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Remix: The Bond of Repetition and Representation, by Eduardo Navas

Image source: Eightronica

The following text was published in December 2008 in Inter/activos II by Espacio Fundacion Telefonica, Buenos Aires. The publication was produced in support of a new media workshop and theory seminar by the same name which took place in 2006, organized by curator and writer Rodrigo Alonzo. The text revisits my definition of Remix that has already been introduced in prior writings, such as Turbulence: Remixes and Bonus Beats. This definition can also be found in the section Remix Defined. “The Bond of Repetition and Representation” links the theory of Noise by Jacques Attali to my overall argument that Remix has its roots in DJ Culture starting in the seventies. In the conclusion it revisits and extends my analysis of Yann Le Guenec’s project Le Catalogue.

Some things have changed since I first wrote this essay in 2006. I did not expect the print publication to take as long as it did, but now that it has finally been published, as opposed to updating the text, I have chosen to release it online as it was originally written. While some cultural trends may be quite different from 2006, the argument proposed is still relevant. This analysis is part of a much larger and extensive project and will be eventually released in its remixed form in the future.

The term remix, today, is used to describe various cultural elements, from mash-up software applications[1] to projective architecture.[2] No matter what form it takes, the remix is always allegorical, meaning that the object of contemplation depends on recognition of a pre-existing cultural code.[3] The audience is always expected to see within the object a trace of history.

To entertain the importance of Remix in culture at large, we must come to terms with it according to its historical development. This will enable us to understand the dialectics at play within Remix, which at the beginning of the twenty-first century is the ideological foundation for remix culture. As it will become clear in this essay, in order for remix culture to come about, certain dynamics had to be in place, and these were first explored in music, around the contention of representation and repetition. This essay will focus on defining remix in relation to these two terms, and then move on to examine its role in media and art.

Remix Defined

Generally speaking, remix culture can be defined as the global activity consisting of the creative and efficient exchange of information made possible by digital technologies that is supported by the practice of cut/copy and paste. [4] The concept of Remix often referenced in popular culture derives from the model of music remixes which were produced around the late 1960s and early 1970s in New York City, with roots in Jamaica’s music.[5] Today, Remix (the activity of taking samples from pre-existing materials to combine them into new forms according to personal taste) has been extended to other areas of culture, including the visual arts; it plays a vital role in mass communication, especially on the Internet.

To understand Remix as a cultural phenomenon, we must first define it in music. A music remix, in general, is a reinterpretation of a pre-existing song, meaning that the “aura” of the original will be dominant in the remixed version. Of course some of the most challenging remixes can question this generalization. But based on its history, it can be stated that there are three types of remixes. The first remix is extended, that is a longer version of the original song containing long instrumental sections making it more mixable for the club DJ. The first known disco song to be extended to ten minutes is “Ten Percent,” by Double Exposure, remixed by Walter Gibbons in 1976.[6] The second remix is selective; it consists of adding or subtracting material from the original song. This is the type of remix which made DJs popular producers in the music mainstream. One of the most successful selective remixes is Eric B. & Rakim’s “Paid in Full,” remixed by Coldcut. [7] In this case Coldcut produced two remixes, the most popular version not only extended the original recording, following the tradition of the club mix (like Gibbons), but it also contained new sections as well as new sounds, while others were subtracted, always keeping the “essence” of the song intact. The third remix is reflexive; it allegorizes and extends the aesthetic of sampling, where the remixed version challenges the aura of the original and claims autonomy even when it carries the name of the original; material is added or deleted, but the original tracks are largely left intact to be recognizable. An example of this is Mad Professor’s famous dub/trip hop album No Protection, which is a remix of Massive Attack’s Protection. In this case both albums, the original and the remixed versions, are considered works on their own, yet the remixed version is completely dependent on Massive’s original production for validation.[8] The fact that both albums were released at the same time in 1994 further complicates Mad Professor’s allegory. This complexity lies in the fact that Mad Professor’s production is part of the tradition of Jamaica’s dub, where the term “version” was often used to refer to “remixes” which due to their extensive manipulation in the studio pushed for allegorical autonomy.[9]

Allegory is often deconstructed in more advanced remixes following this third form, and quickly moves to be a reflexive exercise that at times leads to a “remix” in which the only thing that is recognizable from the original is the title. But, to be clear—no matter what—the remix will always rely on the authority of the original song. The remix is in the end a re-mix—that is a rearrangement of something already recognizable; it functions at a second level: a meta-level. This implies that the originality of the remix is nonexistent, therefore it must acknowledge its source of validation self-reflexively. In brief, the remix when extended as a cultural practice is a second mix of something pre-existent; the material that is mixed at least for a second time must be recognized otherwise it could be misunderstood as something new, and it would become plagiarism. Without a history, the remix cannot be Remix.[10]

The three definitions of Remix presented above extend to popular culture with great efficiency. Some of the key codes of the Selective and Reflexive Remixes had been at play for sometime before the DJs experimented with them in music. Some examples from art history include Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain of 1917, which consists of an untouched urinal (save for a traditional artist signature) to reinforce the question, what is art? And codes of a second level remix on Duchamp can be found in Fountain (after Marcel Duchamp) by Sherrie Levine who, in 1991, questioned Duchamp’s privileged position as a man and his urinal as art, leaving intact Duchamp’s aura as an artist but not the Urinal’s spectacular aura as a mass produced object.[11] But the Extended Remix is not found in popular culture before the 70s. The Disco DJs, going against the grain, actually extended music compositions to make them more danceable. They took 3 to 4 minute compositions that would be friendly to radio play, and extended them as long as 10 minutes.[12] In the seventies this was quite radical because in fact, it is the summary of long material that is constantly privileged in the mainstream—which is true even today. The reason behind this tendency has to do in part with the efficiency that popular culture demands. That is, everything is optimized to be quickly delivered and consumed by as many people as possible—music on the radio is no exception. An obvious example of this tendency is the popularity of publications like Reader’s Digest, which offer condensed versions of books as well as stories for people who want to be informed but do not have the time to read the original material, which is often more extensive. [13]

Another recent occurrence that is now emerging on the web is the two-minute “replay” available for TV shows like “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.”[14] If you missed the show when it aired, you can spend just two minutes online catching up on the plot; in essence, this is a more efficient version of Reader’s Digest for TV delivered to your Internet doorstep. This two-minute replay is also called “video highlights.” At the same time, this optimization of information allows entire programs to be uploaded in short segments to community websites like Youtube; and even though many of these uploads are done by average consumers, in the end they function as promotion for TV media.[15]

The implications that these developments have in Remix are closely tied to political economy, and will be the subject of contemplation in the next section.

Repetition Remixes Representation

Both the Selective and Reflexive Remixes depend on the efficiency that made mass media powerful—they appropriate this very element to critique the media. They deliver material with the same efficiency and the same expectations of immediate recognition that the culture industry expects. An important ideological shift had to take place in order for this type of efficiency to develop. This shift consists of repetition overpowering representation.

Jacques Attali in his book Noise The Political Economy of Music, explains the domestication of noise as the enslavement of representation by repetition. Attali considers music a cultural form that expresses power; for him, music is the domestication of noise. Music is a way for humans to exert their control over nature, for music is “what links a power center to its subjects, and thus, more generally, it is an attribute of power in all of its forms.”[16] Music, then, is the vehicle through which “material reality” is explored much faster than any other medium.[17] Noise is understood in terms of control and power due to the development of recording devices. Attali argues that once representation (meaning performance of the music score by a musician) is recorded electronically, any live performance that comes after is subject to the recording as the constant reference for legitimation. Once representation is recorded, it can be repeated in different contexts, including in the home or on the radio: thus representation is taken over by repetition.[18] And repetition becomes ideology: the backbone of consumer society, and the culture Industry. [19] According to Attali repetition also makes possible the abuse of musicians by the music industry. This cooption of the performer was possible because of one medium: the radio, which also gave rise to the Disc Jockey as a celebrity, which means that the profession of the DJ was founded on repetition from the very beginning.

Therefore one must ask: was there ever resistance, as understood in Critical Theory, at play in the rise of DJ culture? If one looks at the history of the DJ one could say that when radio became more popular in the 1950s, DJs like Alan Freed, whether he was aware of it or not, made sure that repetition would prevail over representation. Freed was one of the first DJs who played a great variety of recorded R & B music. He created a space for the voices of African-American artists to be heard via the recordings he played on his radio show.[20] This being said, one must be aware that such visibility came with conflicts for African Americans. Yes, while they may have developed a type of public identity by the ambivalent acceptance of their music, issues of race, as well as abuse of their intellectual and creative activities cannot be denied. In dialectical fashion, African Americans currently hold a strong cultural position in the United States and other parts of the world, defined by their conflictive history. Therefore, to say that during the middle of the twentieth century the DJ was promoting repetition in a repressive way following the theory of Attali would be a reductive statement, because it was in part thanks to repetition and not representation that African Americans developed a public media position in modernity.

The dependence of the African American community on repetition via musical recordings played on the radio took a major shift in the 1970s. The hip hop DJ ruptured repetition when he discovered scratching. What Grand Wizard Theodore (accredited with being the first scratching DJ) did when he stopped the record on the turntable, to move it back and forth and create the effect of a scratch was to convert the turntable into a musical instrument.[21] This is radical because the phonograph was originally designed to be a pacifier (a silencer) for human beings, as Attali argues. The DJ took the turntable and used it to manipulate records, thereby creating a different form of music based on pre-existing recordings. The turntable became a machine with which pre-existing material could be distorted to the point that, if the skills were developed, the DJ was able to perform solos as complex as those of a guitarist. The DJ was able to compose, to improvise new material in the moment by re-using pre-recorded material, originally designed for listening. This is the real power behind hip-hop. This is where the rupture happens within the culture industry. Charles Mudede elaborates on this: “The turntable is a repurposed object. It is robbed of its initial essence. But the void is soon refilled by a new essence which finds its meaning, its place in the hip hop universe, in the service of the DJ.”[22] Mudede goes on to argue that hip hop actually breaks with music tradition. I argue that it renovates music by disrupting repetition. This means that the DJ reintroduced representation with agency.

The activity of the hip hop DJs evolved into sampling bits of music; they eventually evolved from being live performers to music studio producers, which means that based on the principles of sampling, they were cutting/copying and pasting pre-recorded material to create their own music compositions. Cut/copy and paste, the fragmentation of material, is today part of everyday activities both at work and at home thanks to the computer, and are commonly found in popular software applications, such as Adobe Photoshop and Microsoft Word.

This means that we have entered a new paradigm in cultural production and consumption. To understand this better, we need to reflect a bit more on the disco and hip hop DJs. Both the disco DJ (who evolved into the techno and house DJ) as well as the hip hop DJ have authority in the music studio because they understand rhythm mainly as live performers who differ from musicians that play instruments like the piano or the guitar. The agency of DJ producers lies in the fact that their raw material comes from mass production, which has pre-existent cultural value. The role of the DJ producer is to replay—or remix—not create, like a traditional composer is expected to do.

What the DJs introduced by using the turntable as a musical instrument is the possibility of Attali’s passive listener to become a cultural producer. The act of not just listening or viewing, but of actually having to “play” something today is expected in new media culture. This is conventionalized so the agency that the DJ attained upon appropriation of recorded material is not a factor in the implementation of “playing” at the mass consumer level. This is the basic premise behind a website: the user must decide where to go by interacting with an interface designed specifically to make information as dynamically accessible as possible. We also find these features in DVDs, where the user can now not only view a movie from beginning to end, but also access different sections and special features by using interactive menus; the user can enjoy the movie in different languages, or with commentaries by the actors and director. Furthermore, the user is often encouraged to load the DVD in the computer, and log on to a website, often to learn about a video game. A case in point is the website for The Matrix film trilogy which encourages viewers to download a video game to play at home or online.[23] But the people who do this are not necessarily being critical, but simply consuming via interactivity.

An actual manifestation of cultural production is the rise of the blogger. Today, blogs (public journals online, which often specialize on a subject) follow the evolution of the newspaper writer, the newspaper reader, and the rise of the collaborator. Blogs have pushed the idea of the collaborator in unexpected ways. For instance, because blogs function on a network (the Web which runs on the Internet), they are able to perform as platforms for not only feedback on printed media that is newspapers and magazines (which now also have online versions of their publications), but also as places where to exchange ideas with other writers.

The blogger in fact is a remixer who is constantly looking for material on which to comment. The power of the blogger is not primarily of breaking news (although this is common if the blogger is an eyewitness to events like the war in Iraq).[24] The ultimate blogger is the one who blogs from other blogs: a metablogger who does not write but simply selects. This activity is known as reblogging; this is one of the forms in which Remix extends to culture as a form of appropriation: a reblog is a synonym for Remix. It is an extension of the copy/cut & paste aesthetic of sampling that moved on to new media with the popularization of computers. And in new media culture this is what the blogger does in the end: remixes culture by constantly appropriating pre-existing material, to comment on it, or simply to recontextualize it, by making it part of a specialized blog. For example boingboing.com is a blog specialized in pop culture. Many blogs reblog material from boing boing, but boing boing also takes material from other blogs that do not have anything to do with pop culture. Basically this is a state of constant remix.

To be clear, then, what the DJ initially brought forward is the appropriation of repetition by representation; thereby making representation friendly to repetition. Thus, representation does not resist cooption by repetition; if anything, today it is optimized for assimilation, by being constantly reblogged (remixed). What does this signify for cultural production? How can we reflect on the contentions of such shift? To entertain these questions, I will analyze a net art project developed in 2002 by x-arn titled “Le Catalogue,” which puts into action the principles of remix so far discussed. It will also expose the ideological loop that bonds representation and repetition in Remix.

Representation Remixes Repetition

In “Le Catalogue,” the mastermind behind x-arn.org has created a database of documentary images (an archive) of art projects between 1990-1996 that’s available for public access.[25] Every time an image is viewed, a horizontal and a vertical line that always intersect are added to the archived image, which is then again stored for access by another user. The more the images are accessed, the more they are abstracted or – if one thinks of preserving the object of art – destroyed. Here, the archive is similar to analog vinyl records losing their fidelity and being slightly deteriorated every time the needle passes through the groove. Unlike a record player, however, which is fabricated with the aim to provide the least damage possible while offering an aesthetic experience to the user, “Le Catalogue” actually makes the most of destruction in order to create a unique image for the present user. The image is unique in time and space because next time the same file is accessed, there will be two more lines added, and so on. In this way, “Le Catalogue” takes on the idea of destruction as a progressive movement marking time, bringing on the new: one can look forward to destruction as a type of online collaboration between the author and the end user, where the archived information is not preserved but rather reinterpreted constantly—it is a constant remix, moving towards destruction. History is here dependent on linear traces that expose the instability of interpretation; much like tree rings, traces are left behind, marking time, leaving us with an allegorical database presenting destruction (death) as an inevitable part of life.

“Le Catalogue” actually appropriates the aesthetic of the turntable as previously defined. When the DJ scratches he is actually destroying the vinyl record. Each time the record is manipulated to create effects it moves towards its ultimate “death.”[26] “Le Catalogue” appropriates repetition: “the breaks” performed manually by the DJ who on the turntables goes back and forth between two copies of the same record, repeating a selected section. “Le Catalogue” turns the loop into a disruptive action against its own foundation in mechanical recording, in this case a computer. The online project marks the movement towards its own finality and demands that the viewers/users stop to question the repetition and destruction of the image. In every sense of the word, x-arn’s “Le Catalogue” is a remix of repetition via representation and is in essence a constant loop: the image that is accessed by the individual for viewing will never be repeated, because next time the image will appear with two more lines and therefore be different. Representation, then, is repeated in a perfect loop—the result is a constant remix of repetition by representation.


“Le-Catalogue” is proof that culture has entered a new period of production, where repetition need not enslave representation, but where rather both terms complement each other according to the individual’s need. The loop implemented in “Le Catalogue” exposes how representation and repetition are bonded. And this also brings forward what is most important in culture: knowledge. As time passes the individual must constantly struggle to understand history, by trying to sift through the traces left by previous generations. These traces will at times confuse the individual and s/he must in the end interpret critically the historical material. The complexity of historical interpretation is what is exposed in “Le catalogue,” because with each viewing, the user becomes aware of the history of the image, but the actual image becomes less visible with each viewing. Thus, reflection of history comes through constant interpretation (in this case, by way of representation remixing repetition). The added lines of “Le Catalogue” are a metaphor for this element of historicity. In the end, no matter what tools are used to mix or remix in culture, what is important is being able to develop a critical position: one that will allow for a constant flux between representation and repetition with the purpose to confront false-consciousness.

[1] Duane Merrill, “Mashups: The new breed of Web app. An introduction to mashups,” 16 Oct, 2006 (14 April, 2007) <http://www-128.ibm.com/developerworks/web/library/x-mashups.html>.

[2] “Eikongraphia”16 March, 2006 (14,April, 2007) <http://www.eikongraphia.com/?p=111>

[3] Craig Owens, “The Allegorical Impulse: Towards a Theory of Postmodernism,” eds., Brian Wallis and Marcia Tucker, Art After Modernism (New York: Godine, 1984), 203-235.

[4] This is actually my own definition extending Lawrence Lessig’s definition of Remix Culture based on the activity of “Rip, Mix and Burn.” Lessig is concerned with copyright issues; my definition of Remix is concerned with aesthetics and its role in political economy. See Lawrence Lessig, “Free,” The Future of Ideas (New York: Vintage, 2001), 12-15.

[5] For some good accounts of Dj Culture see Ulf Poschardt, DJ Culture (London: Quartet Books, 1995); Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton, Last Night a DJ Saved my Life (New York: Grove Press, 1999); Javier Bláquez and Omar Morera, eds., Loops: una historia de la Música electrónica (Barcelona: Reservoir Books, 2002).

[6] Brewster, 178-79.

[7] Paid in full was actually a B side release meant to complement “Move the Crowd.” Eric B. & Rakim, “Paid in Full,” Re-mix engineer: Derek B., Produced by Eric B. & Rakim, Island Records, 1987.

[8] ) Poschardt, 297.

[9] Dick Hebdige, Cut ‘N’ Mix: Culture, Identity and Caribbean Music, (London: Comedia, 1987), 12-16.

[10] DJ producers who sampled during the eighties found themselves having to acknowledge History by complying with the law; see the landmark law-suit against Biz Markie in Brewster, 246.

[11] See my analysis of Duchamp’s and Levine’s urinals in Eduardo Navas,“Turbulence: Remixes + Bonus Beats,” Turbulence.org, January 2007 (14 April, 2007) <http://transition.turbulence.org/texts/nmf/Navas_EN.html>.

[12] Brewster, 178-79.

[13] Reader’s Digest, <http://www.rd.com/>, (October, 2006).

[14] “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip,” nbc.com, September 2006, <http://www.nbc.com/Studio_60_on_the_Sunset_Strip , (October, 2006).

[15] The 2007 Grammys can be seen in pieces almost in its entirety. See “Grammys 2007,” Youtube.org 2007 (April 15, 2007), < http://youtube.com/results?search_query=grammys+2007&search=Search >.

[16] Jacques Attali, “Introduction,” Noise The Political Economy of Music (Minneapolis: Minnesota Press, 1985), 7.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid, 88.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Poschardt, 58-62.

[21] Brewster, 224-25.

[22] Charles Mudede, “The Turntable,” ctheory.net, 24 April 2003 (20, February 2005). <http://ctheory.net/text_file?pick=382>.

[23] The Matrix Trilogy, 2007 (14, April 2007) <http://whatisthematrix.warnerbros.com/>. For a popular online game see: The Matrix Online, 2007, (14, April 2007), <http://www.direct2drive.com/6/330/product/Buy-The-Matrix-Online-Download>.

[24] “Where’s Raed?” 14 April, 2007 (18 August, 2004) <http://dear_raed.blogspot.com/>

[25] X-arn, “Le Catalogue” 2006, (9, February 2006) <http://yann.x-arn.org/catalogue/>.

[26] Attali argues that repetition ultimately points to death in the culture industry, due to self-alienation as explained by Adorno and Karl Marx. Attali, 41.

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