia (as decontextualized reuse was called in Antiquity), see Brilliant and Kinney 2011. For a look at more recent highbrow art practices, see Evans 2009.

[2] See, for instance, the work of Kandy Fong, the creator of fan vidding, a feminist fan convention genre with her Spock-themed slideshow at a Star Trek Convention in 1975 (Coppa 2007) and appropriation artists Media Cannibals, particularly their remix of "Detachable Penis" (Media Cannibals 1997). As I have documented at length (in Guertin 2012), Joseph Cornell probably deserves the title of first fan vidder with his 1936 recut of East of Borneo called Rose Hobart (Cornell 1936).

[3] The most celebrated Situationist filmmaker was Guy Debord, but René Viénet's work is also notable (Viénet 1977).


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