RE/Mixed Media Festival embraces the theoretical and the practical

Lev Manovich’s keynote speech highlights the “remixability” of software as a cultural phenomenon.  COPYRIGHT QUALCOMM INSTITUTE AT CALIT2
Lev Manovich’s keynote speech highlights the “remixability” of software as a cultural phenomenon. COPYRIGHT QUALCOMM INSTITUTE AT CALIT2

BY TOM TENNEY | ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED APRIL 17, 2014  |  In November of 2009, four Brooklyn artists sat at a dinner table in Bushwick, discussing the phenomenon of “remix culture,” the informally connected network of students, scholars, organizations, writers and policymakers who advocate for copyright reform and the artistic practice of systematically reworking and transforming existing works of art in the creation of new ones. Remix, these artists agreed, was nothing new — it had been the de-facto methodology of art making for centuries.

With contemporary discourse about remix focused on piracy and copyright infringement, these four wondered how contemporary artists could have more of a voice in a conversation that seemed to be increasingly dominated by corporations, lawyers and mass media.

New tech intersects with the old art of creative appropriation

The result was the first RE/Mixed Media Festival, which premiered in May 2010 as an 11-hour marathon event in DUMBO, featuring such artists as Moby, Steinski, Jesper Juul and over 60 other musicians, performers, artists, designers and activists. Now in its fourth year, the festival will cross the river into Manhattan, where the weekend-long event will be hosted on April 26 and 27 by the School of Media Studies at The New School in the West Village, and at CultureHub, La MaMa’s art and technology incubator on Great Jones Street.

Sat./Sun., April 26/27, 10am-5pm
Various locations, at The New School
Registration at Arnhold Hall
(55 W. 13th St. | at Sixth St.)
Sat., April 26, 6-10pm
At Culture Hub (47 Great Jones St., 3rd Fl. | btw. Bowery & Lafayette)
Tickets & schedule: remixnyc.com
Use coupon code VILLAGER for 30% discount on a festival pass

Established in 1975, The School of Media Studies holds the distinction of being the first media studies program in the United States, with a reputation for embracing both the theoretical and practical elements of media, making it the perfect breeding ground for an event that aims to wed critical theory with real-life aesthetic practice. RE/Mixed Media Festival began their partnership with CultureHub in November 2013, as co-curator for a night of performances at REFEST — CultureHub’s annual celebration of new work emerging at the intersection of art and technology.

RE/Mixed Media Festival is itself a remix, a hybrid. Built on the idea that the creative work of artists and theoretical work of scholars are merely two sides of the same coin, the festival aims to infuse the traditional academic conference with films, performances, installations and exhibits. Operating on a theory of “cross-pollination,” a festivalgoer may wander from a lecture entitled: “The Next TV: The Aesthetic Possibilities of Online Remix Audiovisual Rhetorics” and into a film screening or installation which puts the academic theories into practice. In fact, this element of discovery is fundamental to the festival’s mission. The event presents itself as a collaborative work, the whole adopting the shape of its constituent parts.

While the festival embraces both the theoretical and the practical, its focus leans decidedly towards the aesthetic. The very word remix has an artistic pedigree, coined in the 1970s as DJ lingo for extended dance versions of disco songs, created by reworking the original or mixing in new elements, often appropriated from other recordings.

This practice evolved into sampling, a sine qua non of early hip-hop, in which DJs used segments of existing recordings as building blocks in the creation of new tracks. “Paul’s Boutique,” the Beastie Boys’ 1989 acclaimed second album, included over 100 samples, and became one of the best-selling hip-hop records of all time.

Sampling survived as a popular practice amongst DJs and musicians until 1991, when rapper Biz Markie was sued by 70s pop musician Gilbert O’Sullivan over the former’s use of his 1972 hit, “Alone Again (Naturally).” Markie lost the case, and the judgment changed the sound of hip-hop music forever, requiring that all musicians using samples must first acquire permission from the copyright owners — a practice that, by definition, requires the payment of royalties prohibitive to most emerging artists.

As digital technologies took root in the 1990s and professional production tools became available to consumers, the term remix began to be adopted by other arts, such as film and video makers who used these tools to appropriate and re-arrange media content, often as a subversive cultural critique of the original.

Video remixers, or “vidders” as they came to be known, created fan-videos of movies and television shows, often constructing alternate narratives by cutting and pasting pieces of the original content. As these practices grew in popularity, they caused more than a few raised eyebrows in Hollywood, and resulted in further lawsuits, anti-piracy campaigns and proposed legislation that would limit technology’s ability to share content across digital networks.

Although the word remix has only been in the cultural lexicon for four decades, one point that the RE/Mixed Media Festival hopes to drive home is that creative appropriation — borrowing, sampling and reworking existing texts — has been used as an aesthetic practice for centuries. Nearly all of Shakespeare’s plays, one of the festival’s producers pointed out, rely on plots borrowed from other stories and poems, a practice not uncommon at the time. “King Lear,” for example, is a retelling of “Historia Regum Britanniae,” written in the 12th century by Geoffrey of Monmouth. In the 20th century, entire genres of art relied on appropriation, such as the Dadaist practice of photomontage, the Pop Art of Warhol and Lichtenstein and the sound experiments of Pierre Schaeffer.

By building on these traditions and exhibiting work that continues to utilize such tactics, the producers of RE/Mixed media festival hope that festivalgoers will come away with a newfound appreciation of creative appropriation, as well as its historical importance.

Some artists embracing remix culture argue that its foundational principals reach beyond both the aesthetic and political and into the realm of metaphysics. Robert Prichard, one of the festival’s producers and former owner of the downtown NYC performance space Surf Reality, is a practicing Buddhist. He explains his conception of remix by quoting Gertrude Stein, who said, famously, “There’s no there, there.”

According to Prichard, Stein’s statement sums up both the Buddhist approach to ontology and the concept of remixing, i.e. creating new works out of old. “There is nothing intrinsic to a table that makes it a table,” Prichard explains, ”and a good carpenter can make it into a bookshelf or a chair by altering its arrangement and the interdependence of its parts.” The oft-misunderstood Buddhist concepts of emptiness and interdependence, he says, mean “nothing has a fixed meaning or identity, but is constantly shifting and moving, things arise from other things, relationships change and everything is dependent on something else. So according to Buddhism, the nature of reality is constant flux, or remix.”

As technology continues to evolve and nations around the world struggle with their own questions surrounding copyright, piracy and file sharing, remix culture has become a global movement. International artists have had increasingly strong representation as RE/Mixed Media Festival has grown over the past three years. In 2012, festival producers teamed up with Italy’s nascent MashRome festival, an annual event that celebrates remix in film, and the partnership resulted in a nearly threefold increase in submissions from international artists. This year, nearly a third of the festival’s artists reside outside of the United States, and represent a total of 13 countries. There are plans in the works to create versions of the festival in Berlin, Tokyo and Amsterdam, in addition to other cities within the US. This broadening of the festival’s talent pool and audience, along with this year’s move from Brooklyn to the more centrally located Manhattan, has also attracted sponsors hoping to reach an international and culturally engaged audience. One of the 2014 sponsors, ThoughtWorks, a Chicago-based software company, is an outspoken champion of the open-source ideal, and sees the festival as an opportunity to expose their company’s work to a new generation of programmers.

Paul D. Miller, aka DJ Spooky, curates an exhibit that functions as a companion piece to the forthcoming anthology, “The Imaginary App.”  COURTESY OF THE ARTIST
Paul D. Miller, aka DJ Spooky, curates an exhibit that functions as a companion piece to the forthcoming anthology, “The Imaginary App.” COURTESY OF THE ARTIST

Since its inception, RE/Mixed Media Festival has attracted artists of all disciplines who embrace the concepts of collaboration, sharing, appropriation and a strong cultural commons from which they draw, and to which they contribute. This year, one of the most outspoken proponents of remix culture, Paul D. Miller — aka DJ Spooky, That Subliminal Kid — will curate an exhibit at the festival entitled “The Imaginary App.” The exhibit is a companion piece to Miller’s forthcoming anthology of the same name, edited by Miller and Svitlana Matviyenko. “The Imaginary App,” as noted on the festival’s website (remixnyc.com), features original icons of nonexistent apps contributed by artists and designers from around the world.

Lev Manovich, author of the 2013 book “Software Takes Command” as well as the seminal 2001 text “The Language of New Media,” will deliver the festival’s keynote speech on Saturday, highlighting the “remixability” of software as a cultural phenomenon. Another featured speaker, author David Shields, will speak about his 2010 literary mashup, “Reality Hunger,” a manifesto constructed entirely from existing texts ranging from Picasso to Jonathan Lethem.

In addition to speakers and exhibits, and true to its credo, the festival will also feature a variety of installations and performances throughout the weekend. One of the performers, electronic musician and singer Erin Barra, recently released “Dear John,” a single from her upcoming album “Undefined,” through the website blend.io — an online collaboration tool for musicians that has been used by Moby, Prefuse 73 and Plus/Minus. Barra’s strategy is to make the “stems,” recorded segments of the song, available online to fans for “listening, remixing, and reimagining.” Barra maintains that the sharing of culture is a win-win proposition for musicians and audiences alike. “It’s the inheritance of the masses,” she said. “A 15-year-old kid in Lithuania gets to have the files and mess around with them because that is his right and I have granted it and whatever he does with that is his own prerogative. I’m alright with that.”

Tammy Faye Starlite (here, as Nico) will perform an adaptation of her acclaimed performance piece, “Nico/Chelsea Mädchen.”  PHOTO BY BOB GRUEN
Tammy Faye Starlite (here, as Nico) will perform an adaptation of her acclaimed performance piece, “Nico/Chelsea Mädchen.”

Another performer at this year’s festival, Tammy Faye Starlite, has been a staple in the NYC and international music and cabaret scenes since the mid-1990s. Starlite, who is best known for her satiric characterization of a bible-thumping country singer, has recently charted new territory with her portrayal of Nico, erstwhile Velvet Underground singer and Warhol superstar. On Saturday afternoon, Starlite will perform “Ein Nacht Mit Nico: A Funereal Cabaret,” a production that has been adapted from her much-lauded performance piece, “Nico/Chelsea Mädchen.”

All told, the 2014 RE/Mixed Media Festival will host over 70 artists and speakers over the course of the weekend, with Saturday programming broken into two parts — daytime events will be held at The New School from 10am-5pm and, after a break for dinner, will continue at CultureHub from 6-10pm. Both halves of the day will employ the “cross-pollination” programming strategy and include performances, installations and discussions. Sunday is dedicated mainly to hands-on workshops in everything from media literacy to hip-hop. At the festival’s closing event on Sunday, Erin Barra will perform a live remix of all the festival’s works — the films, music, talks and installations — a fitting culmination to a weekend devoted to the art of remix.


 Tom Tenney — a contributor to this publication on the topics of music, media and technology — is an artist, educator, writer and producer. He is the co-founder and director of the RE/Mixed Media Festival, a contributor to the forthcoming anthology “The Routledge Companion to Remix Studies” and a professor of media studies at Hofstra University in Hempstead, NY.