July 05, 2010

“What isn’t a remix now?”

Browsing on YouTube I click play and a video begins showing pretty hipster girls gazing longingly at the camera. They are dancing with boys with long hair and handsome beards, all of them bathed in the golden light of youth and optimism. The day is almost over and they are dancing their hearts out. In Dolores Park, on rooftops and in front of the Golden Gate Bridge, this is young San Francisco remaking shot for shot an homage to an homage, a copy of a copy. They really mean this and they really are this pretty.

This video is part of an intriguing phenomena of call and response video’s posted on YouTube in homage to the fan video, “the brat pack mash up” which was first posted in the spring of 2009.

The original video, composed of various edited scenes mostly taken from the movies of John Hughes,  ‘mashed up’ with the song, ‘Lisztomania’ by French pop group Phoenix  inspired a group of twenty something friends in Brooklyn to remake it shot for shot with their beautiful peers.

Exquisitely  filmed on top of a roof top, this video is the epitome of what we imagine being twenty and pretty, and lets face it, privileged, looks like. This video in turn has spawned at least 10 other iterations including the San Francisco one described above. What I find most interesting about these particular remakes is that they are not referencing the “original” video, which has subsequently been removed, but instead are engaged in a conversation with each other. With each new post a vocabulary of youthful exuberance and shared cultural experience is being constructed, one richer for the areas where the mimeses begins to crumble and we see how these groups are different rather than the same.

What does it mean then to remake the remake? A copy of a copy? We seem to be in the decade of the ‘re’, the reenactment (Jeremy Deller’s  Battle of Orgreave and Alison Smith’s The Muster), the remakes (Star Trek and Tron,), the remix, the mash up, (dj earworm). Wanting to know more I caught up with the creator of the San Francisco ‘remake’, in the mission this week to talk over coffee. Eugene Cheung is an engaging and intelligent young man and like so many of the California twenty something’s I have met in San Francisco he is disarmingly positive and sincere. So much so that when we talk about his motives for putting this video out in the world, I really believe him.

Cheung is a young filmmaker with a day job that pays the bills and a solid career on the side as part of the collective Yours Truly co-founded by Will Abramson,Nate Chan and Babak Khoshnoud. Yours Truly creates band videos for venues like pitchfork TV and showcases young San Francisco talent on their website http://yourstru.ly/. Chueng’s videos are achingly beautiful, imbued with a kind of youthful ennui. On viewing them I am struck by the aesthetic of melancholia that seems to permeate so much of the work of his generation. Gone is the anger of punk and in its place is the soft dreamy light of the waning sun, it’s as though these kids sense the last days of summer – freedom – are upon them.

Cheung and I delve into his process over iced coffee, the process itself being a Meta reveal of the 2.0-ness of his generation. He tells me working with his friend Shelley Beaumonte he garnered the people in the video from his Google music group and when not enough people showed up for the first day of shooting he simply edited a rough cut and posted that back to the group so that everyone could see what they were missing. The next day 20 new people contacted him wanting to get involved. This collaborative impulse, which seems so naturalized within  generation ‘Y’, and has been the subject of so much contemporary writing by art historians and theorists, seems to be absolutely integral to what is at the core of these multiple remakes.

Cheung describes the  process by which the video is made as being just as important, if not more so, than the final product. Although, when I suggested that this remake and mash up culture he is in conversation with had put us beyond any kind of definitive authorship, especially in relation to ideas of open source content, he was keen to point out that even though the work was made collectively it was still his work. This resonated strongly with me in relation to conversations I have been having about relational art practices for a number of years. It reminded me of the great line from Bill Arning in Ted Purves‘ book, “What we want is free” that goes something along the lines of, “Sure, everyone might be an artist, but only one artist gets to be the guy who says that everyone else is an artist” Cheung’s description of his process and the conviviality central to the work would not have been out of place talking about any number of works that were featured in SFMOMAS 2008 show, “The Art of Participation”, I am thinking here specifically of works like Tom Marioni’s FREE BEER (The Act of Drinking Beer with Friends is the Highest Form of Art).

Where I think Cheung may have the upper hand on my fellow participatory artists is that even though he claims a form of authorship over his video, conceptually he is putting forward the content in the manner of any other open source resource, to be shared and built upon. This willingness to help create something bigger than just his video extends to his giving advice to people like the woman in Jerusalem who recently contacted him, on how to join the conversation by making her own video. As we know the art market doesn’t really support the idea of open source work, charting provenance would be a headache to say the least.

Interestingly enough one of the founders of Creative Commons, (the non profit organization that is responsible for institutionalizing open source working practices), Professor Lawrence Lessig, recently showed Cheung’s video’s and that of the Brooklyn collective in a ‘Ted’ lecture entitled, “Re-examining the remix”. In which he argues that for a healthy creative economy to exist there has to be room for the free, the gifted within it. In his lecture Lessig shows a video by libertarian Julian Sanchez who has also shown Cheung’s video as an example of what he calls a new kind of social remixing. Sanchez posits that this new relational mash up is different from someone making a remix alone in his or her bedroom, in that this new ‘social’ remixing, as exemplified by Cheugn’s video, is not just about appropriating and remixing cultural signifiers to show us something about ourselves. Instead, he argues,  these new social remixes offer  the potential for the remixing of social interactions and relationships, as he says, “transmuted into art”.

As we drain our coffee I ask Cheung why he thinks this call and response video remixing is happening, is it something specific to his generation or the technology? To which he replies, “ My generation isn’t afraid of technology, we know there is always the undo button. We don’t worry about remixing or seemingly destroying the original, we know that we are just creating more”.

I have a friend who is fond of saying, “more is more” and in the case of Cheung’s particular construction of a social vocabulary it would seem to be so. Cheung and his friends are part of a generation that is fluent in imaging themselves, however shaped those images may be by the technologies and broadcasting sites they employ to this end, and so for them, more really is more. In my teenage years I had the wonderful John Hughes to hold up a mirror and make images that spoke to my experience. And while John had an amazingly deft touch and a crucial understanding of the alienation of growing up under Thatcher and Reagan, he was still a white man in Hollywood selling me back my angst. If Cheung is selling anything it is only the optimism  that anyone can join him in this  conversation. A presumption that seems to comes from the luxury of being part of the technological “haves” and not the “have not’s”. There is room for critique within these videos about who is getting to speak or construct this shared cultural vocabulary. As MDR commented on one of my previous posts, the Internet is still conspicuously a first world luxury written mostly in English. However, Cheung does not identify as a visual artist and he isn’t claiming, like so many relational artist do,  that there is something inherently worthwhile or socially advantages in the convivial situation he is creating and documenting.  The only real responsibility he has is to himself and his friends that in exchange for giving up a Saturday afternoon for filming, they had fun. One look at the video above and we can be left in no doubt that they did.  Whether or not the woman from Jerusalem posts her remake anytime soon I will  be watching intently to see if anybody else outside of the west will look at these videos, showing mostly pretty white kids dancing on rooftops and think yes, I want to talk to you. In anticipation of a continued  conversation that becomes complicated with layers of misunderstanding and difference, I certainly hope that they do.

Comments (9)

  • Brion Nuda Rosch says:

    Another notion with the remix that I find interesting is what occurs in a remix when the party borrowing (appropriating) the material does not have a rooted relationship with the source. Or when the new appropriation is read differently by someone removed from the source. I’ll give you an example, a friend of mine used an image from the movie Police Academy and altered a still shot of a sunburned Captain Thaddeus changing the words on his sunburned chest to say “conceptual art”. A student in a New Media class uses the image on a class blog (the professor is friends with the artist first to appropriate the image) The professor asks the student what attracted him to the image he posted on the blog, his response “well, this conceptual artist went out to the beach and put sunscreen on his chest to spell out ‘conceptual art’ and then walked around the beach (possibly during the Miami Art Fairs!)” Wow, that really reads differently! I love it, through these many vehicles for making (by re-using) artists are retelling stories in ways they could never imagine. I am not sure if it is necessarily good or bad, for the art and the source, but the role of providing a starting point for a piece and having a “game of telephone” alter it’s meaning is what I really find intriguing about works of art in this manner and works of art I have never seen (and have only heard of through others stories of their own experience).

  • I’m reminded of a quote by Lewis Hyde: “The greatest art offers us images by which to imagine our lives. And once the imagination has been awakened it is procreative: through it we can give more than we were given, say more than we had to say.”

    But if “more is [just] more,” and privileged 20-somethings embrace technology to remix everything and anything, is the artist/auteur’s role in modern society relegated to just providing source material and concepts for others to mash-up? Is John Hughes rolling over in his grave? Do John Hughes’s heirs–who maybe collect royalties from his films–consider this infringement? Do these twenty somethings ever title the work “Homage to…?”

    And, where does this overwhelming desire for a “remixing of social interactions and relationships” come from, anyway? Has anybody defined a lack, is there no manifesto besides “the soft dreamy light of the waning sun?”

  • um, sorry to be a big nerd here, but neither star trek nor tron are remakes. they’re a prequel and a sequel to their franchises respectively. perhaps “re-imagining” would be a better term?

  • MDR, I agree re how ‘together alone’. How great that you mention Godard here, and exactly this quote, which I appreciate. I’ve been thinking all day, in relation to this post, of a line from Godard + Gorin’s “Letter to Jane”, which I found myself re-viewing over the holiday weekend. (The film in its entirety here: http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-511397820540803155# ). The line is: “today it is not possible to take a photograph of someone thinking of something” (that ‘today’: 1972). The film, as you likely know, is JLG+JPG’s 52 minute analysis of a single news photo, of Jane Fonda in Vietnam (or rather, “Jane Fonda”). Exactly the point of that line is the saturation of presentation of an idealized, manufactured “emotion”, with nothing else possible in the west (JLG/JPG say “Europe and the U.S.”) that’s how these kids appear to me, as if wearing their “fun”, merely a remix of a long line of glossy, slick advertising campaign ‘fun’. (as someone said on my facebook page about the videos: “life is great when you’re the star of a commercial for leggings!”)

    And weirdly, the textural differences between the ‘real people’ in these videos, and the actors in the John Hughes films, who seem (to this 80s teen) to be having somehow more ‘authentic’ enjoyment, for example, Molly Ringwald dancing in the library…

  • Is there a slow movement away from individuality and towards a community notion of culture in the US? I tend to think of US culture as the most individualistic, with Europe slightly less so. Whereas some indiginous american cultures, such as navajo, tend to be mostly community based, and commonly use traditional forms and motifs. Since Pop art, appropriation has almost become more of a default mechanism for creativity. Although, works which we think of as “original” are based in part on prior works, I can’t help but think that such heavy borrowing is creative laziness. It takes more mental effort to make something beyond a spark of originality, and I understand why these privileged youth may be loath to build a bigger fire.

  • It seems worth considering this in relation to detournement as a strategy of “remixing” images that forwards some kind of radicality or moment political/aesthetic transformation by exposing the hidden truth underneath the designed surface of images (or official histories). In contrast, this appears to have been totally absorbed by the political economy of the commodity sign… what Baudrillard called an end of subversion. I think that’s part of what everyone is picking up on. This also recalls a something Godard said, “television we watch together alone, while film we watch alone together.” Idealizations of the cinema aside, these videos seem much more “together alone” than anything I’ve seen in a long time.

  • Great post. This reminds me of Stevie who, a couple years ago, pulled a group of friends and strangers together to create a video as political statement. Both have an almost group think feel in conveying messaging.
    We’ll see Gap or Levis or Amer Apparel “discover” the concept, take it as their own and make it go the way of flash mobs-burn brightly, burn out.

  • Great piece! Hoped that you would get to Lessig’s Ted Talk from the moment I saw the Tweet. It’s vital that this kind of analysis be as widely distributed as possible so that we (the public) understand the social ethic and dynamics of the popular culture which most of us are experiencing and some are creating. I re-posted the Lessig video on my own site along with a link to your post. Great work.


  • Great post! Watching the videos, I kept thinking about how much they look like advertising. You’re absolutely right that this generation is great at imaging itself. I imagine that as these kids enter the workforce as a part of the creative class, they’ll just keep doing this type of thing, only it will be part of a business plan. How would these videos be different if they were Gap ads? Certainly the phenomenon they represent would change, but would the end result be any different?

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