DJ Spooky remixes DW Griffith
by Seth Rogovoy
(NORTH ADAMS, Mass., February 27, 2003) – A “remix” in pop music is usually a new version of a song that takes the original vocal track and perhaps some of the instrumental parts and grafts it onto a new rhythm track, meant to enhance the recording’s function as a dance tune.
There are different ways and means of remixing tunes, and in recent years the more artful remixers have become recognized as artists themselves. One of the most accomplished remixers is Paul Miller, better known in the guise of his “constructed identity” as DJ Spooky that Subliminal Kid.
In the past year, Miller has extended the remixing art beyond that of the turntable to incorporate film. In particular, he has been working on “Rebirth of a Nation,” a wholesale reinvention of the early silent classic, “Birth of a Nation” by D.W. Griffith.
On Friday night at 7:30, Miller concludes a two-week residency at Mass MoCA with a work-in-progress showing of “Rebirth of a Nation,” what Miller says “is intended to be a unified statement, collaging high-tech audio and video with live performance, addressing Griffith’s work on both its technique and its content.”
In a recent interview conducted by email, Miller talked about how the
techniques of remixing music can easily be applied to film and multimedia.
“Think about how many movies quote from other movies and how many theater pieces invoke other theater pieces. Shakespeare looks to the tragedies of ancient Greece, Mark Twain echoes the stylistic approaches of Southern, post-bellum angst...the list goes on,” said Miller, an alumnus of Bowdoin College.
“But the basic idea of constant quotation leaves me asking where’s the original text in all of this? And I have to respond as an artist to the fact that there is no original – it’s all just made-up fictions.
“But as stuff like [George Orwell’s] ‘1984’ tells us, some fictions are more powerfully re-enforced than others, and that’s what I point out in my remix. I bring different rhythms to the film’s context. It’s about linking the dots in the strange puzzle of the American, 21st-century psyche. It’s all a remix. That’s what I want people to walk away with from my version of the film. There is no constant.”
In “Rebirth of a Nation,” Miller intends to trace the roots of America’s quick-cut, media-saturated popular culture to Griffith’s profoundly racist movie, which in spite of being censored upon its release in many of the nation’s largest cities, reportedly reigned as the largest-grossing movie until it was surpassed over twenty years later, ironically enough, by Walt Disney’s “Snow White.”
Miller says that while few moviegoers today have actually seen “Birth of a Nation,” its influence is still profound.
“The film has sunk into a kind of embedded memory,” he said. “Most people wouldn’t know about the film’s direct impact on editing or marketing, and wouldn’t even remotely think of it as a Ku Klux Klan recruitment film.
“I like pointing out these paradoxes, and that’s the trickster in me asking, ‘What’s history?’ ‘How do we select what histories we want to influence us consciously or unconsciously?’
“There’s no right or wrong answer, but at least looking back and understanding say, the way African-American roles in films have been conditioned by Griffith, or to look at how the mistrust and blame permeates almost all American explorations in race and class….
“Those who don’t learn from the mistakes of the past are doomed to repeat them. That’s what loops are about. For me, this is a loop I’d love to shatter.”
In addition to his work as a DJ, Miller is a conceptual artist, writer, and musician working in New York. His writing has appeared in the Village Voice, the Source, Artforum, Raygun, Rap Pages, Paper Magazine, and a host of other periodicals.
He is a co-publisher along with downtown poet Steve Canon of the magazine A Gathering of the Tribes -- a periodical dedicated to new works by writers from a multi-cultural context, and he was the first editor-at-large of Artbyte: the Magazine of Digital Culture.
Miller’s work as an artist has appeared in a wide variety of contexts, including the Whitney Biennial; the Venice Biennial for Architecture (year 2000); the Ludwig Museum in Cologne, Germany; Kunsthalle, Vienna; and in the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh.
As DJ Spooky, Miller has recorded a huge volume of music, and has collaborated with a wide variety of musicians and composers including Iannis Xenakis, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Butch Morris, Kool Keith a.k.a. Doctor Octagon, Killa Priest from Wu-Tang Clan, Yoko Ono and Thurston Moore from Sonic Youth.
Miller says that unfortunately, the reality of the racism that pervades Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation” is still a very real, present and relevant concern.
“‘Birth of a Nation’ is a kind of original script for what I like to call ‘Americana,’” said Miller. “The whole scapegoat thing still applies. Check out the last presidential election in Florida for example, or the weird police brutality issues that haunt ‘governance’ in America -- the violence and constant confrontation with a past that has never gone away still remain core issues for anyone really looking at contemporary America.”
That he should be using techniques borrowed from hip-hop culture to turn this racist icon upside down makes it all the more relevant, and undoubtedly provides some sort of artistic gratification.
“I’m just using the film to remix the narrative,” he said. “In hip-hop they say, ‘flip the script.’ I guess you could say that’s what I’m doing with records, too. This is simply a visual extension of the same logic of collage.
“State of the art or art of the state – that’s what I question with my remix of the film. It was Chuck D who said so long ago, ‘Burn Hollywood, burn.’ I’m re-writing the sequel to that track. My title would be ‘As the World Turns’ or something like that.
“There is a sense of irony in all of this, too.”
Rebirth of a Nation is co-presented with Williams College as part of the Stalwart Originality Conference: New Traditions in Black Performance. For tickets to “Rebirth of a Nation,” call 662-2111.
[This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on February 28, 2003. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2003. All rights reserved.]
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