More thoughts on OWS

I published an article on the visual iconography of Occupy Wall Street over at the Comparative Media Studies website.  It’s by no means exhaustive — I focus on the Pepper Spray Cop meme and Guy Fawkes masks — but it was fun to write.  I’m thinking of writing a longer article just focusing on the use of Guy Fawkes masks in protests, sometime in the future when I have five free minutes strung together.  Check it out!

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).

channel surfing through humanity

I spent an unreal amount of time last night flipping through ChatRoulette. I was bored and avoiding a paper, and everyone had been talking about this thing which was going to corrupt the youths or something. So I fired it up and off I went.

And wow.

ChatRoulette embodies a great deal of what I love about the internet.

Here are some things that happened to me in the few hours I spent on ChatRoulette last night:

-I made two friends (a chef in Milwaukee and an engineer in Brussels)
-Someone sang me a song
-Someone drew me a picture
-A longstanding debate was settled (whether or not eating hair was cannibalism) with the help of a cute girl and her mustachioed posse in Minneapolis
-An engineer introduced to me all his desk toys, and I introduced him to mine
-A group of education grad students in the Netherlands and I compared book collections
-I met a paralyzed boy in New York who typed, rather speedily, with a long stick affixed to a head brace

And there were lots more little random encounters, tiny conversations that didn’t go far. I love the randomness of it. I love the tiny glimpses of people flickering through my screen, and that I’m traveling through theirs too, skipping around the world like a stone on the surface a river. The whole thing just seems so damn magical. I’m here and I’m also there, and then I’m yet another there again. It’s a potent, raw example of the internet’s ability to simply connect people. Click Play, and suddenly you are staring at someone on the other side of the planet. What are you going to talk about?

danah boyd has an excellent blog about ChatRoulette and the “moral panic” it’s engendering. Highly recommended reading on this topic. She points out that as it exists now, ChatRoulette is too transgressive to be around for very long. I wonder what it will turn into, and I hope the raw connective power it embodies will not be dissipated in the name of some hyper-protective moral code.

I’m waving my little flag in support of the randomness of humanity.

addendum: There’s a new exhibit near the Mollusk Section at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, where I spend most of my Thursdays. It’s on population explosions, human and otherwise. The numbers are literally incomprehensible. It’s all you can do to stare at the world population counter on the wall, ticking up a few individuals every second, and not be terrified or reduced to gibbery jelly on the floor. The internet was supposed to allow us to reach out from where we are and touch the sheer masses of people and cultures and information that are out there. As it stands now, though, huge swathes of the internet are instead narcissistic echo chambers of white, Western tech/thought. While I’m not going to argue that ChatRoulette is the solution to the domination of Western culture on the net, it is refreshing in that it just doesn’t care. It rudely kicks you out of your comfort zone and intrudes you into someone else’s life and it doesn’t matter who or where that person is. If they’re on the site, they’re fair game. It’s a hint of those roiling, unpredictable masses of everything outside the front door.

I say often that the internet is fundamentally a conversation, and you’re either interested in the content of the conversation (ie: IP law) or who is involved (ie: security). The content potential has, for me, just gotten a lot more interesting.

The Coolest Thing Ever Today

Hot on the heels of my recent discovery of/obsession with Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” video comes this spot on parody of her song and video “Poker Face,” off her first album. Chase with the Lady Gaga’s official “Poker Face” video for full surreality effect. It also helps if you’re a complete font/design junkie.

Neutra Face: An Ode on a Typeface

I don’t know who these people are, but they are awesome.

EDIT: Tracked down their website here. I was right, they do appear to be awesome.

America’s Got Talent

The thing that fascinates me about AGT is how it represents (or seems to represent) a throwback to the old studio system of Hollywood (I realize that this has been building for some time in these types of shows, but it seem particularly apparent in AGT.  The acts are straight out of Vaudeville, and I’m not just looking at the auditions.  In the Top Forty this season there were/are a magician, an impersonator, prodigies and virtuosos of several stripes, freaks & (old school) geeks, comedians, weirdos, children and dogs along with the more popularly expected singers and dancers.
Along with the throwback nature of the acts, the networks have *finally* figured out how to make appointment TV work, and it’s not with the voting (though that’s certainly very important).  The nature of the acts themselves emphasis the artifact of the singular performance.  American Idol has nothing but the voting dynamic to create the need for immediacy, because the individual performance of the song is fairly indistinguishable, in terms of dramatic value, from original broadcast to rerun to Youtube clip to cd release.  But magic acts or acrobatic dance acts or virtuosic piano acts or glass chewing acts or chainsaw juggling acts or burlesque acts contain within themselves drama as *performances*.  You see a magic trick once before you start to analyze it (this particularly comes out in the YouTube clips of the Drew Thomas Magic acts). With geek, chainsaw juggling or other death defying acts, you only really watch it once, and when they’re not dead by the end of it, you don’t need to watch it over and over again (unless you’re showing it to your friends). The drama of the performance is diminished once you know they don’t drop a saw on their heads or choke on a lightbulb.  Virtuoso and acrobatic performances are of a similar species (will they succeed or crash figuratively or literally), ad similarly the value of the act is in the artifact of the individual performance, not in the value of the act itself.  
So so far we have two major throw-back elements, both in the types of acts and the live-performance-heavy-nature of the acts themselves. The final throwback element I see is in the prizes.  The million dollars is by now fairly standard, and by current economic standards pretty paltry actually.  Moreover, that is not what the acts are focused on, as shown in their individual interviews.  The acts focus on the prize of a show on the Vegas Strip.  Vegas is a throwback city, in terms of morality, in terms of the kind of entertainment available there, in terms of the sheer scale of the  place.  It calls up associations of the Rat Pack, The Godfather, Prohibition, deserts and oases both, and a delicious disregard for the consequences of actions.  The prize could just as easily have been a show in Carnegie Hall or in LA, but the producers specifically chose Vegas.  
Unlike most reality/competition shows (and I am hesitatingly including American Idol in this category) AGT is not a 15-minutes of fame show.  It is about the old studio system, where small town talents were “discovered” by studios and hand reared to fame, fortune, and life-time exclusive contracts.  The dream being sold is not “You too can be on TV and get paid 100k to eat a bug.”  It’s “You too can be an entertainer (NOT an artist), because we are opening up the studio system to you.”
I’m also fascinated that none of the judges are actually American.  But I’ll leave that for another entry.

EDIT: David Hasselhoff is American. For some reason I thought he was German.