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ideas in the mix : the heap
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Samples from the Heap
Notes on Recycling the Detritus of a Remixed Culture
by Bernard Schütze
Mix, mix again, remix: copyleft, cut 'n' paste, digital jumble, cross-fade, dub, tweak the knob, drop the needle, spin, merge, morph, bootleg, pirate, plagiarize, enrich, sample, break down, reassemble, multiply input source, merge output, decompose, recompose, erase borders, remix again. These are among many of the possible actions involved in what can be broadly labeled "remix culture" - an umbrella term which covers a wide array of creative stances and initiatives, such as: plunderphonics, detritus.net, recombinant culture, open source, compostmodernism, mash-ups, cut-ups, bastard pop, covers, mixology, peer to peer, creative commons, "surf, sample, manipulate", and uploadphonix.
As this plethora of activities indicates, we are clearly living in a remix culture: a culture that is constantly renewing, manipulating, and modifying already mediated and mixed cultural material. A distinction must be made, however, between lucrative mainstream cultural "remixes" which are protected under copyright, and the remix methods of more marginal underground artistic practices and approaches. One could argue that mainstream culture has little to do with the remix as an open process - it is a "remake" culture that thrives on an endless parade of rehashes, repackaging, and repeats that do nothing more than recirculate the old in a new guise.
Remix culture, as understood in this essay, upholds the remix as an open challenge to a culture predicated on exclusive ownership, authorship, and controlled distribution. Against these cultural forces, the subterranean remix opposes an ongoing questioning of economic and cultural givens. Against ownership it upholds an ethic of creative borrowing and sharing. Against the original it holds out an open process of recombination and creative transformation. It equally calls into question the categories, rifts and borders between high and low cultures, pop and elitist art practices, as well as blurring lines between artistic disciplines.
The plurality and multiplicity of remix phenomena resists any clear-cut categorization based on shared aesthetic, artistic, or political terms. These phenomena do, however, share a broad ethic of openness, an aesthetic of impurity, and an ideology of unrestricted circulation. Rather than trying to construct a solid box around this heap of assorted remix strategies, then, it seems more inviting to plunge hands straight into it, in order to discover what manner of diverse transformative phenomena wait to be unearthed.
In the spirit of the remix, I will now lay down four textual tracks made up of samples of relevant remix activities pulled from the heap. Their titles: "Impurity"; "Decompose-Recompose"; "Enrichment"; and "Spread and Contaminate".
"A detrivore takes pre-existing materials, breaks them down, and uses them as building blocks to form something new." This quote lifted from detritus.net succinctly sums up the core activity that goes into remixing. To remix is a process: it is an activity, to be deployed as a verb and not a noun. In remixing, one acts upon existing cultural materials pilfered from the vast landfills of the already mixed and mediated landscape. Remix actively negates claims of originality and origin, and equally does not aspire to any finality or final work. By the very logic of the process, any remixed material can itself be submitted to further reworkings in the heap. This jumbling, sampling, splicing, recombinant activity is based on ideals of impurity - a state in which there is neither any "pure" original content at the beginning, nor any "pure product" down the line. Trace elements always abound. The remix embraces and celebrates hybridity and contamination.
The impure is also a characteristic feature of the many forerunners of remix culture, such as Baroque pastiche, dadaist and surrealist collage, constructivist montage, pop art multiples, W.S. Burrough's cut up method, and (why not) karaoke. The fundamental difference between these previous forms and the remix is that the latter does more than gather, juxtapose, or rearrange preexisting materials: It actively transforms and reworks these elements in a way - and to an extent - that was not possible before. This is largely due to the creative harnessing of electronic and digital technologies, as well as to the cultural climate of an ailing postmodernity.
As the technical origin of the term implies, the remix is rooted in musical and sound explorations. Jamaican Dub, as practiced by the likes of King Tubby and Lee "Scratch" Perry in the early seventies, has often been cited as the earliest manifestation of remix culture. Using the dub plate (for "double") - a pressing with only the instrumental track of a song - early Dub artists employed a four track mixer to add a variety of improvised effects and vocal mic-overs, either at live sound-system dance events or in the studio. The innovative contribution of Dub is that it turned the act of the live remix and studio remix into an artistic form in its own right. Today's DJs, VJs, and turntablists - though now equipped with a vast array of remix technologies such as samplers, sophisticated mixing boards, and audio and image software - perpetuate and expand on this practice. Through its initial musical application, the remix paved the way for a multiplicity of impure practices across the artistic spectrum: hypertextual writing collaborations, integrated VJ and DJ acts, Net and Web art, and so on.
At the heart of all these practices is a continued process of Decomposing and Recomposing matter from the heap. A German musician rummages through his vast library of old American soul and funk records. Very short samples are lifted and looped. A screaming, raspy "Oh yeah" loop serves as the elementary building block; broken down and overlain with effects, the tiny "Oh yeah" turns into a rich tapestry of texture and rhythm. Meanwhile, a Canadian electronic musician swoops through the radio ether, haphazardly grabbing sounds, words, and static. Traces of their radiophonic origin remain but, once recomposed within the artist's work, nothing is left of their context - they now live as part of a new context, revitalized.
Elsewhere, a Brazilian-Austrian VJ/DJ duo play off of one another's images and sounds. Pictures of a renaissance anatomy theatre, bizarre ancient surgical instruments, and medical graphs all merge and swirl on the screen. Droning, pulsing sounds mix into the images, which respond and accelerate their tempo; the sound in turn reacts and slows down. In this intermix, sound and image blur as original material is decomposed and recomposed into a sea of floating flickers and sound glitches. Together, these images and sounds become something other - something as of yet unheard and unseen. Nothing is left as it was: as the churning continues, the smallest elements become building blocks for new architectures.
The raw materials to be decomposed are abundant, and an Enrichment emerges out of this process of remixing and recomposing materials - a form of cross-fertilization. The remix process acknowledges the contributions of others to the heap. It is, after all, about a form of mutual exchange. However, in the process, one also relinquishes notions of authority and exclusive ownership, and must necessarily accept whatever future transformations may occur. The process is open, and there is no room for signatures; it is a shared environment to which groups of activators gladly and regularly add their latest material in a spirit of collaboration and co-enrichment. A creative commons of electronic musicians, video artists, multimedia artists, and programmers band into groups of activators. In these mobile configurations, notions of exclusive authorship (or the romantic notion of the artist-genius) give way to anonymous or heteronymous creative cells. In the heap, the status of the artist as "sole creator" is itself subjected to a substantial remix.
Spread and Disseminate
Nowhere has this displacement of authority, ownership, and originality been more prevalent than on the Internet. The Net is no doubt the place where the heap has reached the highest critical mass, permitting remix practices to Spread and Disseminate on a planetary scale. With its free-floating file sharing, splicing and sampling, and instant distribution of digital media, the Web has become an ideal ground for remix practices of all sorts.
Mark Napier's Digital Landfill site is designed as a gigantic digital composting system where materials sifted from the Web can be dumped and recycled into something beyond recognition. detritus.net acts as a platform and portal for artistic remixing of digital refuse in all its forms (plunderphonics, anticopyright, multicultural recycling, digital detournement, and lots more). And at Macrosound you can join in a vibrant email list dedicated to "remix culture, technique, aesthetics, and theory".
Another interesting (and currently highly popular) form of remixing is the "mash-up". Mash-ups take the instrumental track of one song and, using sound processing software, mix it with the lyric track of another (for example, the Sex Pistols' God save the Queen might be mixed over a Maria Callas aria). Mash-ups circulate via post-Napster Mp3 file sharing sites, have a large participant/creator fan base, and now form part of many a DJ's repertoire. Videos have also been subjected to this mash-up process. Clearly in violation of copyright laws, mash-ups have come to be known as "unofficial" remixes - a fitting label, since they do in fact counter the appropriation of the remix by the official corporate recording industry.1 This current trend is yet another example of how remix culture is continuously seeking to outflank the strictures and barriers imposed by the sanctioned channels and gatekeepers.
Many more remix phenomena presently abound on the Internet and elsewhere, and plenty are surely waiting to surface, spread and disseminate. Above and beyond specific examples, remix continues to be guided by an aesthetic, ethical, and political stance that celebrates impurity, decomposes and recomposes notions of cultural production and distribution, and thereby enriches the creative terrain so that renewed ideas, visions, and sounds can disseminate, spread, and temporarily take root again.
Bernard Schütze is a media theorist, art critic, and translator. His fields of interest include new media and culture, technology and the body, and the aesthetics of electronic art. He has translated works by Jean Baudrillard, Félix Guattari, and Gilles Deleuze. He lives, works and sleeps in Montréal.
1. For a good summary of the "mash-up" see Pete Rojas' article "Bootleg Culture" in Salon.com, August 2002. (http://www.salon.com/tech/feature/2002/08/01/bootlegs/print.html)