Disorganized Remix Primer 2: Remix as Communities

This primer makes no claim to expertise or authoritative knowledge. Rather, it is a compilation of interesting cultural objects that partake in different, yet related, forms of “derivative” or “appropriative” creativity that could generally be defined as “remix.” Have a favorite video, audio recording, or other artifact not included in this primer? Leave a link in the comments!

So, you know those videos on YouTube of folks, alone with a webcam, showing off their mad guitar/drum/harmonica/vuvuzela skillz? Or those “learn how to play a guitar/drum/harmonica/vuvuzela videos? Israeli musician Kutiman took countless YouTube videos of just those sort, as well as other uploaded videos of musicians, singers and dancers, and mixed the video and audio into a seven track piece titled Thru-you. (All his sources are linked on the project’s website.) What I find particularly astonishing about this piece is the way in which Kutiman created a communities of artistry through his sampling. In the first track, “The Mother of All Funk Chords,” different videos are played against each other in such a way as to create a literal conversation between the videos. It is as though the viewer has stumbled across a trans-geographic and trans-temporal jam session.

One of the primary virtues of the remix genre is how it enables the creation of communities: both communities of remix artists and communities of artists whose work is being remixed. The chance that the original creators of Kutiman’s source material would have encountered each other is vanishingly small. For the most part, each source video is, in and of itself, a creative endpoint: a non-interactive, non-generative artifact. Thru-you spurns on that generatively and interactive potential by forcing the work into an active and creative conversation with its fellows. It informs the works and the creators that they are members of a community. Moreover, by painstakingly citing and linking to its source material, Thru-you enables its viewer to join the same creative community by revealing what were formerly final performances (the original source videos) as creative tools.

The next trio of videos inspired similar thoughts about the nature of community in remix culture, but of a slightly different nature. Honestly, the “Lisztomania” Bratpack phenomenon could fuel more analysis than I has space for here, but here goes. Here is what happened:

In May of 2009 the French alternative band Phoenix releases the album, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix. It’s pretty fabulous. “Lisztomania” it its first track.
Sometime after that (the timeline is muddled because the original video has been taken down) YouTube user avoidantconsumer (account currently suspended for TOU violations) posted this tribute video:


31 May 2009: YouTube user thepinkbismuth posts this “tribute to the tribute”:

18 November 2009: YouTube user chinorockwell posts this (at this point) tribute to a tribute to a tribute:

Since then, videos have been posted from Amsterdam, Paris, Winnipeg, and elsewhere.

These videos are all part of the same community, joined together by virtue of the content they are producing, the conversation they are having (there are also several videos commenting on that conversation in and of itself). While the community typified by Thru-you is one of sources created/curated by an artist, the community here is one created by the remix artists themselves. By choosing to reinterpret the same content, they are declaring themselves part of the same community. The cost of entry to this community is a video camera and a YouTube account. Permission does not need to be asked to join the conversation (though, as we can see in the case of avoidantconsumer, active participation can be revoked by a specific third party).

Avoidantconsumer’s original work can be easily slide into the sub-genre of mashup: a derivative work meant to force a comparison or conflict between a small number of sources. In this case, we have the iconic imagery of John Hughes bratpack films from the 1980s against Phoenix’s hit song. So what, then, are all the subsequent videos? They are no longer only commenting on the source material, in fact, by their video performance they are obliterating half of it. Instead, the commentary is now on the commentary or as thepinkbismuth puts it, a “tribute to the tribute.” The source material has been transcended, the community and the conversation itself has become the focus and the primary virtue and joy for those involved.

Disorganized Remix Primer 1: Speech-Based Remix

This primer makes no claim to expertise or authoritative knowledge. Rather, it is a compilation of interesting cultural objects that partake in different, yet related, forms of “derivative” or “appropriative” creativity that could generally be defined as “remix.” Have a favorite video, audio recording, or other artifact not included in this primer? Leave a link in the comments!

The Symphony of Science is an ongoing project headed by John Boswell, an electronic musician based in Washington. Boswell combines original compositions, still images, video, and the speech of famous scientists (both unaltered, and processed using the “auto-tune” technique, which more-or-less exaggerates the tonal cadences of normal speech using a computer program) to produce music videos celebrating science and scientific exploration. So far, six music videos have been produced, and the samples used have come from sources such as Cosmos, Stephen Hawking’s Universe, The Eyes of Nye,, and The Elegant Universe

By making scientific speech musical, Boswell taps into a wealth of whimsy and playfulness that is often at the heart of the best of scientific research (“these are some of the things that molecules do…”). The musical speech anchors the scientific and philosophical speech in the mind in a way that would be impossible were it simply spoken.

Boswell is not the only remix artist using auto-tune techniques to play with the power of human speech. The best work of Auto-Tune the News has illustrated, much better than any public speaking textbook, the close connections between skilled rhetoric and musical performance.

On the other side of the “found speech” coin is Revolucian‘s club mix of Christian Bale’s infamous on-set freak out, mirrored with a similar incident involving Barbara Streisand. Unlike the work of Boswell or Auto-Tune the News, Revolucian leaves the tonal content of the found tracks intact, choosing instead to play the rhythmic cadences of Bale’s and Streisand’s speech off themselves. The piece exploits generated and perceived conflict between the two “singers,” satirizing both the personalities and the initial incidents (both of which were publicized via leaked videos at the time).

Helene Hegemann

A week ago, the New York Times ran an article about the curious case of Helene Hegemann, a seventeen-year-old author whose first book, Axolotl Roadkill, landed at number five on Der Spiegal’s best-seller list and was a finalist for the Leipzig Book Fair fiction prize, which comes with a $20,000 prize purse.

It’s now been revealed that sections of Axolotl Roadkill were copied from other published sources, most notable a novel, Strobo,” by Airen. But (dramatic twist!), it appears that the judges panel for the Leipzig Book Fair had been informed of the plagiarism charges before Hegemann’s book was selected as a finalist and decided they didn’t matter.

When these accusations surfaced in the press, Hegemann did not duck, but acknowledged that copying had taken place. However, she claimed she didn’t see the problem, after all, she was “mixing” the work of others, not copying it, “putting it in a different context,” and “[t]here’s no such thing as originality anyway, just authenticity.”

Hegemann’s defense leaves a bad taste in my mouth. On the one hand, she claims the shield of remix and appropriative culture, while with the other she waives away the responsibility of the remixer to acknowledge original sources by claiming ignorance of citation practices. For me, this case is troubling but clear cut. Sources must be cited OR MUST BE OTHERWISE OBVIOUS (as in the case of an image of Mickey Mouse or a corporate logo). Especially if you are pulling verbatim text from an identifiable author, you must cite. To not cite is not to remix, but to attempt to pass off another’s work as your own, which *is* intellectual theft. (and for the purposes of this blog, I am talking only about verbatim copying, which is alleged, and substantiated in this case. We can talk about stuff like hyper-referentiality later.)

One of the defenses she offers is that of recontextualization. How could she have been copying when she was placing the material in a new context? However, due to the lack of proper citations, there is no recontextualization actually happening in this case! If the audience cannot recognize what has been borrowed, then they cannot recognize when it has been recontextualized. This argument relies on the recognizability of what is being borrowed, which was not apparent in this case.

And then there is that last quote, “There’s no such thing as originality anyway…”

Hegemann obviously completely misunderstands the arguments made against the cult of complete originality and the canonization of the Inspired Artist. Regardless of the relative quality of her book, she does herself, and the remixing generation she claims to represent, a disservice by denigrating the authors’ she borrowed from, because to not acknowledge them is to cut them out of the creative equation. You have destroyed the social and cultural value of remix if you refuse to involve those creators you have pulled from.

There was a video released a few weeks ago by normative, which examined the art of remix from just this social perspective. The social phenomenon of remix is just as important as the artistic creations it allows to be created. To remove a work of remix from its social web of influences and referents is to deny that it is an act of remix, and instead condemn it to being merely intellectual theft.

The New York Times: Author Says it’s ‘Mixing’
The Independent: Publish and Be Damned

Dennis Loy Johnson: Dern Copyright

Remixing Leftovers

In Bucks County, our fridge was full of two things: condiments and leftovers; a taxonomy of mustards and chutneys and bar-b-que sauces competing for space with stacks of white china bowls wrapped in plastic and filled with this or that congealing something or other. And then there was the freezer, crammed with icebergs that now only vaguely resembled chili or soup anymore

Leftovers are a staple in my house. There’s no time to cook during the week, so weekends I take over the kitchen and make huge quantities of something, most of which will be frozen and remade and remixed over the next fortnight.

This has been a week of odds and ends. The Great Cabbage Roll Assemblage left me with a couple cups of chopped cabbage, carrots, onions and most of a bag of Bulgar wheat. Half a bowl of mashed potatoes sat quietly congealing in the back. A container of chili in the freezer had been glowering at me for a few weeks and needed something done with it.

The art of leftovers is the art of reinvention. Yes, you could just reheat and serve them again (and again and again, like dinner in syndication) but that would be boring and make you bad person. But dinner is no longer dinner once it goes back in the fridge. Now it’s an ingredient.

So the chili ended up the base for a spicy tomato and papaya sauce, served with Israeli-poached eggs over quinoa. Last night in a fit of procrastination, the cabbage, mashed potatoes, Bulgar and vegetable leavings became a colcannon derivative, swimming in milk, butter and sour cream.

(Disclaimer: There are always safety concerns when cooking with leftovers. Cooked food spoils faster than raw, so if you’ve no plans to reuse something immediately, freeze it. Use common sense. Don’t eat anything that’s acquired a fur coat, become discolored, etc, etc, blah, blah, blah. Behave like the reasonable adults I know some of you are.)

By changing a few words and references here and there, what I’ve written here so far could easily be transformed from a minor primer on the awesomeness of leftovers into an essay on remix and appropriation in popular culture. At the heart of it is the idea that there is nothing final about the final presentation of something, be it a meal or a movie. If something has further utility, it should be used, creatively and well.

This applies to recipes as well as an actual fridge full of leftovers. The art of cooking and communities built around it embrace remix and open source philosophies naturally. The comment threads of popular recipe blogs and websites are filled with additions, edits, remixes, versions and suggestions from the audience/user/consumer. The Rombauers have yet to pelt me with DMCA take-downs, though most of the recipes I post are re-visionings of ones that appear in The Joy of Cooking. Cooking’s open-source (for what is a recipe but source code for food), sharing and teaching-based philosophy works to everyone’s advantage. When a recipe or technique gets released into the wild (either online, in a book, or by word of mouth), it not only improves the skills of the people who encounter and use it, but the recipe itself gets better. Those pages of comments, all those different versions of creamed spinach or pumpkin curry make the original recipe more valuable and useful; the most valuable recipes are the ones that get used the most, that have collected the most input from the community.

I have slightly idealized the prevalent cookery culture with regards to IP law. But the focus of the community has and continues to be on attribution when it comes to the use and reuse of existing recipes, not payment and control. Cooking communities encourage derivative and appropriative creativity and knowledge sharing as good creative practice. It’s all just so damn intuitive, isn’t it?

So, to paraphrase a t-shirt I wish I had: Get excited and make things out of other things.

Poached Eggs with Papaya-Chili-Tomato Sauce and Quinoa

Leftover chili/tomato sauce
dried whole chili peppers (not necessary if you’re a spiciness wuss)
dried fruit (I used papaya and raisins, but I’ve used apricots before with equally delicious results
one can diced tomatoes
six large eggs (two per person)

Combine your leftover base in a heavy bottomed pot with the diced tomatoes, chopped fruit, and chili peppers and bring to a healthy simmer. Crack in your eggs, reduce the heat and cover. Stir gently and occasionally to prevent the eggs sticking to the bottom of the pot and burning, but otherwise, ignore until the eggs are set.

When eggs are set, spoon them out with a healthy portion of sauce and serve over quinoa. Discard the chili peppers.

Pseudo Colcannon

chopped cabbage (because this was leftover from making cabbage rolls, what I had was already cooked. You may want to blanche yours.)
mashed potatoes
one small onion, chopped
(this is where the pseudo comes in. Traditional Irish colcannon contains cabbage, potatoes, leeks and cream. But I was more concerned with using up my vegetable stash than with historical verisimilitude. So, for the purists, not real real colcannon. Real pseudo colcannon.)
chopped carrots
frozen peas
Bulgar wheat (I had less mashed potatoes than I originally thought, so I added the Bulgar wheat to give the dish more body. The added vegetables made it unnecessary, though, and I’ll omit it next time.)
whole milk
sour cream
salt, pepper, thyme

Basically, combine all the above in a pot, simmer, stir and serve. Add the sour cream, salt, pepper and thyme last, to taste. Peter insists on eating this topped with cheddar cheese, but then again that’s how he eats damn near everything.

The Coolest Thing Ever Today

…is this fantastic mashup of Twilight and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The link above takes you to the maker, Jonathan McIntosh’s essay about the whys and wherefores of the mashup’s making over at WIMNOnline.

(“Buffy vs Edward” debuted over the summer and got some impressive traction in the analog and digital media worlds. So I’m a little slow. It’s still awesome.)

The Coolest Thing Ever Today

(an occasional continuing series of the absolutely best things ever of a given 24-hour period)

Anyway. The Coolest Thing Ever Today is this brilliant ASL version of Jonathan Coulton’s “Re: Your Brains.”

Mr. CaptainValor has an extensive channel list of other sign-interpreted songs. It might be the extreme sleep dep talking, but I have an uber insta-crush on this guy now.

…I have to stop doing that.

Brackenridge Lecture

Here is the lecture (slightly edited) I gave earlier in the summer about intellectual property law and participatory culture. I’ve removed most of my media exhibits from this recording, though all can be found online easily and for free.
At break between Part 1 and Part 2 I originally screened a Red vs Blue episode. So it’s not a strictly organic break, but it’s as close to the middle as I could get.
Altogether (with questions) this lecture runs for nearly an hour and a half. Listen while you fold you laundry.

Part 1
Part 2

I’ve also included my slide deck, though it is not strictly necessary to follow the lecture. It is pretty, though.

fact checker’s note: Queen Anne was born in 1665, but ruled from 1702 to 1707.