Thursday, July 07, 2005

Been Caught Appropriating

There is an interesting article in wired about the evolution of cutting and pasting in art. Here's a sample (pun intended?):

[William S.] Burroughs was then as radical a literary man as the world had to offer, and in my opinion, he still holds the title. Nothing, in all my experience of literature since, has ever been quite as remarkable for me, and nothing has ever had as strong an effect on my sense of the sheer possibilities of writing. Later, attempting to understand this impact, I discovered that Burroughs had incorporated snippets of other writers' texts into his work, an action I knew my teachers would have called plagiarism. Some of these borrowings had been lifted from American science fiction of the '40s and '50s, adding a secondary shock of recognition for me.

By then I knew that this "cut-up method," as Burroughs called it, was central to whatever it was he thought he was doing, and that he quite literally believed it to be akin to magic. When he wrote about his process, the hairs on my neck stood up, so palpable was the excitement. Experiments with audiotape inspired him in a similar vein: "God's little toy," his friend Brion Gysin called their reel-to-reel machine. Sampling. Burroughs was interrogating the universe with scissors and a paste pot, and the least imitative of authors was no plagiarist at all.

...Meanwhile, in the early '70s in Jamaica, King Tubby and Lee "Scratch" Perry, great visionaries, were deconstructing recorded music. Using astonishingly primitive predigital hardware, they created what they called versions. The recombinant nature of their means of production quickly spread to DJs in New York and London.

Our culture no longer bothers to use words like appropriation or borrowing to describe those very activities. Today's audience isn't listening at all - it's participating. Indeed, audience is as antique a term as record, the one archaically passive, the other archaically physical. The record, not the remix, is the anomaly today. The remix is the very nature of the digital.

..."Who owns the words?" asked a disembodied but very persistent voice throughout much of Burroughs' work. Who does own them now? Who owns the music and the rest of our culture? We do. All of us.
I don't think that the audience is participating quite as much as the writer believes (or writes that he believes). Most people just listen like they always have, but now they have the ability to mix up what they are listening to with greater ease, which is great. But people have always owned the music, it's just that they've had to pay for it. And as far as culture goes, no one can really own that, we can only contribute to it. It will be interesting to see how our culture evolves over the next ten years or so with regard to file sharing, sampling, etc. By then, the people in charge of the entertainment business will have lived most of their lives in the era of sampling, and maybe they will look back at the lawsuits and wonder what all the fuss is about. But I suspect that this will only be true if the artists themselves accept a system where their work is public property and have to support themselves through other means besides the sale of their art. That could be liberating. Who knows?

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