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IT’S CRITICAL! Ethical Foundations for Critical Remix Practice and Theory


Critical Writing by Diran Lyons & Byron Russell
VENUE: Open Video Conference
Fashion Institute of Technology, NYC, NY
Oct 1 – 2, 2


Thank You! I come here to speak to you today about the ethical foundations of Critical Remix, one aspect of which is ‘The Creative Lie’, a subject near and dear to my colleague, Diran Lyons, who wrote that portion of the paper. I will address the need to define Critical Remix as a free speech issue: Free Speech equals Free Media. By examining how we define this work and its boundaries, I will address how we might frame remix so that future artists can rely on these principles as a foundation for their right to create.

Since we have already fought these battles many times before in the history of art, I think it's peculiar that we find ourselves fighting yet again for the rights of artists to create using the material they see in the world around them. Duchamp, Rauschenberg, Warhol, Richard Prince, Jeff Koons. This discussion has already taken place! But the powers that be are relentless in their efforts to control, and so these same rights are again under attack. This time, let us think broadly with our definition of remix so that the next time someone remixes a 3D hologram or future medium, s/he won’t have to do this all over again. After all, there are already artists, such as Kenneth Tin-Kin Hung, whose work exists in the margins of what we might consider Critical Remix.

Critical Remix, meaning: all work which reuses digital media to critique media and society. Political Remix Video, or PRV, is probably the most common term and quite descriptive, but ‘political’ fails to communicate the basic nature of the work as a critique of media and a critique of society as reflected in media. All remix is political when we consider it in light of copyright issues, or when we accept Thomas Mann’s proposition that "everything is politics." But if ‘political’ means politicians, laws, and the affairs of the state, then quite a few of the best remixes are not political. Moreover, the word ‘political’ tends to inject a flavor of partisanship and single-mindedness that overshadows other amazing qualities of this work.
Eric Faden offers us both ‘Critical Media’ and ‘Media Stylo’ as alternatives. ‘Stylo’ is French for ‘pen,’ and by extension ‘critique,’ making ‘Media Stylo’ oddly suggest the act of writing, as opposed to digital media. On the other hand, ‘Critical Media’ suffers from ambiguity in its use of the term ‘media,’ perhaps explaining Eric’s need for two separate expressions.

Instead, consider Critical Remix, which is both inclusive and specific. ‘Critical’ because the work is critique, ‘critical’ for its criticizing perspective, and ‘critical’ because it is necessary. ‘Remix’: a recombination of existing and created elements, some of which may include video, audio, animation, graphics, or other components. By examining our terminology and defining boundaries, we can further refine our understanding of Critical Remix and its potential in a way that everyone can understand and appreciate. Gaining the appreciation of a broader public will solidify Critical Remix as relevant to both public discourse and fine art.

Governments, corporations, and media outlets work in the service of the rich and powerful to shape our perceptions to their ends. Critical Remix subverts this propaganda by empowering individuals with limited resources to speak in the language of the original message, recontextualizing it to shed light on the misleading or false messages contained within. And while corporations may someday tire of targeting teens for downloading songs or remixing movies in tribute, they will always target people who aim to derail the corporate agenda. We must protect the ability of remixers to create their art by building the ethical foundation for their work now, and protect future remixers whose work will exist in forms we have yet to imagine.

This freedom is needed especially for those whose ideas are controversial or unpopular. History shows that new ideas tend to be difficult to listen to or accept, even when they reflect reality. How are we to recognize the herald of our evolution if we silence the voices of dissent? Thomas Mann also said, “Opinions cannot survive if one has no chance to fight for them.” Indeed, one can feel the passion of a Critical Remixer through the clear message and strong point of view that energizes his or her work. At times they seem drawn to controversy, ironically polemical in light of the fundamental goal of remix to dismantle hegemony of discourse. But this is just a natural result of their dedication and willingness to fight for their beliefs. We need people like this for their creative energy and dedication.

Founding Fathers like Benjamin Franklin were passionately involved in publishing, and made certain that the First Amendment spoke clearly of the broad need for freedom of speech and press. While these rights may still exist in a literal sense, they mysteriously do not apply to digital media. Artists are forced to break the law to collect material for a legal purpose. Why do DMCA and fair use doctrines seem to take precedence over First Amendment principles? I encourage you to hear my colleague, Desiree D’Alessandro speak about her experiences with this issue tomorrow in the auditorium at noon.

The legal intersection of copyrighted content, fair use, and remix demand great attention, but an equally significant ethical issue concerns the truth value of Critical Remix. The detractor of Critical Remix is concerned not with whether this type of speech is permissible but whether it ultimately contains any cultural value. Detractors of Remix allege, correctly, that this type of work intentionally obfuscates the original contexts of the component parts that comprise it. They claim, also correctly, that taking video clips out of context is by definition an act of deliberate misrepresentation. Where we peel away from each other is the idea that such deception is an offense sufficient to dismiss Critical Remix outright as propaganda. Their argument is, if the truth as a remix artist sees it cannot be supported by material which is faithful to its original context, but instead requires ripping it out of context, then it has no truth value. Five lies edited together do not the truth make.

But, consider the treatment of Shirley Sherrod, a casualty of propaganda. As with Jeremiah Wright's sermons, a brief excerpt from Sherrod's speech is shown on Fox News, and the knives come out. She is fired as a result and the White House apologizes for her seemingly offensive statements. But, just a few more seconds of video show the context and meaning of her speech are the opposite of what was conveyed in the sound bite. This is a hold up at knife point of a person's entire life at the hands of Fox News. It's one thing to play with sharp objects. It's another to leave them out where kids can get at them and another thing still to hope they do.

Now... Such criticisms, pointed as they may be (pun intended), are misdirected when applied to Critical Remix. It is here that an aesthetics of deception, as developed by Friedrich Nietzsche, remains incredibly relevant to discussions on media theory and contemporary representation. Nietzsche contends that illusion is a defining characteristic of representational artworks, and it is through this illusory sphere – ‘The Creative Lie’ – that consequent truth claims emerge with which we can form new understandings. He says that art "treats illusion as illusion...," "speaking the truth quite generally in the form of lies," and he goes on to address this apparent riddle by saying that within the context of art, illusions "do not actually deceive us, but awaken belief by means of surfaces."

To make this idea more concrete, recall Rene Magritte's painting of a pipe, humorously informing us that what is depicted on the surface is not an actual pipe, but stands as a painterly illusion of the object in order to raise larger critical questions about representation and the shortcomings of language. Cinema is likewise not ‘real,’ but rather fashions an allegorical vehicle to larger ideas. Similarly, Remix embraces the primacy of illusion so characteristic of art, using it to clarify and contribute to political discourse.

For instance, consider the trailer for ‘Terrorizing Dissent’, a strong example of Critical Remix. We see John McCain on national television accepting the Republican nomination for President. While he speaks about a "freer, safer, more prosperous world," we see concurrent shots of protestors being gassed outside. As the speech continues, the two scenes are slowly integrated, culminating in an image of John McCain at the podium in front of the chaos outside. The composite is rough, obviously not original footage, and yet his words and the juxtaposition of images and sounds create a holistic context that is closer to the truth of the situation than the staged performance broadcast on television.

Understood in this light, the truth claims of Critical Remix are founded on ‘The Creative Lie’ and do not qualify as propaganda. In examples of the strongest work within the genre, the voices of both dissent and criticism are present through a pastiche of clearly unrelated clips. The viewer is not duped by these crafted relationships, but willingly suspends disbelief long enough to engage the artist's rebuttal or further explication of a critical issue. Critical Remix thus repudiates the ideologies embedded within the source, providing a corrective lens to the manipulative memes and postures of powerful institutions
‘The Creative Lie’ and free speech equals free media are just two examples of what makes this work important. There are other important aspects of this work that remain to be articulated. But we will never know what we might learn from remix if we fail to protect it.

What can we do to further promote it? We can reclaim the creative freedoms that have served us so well in the past and secure the rights of the individual to engage in public discourse. We can speak out for this work, claiming a place for Critical Remix by viewing, discussing, creating, and encouraging these artists. For my part, I am pleased to announce the ‘Appropriation Alliance Critical Remix Festival’ on the theme of Oil and War, offering a grand prize of $1000. You can find our call for entry, the full text of this paper, and a place to submit your critical writing on remix by picking up one of these cards and visiting our website, Thank you!

SCREENING & DISCUSSION: Oil and Water Remixes

Critical Writing by Desiree D'Alessandro & Diran Lyons

VENUE: Oil + Water: The Case of Santa Barbara and Southern California Conference
Interdisciplinary Humanities Center, University of California, Santa Barbara.
April 8 – 10, 2010
McCune Conference Room, 6020 HSSB

DesireƩ D'Alessandro: Hi everyone! How are you? (Audience responds). Good! My name is Desiree D'Alessandro. I am a Fine Art Masters student here at UCSB, and this is my colleague, Diran Lyons. He is also a former UCSB Art Department graduate, as you can see... (D'Alessandro gestures toward Lyons, who is sporting UCSB apparel). Apparently proud of it! (Audience laughs). We're very excited to be here today and gathered with professionals of such a prestigious stature; all of which are well-informed and very skilled. We're excited to engage in this discussion about oil and water through a historical and a contemporary lens that spans local, national, and global networks. Working within the realm of digital media, Lyons and I have curated a small selection of works that we have generated and wish to share with you today. We are also going to be screening a work by Jonathan McIntosh, who is also a major proponent in the realm of Political Remix Video. A certain aspect that we really wish to emphasize today is PRV's accessibility. Anyone with Internet access can view these works and hopefully engage in the commentary and public discourse that is generated through the viral and public platform of YouTube. Without further adieu, I invite Lyons to present us with the context that surrounds these works and how they relate to activism. He will also share with us how his works have recently received acclaim on Thank you.

Diran Lyons: Thank you, Desiree. To put things tersely, Political Remix Video does have an activist tendency---to follow the keynote address that we just heard---in that it is primarily interested in directing the viewer's imagination toward topical politics and current critical issues like oil. For example, I'm going to very briefly screen a video by Jonathan McIntosh---it's about a minute long. By tweaking a handful of subtle moments within a Chevron commercial that aired a few years ago, McIntosh is able to cast a critical shadow upon the oil company and reframe the entire message of said commercial. He does this by replacing certain clips with other existing footage from different contexts, thereby allowing the viewer to see some of the irresponsible behavior Chevron has committed as a result of its global meandering and reckless pursuit of capital. By swapping in the new clips, McIntosh creates a visual narrative that corrects the claims of the commercial's narrator. After this remix, I will move on to some of the atrocities Chevron has committed specifically in Ecuador over the past thirty years, as they should assume responsibility for these when their purchase of Texaco took place in 2001. So, I would like to now screen the following works that focus on Chevron: The Power of Chevron's Human Energy from 2008, by Jonathan McIntosh, and Chevron's 8 Steps (Ricardo Reis Veiga Remix), a remix that I made this year.

Lyons: Again, the first video was by Jonathan McIntosh, and as you can see, it was obviously very critical of Chevron. In this case, Political Remix is valuable not in its capability to embody a rigor as comprehensive as some of the presentations we've seen today, but in terms of its ability to rapidly disseminate information into the public discourse. It can direct our attention toward some of the more comprehensive literature and those types of arguments, all in a quick, audiovisual format. Before handing things back to Desiree, I'll screen my work Jake Gyllenhaal Challenges the Winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, and after the screening I'll briefly offer some reflection on it. Here, I think PRV is extremely valuable because it is able to grab, for example, household names like Jake Gyllenhaal and reinsert these into the political discussion. Both of the films that are remixed in the following video--Donnie Darko and Jarhead--have absolutely nothing to do with the new point of view that the remixed video espouses. But recontextualizing these films by integrating them with other video materials allows me to say something completely different than the original sources, and the final result is a video critical of both the source material and the President's foreign policies. That is the critique. That is the interest.

Lyons: That was Jake Gyllenhaal Challenges the Winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, and like most Political Remix Video, it is very reliant on what Friedrich Nietzsche might call the Creative Lie. It's an artistic strategy which uses illusion and deception intentionally, but in such a way that the viewer is not really duped by it. Through this artistic gesture, we're able to suggest deeper deductions on specific issues. In this case, the video imagines--as Nietzsche might say--a "people of the future" who would readily assert fortified postures against ideological positions that they find disagreeable, confidently challenging power structures with passion and without fear. Remix forcefully fosters this sort of attitude and environment. And finally, I think it is really good for exposure to place such works not only on places like YouTube, but also to screen them in competitive public festivals, that way they have a broader reach and can get on places like Internet Movie Database. And, for example, can go up thirteen thousand percent in popularity (using a laser pointer, Lyons circles a screen shot of the popularity gauge that reveals the remix work up by over 13,000%). I don't understand this number, but I was very happy when I saw it! (Audience laughs). The film reached #1 on for five weeks, and as a result it generated further interest in this type of work.

D'Alessandro: To continue with the final screening of our presentation, notice there is a shift in tone between the remix that you just saw, and the remix in which we are about to present. Additionally, there's also a shift in political topic and subject, where the former remix addresses issues on oil, this one is going to address issues on water conservation and sustainability. The remix also continues to develop this conversation of reconfiguring source material to present an alternative truth, or as Nietzsche would assert, a Creative Lie. The juxtaposition of humor and criticality in the following work potentially amplifies its accessibility to viewers who can engage in the agenda behind the message and also enjoy the mash-up for what it is. This remix is one that I have made recently, and is titled World Water Shortage vs. Golf Course Consumption.

D'Alessandro: So I decided to address issues on water and hyrdopolitics when I encountered a national fact that California is one of the leading golf course-congested states in the US. I began to speculate on what this means in terms of water commoditization in the face of the proliferation of such a spectacle. Through remix, I felt that this investigation merited the utilization of a wider array of source footage to recontextualize and create an environmental message to boost the accessibility of the work---to juxtapose the difference in the way the topic is handled in the news vs. mainstream media commercials, and treat each cut as a continuous conceptual stream across a variety of media dissemination platforms. The resulting critical yet humorous narrative ultimately promotes the utilization of water in a more judicious sense and advocates my disapproval of maneuvers to convert this critical world resource into a profitable commodity. All the works we have screened today are grounded in progressive postures that challenge power structures through innovative audiovisual material, addressing political institutions, corporations, and environment crises that directly correspond with this year's IHC theme: Oil and Water.

Lyons: This concludes our presentation, and we thank you for viewing our selection of works.

D'Alessandro: Yes, we look forward to your questions in the panel discussion. Thank you!