I read Lawrence Lessig’s Remix a few months ago, a great book with a stimulating positive approach to the whole piracy and copyright problema, focusing on finding solutions which cater to the increasingly prevailing remixed and remediated forms of digital art and culture, in which the hybrid has become common ground. Lessig discusses new musical ‘innovators’ like Girl Talk, who creates elaborate and eclectic remixes of current pop sounds and anthems, creating a new musical discourse which reflects, winks, ironizes and mocks, while still standing firmly on its own. These kind of adaptations, versionings or reinterpretations have been part of music since its beginnings, coming to the forefront mostly in dub, hiphop, turntablism and the use of samples in electronic music. Just think about all the beats, breaks, loops and glitches that have made a career for themselves and their derivative offspring in musical history.
Electronic music, though now very much grounded in the digital realm, did not originate there, but it did find a save heaven or warm nest in the online environment. Remixing, sampling and turntablism can be seen as the starting point of all kinds of different genres in electronic music, they might even be seen as the most essential aspect of this music genre. This has lead to all kinds of ontologies and classifications into genres and subgenres which have been set up to help define te jungle (ha!) of all the diverse electronic creations.
A great sarcastic attempt to develop such a musical ontology for electronic music has been around on the web for years: Ishkur’s Guide to Electronic Music. A highly personalized ontology that is (with many self-created genres and similar definitions and descriptions), though in its hilarity also strangely precise and very informative. The master mind behind Ishkur is Kenneth John Taylor. In an interview with Taylor, conducted by Joe Farbrook from Histories of Internet Art (who sees Taylor’s work as a form of found art), Taylor explains himself and his guide. His main reason to publish his guide on the Internet was the fact that there are to many copyright infringing samples on it and Taylor did not want to create a commercial product to profit of others work. He also wanted to be able to add the samples next to the text, playing whilst you are reading. Taylor’s vision towards his guide is very interesting, defining it as an unfinished project:
“If you are really into New Media and internet art and all that jazz, here’s some food for thought: My Music Guide isn’t done. It will never be done. It’s what you call a “work in progress”. I continually update it, revise it, change it, add different samples, newer samples, new genres, new definitions and snarling little comments to it as time goes on. There is no definitive version of it at all. It is constantly being changed by me. I think that is something that the New Media world is adopting now. I first heard of it, actually, from George Lucas when he mentioned the original Star Wars Trilogy as being a “work in progress”. And when you think about it, that’s exactly what the internet and new media is. There is no central planner. There is no Great Design to this World Wide Web of ours. We really have no idea what we’re doing now, and we have no idea what this thing is going to look like ten years ago (when it will likely be run and controlled by technologies that don’t exist yet). We are making this thing up as we go along. Every webpage is “under construction”, a work in progress. There’s no such thing as NOT being under construction, after all. I think that appeals to art as well. Under the traditional view, an artist will finish a piece (be it a book or a painting or whatever), and then work on the next piece. But the new model is one of continuously revising and updating existing pieces to fit new paradigms, to broaden their message, to evoke more complex reactions and responses, to keep up-to-date and make relevant commentaries about social life, or to keep improving. Art as Maintenance, and Maintenance as Art. If that doesn’t crank your gears, I don’t know what does. It’s a fascinating concept, I think.”
In this way the new remix culture can be seen and defined as a never ending story, in which (digital) culture is becoming fluid, amendable and liquid. This can be seen in music foremost but also in movies and documentaries, as I wrote about before, and in books. Some examples of fluidity in this respect can be seen in the unbook movement for general trade market publishing and the liquid publication project for scientific publications. But most of all this remix culture can be seen in the production of knowledge itself: knowledge can even be defined as a remix of different types of information into a meaningful context. So in a more meta context our whole information society is based on (the possibility of) remix, as Lessig also remarks in Remix. In a way, as Eduardo Navas argues in his article Remix, the bond of repetition and representation, the remix connects a culture with its past, reflecting as it does on a previous narrative:
“The remix is always allegorical, meaning that the object of contemplation depends on recognition of a pre-existing cultural code.The audience is always expected to see within the object a trace of history.”
But to get back down from this generalization cloud, we need to define the difference between this inherent remixiality in culture at large and todays specific remix culture. In a great wiki on the web called extendboundariesofliteracy (of which also a formal article has been published) it is explained as follows:
“The principle of remix has always been integral to cultural development, an invisible process through which cultures grow and evolve. On top of this “organic process”, however, self-conscious practices of remix have become popular cultural pursuits of cultural activity. Digital technologies have vastly amplified – in terms of quality and quantity – remixing options. Today, remixing cultural resources comprises what Lessig (2004) refers to as the new “alphabet” – that is, as the new building blocks of creative writing.”
Returning to Ishkur and electronic music, his ontological cravings concerning music go even further as he created the Great Samples Database, which is a user generated list of records and their respective source samples. The whole idea of creating a music ontology (which was already apparent in online encyclopedias/databases like Allmusic and Discogs) was very much enriched with the development of streaming Internet radio. With the coming of Last.fm (which only streams 30 seconds samples on request and the ocassional full track) and the likes (Spotify seems to be the next best thing so I hear) such an encyclopedia plus sound has increasingly become reality. Based on user generated tagging and categorising and based on the principle of serendipity, the whole music scene can and is now being indexed, subindexed and interlinked, creating an immense database of potential ways to discover and interact with music (not withstanding the fact that Last.fm has great lacks and gaps in content covered and played).
But back to the question of sampling, remixing and copyright. When did sampling exactly become such an outlawed activity, making artists liable to clear the different samples they used in their music? Why exactly does this feel wrong to me an clearly many others? Eduardo Navas goes back to the basics of remix, tracing its origin to music and leaning heavily on Jacques Attali’s concepts of repetition and representation, representation meaning the live performance by the author, aura still intact, and repetition reflecting the possibility the mechanic offers to record the music, to expand its use in different contexts and mediums. Navas actually argues that it is the (remix) DJ that again, by means of his agency, introduces the concept of representation into music, stating that in his way the DJ is actually composing a new score, freeing the music once more from its convines of repetition. In this way the copyright claims concerning the old idea of copy/repetition are no longer valid, as the remix is no longer a form of copy and past, but a new cultural creation, which Navas even calls a form of cultural resistance (consumer becomes producer, liberating him/her from his/her passivity: consuming via interactivity), referring to Critical Theory:
“To be clear, then, what the DJ initially brought forward is the appropriation of repetition by representation; thereby making representation friendly to repetition. Thus, representation does not resist cooption by repetition; if anything, today it is optimized for assimilation, by being constantly reblogged (remixed).”
As Jonathan David Tankel argues in a 1990 article on sound engineers (The practice of recording music: remixing as recoding), the remixer can be seen as an independent artist:
“The remix engineer can be viewed as an artist distinct from the original musician(s), no longer a collaborator, as Kealy suggested, but an independent creative force.”
With the introduction of agency in the remixing and aggregation of certain parts or elements of music into a new whole, the parallel can be drawn to what I argued before about information turning into knowledge by means of an active stance of the creator, combining information nodes into a meaningful collection which then constitutes knowledge:
“It is in a way his or her interpretation, combination and contextualization of the information. This explains why people have moral rights or even claim copyright or intellectual ownership over their active creation of knowledge out of information.”
Navas agrees that this constant new interpretation of history is what gives the creator his agency and independent stance:
“Thus, reflection of history comes through constant interpretation (in this case, by way of representation remixing repetition). The added lines of “Le Catalogue” are a metaphor for this element of historicity. In the end, no matter what tools are used to mix or remix in culture, what is important is being able to develop a critical position: one that will allow for a constant flux between representation and repetition with the purpose to confront false-consciousness.”
As Tankel argues, remixing is recoding. And the remix never ends, it is everlasting, ever expanding and unstopable, an active force giving actual potentiality to the creator and freeing music/content/information from its constraints. The progressive possibilities to mash-up, refashion and reconfigure culture in such an inherently modern manner, makes music/content/information/art, as Tankel concludes while referring to Benjamin, into the building blocks of represented repetition itself:
“The remix recording creates a new artifact from the schemata of previously recorded music. It is prima facie evidence of Benjamin’s contention that to “an ever greater degree the work of art reproduced becomes the work of art designed for reproducibility.”