Reblogged Greg Smith Interviews Eduardo Navas

turntable.jpg[Image: galibier design’s quattro turntable] One of my favourite blogs over the last year has been Remix Theory, a writing project quarterbacked by media theorist and artist Eduardo Navas. Eduardo is also the author of Remediative and Reflexive Mashups in Sampling Culture, a fantastic essay that beat-juggles a variety of paradigms that range from remix history through to data mashups. Eduardo and I have been firing questions back and forth over email for a few weeks and he has provided a compelling window into his research.

How did you get started researching the remix as a critical paradigm?

It was more a matter of bringing together activities that I had been exploring throughout my life. At the age of 12, during the early eighties, I became a break-dancer and at the age of 18, or so, I bought my own turntables and sound system. Then I began to DJ in the Los Angeles area, something I would do until 2001 or so. During this time I also played percussion in a couple of Salsa cover bands. I was also very involved in the visual arts since I was a kid, and when I reached my mid-twenties I decided to focus in art as a profession and enrolled in art school in the mid-1990’s.

I eventually got a BFA from Otis College of Art, followed by a residency at Skowhegan School of Art, and then I received an MFA from California Institute of the Arts. It was during my Graduate studies at Cal Arts when I became heavily invested in New Media. While at Cal Arts, I also played percussion with the Cal Arts Latin Jazz Band, and I also developed various music projects with another visual artist, Justin Peloian. Obviously, being part of a visual arts program meant that I would make “art” and so I was also heavily invested in studio based art. I was very influenced by Conceptualism. I simply loved (and still love) ideas, and I embraced my time at Cal Arts because the school has very good critical thinkers teaching.

Once I graduated, I started to teach theory and art classes, mainly new media courses in Los Angeles. During this time, I found that I liked theory, more than I realized, and after a couple of years I began to think of other options for my career. A good colleague of mine, Tina Takemoto, was actually a big inspiration and role model. She is an artist, theorist and art historian now teaching at CCA, in San Francisco. And I never thought I could do what she did. She is so smart and I thought that I simply didn’t have brains like her to do so many things; but then after getting to know her a bit, and with her encouragement, I began to think outside of the usual models already in place in the arts. And I said, why not?

And so, I applied for a Ph.D. at UCSD, in the Art and Media History Theory and Criticism Program. I decided to apply to the program mainly because of Lev Manovich. I found his book The Language of New Media a great contribution to the arts in general, not to mention new media and art history at large. Once I arrived at UCSD, I met Lev Manovich and he encouraged me to consider innovative approaches to think, not only about history, but also theory as well as art practice. One thing that I liked about the program at UCSD from day one is that the professors did not discourage me from staying active as an artist. So, I felt free to explore my options in methodologies. And so, today, I have an interdisciplinary practice.

My research is informed by many of the things that I was exposed to in my early life. I actually love the fact that I have a large record collection from which I can pull stuff to listen. I never thought my records would be similar to my books. I treat them the same actually. When I think of books like records, I feel like I’m sampling ideas to develop my own essays, and it’s not as scary as it would be otherwise, because I’ve never thought of myself primarily as a writer, but as an artist who moves from one medium to the next, given that in the end I am very interested in good ideas.

The idea of records having the same prominance as books is a great one. They certainly help add some breadth to the archives. I’ve always been very fond of the idea that the protocol of footnoting and endnoting is akin to getting sample clearances. Keeping in line with the “book as record” line of thought, how do you organize your library versus your record collection? Do you archive them using the same or distinct criteria?

Well, the analogy is popular today, I think, in part due to the publication of DJ Culture by Ulf Porschardt. In his last chapter he claims to approach writing much in the same way I’ve described my process. When I read his book, I realized that many of the tendencies that I carried from DJing to writing were acknowledged by Poschardt. I reflected on it a bit more, and made a point to really consider books like records – and theory books were suddenly much easier to read. It’s obviously a psychological trip on my part, and it works—so I keep doing it. I feel I’m able to produce at greater speed and better understand this way.

And I do tend to organize my books like records. In a way, given my priority in writing these days, books are all over the place, while my records sit neatly in milk crates and against the wall. I actually only have a few of my records with me, most of them are in storage at the moment, and I pull them out as I need them according to what I’m researching. So, if you were to look at my place, you would see chaos, but I know exactly where the books are, and when I don’t find them where I left them (sometimes under three or four others) I freak out! If people were to see them they would not really get the system. Also, obviously, I have CDs and these are usually all over the place because I listen to them all the time. No system here, but whenever I have friends over, I’m able to discuss music and find stuff immediately. And of course there’s the mp3s. My ipod is crucial for me. Very convenient, but there’s something about not seeing an object, only a name on the screen when experiencing music this way.

But I think that this is common for anyone writing a term paper, master thesis or a dissertation. You end up living with books day in and day out. They become your friends and you know where you left them. I don’t have a specific archiving system. I usually arrange them by subject or a current argument I’m working on, in no particular order; often times, I arrange the books according to size and place them on the shelf according to how they visually complement other books. I really don’t think this is that special, and suspect that I share this tendency with the masses when it comes to making a mess of my books. Just about everyone has an idiosyncratic system for organizing collections. Especially now that we live with archives day in and day out.

You’ve described thinkers like Paul D. Miller, Lawrence Lessig, and Lev Manovich as “meta-searchers.” What is being searched for? What do you believe critical theory and cultural studies can learn from remix culture?

The term “meta-searchers” is really a synonym I concocted to replace the term “researchers.” The reason being that the people that are listed on the site are not academics in the traditional sense, yet they all have ties to the academy in some way. Many of them, who are not professors have lectured for an institution at some point, or have written books that are often referenced in academic essays. Some are, obviously professors, like Lev Manovich and Lawrence Lessig; but others are journalists, like Jeff Chang and Simon Reynolds; and others are hybrids, like Paul D. Miller who is a DJ as well as author, and music critic.

As we know “meta” means “after” that which comes after the event, that which comes after the action. This is also how we get the term “metalanguage” in semiotics; in which case it means a self-referencing of language based on its own parameters and history (meta is crucial for history); for Roland Barthes this would be Myth; and for Foucault Myth (language) is what makes discourse possible. And because of this influence and implict understanding within the new media culture that I am part of, I decided to use the term “meta” as a way to present those individuals who are part of the list as people between disciplines, who help create discourse. The term, in the end, most importantly points to the fact that all the people listed search for stuff after it happens—this is what all “researchers do” they look for something that has happened. They love archives because they can then categorize them, and create a narrative according to specificinterests; the exception to this is DJ Spooky, of course. And to some degree Lev Manovich, who develops projects that are more like artworks, from time to time. But all of them by enlarge reflect on actions about Remix or music culture after and only after such actions or events attain cultural value.

To answer the second half of your questions, based on what I’ve stated, I would say that Cultural Studies and Critical Theory can consider Remix Culture as an extension of their own interests. I read Terry Eagleton’s Book After Theory when it was published a couple of years ago, and I was disappointed to learn that he believed we are entering a new era where “great” theory is a thing of the past. I don’t believe this is the case at all. If anything I see a new set of writers already making headway, especially in new media. We find many of them in compilations such as Media Art Histories, and Second Person. As to Critical Theory, as you many know, the term is associated with the first half of the twentieth century–specifically with the Frankfurt School. I think the term is used rather loosely today, but much of the work that is published under this umbrella still carries a strong trace of The Frankfurt School’s critical position. Today, there is a bit of contribution taking place. Two people that come to mind immediately are Alexander Galloway and Mackenzie Wark. Their publications are sure to leave a mark in new media.

On Remix Theory you define remix as “the global activity consisting of the creative and efficient exchange of information made possible by digital technologies that is supported by the practice of cut/copy and paste.” Could you elaborate on how geography and globalization play into this definition?

I use the term global because the world is now connected via the Internet. As to the term globalization I think it’s a contentious term that some dare say is simply a myth. I think that such argument, saying that globalization doesn’t exist, is futile; the truth is that the world has entered a time of global awareness-and this not even those who defy the concept of globalization can deny. We can very easily know what is happening around the world, if we have access to a computer and the proper connection. Saying this also implies a certain assumption about education. There is a certain level of literacy that is expected of those who are connected globally, and this exposes the conflicts of class which are part of everyday reality around the world.

This, in the end, points back to the geographical realities of the world. When we look at a map of the Internet, we can notice that the places that are best connected are those which are also well developed. Julian Stallabrass points this out in his book Internet Art: The Clash of Culture and Commerce very clearly. Many parts of Africa are still not online, and this is contingent upon the level of local development that they are going through. So, geographical reality in the traditional sense is carried over to online reality. There was a time when early net surfers felt that the net was a truly democratic, genderless, classless space. But now we are beginning to realize that this is not so. Many people even realized that they wanted to explore difference online, because it is through such notion that we have created our identities to begin with, in the physical world. Race in Cyberspace edited by Beth Kolko, Lisa Nakamura and Gilber Rodman is a very good book that entertains a lot of these issues. So, in the end, online culture is simply an extension of our anxieties, which have been with us for thousands of years, really.

If anything geographical boundaries are reinforced online. Studies show that people stay local in their searches. And even Google provides search results according to your geographical location. I’ve done searches from different countries when I visited them, and have received very different results from when I am in Los Angeles or San Diego. It’s like a different world that I am looking at, and when I even look for websites that I usually visit when I’m at home, I feel like I am doing it from “far” away, even though technically, it makes no difference because in the end I’m accessing the material through a screen and a computer. But of course, I’m fooling myself when I say this because it does make a difference, because physically I am in a different place, and this affects my psyche as well.

Geography and globalization have been redefined by such interconnectivity, and cut/copy & paste is crucial to make such connectivity seamless. We don’t think about text or images in the same way that we used to before computers became popular in the early eighties. If it were not for such a simple activity as cut/copy and paste we would not be able to share information as fast. And in the end, as I argue in my contributed text for Vague Terrain, Cut/Copy & paste is an efficient, optimized form of sampling. Such concept, as it is commonly known was explored in great depth in Music culture, since the early days of electronic music since recording devices were conceived, really, but definitely culminated in music remixes in the 70s and 80s.

In your essay Remediative and Reflexive Mashups in Sampling Culture, you draw a line from block parties in late 1970’s New York City right through to Web 2.0 Mashup Culture. If you were to identify some key developments in this trajectory from proto-DJ culture to data aggregation, what would they be?

I guess I could outline a history of most important projects, but this has been done in a few books. I’d like, instead, to share some personal anecdotes that I think have been underplayed in music and culture.

I would say that some of the most interesting stuff that I’ve heard or own is not available today. I remember listening to Uncle Jamm’s Army on KDAY every Friday night, back in the day, when I break-danced. Honestly, I was surprised to read books like Ulf Porschardt’s DJ Culture and, as well as Brewster’s Last Night a DJ Saved my Life and notice that they completely ignore the U.S. West Coast (except for San Francisco) when they tell their history of DJ Culture. I hope emerging researchers are willing to look into good old Cali in order to contribute to the history of the DJ and Remix. Some of the most amazing and important tunes were developed here. The Wrecking Cru for example was Dr. Dre’s conception. And one of the most important rap groups, NWA is not included in these books. And then there was Uncle Jamm’s Army whose most visible member was The Egyptian Lover.

Uncle Jamm’s Army did some early mashups live on the radio, on KDAY, which back then was 1580 AM (now it was brought back as 93.5 FM, and they play many of the tunes that were first introduced in the early eighties in the AM station). Uncle Jamm’s would juxtapose two songs, and sometimes three right then and there for you to hear. It was amazing! Once I remember listening to the song “Scorpio” mashed up on the spot with “Alnafish,” two amazing tracks that are electrofunk classics, and I also remember “Alnafish” having a very long transition beatmix with “Mirda Rock”—Wow! These guys explored the standard of long transition beatmixes that are now common ground for most house and Techno DJs. They took their time and let the songs flow together.

During the nineties, there was a transition period in mixing, house started to be heard and electrofunk was taken over by Freestyle, at least in the LA area. And the mixes that were heard were mainly remixes of artists like Will to Power, Information Society and When in Rome. This was after the time of Frankie Goes to Hollywood and Wham! And some of the artists coming out were obviously influenced by new wave and electro-funk. And many of them appeared in odd megamixes. I have a few promo records that are megamixes done in small studios from this time period. The record labels have no names, the simply read “Promo only.” And that’s it. These records explore the language that would turn into the mashup as we know it today, only they did it following the tradition of the medley, which I explain in my essay for Vague Terrain. We’re talking early to mid-nineties at this point. How these megamixes explored the language was that say a remix of Dirty Cash by Adventures of Stevie B, for example, would play for a few bars and right on top you would hear Blackbox’s Everybody. Both songs would just pop out and demand autonomy, and I would say, wow! I can hear them both! In another promo record I have Cameo and Janet Jackson, the Mary Jane Girls, Jody Watley, go down the line of the pop charts; just about everyone that had a hit was in this megamix. And then I have some remixes of classic house, from Frankie bones to Ralph Rosario. I’m still amazed by the solid studio production of the megamixes, given that they were basically bootlegs turned out quickly, sometimes just locally.

But all of this was best explored in more established remixes that are neither mashups, nor megamixes, like Pump up the Volume, produced in 1987 by Marrs. As far I can understand, Marrs were aware of this tradition and they understood it well enough to create a composition that was more like a collage of samples united by an undercurrent baseline and catchy beat. As I state in my essay on reflexive and regressive mashups, they really follow the aesthetic of Grandmaster Flash’s classic The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel. I believe that “Pump Up the Volume” is considered historically important because it’s easier to track down than all the great stuff that one can encounter at the local record shop. And while I love Marrs’s tune and have the vinyl, which I pull out to listen to whenever I can, I think that most of the innovative stuff that I’ve heard is not traceable, and will be very hard to historicize because the records sometimes don’t even have labels.

For example, I have an amazing remix of Planet Rock that combines some of Luke Skywalker’s dirty sounds along with other classic breaks from the early funk days, which are basic samples used for scratching by most turntablists. But it’s impossible to trace the author of this remix because I bought it at a record shop which is no longer around and the label is white on one side and on the other has a number 1—that’s it. All I can do is play it.

In terms of mashups, today, it’s hard to say what some of the most important mashups are or what the actual evolution is now. Even established mashup artists like Mark Vidler don’t really know the evolution of this genre, and he works on music remixes day in and day out (See this interview for more information on Mark Vidler). Historians will definitely create a history, but this one will not be able to account for most of the material that is produced, in part because the culture moves too fast, and academia tends to be slow: Academia needs material to become part of the past in order to reflect on it and analyze it. This also allows historians who are interested in alternative histories to go back and dig in material that was underrepresented. This was one of the key elements of postmodernism (little narratives vs. Grand Narratives, as Lyotard would say, or collapse of cultural and critical space into intertextuality, as Jameson would say). So it can be a productive situation, that is if we acknowledge that history is always fragmented, and political.

So, if I am to name some of the mashups or music remixes that will probably crossover various critical interests, I would say that the usual suspects would have to be named. Those I mentioned in my essay, including Vadler’s “Ray of Gob” as well as “Stroke of Genius” by DJ Roy Kerr. Along with these two I would include the mashup of “Green Day vs. Oasis”, which is extremely clever because it is one of the few that give equal footing to the lyrics of both songs. The video is very good as well.

grey album/my life in the bush of ghosts

There are quite a few mashups like this one. For example, if we want to discuss The Grey Album, what is perhaps the most important mashup album of all time, we can see how Danger Mouse’s sound is extended in a three minute video. The Grey Video mashup is probably hinting at the future of audio-visual culture: choice and sophistication of pre-existing material is what will matter from here on. This has been the case for sometime, actually. The Grey Video is so good, as far as I’m concerned that it becomes social commentary not only on the Beatles and Jay-Z as pop-stars, but on their particular popularity based on race and class politics as well. One thing that is peculiar is how the sound engineer is frustrated by Jay-Z’s intervention as well as Ringo’s decision to play records instead of the drums, and then there’s that breakdancing at the very end. I can tell you that this video will be part of history.

In dealing with material that is specifically friendly to online culture, I would say that Byrne and Eno’s project, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts is obviously of historical importance, because it is a crossover between pop culture and the Creative Commons movement, and a project that is fronted by major stars to try to connect with the people.

In the art spectrum, I find Cory Arcangel’s Beach Boys vs. the Ghetto Boys Mashup to follow suit with the Grey Album. I heard him lecture once, and he said that he was directly influenced by the Grey Album.

What is interesting about Cory is that he is also influenced by early funk records, and one thing that he mentioned was that he did not do anything to the videos and music, except adjust the timing a bit. He wanted them to work together as they were originally produced. This definitely reminds me of the early days of hip hop when DJ crews, like Uncle Jamms, would juxtapose two or three records, just in the right sections and let the audience delight in the tension that took place when recognizing the songs working together with no editing other than simple juxtaposition. In a way, that’s why I like Oasis and Green Day’s mashup, even though it is carefully edited, it at least, attempts to sound “pure.” Cory is actually really obsessed with this aspect of art in general, he strives to leave everything as intact as possible. I think the more powerful mashups work because they tend to be produced with this principle as well.

As to the influence of remix and mashup in other areas of new media culture, I would say that many of the remixes produced for CCmixter are worth considering, Although I’m skeptical of “contests” that are often promoted in the site.

The commons in general, as we know, has appropriated the principles of Remix to put forward a constructive model for the tensions around intellectual property. This is how we got the term “Remix Culture.”

In terms of software, I believe that RSS readers like Vienna are the ultimate tools, where the reader is able to customize what feeds to read. These RSS readers are obviously discrete applications, but giving people the choice to create their own preferences to access information is the key principle that makes a mashup, a mashup: having the New York Times and a local blog in the same interface in the end is a powerful element for the individual, and this is typical of web 2.0.

What do you consider to be some of the most interesting data mashup applications?

This is an interesting question because while some of the most innovating mashups in video and music have been produced and are being produced probably in bedrooms all over the world, data mashups are a different story, as they are often produced by a group of people or by corporations riding on open source.

grey album/my life in a bush of ghosts

[screen capture of after being fed to Mark Napier’s Shredder]

In terms of art, I would say that Mark Napier has developed quite a few projects such as Shredder, Riot and Feed. All these projects recombine (remix) existing files, or information from the web for the viewer. Sometimes, the viewer can contribute directly, and at others, the application developed by Napier will mashup material on the fly.

An early mashup project exploring images online is the Multicultural Recycler by Amy Alexander. In this project the online user can grab images from the web cameras and combine them to make a collage, which can be archived for other users to view.

In terms of community based mashups, I would say that Pipes by Yahoo! is a pioneering experiment. I actually like the interface; it’s friendly. It’s probably one of the few projects that considers carefully visual language for better access of data.

And there are the Google hacks, of course. The difference with Google hacks is that the user is not able to create a mashup him/herself, but the aesthetic of mashing up Google with some other element is performed by the author, similar to artists like Alexander or Napier. Sometimes such element is conceptual more than anything. So it may be considered more like an intervention, which is a strong bridge between hacking and mashing up. And then there’s Google Earth Hacks, which functions in similar fashion. One can download material and often create mashups for individual purposes, the more popular ones I believe are what they call “overlays” used to be able to navigate certain maps efficiently.

A popular online resource used to create mashups, as many online users know is Platial. I think tools like this one are great because it demands of people to think spatially and to also come to terms with geography, both locally and globally. [blogged by Greg Smith on Serial Consign]

Sep 25, 2007
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