Clash of the Remixers
David Shields, professor of English at the University of Washington and author of the new novel Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, is one of many on the forefront of what could be called “the appropriation controversy.” Interviewed by Randy Kennedy for the New York Times, Shields speaks and writes in defense of a growing trend within the arts that makes use of the remix to transform old ideas into new ones. Appropriation, in essence, is taking something that was and turning it into something it wasn’t. He writes:
“My intent is to write the ars poetica for a burgeoning group of interrelated (but unconnected) artists in a multitude of forms and media… who are breaking larger and larger chunks of ‘reality’ into their work. (Reality, as Nabokov never got tired of reminding us, is the one work that is meaningless without quotation marks.)” (1)
Shields writes on behalf of artists like fellow novelist Helene Hegemann and the mash-up artist Gregg Gillis, also known as Girl Talk, who make use of materials in the public domain – songs and writings that form particular aspects of a subjective reality – and blend them together into new expressions that reflect their own creativity. The ongoing controversy centers on whether or not this practice of appropriation, especially in the realm of copyright, is legally justifiable. The questions now become: How can one defend the use of someone else’s intellectual property in another’s work? What limits should be imposed on the artist, especially now in the age of the Internet? As Marybeth Peters says in Brett Gaylor’s open source documentary “RiP!: A Remix Manifesto,” the answer will always depend on whose the work is and how upset they are. However, set within a balanced framework that benefits both those creating and those consuming, appropriation can become a vital part of culture as we recognize appropriation as a tool used actively by the mainstream and those outside it.
Remix, cultural borrowing, and appropriation have a long history that is, for better or worse, defended and upheld by writers like Shields as a tradition that helps bring about new ideas. Kennedy cites classical playwright Terence’s lament that “nothing is said that has not been said before.” The sentiment itself is expressed yet again by T.S. Eliot; That “because one has only learnt to get the better of words / For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which / One is no longer disposed to say it.” The struggle artists must contend with to make their art is underscored by the limitations of their language and implements. However, the world around them is forever in flux, along with a culture that responds to and incorporates the new with the old. In the West, and particularly in the U.S., there is already a long tradition of wholesale incorporation and appropriation of other cultures. As Deborah Root, author of Cannibal Culture: Art, Culture, and the Commodification of Difference, writes, “There exists a set of practices and ideas that can be recognized as Western culture, but that culture is not now nor has it ever been one thing, one historical moment… Part of the problem is the persistence of a historical legacy of appropriation. As the West sought to affirm colonial dominance over territory, the world increasingly came to be imagined as a vast warehouse of images.” (x-xi) This so-called warehouse of images already informs cultural expression as produced by the ruling society. Shields and others would argue that artists and writers have the right to make use of similar tools of appropriation to remake and remix current culture.
However, the work that remix and mash-up artists do should necessarily be contextualized by their intent and the time period they do their work in. Girl Talk’s remixes – musical collages that blend together such disparate artists as the Rolling Stones and the Black Eyed Peas – differs from other modes of musical expression not only because the notes and melodies he uses are not his originally, but that he works in an environment where the idea of intellectual property undermines the public domain. Cultural creations that exist in the public domain, according to Susan Scafidi in Who Owns Culture, are “accidental property.” She continues, “they originate in community practices outside the realm of commercial endeavors… [and] result in part from communal agency and in part from the influences of necessity, communal expression, and function.” (2) The idea of communal expression is limited within the confines of copyright law, where the defense of one’s ideas and creativity is paramount. Today, intellectual property is of particular concern because, with the advent of such technologies as peer-to-peer networks and the DIY movements within filmmaking and music production, law is challenged to control the use and distribution of copyrighted materials that consumers have greater access to than ever before. In this way, the work of the remixer in the YouTube generation takes on a rebellious character, even if they are doing exactly what their forbears did on and offline.
In the tug-of-war between those in favor of remixing as an art form and those for restricted use of intellectual property, artistic expression can thrive and further develop only if there is healthy debate. From the outset, the Internet changed how information is disseminated among massive groups of people. People need only plug in to the World Wide Web from their homes and are connected to one another through networks as they both consume and create new media. Ideas within the Western “melting pot” culture that could not have been exposed to one another just a few decades ago are now blending together into newer chunks of reality. Shields is on to something, and why shouldn’t literature catch up to the rest of the arts? As Scafidi writes, “At the end of the day, however, the central question, ‘Who owns culture?” can be answered only by its creators – all of us.” (xii) While there should be laws in place that prevent the wholesale use and abuse of people’s ideas, legislation in favor of major corporations stifles creativity outside the corporate sphere. Appropriation and remix done by independent individuals and groups fosters a dialog within media that benefits the consumer and enriches culture by reinventing it.
With doctrines like fair use in copyright and trademark law and organizations like the Creative Commons, such discussions can already be had on what constitutes art based on appropriation. People are already becoming freer as the Internet grows out of infancy and brings people into the fore of creative expression more than ever before. This prospect presents new challenges for creators and consumers as we venture to discern between the transformative and derivative. However, with greater study and more risk taking, society can only come to reap the benefits.
Kennedy, Randy. “The Free-Appropration Writer.” The New York Times 26 Feb. 2010.
Shields, David. Reality Hunger: a Manifesto. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010. Print.
RiP!: A Remix Manifesto. Dir. Brett Gaylor. Perf. Girl Talk, Lawrence Lessig, Cory
Doctorow, and Gilberto Gil. National Film Board of Canada, 2008. RIP: A Remix Manifesto. Web. 20 Mar. 2010. <http://www.ripremix.com/>.
Root, Deborah. Cannibal Culture: Art, Appropriation, and the Commodification of
Difference. Boulder: Westview, 1996. Print.
Scafidi, Susan. Who Owns Culture?: Appropriation and Authenticity in American Law.
New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers UP, 2005. Print.