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Assembling Culture with Whatever Comes to Hand
by Anne-Marie Boisvert, translated by Timothy Barnard
It is significant that we speak about a remix “culture”, for it is much more than a mere musical movement. Naturally it includes cultural products – in other words, the “works” themselves. But it is also and especially the events in which these “products”(ie, music and/or video works) find themselves not so much presented as truly (re)created and remixed each time. The remix depends, above all, on the way the artist interacts with his or her machinery; on the “samples” chosen and the way they are related; and on the relationship between the work (which is always a work in progress) and the audience.
An Art of Bricolage
Art, generally speaking, expresses its era at the same time as it reveals that era to itself. Of course, I am not going to uphold a mechanical view here (such as the classic position of a variety of Marxism, for which the “base” determines the “superstructure”). But, assuredly, art is not created in isolation (in which case it would be irrelevant). It is therefore not surprising to find numerous examples of similar concerns, and ways of expression, emerging in the artistic practices of modernity (and of “post-modernity”). Many historical factors can be employed to explain such similarities: The rise of capitalism, industrial society, and their counterparts (individualism, the blossoming of science and urban life, and the increasing irrelevance of hierarchies, traditions, religious beliefs, and classical artistic canons that followed); the rise of the sort of mass culture and mass production typical of consumer society; and the growth of the “global village”.
As Umberto Eco remarks, “[A]rt forms are epistemological metaphors, like a creative (structuring) resolution of a diffuse theoretical consciousness, linked moreover less to a specific theory than to a general conviction.”1 Thus art, as Claude Lévi-Strauss points out, “lies half-way between scientific knowledge and mythical or magical thought”.2 For Lévi-Strauss, the human mind operated according to two modes of knowledge: that of the savage mind and the scientific mind. These are represented by the bricoleur and the engineer, respectively. The scientific mind is thus a functional mind, attempting to explain reality in quantitative terms. Its goal is efficiency. The savage mind, on the other hand, is a “science of the concrete” which attempts to “fit together”, to grasp the world as a network of relations and correspondences:
The “bricoleur” is adept at performing a large number of diverse tasks; but, unlike the engineer, he does not subordinate each of them to the availability of raw materials and tools conceived and procured for the purpose of the project. His universe of instruments is closed and the rules of his game are always to make do with ‘whatever is at hand’, that is to say with a set of tools and materials which is always finite and is also heterogeneous because what it contains bears no relation to the current project, or indeed to any particular project, but is the contingent result of all the occasions there have been to renew or enrich the stock or to maintain it with the remains of previous constructions or destructions.3
The engineer thus attempts to explain the world at the same time as dominating it, while the bricoleur seeks to inhabit it, to invest it in order to give it meaning. The former is thus engaged in “creating events (changing the world) by means of structures” in Levi-Strauss’ words (indicating the engineer’s “hypotheses and theories”), while the latter is engaged in “creating structures by means of events”.4 In this sense, the bricoleur seeks above all (more or less consciously) to preserve the qualitative complexity of the world by transposing this complexity onto structures of components with diverse and subtle relationships. This complexity is sacrificed by the scientific mind in favour of intelligibility.5 The bricoleur thus displays concern for recuperation, and thereby responds to a profound need: that of creating meaning through reassembly, by (re)organising and weaving meaningful relationships among apparently heterogeneous objects.
Art is closer to bricolage when (as is the case in the modern and contemporary era) works of art are conceived not so much as the reproduction of a model by applying a tried-and-true technique (as in classical Western art for example), but rather as products of a creative process wherein emphasis is placed on the execution itself (“communication with the materials”) and/or the intended purpose (“communication with the user”).6
A Little Reminder
Remix culture was not born in art galleries. It emerged out of the club milieu; out of “houses”; out of the work of DJs and hip hop MCs.7 It is in actuality one of the most recent developments in popular culture. For one of the most important features of modernity is to have made possible the blossoming of a culture which is neither “traditional ” (that is, typical of an ethnicity or a region) nor “erudite” (made by and for an elite), but whose new and spontaneous manifestations spring up “from below”. Most often, this culture is the fruit of urbanization. But, above all, it is the product of hybridization, and of the appropriation and (re)invention of expressive means (both the oldest devices, such as musical instruments, and the newest, such as electronic equipment, cameras, and the like) by sub-groups which are usually marginalized and/or proletarianized. (For example, Afro-Americans, youth, and so on.) These new means of expression usually start out “underground” before being co-opted by mass culture (another major phenomenon of modernity), as well as more “elitist” cultures – only to go on developing, mutating, and giving birth to new forms underground, over and over again.
The End of History
Francis Fukuyama, in a book that caused quite a stir in the 1990s, proclaimed the “end of history”.8 Of course, he used this expression above all for its shock value. Like Marx before him, Fukuyama borrowed this apocalyptic expression from Hegel in order to hail the fall of the Berlin Wall and outline its consequences: the end of the dialectical opposition between the great theses of communism and capitalism. Also, the victory of the latter, and of democratic values, which would now be free (at least in theory) to spread around the entire world.
This is not the place to discuss the merits of this thesis (which has prvoked numerous commentaries and criticisms). Rather, I would simply like to emphasize its symbolic value from a cultural point of view. For it is significant that the 1990s, and now the beginnings of the 21st century, have been characterized by what has been called the “death of ideology”; and, on the level of culture, by remix phenomena. In other words, by a culture of recycling, quoting, borrowing, collage, montage, mixing, and recontextualizing. From this perspective, remix culture in a narrow sense (the world of raves, of techno music, MCs, DJs, and VJs) can be seen as a kind of exacerbation, a mise en abime, of remix culture in the broad sense (ie, the world in w
hich we presently live).
Indeed, the meaning of history and the ideal of progress appear to have given way to a culture that is not so much projected in time as stretched out across space. Technology and the economy spread out and cast their web in global networks: we don’t speak about revolution, or even evolution, but rather of globalization, the Web and the Net. Cultural relativism and individualism appear as obligatory counterparts to this encroachment, this reduction of the world to a tide of particulars (merchandise, slogans, information). This state of affairs can have positive consequences, of course, such as greater levels of tolerance and democracy. But it can also have negative consequences, such as nihilism (if everything has value, then nothing has value).
Ultimately, advanced societies break up into subcultures, like so many tribes, each with its own reference points, interests, values, lifestyles and languages.
Today we have the impression of living not in the here-and-now of a particular historical period, but in a world that is both instantaneous and cumulative, in which all things (consumer goods and cultural products included) accumulate and crumple up endlessly. Everything ends up as odds and ends and debris to be glued back together, and thus begin anew. Those generations of people born since the 1950s have been literally steeped in mass culture; it has washed over them through the mediation of increasingly numerous and omnipresent machines. Such objects have become an integral part of every moment of our daily lives. A litany of devices would include transmitting equipment like radios, transistors, televisions, stereos, walkmen, and computers. Also, recording equipment (tape recorders, video recorders) which, beginning in the 1970s, have accustomed people to capturing and manipulating images and sounds for their own purposes. And, finally, communications equipment (again including computers, whose communicative power has been multiplied by the Internet), which can be used for artistic intervention and creation. All of these devices grow increasingly portable and transportable.
“It’s just hard not to listen to TV,” groans Bart Simpson, “it’s spent so much more time raising us than you have.” We live today in a “rerun” and “remake” culture in which everything is simultaneously visible and audible, and where information is “continuous”. It is presently possible to bring together, superimpose, and crumple together images from a 1950s TV show, a 1970s commercial, a 1960s song, and (this has happened) an “erudite” cultural work. This state of affairs can give rise to disarray, of course. But it can also engender greater sophistication and distanciation. These are manifest in parody and irony, and also in nostalgia. Certainly, zapping and surfing (and, why not, twirling the radio dial) are modes of interaction which can promote a shortened attention span. But they are also household tools for selecting, cutting up, editing, and manipulating the tide of images and sounds. Everyone can make their choices and become a bricoleur. And from here it is only a short step to creating a “culture” in which appropriating (and “subverting”) all of these products and means of production becomes an aesthetic, ethical, and political choice.
This is the context in which remix culture appeared: a culture that embraces recycling and gleaning; and one whose originality lies in having transformed pre-recorded works and transmitting devices like turntables (the “traditional” tool of the DJ) into means of artistic creation. Here, the means of reproduction takes precedence and are used for production.9 In this way, the very concept of the “original work” is effaced and loses its meaning.
Remix culture is a culture of quoting, and of the remake. But it is also a culture of intervention and reinvention whose goal is entertainment but also communion and liberation. The artist at the controls wittingly yields to chance (in the form of “glitches”, among other things), and to the means at hand in his or her creative process – because, while the result matters, it matters less than the process, the performance, and the event. Remix culture borrows its sensorial saturation from post-industrial society, but reproduces this saturation in an aesthetic context that channels it. Remix “artworks” remain “open”, bringing some sense to the world’s cacophony (at least for a moment). Yet this is achieved via ephemeral bricolages and assemblages, which are always subject to transformation, and always susceptible to being reorganized in a new way.
Anne-Marie Boisvert completed graduate studies in French studies and analytic philosophy of language at Université de Montréal. In October 2001 she became editor-in-chief of the Centre international d’art contemporain de Montréal’s Electronic Magazine (http://www.ciac.ca/magazine).
1. Umberto Eco, L’Oeuvre ouverte (Paris: Seuil, 1965 ). For a more detailed discussion of this idea, see the entire chapter section from which this quote is taken, entitled “L’informel comme métaphore épistemologique”.
2. Claude Lévi-Strauss, The Savage Mind (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966 ).
5. On this topic, see Lévi-Strauss’s discussion of the complexity of the vocabulary of various indigenous peoples, as opposed to the relative poverty of scientific classification in: ibid.
7. For a detailed history of the birth and development of techno music, and the world of raves in its historical, musicological, political, and utopian aspects, see: Steve Mizrach, Is There Music in the House? An Ethnological Investigation of Techno/Rave (http://www.fiu.edu/~mizrachs/housemus.html)
8. Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man (New York: Free Press, 1992). The arrival of the year 2000 also, of course, has symbolic value.
9. Janne Vanhanen, “Loving the Ghost in the Machine: Aesthetics of Interruption” (2001), in: CTHEORY (http://www.ctheory.net/text_file.asp?pick=312)