Building a Critical Culture with Political Remix Video

An essay I wrote about Political Remix Video for the Ars Electronica Festival in Linz, Austria. Published in the Ars Electronica 2008 Catalog in both English and German. I would also like give love and respect to bell hooks and her writing for being an inspiration to my work on these topics.

Ars Electronica 08 Catalog

Building a Critical Culture with Political Remix Video
by Jonathan McIntosh – June 6, 2008

In March of 2003, I found myself glued to the television watching in horror and disbelief as American bombs rained down on the people of Iraq. Like many people living in the United States, I was deeply disturbed by our mainstream media’s cheerleading for war and their childlike fascination with military weaponry. As each broadcast seemed more and more void of humanity or concern for Iraqi lives, I was compelled to grab my video camera, hook it up to the screen and begin recording the carnage. Especially unsettling for me was the surreal juxtaposition of happy-go-lucky TV commercials for major brands scattered in-between news reports of an ancient civilization being laid waste in real time before my eyes. It was that absurdity coupled with my sense of outrage at the sheer injustice being perpetrated, which informed my first Political Remix Video (PRV) works. [1]

I loaded the newly captured digital video into my computer and began to remix, still not sure what would emerge. The result was a collection of biting, yet humorous, re-cut and re-framed TV ads fusing commercials with news footage. Once completed, I made the decision to disseminate these newly transformed works free to the public via my website and later through popular online video sharing tools. I was particularly drawn to the online distributing method because of the populism inherent in the medium. Online video offered a direct conduit to and from the general population. I wanted my remixes to reach a larger and diverse audience, which would be impossible had I chosen galleries, festivals or other more traditional means of video art delivery.

What I was doing had historic roots; in fact I had been partially inspired by remix works from Emergency Broadcasts Network (EBN) created in the early 1990s. Arguably their most famous video We Will Rock You,[2] brilliantly re-spliced George Bush senior’s words making him appear to sing lyrics over a beat in a televised address about the 1991 invasion of Iraq. Individuals have been re-framing media and propaganda of powerful institutions and remixing it to create an alternative or opposing messages for decades. General Adolph Takes Over,[3] created for the allies in the 1940s, is an example of one of the first remixes for political purposes. Universal Newsreel took appropriated film of Nazi solders on parade and re-sliced it to a quirky British tune making Hitler and his army skip and dance like wind-up toys.

On cable television The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, frequently uses the technique of re-cutting and re-framing political speeches or news broadcasts as part of “fake news” segments. An increasing number of documentaries that focus on current issues are also using mash-up video collages of news footage and TV ads to illustrate points. Though these remixes are typically only small segments of larger works they have undoubtedly helped popularized the genre of PRV.

Political Remix Video is a process of Do It Yourself (DIY) cultural creation by transforming mass media fragments through re-cutting, recycling and re-framing messages. It is an increasingly popular and relevant form of remix that can at its best challenge dominant power systems, media and myths in our society, our culture and ourselves. It has the potential to help us imagine a better more just society and help illuminate corruption, hypocrisy and injustice in our world. These video works also have the ability to help nurture a critical talk-back culture of resistance and liberation.

The work’s content is not confined to government, leaders, and elections but also focuses on critical consciousness to engage issues of media, culture, economics, race, gender, sexuality and class. The source media and materials come primarily from pre-existing mass media fragments that are captured and re-cut to create new transformed or re-framed messages. Video is the primary element though works also include appropriated audio, music, photos, text or graphics as well. With the increased accessibility of recording, capturing, editing and distribution tools the genre has become obtainable (available) to many more individuals causing a torrent of PRVs to appear all over the net.

I use the term Do It Yourself rather than User Generated Content (UGC) because the latter is an industry term. I create videos, films, art, mash-ups or remixes to give creative voice to my ideas. I don’t make “content” to fill the distribution vehicles and profit engines of massive corporations. Content seems a lifeless term, an inhuman and mechanical description of people’s digital expression. That said, I still provide my remixes over (corporate) distribution networks, like YouTube, as they provide paths for large numbers of people to see, respond to, emulate and build on my work.

PRV should be one of the most legally protected forms of remix expression as it clearly falls under the doctrine of fair use in the United States copyright law. Works typically use unauthorized media fragments captured from corporate owned and copyrighted sources but because of the transformative nature of the work and the fact that remix in this genre employ parody, satire, and critical commentary they qualify as a fair use of the original material. The remix is a process of constructing a new artistic creation out of pieces of the original but never simply copying or pirating the whole original source. PRVs are usually created by individuals and not by institutions perhaps because of the perceived legal risk of using copyrighted material. Because of the highly critical and subversive nature of the messages in many PRVs, the works are more likely to draw the attention of the copyright holder and may be more vulnerable to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) via takedown notices.

Remixers capture audio/visual material largely from mainstream sources instead of creating their own original media. PRV artists also mimic many of the same visual and narrative devices of the dominant media such as sensationalism, humor, irony, emotional triggers and cynicism. This generates credibility for the work with the viewers because the source material is already familiar to the public and has a certain amount of built in cultural meaning. This video form is effective for remixers because the cultural meaning is derived specifically from the media representations of public figures, brands and logos. In The Black Lantern’s remix The Terminator,[4] he combines news reports with violent and bloody footage from Governor Schwarzenegger’s Hollywood action films. The video is created in protest of the execution of Stanley “Tookie” Williams who was put to death after the Governor denied his final request for clemency. It illuminates the hypocrisy of the official statements given to the media by Governor Schwarzenegger as justification for the lethal injection.

PRV works also utilize and embrace dominant media forms as the structure for their videos. Popular forms include: short news segments, TV ads, speech excerpts, movie trailers and music videos. Remixers are not critiquing the form mainstream media takes (as contemporary video art has done for decades) but rather borrowing and using it as a vehicle to deliver their own subversive messages. In George W’s Downhill Jam,[5] Aaron Valdez remixes a Nintendo wii commercial with footage of presidential speeches to create an advertisement for a fictitious video game that invites gamers to ‘play’ George W. Bush and all his grammatical creativity. Videos often utilize quick cuts and short sound bites to create a barrage of visual and auditory information almost identical to the form and structure of the original mass media source. Since the public is already familiar with and accustom to digesting these quick sound bite forms, the remixer’s alternative political message is wrapped in an accessible package for the audience to consume. This form of cultural critique is therefore rather unique in that works are not necessarily directed at academia, the art world, policy makers or even other political remixers but rather made readily available to the general public via online video sharing tools.

The disadvantage of this form and style is that it makes deeper, more complex social, political and cultural analyses difficult in the same way that such substantial analysis is made nearly impossible in the mass media. Sound bite culture tends to make ideas or concepts that fall outside the dominant logic seem outrageous because there is no time to give context, subtlety or history. This is a potential limitation for the genre as it stands, making it more difficult (though not impossible) to subtly remix on topics such as gender, class, sexuality, and race. Negative criticism of blatant bigotry, power, hierocracy or injustice is on the other hand relatively easy, hence videos remixing George W. Bush and the War in Iraq, are much more prevalent. Still a powerful potential exists for PRV to impact our cultures, our society, our media networks and our political systems.

I want to emphasize that I am writing from a “best-case scenario” point of view for this genre of remix video. I do however harbor serious concerns that the remix form can also be used to re-enforce dominant or oppressive norms including as a vehicle for propagating hate speech. There are certainly a large number of remixes floating around online that, while they have some political content, are not necessarily critical in nature. I refer to these types of works as re-combined political videos because they tend to regurgitate the status quo, parrot mainstream pundits and fortify pre-existing mass media driven myths and ideologies. The key difference in PRV works is that creators remix not only the source materials but also remix the original meaning of the source content. One of the most vital attributes of PRV works is the critical element. They push to reveal, expand or deepen the social conversation often adding substance to the public discourse.

PRV promotes a critical culture rather than one of acceptance, obedience and acquiescence, producing a healthy skepticism and a critical eye in regards to the mass media and powerful institutions. An excellent example is the movie trailer style remix Planet of the Arabs,[6] by Jacqueline Salloum, which combines clips from beloved Hollywood movies in order to expose the stereotyping, vilification and dehumanization of Arabs and Muslims often missed by western audiences. After seeing the video you will never be able to watch the Back to the Future films or Disney’s Aladdin without recognizing the racist elements.

Like many other forms of new online media, PRV can expand the limited political discourse in the mainstream media by providing an outlet for people to directly engage with current issues and voice marginalized ideas. It can promote a more open participatory discourse and culture turning people from passive consumers into active creators.

Through the ownership of news outlets and entertainment empires only a small handful of giant corporations serve as the makers and keepers of our collective culture. Using these monopolies they have gained effective control over the telling of our present, our past and over the possibilities available to us for our future. PRV can offer a way for people to define their own world, or rather to re-define the way their world is presented by mass media. In Theodore Lyons’ remix Jeremiah Wright Painting a Picture of US Aggression,[7] he challenges the mainstream media’s sound bite driven vilification of the pastor by using an extended clip of the now famous sermon and combines it with footage from both documentary films and Hollywood blockbusters. The remix supports and highlights the preacher’s stinging critique of US foreign policy universally marginalized by the corporate media.

In a similar way remixers employ the tactic of Identity Correction, a term borrowed from political pranksters The Yes Men.[8] Identity Correction works in PRVs by mimicking the advertisements of powerful institutions in order to change or “correct” their carefully constructed image. Through this correcting process the target’s identity is re-framed to illuminate the underside of the target company’s practices while often playing on the brand in a humorous ironic way. I’m fond of using this device in my own work as in my remix Go Army: Bad Guys,[9] where I re-frame a television recruitment advertisement for the US Army. I appropriate footage from various sources to create a new narrative, which highlights the use of torture by the US military and it’s destructive effect on (both the people being tortured) and also the collective consciousness of youth in America.

The act of political remix can offer and true sense of active participation and empowerment by giving people a vehicle to express their own reality and engage in the process of cultural creation. Beyond that these videos can also helps to sustain those involved in struggles for change on the grassroots level by making viewers laugh and reminding activists that they are not alone in their struggles. Humor can be an effective antidote for the depression and hopelessness that often comes when working for social transformation in long-term movements.

PRV can fuel and expand collective imaginations about what is possible helping us envision an alternative and more humane society. In Bush for Peace,[10] Jen Simmons and Sarah Christman articulate what an alternative presidency might look like. One in which a national leader is honestly interested in pursuing a real lasting just and peaceful world. While the work is critical of the American President it also creates and makes tangible a positive vision of a different United States.

I used to say that Political Remix Videos would not change the world. I held this point of view because social transformation begins with collective grassroots action in the physical world. An individual standing on a soapbox or in this case standing on one’s computer doesn’t create real political change. The word politics itself, by definition, refers to a collective process. More recently I have come to see Political Remix Videos as a small part of a much bigger picture. These remix works, taken together, can help foster the critical consciousness and talk-back culture necessary for political and social change to take root. They become small fragments of cultural transformation that live alongside grassroots struggles for freedom of expression, human rights and social justice. This union allows PRVs to become a part of a movement, really of a revolution in thought and practice.

Notes

:
1 My Political Remix Video work can be seen on my web site.
2 The EBN remixes including We Will Rock You can be found on YouTube.
3 The 1942 remix General Adolph Takes Over can be viewed on the Internet Archive.
4 The Black Lantern’s remixes including The Terminator can be found in his web site.
5 Aaron Valdez’s remix George W’s Downhill Jam can be seen on YouTube.
6 Jacqueline Salloum’s work including Planet of the Arabs can be viewed on her web site:
7 Theodore Lyons’ remix Jeremiah Wright Painting a Picture of US Aggression is on his YouTube channel.
8 The Yes Men’s website showcases the group’s political pranks and videos.
9. My TV ad remix Go Army: Bad Guys can also be found on my web site.
10 Jen Simmons and Sarah Christman have created a web site for their Bush for Peace remix.

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