This week’s guest blogger Nicholas O’Brien is an artist, writer, curator, and educator of art that exists around the web. Although he is reluctant and skeptical of determining his practice through any one discipline or medium, he does often use video, sound, text, performance, and installation as tools to explore how culture of/on the screen effect our physical and interpersonal interactions. Primary research topics of his include representations of the idea of landscape through digital interfaces, the nascent performance of self/selves in online social platforms, as well as ways of considering written and spoken language as the primary invention of virtual experience. His work and projects have appeared at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, the Centro Multimedia in Mexico City, The Future Gallery in Berlin, the Xth Biennial in Lyon,  Sculpture magazine, Link.TV, and jstchillin.org. He is a 2011-2012 Turbulence.org Netart Commission recipient. Over the past several years his writing has appeared on the Art:21 blog, Bad at Sports, Art Fag City, ilikethisart.net, The Creators Project, and Rhizome.org. To see recent and selected works visit doubleunderscore.net and hyperjunk.net.

Jokes and Riffs

I don’t know how to identify myself as a remix artist. Although I am actively remixing and reinterpreting visual information from both recent and somewhat distant pasts – art histories, media archaeology, and literature – I would never determine these acts of specifically belonging to the canon of “remix.” This is probably due in part to my own personal hesitation to classify myself under the guise of any one ethos or ideology. I want my work to be able to speak between disciplines – between that which seems disparate, or else incongruous, at a first glance. For history to remain relevant, and for art to engage in non-linear dialogs with ideas both congruent and distant from a contemporary point of execution, is essential for my practice. As a result, my work tends to manifest as conversational pieces between an idea/process of one community or context and that of another removed, or else non-continuous, situation/location. To paraphrase Pushing Patrick, I like to take one thing and relocate into/onto something else.

The manifesting result of such a practice often doesn’t quite make art. In other words, some things work better than others. Some collisions of ideas result in very interesting overlays that create composite scenarios where both the canon of art history and the omnipotence of social media take equal parts in a performance of cultural paradigms. I can’t claim that this combinatory method is something new, or even attest that remix – as an ideological workflow – is the inspiration of my artistic process. The cliched hi-lo mashup is not something that I am even really interested in when I attempt to synthesize different contexts. Instead, I’m seeking a kind of shared humanity between contexts in order to create a better understanding of my own influences and visual philosophy. To show where ideas overlap, or influence one another, and to reference a meeting place where those concepts might have germinated from is a way to show a moment where culture bifurcated into distinct branches that have created their own distinct languages and rhetorics. The best way I have developed an understanding of how successful, relevant, or mature my visual thinking has become with regards to these tracings is to bounce these ideas, sketches, and works off of (and hopefully in collaboration with) other people.

Working in this way enables a certain humor to inevitably emerge and surround conversations that I’m seeking to share. This jesting is not just an effective delivery method of content that would otherwise be inaccessible, but also occurs naturally when two opposites – whether truly in opposition, or falsely attributed to belonging at differing poles of some fictive spectrum –  are brought together or else into a friction generating proximity. It’s funny – at least to me – to think of Bruce Nauman Walking to the beat of a popular – and seemingly universally applicable – fighting video game theme song. The power /oppression of the canon that institutional and academic thinking rests upon young makers is often crippling and can deter many makers from continuing in their developing careers. A way that I’ve found of circumventing, while continuing to appreciate, a museuological approach to the art endeavor is to revel in the hidden humor that lurks behind or within the “great works of our time.”

These attempts to reconcile the “frivolity” of our noble/altruistic efforts – see Dave Hickey – with the weight and desire of projecting a singular voice into the chorus of the networked world, makes it impossible not to work with the content of others. The common misconception here, I’ve come to see and expect from the staunch and dogmatic, is that in borrowing the vision and ideas of others results in an undervaluing or bastardization of its origin. Although I don’t wholly want to convince those that don’t see the benefit of remix, or trace the rich history of mimicry in different strands of cultural history (although it’s undeniably tempting to do so here), I instead want to simplify the argument against borrowing from others by maintaining that this act is always motivated by an unrelenting admiration. Cultural material is made in order to be experienced; to only observe and listen does a disservice, since these activities facilitate only half of the potential of understanding a work, and subsequently it’s maker. To think of the act of remixing as involving an activity of “taking” from another inherently criminalizes an exchange that defines civilization: building community through the act of communication.

As a fervent believer in the possibility and potential of understanding my own location and presence within a community, I’ve sought to more actively engage in the works of others. Recently this has occurred through works that serve as either solicited, unwanted, or unanticipated responses to either specific pieces of art or to a conceptual framework that exist in another artist’s process. When talking to others about this activity, the term “riffing” keeps reoccurring. In borrowing from the rhetoric of Jazz, my riffing takes the material/phrase of an artist/composer and redirects the output of that notation/instruction in unintended, but hopefully still faithful, directions. Sometimes (if I am permitted to extend a metaphor) I can’t leave those melodies alone. I’ll constantly want to turn over and replay the lines out, creating new articulations that augment my own (and perhaps others) reception of the original work , without ever tarnishing or forsaking the original score. As I’ve said, these improvisations rarely create outcomes that usurp or overshadow their sources, but the pursuit and practice of those gestures when amalgamated together amount to something that I find significant and undeniable.