Understanding Remix: an open letter to Brad Troemel

Dear Brad,

Having written an article entitled The Word “Remix” Is Corny and publishing it on the Internet (home of the remix, in the contemporary sense of the word) I’d imagine you were hoping to incite some rebuttal, so I’ll take the bait (apologies for not having launched this flame war sooner… but it’s tough to find the time for these things). First, a disclaimer: this is an area of serious research for me + I have written + lectured quite a bit on this subject + have developed and taught classes on these histories, concepts, techniques and politix (namely Video Mash-Up and Video Remix for Marwen + Piratical Practices for SAIC)… I wanna make my position/bias real clear, i <3 remix

At the start of your essay you generalize “mashups” to be “…one bad song combined with another to create the short-lived thrill of hearing them simultaneously…” I assume you’d include in the category of “mid-2000’s bloghouse mashup bands” the artist Jordan Rosemen (aka DJ Earworm) and his piece No More Gas in your list of dismissible trax. Take a moment (approx  40 seconds) to listen to the thought that goes into this “perfunctory process.” Now, there’s this thing called pop music, it’s catchy, derivative and fun, and yes DJ Earworm works within this genre towards (more or less) the same (dance club) goals as the original work. Yet, in doing this he’s able to make something that I’d argue has value beyond the thrill of simultaneity. One could make a conventional argument here: by [re]combining these pop samples he’s creating political commentary on consumption culture… but I’m less interested in that. What’s really vital here is how it stands as a testament to a very important kind of literacy (let’s call it media literacy); it’s fun, playful, critical and irreverent. This is the kind of  work my middle school students produce.

Before addressing media literacy I wanna debunk your argument a bit. It would really help if you backed some of this shit up with links/references. You’re making some outrageous claims full of historical inaccuracies and reductive reasoning… I could link every statement in paragraphs 2 – 4 out to it’s own rebuttal, but instead I’ll try to touch on a few major issues.

(condescending wonka meme)

“Remixing is no longer a stand against normative ideas of authorship; it’s the embodiment of it.” The sole impetus behind remixing is not to be “bad boy cool” as you suggest. Yes, it’s true that remix does have its radical forms. Artists have plundered and détourned for political reasons in the past, and these kinds of (what I call) piratical practices are still alive t0day, but these practices are just variations on the theme. To imply that it’s all about litigation is reductive. You are right that remix has become a symbol of the Copyright Wars (though I wouldn’t phrase it exactly like that), and this is a GOOD THING, like John Sulston (who won the Nobel Prize for leading the effort to map the human genome) said, “We in Western society are going through a period of intensifying belief in private ownership, to the detriment of the public good.” One can only hope that remix (at a pop scale) continues to have a proactive effect on “normative ideas of authorship”

Another issue with your argument is your narrow theoretical context (Barthes, Huebler, Laric). Remix exists across many spheres, this is more than just an Art World conversation (much more). You’ve misunderstood the Everything Is A Remix (EIAR) argument, but if you get art references let me put it this way: it’s less about post-modernism, it’s more like post-production (Bourriaud). Since the time folks generally refer to as the Enlightenment, our understanding and [en]framing of authorship + the creative process has been evolving. The EIAR argument complicates the creative process (beyond the remixVSoriginal binary you suggest) + explains we’ve been living in a state of cultural cryptomnesia for the last century + that new culture can be understood as undiscovered public knowledge as Don Swanson’s scientific research suggests. It’s not about nihilism, it’s about understanding how creativity works (here’s a clip from an Alan Lomax interview with Muddy Waters + another clip from an interview with John Coltrane which may help illustrate this point).

“Media scholars take great interest in the ways memes are produced while ignoring or apologizing away the content of the process they are describing.” Which media scholars? Who’s apologizing? Jenkins? Lessig? Benkler? Shirky? Here’s where I’ll return to media literacy, to quote a childhood hero, remix is like, “a finger pointing away to the moon. Don’t concentrate on the finger or you will miss all of that heavenly glory!” Sure, from a fine art perspective a lot of remix culture’s artifacts may seem banal… but they are not trivial. (Again, I’ll explain w/references you can understand) Walter Benjamin suggested that with mechanical reproduction (and the death of the ‘aura’) there lay the possibility for mass participation in art and politics. He looked to Soviet cinema as an example… sadly that moon was eclipsed and we got hollywood’s aurific stars. Yes, mechanical reproduction brought art to the masses (now even the proletariat could ‘consume’), but they couldn’t exactly participate. Lawrence Lessig wrote a book called ‘Remix’, it’s an incredibly influential book on the subject which has come to define the term as a cultural phenomenon regardless of what you think this word means. He explains that youth today not only consume media, but take it, remix it, and share it online. He claims that anyone with access to a $1000 (far less now) computer and the Internet can take part in this new kind of culture. “Thus, the distinction between author and public is about to lose its basic character. The difference becomes merely functional; it may vary from case to case. At any moment the reader is ready to turn into a writer.” I’m quoting Benjamin here, not Lessig. Remix has changed our relationship to culture—demystification accompanies the death of the aura—this is media literacy.


Your last paragraph perhaps reveals something about your motive for writing this in the first place. You wouldn’t by chance place yourself in this ‘progressive versioning’ category? Do you consider your own mode of production to be “more current and able to reflect the time we live in.”? It’s interesting you’ve chosen this word, ‘versioning.’ I’m familiar with Laric’s use of the term + safe to say he himself has borrowed it from others (mayhaps from dub music, where it was used to describe remix, before the term ‘remix’ was a thing). What’s maybe even more interesting is the connection to ‘versioning’ in an open-source software context (a label you dismiss as a “meaningless” fad). If you don’t know, ‘versioning’ is a system for keeping track of revisions (as well as branches) made to a project along with the who/when/where nfo for each individual change. It makes tracing back ‘sources’ trivially easy + attribution is built into the system.

An issue which often comes up with students who are skeptical of the copy-left ethic is attribution—the fear that if they ‘open-source’ their art they forfeit attribution. There is a difference between quoting and plagiarizing, between a remix and an imposter. I’ve been criticized before for not being ‘open’ enough in some of my organizational (think curatorial) efforts. This criticism often comes from a similarly confused position: open does not mean structureless. Versioning (in the open-source community) solves the attribution issue + exemplifies the difference between openness and structurelessness. As artists we could learn a lot from this open (yet structured) system of remixable (yet attributed) production.

The tension caused by this confusion is an issue/dynamic you (ever so slightly) hint at towards the beginning of [5] before you derail into this false distinction between ‘remix’ and ‘progressive versioning’. What you’re calling ‘versioning’ is really just the creative process (again I refer you to this Alan Lomax interview with Muddy Waters + this clip from an interview with John Coltrane) and this is what Kirby Ferguson means when he says Everything Is A Remix, not that ‘it’s all been done before’ but rather, ‘this is how it’s always been done.’ The key to a mode of, “production that is more current and able to reflect the time we live in” is in understanding this.

(I’ll end w/a diagram too, img screen grabbed from Everything Is A Remix part3)



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