Sunday, September 26, 2010

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!

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