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Contents © 2020 Golan Levin and Collaborators

Golan Levin and Collaborators

Interviews and Dialogues

Responses to Five Questions Posed by Lev Manovich

"Vito Campanelli and Danilo Capasso are working on a new book. They are approaching aesthetic and cultural implications of databases, towards 5 questions suggested by the new-media critic Lev Manovich."
Responses by Golan Levin, 20 July 2005.

1. We live in a'remix' culture. Are there limits to remixing? Can anything be remixed with anything? Shall there be an ethics of remixing?

The statement that "we live in a remix culture", while correct, also implicitly suggests that there are some cultures which are not remix cultures, or that the phenomena of remixing in our current culture is something relatively new. I would argue that this implication is false, and that all human cultures are defined by their ability to assimilate new ideas and adapt to changing memetic environments. While it certainly is the case that digital technologies like networking, hypermedia and sampling have considerably accelerated the pace at which cultural materials are distributed and repurposed, the ability to generate and incorporate new combinations of ideas is mandatory in even "traditional" and "conservative" cultures. While today's DJs and VJs have made an almost painfully self-conscious profession out of mixing fragments of music and video, such remixing is hardly their privileged domain; we see it equally well in Indian cinema, African popular music, or, to take an extreme example, the Qaeda movement's appropriation and repurposing of air travel and the Internet.

Anything can be remixed with anything else, if there is sufficient motivation or benefit -- aesthetic, functional, political -- to be had in doing so. I don't see any intrinsic formal reason why any two arbitrary bits of culture couldn't somehow be kludged together. But whether the resulting combination has any cultural relevance or longevity is a question which may best be approached with something like Richard Dawkins' theory of memes, which considers the degree to which a given bit of culture (be it an idea, catchphrase, melody, religious paradigm, etcetera) is able to propagate and perpetuate itself within and across human consciousness. We can certainly think of combinations which failed, or at least failed to yield significant, self-perpetuating productive cultural strategies. In the 1970's, for example, when Disco emerged from Detroit street culture as a successful new music format, Walter Murphy had the idea to remix Disco with Western classical music, and produced the brief hit "A Fifth of Beethoven". Although this tune occupied the top of the charts for several weeks in 1976 demonstrating, to be sure, that these two genres could somehow be remixed it didn't spawn a movement of similar treatments of other Classical music. Of course, novelty value is still value. We can certainly expect "anything to be remixed with anything" so long as curiosity and the lure of novelty, at least, remain motivating forces.

Many people today, for example Lawrence Lessig and the RIAA, are concerned with the "ethics of remixing" in the context of ongoing legal battles about copyrights and digital reproduction. Greedy record executives have been pressing the case that a repurposed sample remixed into someone's new composition somehow represents a loss of revenue akin to material theft. The logical rejoinder to this ancient attitude is John Oswald's album "Plexure", which is comprised of more than 30000 one-second samples from a diverse range of popular music: were Oswald to pay them, the sample clearance fees for this album would be several hundred million dollars. Clearly the laws need to change, and with new modes of protection like Creative Commons, they will.

Personally, I have always been more interested in the ethics bound up in the aesthetics of remixing, rather than its legal implications. When I was in college in the early 1990's, I spent a great deal of time sequencing and composing sample-based collage music. I was influenced by Public Enemy, the Eno/Byrne collaborations, Negativland, and John Oswald. Naturally, like many people, I also wanted to sound funky and make a good beat. Many artists at that time were sampling James Brown in order to procure their beats. I remember thinking to myself that, apart from the fact that James Brown's music was an easy target for such use, his music wasn't really mine to sample -- that in order to "deserve" to sample his amazing and influential music, I would have to produce something at least as good from it. Public Enemy had earned this right, but I hadn't -- and so, instead, I made a deliberate point of sampling bad white music from the same era. I remember I got a lot of mileage from a certain Barbara Streisand album, from the mid-1970's, in which her all-white backup band was trying to sound "black". Now this was truly disposable music. I felt that my moral imperative was to literally recycle this forgettable, shlocky music into something better. And in the case of this Streisand album, I felt I had a decent shot at doing so. In short, my "ethics of remixing" was that one ought to leave the world a better place, by improving on (and not insulting) the materials that one made use of. Of course, in a relativistic time like ours, one could hardly mandate such an ethics, or any other.

2. In the last few years information visualization became increasingly popular and it attracted the energy of some of the most talented new media artists and designers. Will it ever become as widely used as type or photography - or will it always remain a tool used by professionals?

It is essential to clarify what we mean when we say that we "use" information visualizations. Like any notion of literacy, this term basically unpacks into two different forms: authoring and reading. And I would argue that our ability to "read" information visualizations which for the most part, it should be said, are simply timelines, histograms, and maps is greater than at any time since William Playfair invented the XY plot in the 1780's. For evidence, it hardly necessary to look any further than the daily New York Times, which contains dozens of such graphics, and in its online form, many interactive information visualizations created in Flash. I submit that the era of mass visualization literacy is already here, and not merely limited to some scientists under a mountain, looking for blips on radar screens.

Even the authoring of information visualizations is something that is already routine, at least for the millions of users of Microsoft Excel and other spreadsheets. The charts produced in these programs show up daily in PowerPoint presentations around the world so much so that it is practically a running gag to see such charts appear in newspaper comics like Dilbert. Not surprisingly, there are entire workgroups within Microsoft corporation which are actively considering the problem of how to enhance the simplicity and friendliness of these visualization tools. Regardless of what one thinks about Microsoft, it is not unreasonable to suppose that they will succeed in one way or another with this goal.

We cannot consider whether more people will use information visualizations, apart from the question of what sorts of information they will use them to visualize. The simple fact is that people will want to view, and occasionally create visualizations of, information that is of direct interest to them. If we ask whether everyone will suddenly develop that rare combination of social conscience and design skills that leads to a project like Josh On's "They Rule", the answer is almost certainly no. But there is no reason to expect that people won't continue to learn and adopt new visualization-based interfaces for browsing and managing their files, finances, and conversations.

3. Today cinema and literature continue the modern project or rendering human psychology and subjectivity, while fine art seems to be not too concerned with this project. How can we use new media to represent contemporary subjectivity in new ways? Do we need to do it?

This is a fascinating question with, I think, a complex answer. To some extent, the "representation" of subjectivity has been supplanted in the interactive arts by the incorporation of the viewer's own subjectivity. In this case, I'm thinking of highly responsive interactive artworks, such as those of Toshio Iwai, Scott Snibbe, Danny Rozin, or some of my own, in which an interactant's consciousness is absorbed into a tight reflexive feedback loop with an expressive generative system. In these works, the system itself, completed by the participation of its users, produces an effect which is at once both representation and also direct augmentation of the viewer's own subjectivity.

The question becomes much more interesting if we concern ourselves with the way in which media artworks have the potential, as in literature or cinema, to render the subjectivities of other minds. It is regrettable, unfortunately, that the prevailing dichotomy of media artists the "techno-formalists", on the one hand, and the "hacktivists" on the other have largely omitted human subjectivities from their equations. The most significant counter-example I can summon is Ben Rubin and Mark Hansen's "Listening Post", which provides a real-time audiovisual window into the subjective thoughts of countless other minds. Sitting in front of the "Listening Post" display, reading and hearing the pleas and exhortations of people all over the world, one cannot be more overcome by the feeling that one is immersed in a richly connected tapestry of other subjectivities. Ironically, it is an altogether dry arsenal of statistical analysis and information visualization strategies that makes this possible.

4. 'Blobs' in architecture and design - is this a new 'international style' of software society, here to stay, - or only a particular effect of architects and designers starting to use software?

We can surmise that it is a little bit of both. On the one hand, designers can hardly be faulted for enjoying their new abilities to create organically-inspired forms, particularly in an era of almost completely mass-produced objects and environments. The positive results of this, to say the least, are chairs which are a good bit more comfortable than the rectangular slabs we endured during early Modernism.

On the other hand, architects and designers all over the world are using the same software, discovering the exact same affordances of the exact same pull-down menus. And the software packages they all use happen to make it easier than ever before to loft blobby surfaces. It is, in this sense, the result of the tools the ever-identical, ubiquitous tools dictating the forms which designers are capable of imagining and realizing. As computer-driven mechanical fabrication techniques have evolved in parallel with the design software, we also discover that any form which can be imagined and virtualized, can suddenly also be "printed" at the touch of a button with laser cutters, water-jet cutters and stereolithography. Thus the Bezier curve invented only a few short decades ago by a French car engineer, and widely adopted simply because of its computational expediency has become an almost canonic form, present in everything from the profiles of automobiles to shampoo bottles. Soon it will be taught to kindergarteners alongside triangles, circles and squares, and work its way into a new generation of designed forms.

5. While the tools to produce one own media have been more accessible and more powerful, people never consumed more commercial media than now. Thus the essential division between 'media amateurs' and 'media professionals' which got established in the beginning seems to be as strong as ever. In short, the 1960s idea that new technologies will turn consumers into producers failed over and over again. Will this situation ever change? What will be the next stage in media consumption after MP3 players, DVD recorders, CD burners, etc, etc, etc.?

This question ignores the 15 million people who maintain blogs, and the many millions more who use Flickr, Wikis, or edit their own web pages. These people are daily engaged in the process of authoring text, Flash movies, photographs, and hypermedia. It is not difficult to imagine that someday very soon, when bandwidth permits, video will take its rightful place alongside these other forms. The problem with your question is its implication that someone is not a media "producer" if one does not create videos that reify the normative visual languages and content-formats of corporate broadcast media. Yes, the 1960s radicals got it wrong: the population of film-makers who create angry documentaries about social injustice is as woefully small as ever. But millions of people purchase and use video cameras every year, and these people are very much producers. They're just producing videos for themselves, like personal amateur porn, that you probably don't want to see. It is essential to recognize, however, that occasionally, some pimply kid from New Jersey will produce and electronically distribute a movie that millions of people want to see like Gary Brolsma's "Numa Numa dance." It may not have the genius of Hitchcock, but if you want to see the televised revolution, look no further.