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Remix[ing] Re/Appropriations, By Eduardo Navas

Written for the MEIAC, Badajoz, Spain, March of 2010, for the exhibition Re/appropriations, organized by Gustavo Romano.  The exhibition was launched in December 2009.  The text is released online with permission.

(Versión en Español)

The exhibition Re/Appropriations, curated by Gustavo Romano, proposes that artists in networked culture find their creative potential in the appropriation, selection, and combination of pre-existing material on a meta-level—that of the re, or more specifically, Remix as a form of discourse.  To this effect, Romano recontextualizes the artist as a “redirector of information,” rather than a creator.  This premise as the entry point for creative production at the beginning of the twenty-first century leads to a recurring question often posed on the popular awareness of Remix: “Remixing, as an act of combining material has been around for a long time, one could argue since symbolic language was conceived; so, what is so different about the elements of Remix explored during the first decades of the twenty-first century that make them unique from those in the past?”[1]

First, it must be noted that such a question (even when framed rhetorically) is based on the assumption that the basic act of combining or recombining elements (whether it be ideas or actual forms already produced) appear to function somehow independently from, or at least able to transcend people’s limitation within concrete parameters defined in material reality.  In other words, when such a question is posed, it is assumed that individuals perform acts of recombination disregarding the forms of delivery (this is the inherent validity of the question posed because it presupposes that the acts of combining and recombining are conceptually and essentially the same since people developed symbolic language).[2] Upon closer reflection it becomes evident that it is the very material manifestation of cultural exchange itself that modifies how people not only perceive the world, but also how the world itself is actually reshaped based on the forms produced to represent it.  Furthermore, new forms of representation implemented in media redefine the way people relate to criticality and creativity.  This is possible because content is recycled in a feedback loop across all possible media.  Consequently, the awareness of the growing efficiency of recycling based on emerging technologies, as it is commonly known among cultural critics who focus on postmodern thought, led to the consideration of “originality” as a dated concept of modernism proper.

Along these lines, often cited examples in art that questioned originality by deliberately appropriating material during the first-half of the twentieth century can be found in the works of synthetic cubism, and dada, and in the second half in neo-dada, pop-art, and arte-povera among others.  These movements thrived on demonstrating how cultural value already inherent in mass publications, disposable furniture, mundane objects, and a multiplicity of accessories could be recycled in direct reference to daily life, often with the purpose to create social commentary of some sort.  This type of recycling eventually was a point of reaction for conceptual, performance, and video-based art during the 1960’s and 70’s—which stripped down the referencing of pre-existing content from previous movements to focus in large part on ideas, process and the discourse of art itself.  This tendency was global. Some well-known international examples from this period includes videos, installations, performances and conceptual works by artists such as Vito Acconci (U.S.), Laurie Anderson (U.S.), Eleanor Antin (U.S.), Willem Boshoff (ZA), Marcel Broothaers (BE), Lygia Clark (BR), León Ferrari (AR), Victor Grippo (AR), Wei Guangquing (CN), Ilya Kabakov (RU), Ana Lupas (RO), Irina Nakhova (RU), and Nam June-Paik (KR), among many others.[3]

The growing popularity of recyclability as practiced by artists throughout the twentieth century led to considering creativity as a form of discourse among communities rather than an act by a single individual; during the last thirty years of the twentieth century, artists knew that their acknowledgment of the audience to complete the work reinvigorated art as a relevant vehicle for critical and aesthetical exploration.  This shift has been literally remixed in new media practice at the beginning of the twenty-first century, very much according to how Romano deems the role of the artist as a type of “redirector” (a remixer) of already existing elements of culture in the exhibition Re/Appropriations.

In brief, it is recycling of some form that is privileged in contemporary art practice and this observation is not exclusive to new media art, but affects all art specializations.  Thus, it makes sense that Re/Appropriations is organized into five historically conscious sections that emphasize the “re” prefix as inherited from modern and postmodern practitioners. Selections under Re/Mixes are linked to collage and photomontage as well as film as defined by Eisenstein; works included in Re/Interpretations re-evaluate narratives similarly to a musician reading sheet music, thus making the specific performance (interpretation) unique; projects selected for Re/Engineering deliberately distort the content of a previous work often with the aim to create critical commentary; works in Re/Collections are contextualized in colonial terms, with the metaphor of a “sailor” who navigates to explore and discover unknown territory with certain randomness, inevitably developing a vast archive of ever-growing information; and projects included in Re/Circulations comment on collaboration as a process of interconnectivity that repositions art practice from sequential to simultaneous, emphasizing the collapse of linearity and the rise of modularity.  As evident, each section focuses on a strategy of re-cycling content to demonstrate how we function in a constant state of re-flection, of re-consideration and of Remix proper.

Romano’s proposition of the artist as a type of redirector, admittedly, is specific to networked culture, and different from periods in art practice prior to the beginning of the twenty-first century because Remix as discourse enables artists to function in a state of constant information flow.  Once global interconnectivity becomes possible, art practice is defined by digital and informational material that is recycled between two cultural layers of introductory and secondary implementation that, while previously in place in mass culture since the rise of modernity, were not as efficient in producing and reintroducing content.  It is new media technology that makes the feedback loop between these two layers extremely efficient.  I call these layers The Framework of Remix.  The first layer is at play when something is introduced in culture; the second when that which is introduced attains cultural value and is then remixed and reintroduced to attain further cultural value. A historical example of this recycling is the invention of photography during the 1830’s: the photo camera, in the beginning, sampled from the world.  However, people did not think in terms of recycling at this stage, but rather of taking original images from the world.  Eventually a set of images was accumulated which came to be reused in the form of photomontage around the 1920’s. At this point material that already had attained cultural value in terms of its original introduction was appropriated to develop social or critical commentary, based on the materials’ original authority and understanding as cultural objects. In music, similarly, as recording devices were developed for consumers, sampling principles became more popular culminating in music remixes during the 1970’s and 80’s, specifically in the United States, but eventually spreading as a global activity.  This practice currently has a major influence in digital media, arguably best encapsulated in the common use of Photoshop.

The type of recycling currently part of networked media, and the increase of the information market, then, also affects the artist’s relation to creative production.  In this regard, a key element of conceptual art during the 1970’s was to find ways to dematerialize the object of art; in new media art practice, however, the object is already dematerialized.  New media artists always begin with bits of information produced with a computer; this means that they have to strategize on how to materialize deliberately an object by acknowledging its default state as bits of information, whether it is as Internet art, gallery installations, or experimental films and videos.  This is what we find in the work of artists such as Brian Mackern, who in 2003 put his laptop computer on auction, playfully calling it Maquina Podrida (Rotten Machine).  The computer, which he used to produce work throughout the 1990’s functions not as an actual work of art, but as the tool used to produce works of art.  The art works themselves, however, were not directly sold, even though files of many of Mackern’s projects are archived in the computer’s hard drive.[4]  What this gesture demonstrates is the solidification in art towards constant negotiation among artists, institutions and their audience, once information-based production begins to be assimilated by art institutions. Máquina Podrida exposes how the dematerialization of the object as explored in conceptualism has become a default mode in new media practice.

The contemporary work of art’s default mode informs Romano’s proposition of the contemporary artist as a type of “redirector,” which means that value during modernity and after is found in the quality of choice within the mass amount of material being produced.  Artists, as already alluded to above, in a way began to function along these lines long before such attitude was adopted in popular networked culture.  Perhaps the most over-cited example of this shift of redirecting how an object is perceived is the disinterested approach to art production by Marcel Duchamp, who chose a urinal with supposed indifference to be presented as a proper art object during the Armory Exhibition in 1917.  Duchamp, as is commonly known in art practice, selected the mass produced object as opposed to “creating” one with his own hands.  This gesture shifted the discourse of art to focus on the selective process that informs art as a discourse on various levels: from the production by the artist in the studio to the institution that supports the artist in a highly selective capitalist market; such relations have since then become conventional.

The selections in Re/Appropriations therefore extend and reposition the Duchampian strategy to produce work that cannot be fully assimilated as a proper art object in a capitalist system.  This conundrum is the reason why new media artists often find themselves unable “to sell” (in a conventional sense) the projects to the museum; instead, they sign agreements to have the works archived as part of the museum’s collection. This also marginalizes works of art such as the ones included in Re/Appropriations from a more object based market because such works are developed celebrating the fact that no original or unique object is produced; the only validation is the discourse that the projects produce when the user is engaged.  This challenge remains unresolved in art practice.  More importantly, this shift in production is not exclusive to art, but is also relevant across culture, as the music, newspaper and television industries constantly struggle to find ways to monetize from the legal and illegal dissemination of their content, which in networked culture take the form of constantly flowing information.  In this way, the separation that in the past gave the art institution a sense of autonomy becomes openly linked to other areas of culture, because the same questions of communication and cultural exchange become relevant in the mainstream as well as elite circles.  Understanding the flow between the first and second layers within the Framework of Remix as defined above is key for a critically engaged view of rapid cultural changes.  From this stance, Re/Appropriations is a node—a point of entry to the complexities that support not only contemporary art practice, but also networked culture as a whole.

[1] This question has been posed to me in various occasions, at one point in Buenos Aires during a series of workshops I presented on Remix for the Cultural Center of Spain on July 17-21, 2006, http://cceba.org.ar/evento/taller.pl?id=3; another in San Diego on December 16-17, 2009, during a presentation on Cultural Analytics, http://lab.softwarestudies.com/2009/11/cultural-analytics-seminar-software.html. In the former it was Belén Gache among other colleagues who posed the question from the point of view of art and literature; in the latter, likewise, Cicero Inacio da Silva brought up literary strategies linked to Barthes’ theories in S/Z.  In both cases, it was obvious that participants understood that material reality changes due to technological development, yet the question (I believe) is repeatedly posed because the complexity of such changes are difficult to encapsulate at once.

[2] There is certainly a school of thought that endorses this approach to media.  Most recently Henry Jenkins argues that old media never dies, “what dies is simply the tools that we use to access media content.” See, Henry Jenkins, Convergence Culture (New York: NYU Press, 2006), 13.

[3] There are quite a few publications at this point that trace the internationalization of art practice during the second half of the twentieth century.  For an important account of this development see the corresponding catalog for the exhibition Global Conceptualism: Points of Origins, 1950’s-1980’s, organized at the Queens Museum of Art, NYC in 1999.

[4] For a Full account on the process of sale and acquisition of Máquina Podrida, see: http://netart.org.uy/subasta/

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