Few would disagree that good DJing is an art. But who would argue that DJing is the paradigmatic art of the 21st century?
Why, a DJ of course. But not just any DJ: the 21st century’s version of a Renaissance man. Paul Miller, aka DJ Spooky That Subliminal Kid, boasts a seemingly endless resume of music releases, media art exhibitions, books, articles, artistic collaborations, lectures and interviews. His eloquent descriptions of the artistry of sampling and remixing have been seminally influential in establishing the turntable mash-up as a mainstream art form – attested to in Spain by the popularity of festivals such as Sónar in Barcelona or the L.E.V. Festival in Gijón. He is also the guest this week in the virtual classrooms of the postgraduate course in cultural innovation at the UOC.
Miller defends a collage-based aesthetics. Juxtaposition is the point; if you’re shocked, good. Wake up! Digitalization has made it possible to sample and share anything and everything. In the end, he argues, we are dealing with nothing but information. Whether the info bites are sound samples to be mixed into a DJ session, video clips to be woven into a VJ video projection, words, voices, or any other thing that can be copied, edited or completely refashioned as information – including the ice of Antarctica – anything is free game for the artist, who has become cultural sampler and data aggregator of the new millennium.
There’s always a rhythm to the space between things… It’s an internal process that doesn’t even need to leave the comfortable confines of your mind… At heart, the process is an abstract machine made to search in the right place for the right codes. The information in your mind looks for structures to give it context… Think of the semantic webs that hold together contemporary info culture, and of… our efforts to have anything and everything represented and available to anyone everywhere… Think then of search engines as scouts or guides for the semantic web… Taken together, it all resembles a good DJ, who has a lot of records and files, and knows exactly where to filter the mix. (Paul Miller aka That Subliminal Kid)
The description is reminiscent of Baudelaire’s flâneur: the lover of modern life who throws him or herself into the anonymous crowd and whose distanciated enjoyment of that syncopated bustle is the very spirit of an era.
The observer [le flâneur] is a prince enjoying his incognito wherever he goes… Thus the lover of universal life moves into the crowd as though into an enormous reservoir of electricity. He, the lover of life, may also be compared to a mirror as vast as this crowd; to a kaleidoscope endowed with consciousness, which with every one of its movements presents a pattern of life, in all its multiplicity… It is an ego athirst for the non-ego, and reflecting it at every moment in energies more vivid than life itself, always inconstant and fleeting. (Charles Baudelaire, The Painter of Modern Life)
Baudelaire could not have been that prescient, but one does not have to stretch the imagination to see his «reservoir of electricity» as our internet: the lover of universal bandwidth dives into the multiplicity of social networks, thereby reflecting our communities’ thorough incorporation into the sound-bite video-clip pop-up world of the Information Society. «Music as information,» said Miller in his lecture of the Digital art @Google series, is «something that reflects social values through the prism of digital media.»
In short, the advance of technology has allowed everyone to become a DJ, making the remix the key mode of contemporary cultural production. What’s the cost? Almost nothing; he’s practically giving it away. You can download the DJ Spooky iPhone app – which turns your mobile phone into an MP3 turntable – for only $4.99 US.
And that is why Miller’s approach to cultural production is so polemical: it seeks nothing less than the complete reversal of the capitalist economic model of scarcity in favour of what he calls the gift economy. And Miller not only walks the walk, he busts a move: at the beginning of every lecture, he gives away free cds to everyone in the audience, encouraging them to exchange further copies amongst each other and become DJs themselves.
The notion of the gift economy has its origins in the sociological studies of Marcel Mauss (1872-1950), whose book on exchange and potlatch traditions in ancient cultures (Le Don, 1923) emphasised how gifts could escape a properly economic relationship. The value of the gift is not its exchange value but its sign value: the giving itself establishes social parity with the recipient. Or, if you like, a gift engenders an entire social structure. «So, in certain cultures, the more you gave away things, the more you would achieve [equivalent] social status,» Miller told the assembled members of Google as he handed them his stacks of freshly burned cds.
The question that many people are asking themselves – including the students at the UOC – is this really a functional and sustainable economic model? Miller thinks so. «The gift economy overlaps with the net,» he argued to Google, such as in the countless blogs and unofficial fan web pages, set up over many long hours of unpaid free time by enthusiastic volunteers. Here, he claims, is where so much time (and free content!) is given away; but it is also where buzz is started, new audiences are generated and creativity is nourished.
The promise is vertiginous but, in reality, I’m afraid, it’s a rough landing.
The reality of copyright law and intellectual property rights provides a solid bottom for this theoretical freefall.
The first thing to mention is that the law is jurisdiction-based. There is no homogenous «international copyright law.» The situation is, in fact, tremendously complex. (As is laid out in great detail in this study by the IN3 institute of the UOC on intellectual property rights and the internet in Spain. Spanish version only.) Certain nations have signed international agreements, but others not; and with the addition of Creative Commons and other alternative licensing options, authors can retain or cede any number of their rights and privileges, all dependent upon the nation’s laws in which they have signed their contracts.
The next is that, whatever the level of integration of the various copyright laws around the world, they all have one thing in common: they oppose the gift economy of the remix culture. As Ruiz de la Torre put it: «Copyright law should encourage creativity. However… the current state of the law tends to discourage the creativity of sampling artists.» Or better yet, as amusingly phrased by this online legal advice database: you can «reduce the risk» of your sample infringing copyright by simply «making it unrecognizable» and «burying it in the mix» so you can’t hear it anymore.
So how does DJ Spooky do it? By flying under the legal radar.
There are three exceptions to the restrictions on sampling and Miller’s work relies on all of them. The first – de minima – applies when the sample is a minimal portion of the original source: not the whole song but just the guitar riff, the drum line, the singer’s voice. (This is the essence of Miller’s style. See, for example, video 3 in this series where Miller sequences together samples from Lee «Scratch» Perry, Philip Glass and the voice of Public Enemy’s Chuck D.) The second – fair use – is when the sample is taken from its context and employed for another reasonable purpose, such as commentary, criticism and scholarship. The third is when the copyright has expired. To cite an example, Miller relied heavily on the second and third exceptions in his video remix of the 1915 movie The Birth of a Nation. The original starred the Ku Klux Clan as the protagonists, who come riding in as the cavalry to save the day. Screen capture from Rebirth of a Nation
Because it was filmed before 1923, it has no copyright protection at all. Miller’s remix – Rebirth of a Nation (2006) – blends the full original movie with citations from historical texts, his own commentary, digital retouching and an original soundtrack; all of which highlight the way media can be used to manipulate public opinion.
The problem becomes evident when we apply Miller’s idea of the gift economy to artistic productions that are less respectful of the ambiguous guidelines. Instead of racism, let’s assume the artist is interested in gender politics. And instead of sampling an old movie, let us assume that the artist wants to remix one from the Disney catalogue. Let’s call it Disney Re-Sexed, and it will focus on the implicit role of sexism, strength and dominance in Disney animated films. What will be the gift the artist receives in this economy? A lawsuit.
But we don’t have to be hypothetical. When everything is digitalized, you should have the power to be the DJ of the world, especially when it comes to the news. But Google News – the digital press aggregator that samples online newspapers and remixes their content to suit the user’s preferences – is currently mired in court cases in various countries around the world for alleged copyright violations. (Rupert Murdoch is the biggest media mogul in opposition to Google. The claimants in Spain include El Mundo and El País.)
Nonetheless, all this could be taken as merely circumstantial. The law might oppose the gift economy now, but all that might change in the future. Possibly. But there is a hidden side to Miller’s idea of the gift economy that needs closer examination.
The sociological reading of the gift originated in Mauss, but was then reworked by many authors including the philosopher and sociologist Jean Baudrillard (1929-2007). Miller attended a lecture by Baudrillard and met him personally while he was still a French literature student. He most certainly borrowed the concept from Baudrillard’s works. But he seems to have missed an essential component of his thought. In Baudrillard, the gift is not given freely but comes at a price. Gifts establish a relation and create a community; but they also establish class differences, impose obligations and thereby can function as tools for ideology and control.
Consider the tribal king who offers up a sumptuary gift to a neighbouring tribe. The recipient – not wanting to be shown up by his rival – will be drawn into a publicly observable obligation to respond in kind. Yes, the gift establishes parity – between the two kings – but they now occupy a higher social stratum (or caste) than the villagers, who cannot hope to participate in the blatant expenditure of wealth.
The difference is that, today, society is far more complicated. Baudrillard sees that the lure of a fictional, artificial sense of parity can be used to empower certain consumptive ideologies.
[I]t is a question of the production of a caste by the collective grace of a play of signs… [Today,] consumption is instituted on the basis of the exchange of differences, of a distinctive material and thus of a potential community… [but one that is] articulated upon a fiction of aristocratic parity… The fact remains that it is because the collective phantom of lost (sumptuary) values is reactivated in expenditure and in mass-mediatized consumption, that this practice can be lived individually as gratification, as liberty, as fulfillment — and so act as ideology… Everywhere prestige haunts our industrial societies, whose bourgeois culture is never more than the phantom of aristocratic values. Everywhere the magic of the code, the magic of an elective and selective community, fused together by the same rules of the game and the same system of signs, is collectively reproduced, beyond economic value and on the basis of it. Everywhere this process comes to penetrate class conflicts, everywhere — diluted over the entire extent of the society, whatever the economic status and class condition — it acts to the advantage of the dominant class. It is the keystone of domination. (Baudrillard, For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign. 1981. Chapter 5.)
For Baudrillard, the greatest gift of our civilization is the free abundance of advertising. Even if we reject its wares and head off to live like a hermit in the mountains, it still gives us the gift of security: the perpetual neon hum of consumer society will wait for you and, one day, may satisfy all your needs – as long as you let society tell you what those needs are. Today, with a little spending power, one can afford some very cool and distinctive stuff, but whatever we buy, the items were still all Made in China. The iPhone app may be dirt cheap, but you still need an iPhone.
My point: maybe our free market society has generated enough wealth such that we can all afford to give away cds. But this sense of «parity» with the recipients is an illusion. It implies a disparity of caste. If everyone is exchanging cds, then the real winners are cd manufacturers. Or does Miller think that he is on parity with corporate giants like Rupert Murdoch, Sony or Disney Corp? He should try remixing and handing out some of their material and see what happens.
As a philosopher, all this makes me think back to Miller’s nearly phenomenological description of his way of DJing. I cited it earlier: «an internal process that doesn’t even need to leave the comfortable confines of your mind.» It is very reminiscent of Immanuel Kant’s Transcendental Aesthetic in The Critique of Pure Reason (1781). For Kant, the material data of the outside world only become meaningful once they are given form by our senses and understood according to our own concepts. In Miller, Baudelaire’s «ego athirst» is a full-blown transcendental ego! But the problems with Kant’s philosophy also apply here: if the subject is nothing more than this dematerialized ego, relating to all objects through thought and understanding, he or she has no intimate, primordial link with his or her own body.
And this observation can be put to more than just the theory. There seems to be a general disembodiment in Miller’s work. The law, for example, has its own embodiment: in the national limits of its territorial jurisdiction. Yet Miller’s artistic production (as well as his verbal defence of it) defies any attempt at such geo-localisation. It is precisely the lure of gratification and comfort – embodied pleasures – that fuel the consumptive ideology of false parity criticised by Baudrillard. And, finally, it is probably why Miller’s preferred musical style is so very abstract. His pieces are meant to induce thought and reverie – not dancing, a thoroughly corporeal endeavour.
Bodies also imply limits. What about limiting what one means by «remixing,» the body of work known as DJing? Is everything that is sampled necessarily a remix? Rebirth of a Nation is far more a documentary than a remix. You certainly can’t dance to it. But if Miller can say that remixing is the art of arts, then Micheal Moore is a DJ too.
(Thanks to raygardnerillustration.com for the use of the charicature.)