7 July 2005

Wide eyed

William Gibson has an essay in Wired titled "God's Little Toys" as part of a larger feature called "Remix Planet". In it, the writers extoll the importance, and sheer cultural primacy, of collage and repurposing. Gibson:

Our culture no longer bothers to use words like appropriation or borrowing to describe those very activities. Today's audience isn't listening at all - it's participating. Indeed, audience is as antique a term as record, the one archaically passive, the other archaically physical. The record, not the remix, is the anomaly today. The remix is the very nature of the digital.

I'm extremely suspicious of most assertions that attempt to say that our current society is unique in this way or that from earlier eras. The assertion that we're a "remix culture" is no different. Here are some of the points provided as proof of our uniqueness (from Gibson's article and others):

  • The Dean Scream remixes - Weren't items of similar intent being passed around 20 and 30 years ago? When Nixon sweated his way through the presidential debate, don't you at least suspect that comedians and office jokesters were splashing their faces with water and peace-signing through the office? How do these acted references and modifications to the source event differ from the digitized ones today?
  • Fan fiction - Aren't kids in the 1920s acting out The Lone Ranger serials in their back yards writing their own fan fiction? Again, mass media as retold through personal actions is not a new type of culture. The same goes for the celebrity role-playing in Unreal Tournament. As a kid, I had Micronauts that battled Lego robots, so was I visionary in my remixing of those toys?
  • Musical remixing (bastard pop [Wikipedia]) - Granted, there has been a proliferation of digital quoting in the last 20 years, but is it really more than just a sub-genre that has gotten absorbed into the mainstream? Speaking with Robert about his creative process, he talks about combining musical ideas against each other and balancing them throughout the song. He's creating new sounds for his songs--not sampling existing music--but the principle is the same for collaged quotes, and the same as with most composers' processes. Orchestration/arrangement [Wikipedia] is part of the composition process.

The articles are peppered with references to Picasso and Matisse and all of the early 20th Century collage in the avant garde and the experiments of musique concrete [Wikipedia]. Yet they never say how today is somehow different. Those styles explored the expressiveness of existing, less accepted Fine Art techniques (collage) and that of new technology (musique concrete). All of this eventually was absorbed by the mainstream (collage is pervasive in illustration), just as mixing has been (think of the metal bands that use turntablists). And this is not to say that even those 20th Century Artists were unique. We can't forget the thievery and repurposing that occurred in Shakespeare's day or further back to ancient Greece where an oral history could only be repurposed--there was no official source.

Is this apparent trend simply a shift of already-existing techniques onto new media? Or is it a manifestation of a new way of thinking or a new social structure? Is Gibson overstating the independence and importance of the audience (or death thereof) by supposing that we're all now empowered (deceptively suggesting that we weren't empowered before)? I could be ignoring a true shift by focusing to much on its roots and relations to the past, but I'm not so sure.

[ posted by sstrader on 7 July 2005 at 3:43:11 PM in Culture & Society ]