Last night was a sold-out lecture at the New York Public Library’s Celeste Bartos forum, featuring Steven Johnson, Lawrence Lessig, and Shepard Fairey speaking on a panel titled “Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy.” The panel posed their guiding question as follows: “What is the future for art and ideas in an age when practically anything can be copied, pasted, downloaded, sampled, and re-imagined?” The audience was mostly what you’d imagine, on the younger side and with a visible hipster contingent. It doesn’t seem to be available on iTunes yet (search “nypl”), but I’m betting it will be eventually, which would be rather in keeping with the panel’s topic. I came, of course, because of my interest in the political economy of textual production, distribution, appropriation, use, and re-use; and because of the ways I see that cycle relating to what we (me, you, our students, our colleagues) do in the classroom, but also because it was an excuse to get into the city on a weeknight, to have a tasty NYC meal (OMG Bangladeshi spiced lamb), and to feel like a bit of an itinerant again, at loose ends and doing interesting things.
The panel began with Andrew Filipone Jr.’s hilariously surreal and somewhat menacing video of Charlie Rose interviewing himself, titled “Charlie Rose by Samuel Beckett,” as a sort of introduction to the panel’s concern with remixing.
Steven Johnson then started his talk by suggesting that what he hoped would be exciting about the panel conversation would be both its timeliness and its timelessness.
These issues, he stressed, are truly old issues, with deep roots in American culture. As a first example, he offered Joseph Priestley’s composing of his volume, “A History of the Corruptions of Christianity.” Priestley (who was one of the founders of my own faith) believed that Christ’s essential message of grace and redemption had been corrupted throughout history by layer after layer of fearful beliefs in magic and superstition, and Priestley wanted to see a return in attention to what was most important about Jesus’s life. (At one point, Johnson noted, a mob burned down Priestley’s house because of what he wrote in his scholarly concordance in tracing how various writers throughout history had introduced those corruptions into the original nature of the faith.) The book made its way across the Atlantic, to eventually be read by Thomas Jefferson, who read it and subsequently made the book the foundation of his entire religious system of individual faith.
In fact, Jefferson adapted Priestley’s book into one of his own, “The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, Extracted Textually from the Gospels,” colloquially known as “Jefferson’s Bible.” This, Johnson asserted, is a remix. One of the most important of our founding fathers adapted and recombined Priestley’s text, for deeply personal reasons, to make a new statement in a new way about the world. Furthermore, while this stands as a prominent example, it hardly stands alone: the cultural and intellectual innovations of enlightenment culture, Johnson claimed, were due in large part to sharing. Placing ideas into the open space of the intellectual and cultural commons will gather, in Benjamin Franklin’s words, “the attentions of the ingenious.” In that light, Johnson pointed out, our culture’s contemporary need to bring Congress and lawyers and court cases into that intellectual and cultural commons is, to say the least, curious. Innovations come not from protecting ideas, but from connecting them.
Lawrence Lessig then began his talk with a quotation from Aldous Huxley: “In the days before machinery men and women who wanted to amuse themselves were compelled, in their humble way, to be artists. Now they sit still and permit professionals to entertain them by the aid of machinery. It is difficult to believe that general artistic culture can flourish in this atmosphere of passivity.” Clearly, there’s a technological connection from our present circumstance to Huxley’s 1927 remark, and there’s evidence as well that our concerns today about capital-intensive processes replacing labor-intensive processes in the production of culture are hardly new, and Lessig amplified and reinforced his point by bringing up the argument from John Philip Sousa that he’s mentioned before, offered in 1906 testimony to Congress against the use of the phonograph:
These talking machines are going to ruin the artistic development of music in this country. When I was a boy, in front of every house in the summer evenings, you would find young people together singing the songs of the day or old songs. Today you hear these infernal machines going night and day. We will not have a vocal chord left. The vocal chord will be eliminated by a process of evolution, as was the tail of man when he came from the ape.
The quality of reproducibility that the phonograph represented offered Lessig a conceptual transition to the work of co-panelist Shepard Fairey. Lessig said, with an ironic half-smile, that Fairey provided something radically new to the artistic world, and then went on to show historical examples of paintings and photographs that remixed prior composition: clearly, Fairey’s remixing stood as an instance of a long and valuable tradition of artistic remixing. He was the first, however, to compose the Obama poster — which, of course, has gotten in some legal trouble, as well. Lessig showed the Obama poster, and then surrounded it with a grid of eight other photographs extremely similar to the one taken by Mannie Garcia of the Associated Press, asking Fairey, “Is this the one that inspired you?” (No.) “This one?” (No.) “This one?” And so on. It was funny, and in good fun — but the point, Lessig noted, was that Fairey’s poster went on to inspire other people, as well.
Again (dude: what’s wrong with your ear?): this is an old, old story. There was the Beatles’ “White Album,” Jay-Z’s “Black Album,” and DJ Danger Mouse’s remix of the two into “The Grey Album.” More recently, there’s Greg Gillis’s recombination of hundreds of samples into new songs as Girl Talk. There are anime music videos like “Muppet Hunter D,” and political statements like will.i.am’s “Yes We Can” remix of Obama’s speech, or the familiar “Read My Lips” Bush/Blair remix by Johan S