Figure 1: “Do You Want Fries with that?” by Ian Stevenson
The following is an interview conducted for the exhibition Pictoplasma: White Noise, curated by Lars Denicke and Peter Thaler, which took place at La Casa Encendida, Madrid Spain from May 23, to September 8, 2013. I was asked questions on how remix functions in art practice, if there is a difference between remix and sampling, among other issues that the concept of remixing raises with digital and non-digital forms of production. This interview was released as part of a print publication that complemented the exhibit, but it was not made available online. I am now making it public because my answers raise issues that I have not discussed in other texts or interviews. I thank Lars and Peter for their interest in my views on the subject of remix.
Pictoplasma – Remix is what we all do now: cut/copy and paste. You have defined remix culture as the creative exchange of information made possible by digital technologies. Can one only speak of remix in cultural production if it is digital? Or if digital is not a prerequisite, how are analogue remixes embedded into digital culture? What is the difference between remixing and quoting or referencing?
E. Navas – First it should be noted that the concept of remixing is specific to contemporary times. Not everything is a remix – this is hard for me to say given that I was a DJ for almost 15 years (and would love to make such an overreaching claim), but it is precisely because I DJed for so long that I know that remixing is a very specific act. Having said that, the principles of remixing, or remix as discourse, have become important across culture, and this is why remix culture is so popular today, especially when discussing creativity as endorsed by Creative Commons.
When looking back in history you will notice that as a concept for daily creativity, remix was not that popular until remixing became a driving force in music, particularly in disco and hip hop. This means that the concept of remix is popular today not because anyone in particular decided to talk about it to promote some sort of organized movement, but rather because culture as a whole began to use the term to describe the type of creative production that is possible with contemporary technology. The reality is that remix is synonymous with the digital because it was the digital that made the concrete act of taking actual samples from recordings to then manipulate them into something new, while leaving the sampled source intact. This was not the case with collages, which were created by cutting out from images or photographs to create new compositions. In collages the”‘sampled” material was destroyed because it was cut out, but with digital technology, the sampled source is left intact, this was done before in photography, of course, starting in the 19th century. When you take a photograph you are sampling from real life, but the subject of your photograph remains untouched. People at this time, however, did not think about this as an act of sampling, but of recording. But in fact early photography was sampling from real life.
Quoting, if you reproduce the exact sentences, in practical terms is the same act that takes place in music when one samples. But the context under which it is done is different. A quote is usually used to prove a point in an argument, while a sample in music is used as a creative exercise, and in this sense they both use a basic principle of remix as a form of discourse. But a quotation is not necessarily a “remix” – though it could be if an artist deliberately disrupts the basic function of a quotation to make it a creative act in the name of art. Referencing falls under the general paradigm of intertextuality (the embedding or citation of ideas within a text or a material form such as a painting, film, photography, multimedia, etc.). There are many ways to reference, from footnotes, to open allusions used in creative ways within a text or image. But this is not necessarily remixing, either, though in recent times it increasingly finds itself intertwined with remixing because of the way technology encourages the blurring of lines in creativity.
PP – As curators we have followed a quasi structuralist approach, identifying the pop cultural iconography of character design and commercial mascots as common denominator and language and seeing remix as a manipulation of signifiers. Instead of claiming originality, artists embrace the visual white noise that surrounds them from all sources and by changing small details, introduce a new message. How can you relate to this idea?
EN – One thing that people misinterpret about analyzing remix beyond music, is that somehow such research kills “originality.” What becomes obvious is that our creativity has always consisted in making things that offer a unique vision based on an in-depth understanding of previously produced material. If you consider any novelist, any artist, or any musician, and you listen to them speak about their creative process, they all have closely studied their predecessors in order to master the medium and ideas, and only then recombine references and sources of their choice into something that is different from the past. This recombination of material and conceptual elements of sorts is so complex that before we understood how we functioned creatively, as we do now thanks to remix studies as an actual field of research, we looked at creative production and called an author or artist “genius.” But the days of the genius are gone, and what we have now is a much richer moment where we understand how we are all connected and how we are able to contribute something unique because we have a much better understanding of the creative process.
On the other hand, to begin thinking of changing little details to introduce a new message is quite deceptive in terms of creativity. Such a simple act could be artistic and creative but it will unlikely be a long-standing work of art, unless such simplicity is problematized to show how even its apparent straightforwardness can be appropriated conceptually to show the contradictions of originality and non-originality. To do this, one must understand the argument I’m making here about our creative process as an act of communication. Just as before we realized that principles of remix inform all areas of communication and creativity, we need to keep in mind that we can always come up with something new that is unprecedented. Such outcomes can only happen, however, when we have a deep understanding and knowledge not only of our history but our creative process; all art from the past lives up to this test. Understanding the principles of remix can only help a creative person become a more creative individual. But one cannot think that we are merely cutting around little details here and there. Real changes happen when we make our own what others produced in the past. If originality still exists today, this is the only way that it can come about.
Figure 2: “Radiant Face Projecting Beauty Anime Girl” by Kurt Separately
PP – We live in times of non-stop image production and consumption. TV, newspapers and billboard advertising have been overtaken by an endless interaction with the glowing surfaces of our digital devices. Is remix the only way to cope with this visual stream now that there is no image outside the box? Is it the fate of our digital culture?
EN – There is no outside. Once we enter the symbolic world there is no getting out again unless we lose self-awareness or die. Or we somehow get off the grid, severing contact with all media and cultures; but even then, if you make this rather romantic and delusional decision, after growing up with concepts of our current global culture, which in large part is an extension of Western culture, even when you decide to become a hermit, you will negotiate your existence in whatever context based on previously adopted principles. From this stance, to think of being outside media or outside the text, for that matter, is a mute argument with a dead-end.
If we think of remix as a discourse I would say that remix principles as we understand them today are an effective way to deal with the visual stream that you mention. Now, this does not mean that everything is a remix, it just means that things are composed of other things. If you want to be reductive, then a more realistic statement would be that everything consists of samples, citations or reinterpretations; however, such elements don’t necessarily add up to a remix, but rather an object or a piece dependent on remix principles. For example, the song “Good Times” by Chic was sampled for “Rapper’s Delight,” by The Sugarhill Gang, but the latter is not a remix; it only uses a sample of the former song in order for rappers to improvise their rhymes and create a new recording.
PP - How could one identify different remix strategies using examples from the exhibition?
EN – Ian Stevenson’s painting “Do you want fries with that…” [Figure 1] puts Ronald McDonald in a deformed silhouette. This is what I define as a cultural citation, meaning that the form is not a concrete sample, but a reference of a form that one is likely to recognize as preexisting based on a shared culture. It is not a reference, but rather an illustration of a thing, in this case Ronald McDonald. What is taking place here is more along the lines of a cover song performed by a band. In such a case one evaluates the image based on its likeness to the reference, and how similar and different the ‘cover’ may be. Just like a cover recording or performance, one may actually like it more than the reference, or just say that it’s different, or that both are quite interesting.
Then “Radiant Face Projecting Beauty Anime Girl” by Kurt Separately [Figure 2] works directly with the source material, deconstructing an iconic manga character to a dysfunctional glitch. This is a remix defined by material sampling. This means the actual sampled material is manipulated to develop a unique composition that may still make reference to the sampled source.