remixthebook Guest Blogger Curt Cloninger is an artist, writer, and Assistant Professor of New Media at the University of North Carolina Asheville. His art undermines language as a system of meaning in order to reveal it as an embodied force in the world. By layering, restructuring, hashing, eroding, exhausting, and (dis)splaying language, he causes language to perform itself until its “meaning” has less to do with what it denotes and more to do with how it behaves. His work has been featured in the New York Times and at festivals and galleries from Korea to Brazil. Exhibition venues include Digital Art Museum [DAM] Berlin, L’Instituto de México à Paris, Living Arts of Tulsa, and The Art Gallery of Knoxville. He maintains lab404.com, playdamage.org, deepyoung.org, and lab404.tumblr.com in order to facilitate a more lively remote dialogue with the Sundry Essences of Wonder.

Remix As If

Remix as a concept is broad and broadly applied. Here I want to look at a few specific ways of understanding remix that have been fruitful and promising to me in my thinking and art making.

Remix As Conservation of Matter/Energy

“The world is full of objects, more or less interesting; I do not wish to add any more.”
– Douglas Huebler

“There is really no need in this day and age to create imagery anymore because you can find anything online.” – Oliver Laric (as paraphrased by Petra Cortright)

“The truth is, no human ever created anything from scratch. ‘In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth,’ Genesis tells us—and we’ve been remixing His work ever since.” – Curt Cloninger

In 1969, when Douglas Huebler made his famous statement about not wanting to add any new objects to the world, he wasn’t saying that he wanted to remix old objects. He was saying that he wanted to sidestep objects altogether and traffic in the media of concept-centric words. Decades later, Oliver Laric’s observation that we don’t need to make any new imagery is not a criticism of imagery. He simply means we’ve got enough image “stuff,” and now the “art” of image-centric art lies in the modulation and remixing of source imagery rather than the creation of “original” imagery.

I would only add that no human ever made any material from scratch, analog or digital. We’ve managed to translate matter into massive amounts of energy, but the ratio of matter and energy is always conserved. From this (admittedly broad) perspective, all art has always already been remix art. It’s not as if non-remix art is more pure/original and remix art is more derivative. It’s all remix art. The question is simply — how close to “scratch” does an artist enjoy working? Some artists gather and crush their own berries and pluck their own horse-hair brush bristles from the tails of wild stallions. Others buy oils in a tube and brushes at a store. Others (like Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst) use interns as their meta-brushes, and then their interns use the brushes. Some artists only use open-source software to create their work. Some artists code their own software. Some artists create their own programming languages in which to code their own software (Ben Fry/Casey Reas). Some artists use assembly language to code their own programming language. Some artists code their own assembly language in binary (but precious few). But no human ever created the existential binary states of on/off, presence/absence. (They were already here/not here.)

If you use materials to make art, you are a remix artist. If you use software or code to make art, you are a remix artist. If you use language to write books, you are a remix artist. Marcel Duchamp, Roland Barthes, and Michel de Certeau might even argue that if you read books written in language, you are a remix artist. The question is not — are you a remix artist? The question is — what is the quality of your remix practice? How rigorously and intentionally are you engaged in the remix process?

Remix As Making-Do/Emancipated Consumption

In his perpetually relevant book The Practice of Everyday Life, Michel de Certeau argues against the myth of the (Debordian) passive consumer. Even while sitting on the end of the couch watching the most banal forms of reality television, nobody is ever merely, uncritically “receiving” pure, undigested signal. Instead, we “make-do” with the information we receive. We literally take the information apart and reconfigure it based on a million personal idiosyncrasies, personal histories, memories, propensities, desires, and habits. We make it do what we need it to do for us. And we make-do with everything (not just media).

Making-do is not outright opposition or rebellion. It is not a blatant refusal of capitalism, or of the spectacle, or of colonialism. Instead, it is a much more subtle modulation of these forces into something else, something slippery and uncanny, something that redistributes and alters sense ratios, something below the radar, something difficult to oppose, assimilate, or recommodify.

Making-do is a remix practice. To walk through a city or meander through a book are Certeau-ean forms of making-do. Maintaining a tumblr (a la lab404.tumblr.com ), keeping a delicious bookmark list, participating in a group photoblog (aka surf club), posting to 4chan — these are more recent forms of making-do. The “art” of these practices is not in the creation of imagery; but in the reconfiguration, redistribution, recontextualization, and remixing of imagery.

Remix-As-Making-Do will never be an overtly didactic, preachily “political” form of art production, because reconfiguring and remixing relationships (between images and other images; between texts and other texts; between objects and other objects; between images, texts, objects, and ideas) is an inherently slippery process with inherently unpredictable outcomes. As such, remixing is less about the didactic “message” of the source “content” being remixed, and more about the redistribution of the scales, ratios, and relationships between and among the pieces of source content. As Jacques Ranciere observes, “What occurs [in art] are processes of dissociation: a break in a relationship between sense and sense — between what is seen and what is thought, what is thought and what is felt. Such breaks can happen anywhere at any time. But they cannot be calculated” (The Emancipated Spectator, 75). The remix is always already an inherently “political” act — not due to any particular message it directly conveys; but rather in the way it undermines, short-circuits, and re-routs the presumption that a message must always be directly, linearly conveyed.

Remix As Perpetual Deferment/Immunization Against Commodification

As interpreted by Gregory Ulmer (in his Applied Grammatology), Jacques Derrida’s philosophical project was not merely to deconstruct language, but to initiate a new way of writing. This new way of writing involves slippage — one homonym into another. Derrida’s new “grammatological” way of writing is less concerned with historical/etymological connections between words and more concerned with future/generative connections between words. Derrida is not concerned (merely) with what language has meant, but what language may come to mean. Derrida’s project is not about arbitrary, willy-nilly slippage; but it instead involves a very rigorous kind of play and failure. At one point, Ulmer (charmingly) calls Derrida, “so rigorously irresponsible.” This kind of grammatological remixing of language has no end. It never settles on a fixed state where language ceases to evolve and each word finally comes to mean one and only one thing. Instead, meaning is always emerging and subsiding, and stasis is perpetually deferred and postponed. Ulmer’s Derrida proposes a writing not of increasingly precise taxonomies and increasingly accurate canonical texts, but a writing of perpetually emergent creation and invention — a remix writing.

Paul Miller (as DJ Spooky) also practices a kind of perpetual deferment. With DJ Spooky’s work, there is never a “final” version. If I release a final version, someone else can always remix it, and then theirs is the final version. To overcome this conundrum, I have a couple of options: I can either sue everyone for remixing me (kill the threads and their trajectories), or I can join in the fun and remix their remixes of my “original” remixes. Spooky chooses the latter. DJ Spooky (as Paul Miller) takes this practice one step further. Instead of letting critics and theorists have the last word regarding his art, he writes his own theories regarding his art.

What arises is a constant flux of creative variability serving as a sort of amulet/immunization strategy against commodification. You ward off stereotypes of yourself by absorbing them and spinning them. I won’t tell you who I am. You’ll just misinterpret me anyway. Instead, I’ll take who you say I am (which is skewed) and own it just long enough to hybridize it and spit it back out at you. Now do you know who I am? Guess again; here comes the 2.0 remix.

Some Words About My Own Practice

My own art attempts to foreground language as a force in the world (like wind, electricity, radioactivity). Language likes to mask itself as a kind of objective commentator, sitting in some impossible, metaphysical press box high above the game of the world, and commenting back down upon it. In reality, language has always been caught up in the thick of the game. By remixing language, I’m trying to force it to overtly perform itself. If I can overdrive language and push it into hypertrophy, then maybe language will have to concentrate so intently on what it is actually doing that it will drop its dethatched/objective mask and we will be able to feel it as a force in the world rather than merely “under-standing” what it “means.”

What if we could modulate language at all levels simultaneously — typographic, syntactic, performative, semiotic? What if we could move beyond “experimental poetry” toward something that is not obliged to be “legible” as either poetry or writing — toward language as an immanent force in the world?

viva la slippage / keep on tweaking,
Curt Cloninger
Asheville, North Carolina, US
August 2011