One of the greatest pleasures of attending the recent Masters of Amateurism: Remix conference in Amsterdam was meeting Joost Smiers, a fellow speaker and fellow traveler in general. Joost and I began a dialogue at the conference that, to my delight, we've continued in email form ever since.
Below, Joost responds to specific passages and arguments in my book "Mashed Up," I respond to his responses, he responds to my responses, and so forth. I've avoided the threading issues by reformatting the conversation as a simple dialogue.
JS: The motto of the book - for listening and hope - is beautiful.
AS: Thank you. Simon means "listening," and Asha means "hope" -- so it's really for my children.
Page XV, page 43, page 69. Yes, indeed, a redefinition of our relationship to media production and consumption. Who will organise this, and control it? This is one of the major questions in your book.
Page 2: The raid of the RIAA. We pay for this police. Thus, this police force is not available for hunting on black money, trade in women and children, illegal trade in weapons, etc.
True. And the copyright industries in the US continue to push for legislation that would formalize this responsibility at the Federal level.
Page 3: The shopkeeper and the boom box. This brings your work near to our common topic of noise and the public space. Did you write already something about this theme?
No, I haven't yet -- although I have an idea for some research on the subject that's been on my back-burner for years.
Page 15: It is important that you remind the connection between musical modes and city's laws, and the different kinds of regulations.
Page 18: Your taxonomy of musical regulation is helpful.
Page 21: On the CIA, I do not know whether you read French. There is an impressive book by Yves Eudes, journalist from the newspaper Le Monde: La conquête des esprits. L'appareil d'exportation culturelle américain (Paris 1982).
I don't read French, unfortunately. But I'd be interested to read a translation.
Page 49: It is absolutely true that the concept of musical genius is a social construction. However, this does not mean that all musicians and their works are equal. Some I appreciate more than others, and some I disgust. But this is about respect, etcetera.
I agree with you completely, and I hope I haven't given any impression to the contrary.
Page 51: I wish there would be the death of the aura. Through huge marketing efforts, the opposite of what Walter Benjamin predicted happened. Huge auras come, and go!
Page 55: Any time I see Figure 6, first I think that it are two faces!
Whose face do you see in this particular image? I made it myself, using a well-known photograph of a famous celebrity!
No idea whose face! But, you know?
Yes, I do. But I'll have to tell you privately, because I don't want to have to defend my "fair use" of the image in court.
Page 70: I felt always a bit irritated by the term remix culture. Now I know why. The disadvantage of the more adequate term configurability is that it is more difficult to pronounce. What to think of cultures of reconfiguration?
It's the best I could think of in 2005! I also considered the term "soft culture," which would be analogous to software.
Page 71: You engaged in an ongoing verbal dialogue with the movie screen. But you did not steal or lend the film and made a different cutting from it. So, your engagement did absolutely exist, but on a low level. You did not change the work.
True. As I argue, this is only proto-. The ethic was there, but not the tools.
You mention that the tools of media configurability are accessible to hundreds of millions of interconnected individuals. I doubt whether they really change so much existing works.
It's more common than you think, and includes the majority of US adults. I have fielded survey data on the subject since 2006. Will publish the latest data soon.
And if one would consider that it happens there, does it enrich our cultures? Does it contribute to critical reflections in practice on what has been made, for instance, by the industry?
That's one of the underlying questions of the book, and I believe the answer is unequivocally yes. But it really depends on your value system and your vantage point.
Page 74: The dramatic rise of user generated content, did it really change our cultural practices and contents? Did it bring the productions of the industry superfluous, something one did give not anymore a minute of attention? Probably there is a lot of remixing, as Lawrence calls it, but does it change the public face of cultures? Is it really a creative environment? Or is this wishful thinking?
I think the total eclipsing of mainstream culture is a false expectation. Much more important is the democratization of participation. It's ok if we still have Star Wars and Spiderman, as long as people can use these symbols to communicate and express themselves, as they would with any other "common" cultural element.
You are completely right to focus on the democratization of participation. And, of course, we will always keep the situation that some artists manage to attract more attention than others. This has been the case always in history. What should be eclipsed is the present market structure that favours a few conglomerates that dominate markets by enjoying copyright - which is an investment protection - and by being allowed to dominate the fields of production and/or distribution and/or reception. If we could realize this, then the whole concept and reality of what is mainstream would get a completely other, much more modest, dimension. If we would have, then, for instance an animated - much cheaper produced - Starwars .... who knows? But also then, we would be entitled to change such a film and give it another meaning and another kind of pleasure or sadness.
Page 74: On the thinner copyright of Lawrence Lessig: in our Imagine no copyright and no cultural conglomerates too ..... you may have seen why we don't believe in it.
Yes, I think you have a compelling argument.
Page 75: There is the possibility of democratized production and empowered consumption, indeed. But if I see that most of the people still listen to the offer of the few left over music conglomerates, I am not optimistic. Do you think, that I do not see something that is there and that is changing musical cultures worldwide fundamentally? I think that we should not forget the influence of the excessive marketing.
Yes, I think you're missing the importance of this because you're looking at the wrong metric. I don't expect or seek the neutralization of power relations, simply a renegotiation of their boundaries. Marketing and political muscle will always buy allegiance, and arguably societies need common symbols in order to function. The question is really who has the permission to use what forms of expression in which contexts. The structure of participation is more relevant than the content of participation.
You don't expect or seek the neutralization of power relations. In any case, I seek it, obviously not knowing what I can expect. Why do I seek a fundamental restructuring of power relations, in general, and more specific in the fields of cultural expression? In the perspective of human rights and democracy, it is not to be accepted that only a few companies dominate this field of essential human communication, horizontally and/or vertically. Moreover, in general, we should not have enterprises that are too big - too big to fail, not in banking, not in agriculture, not in pharmacy, not in .... etcetera, unless there are compelling reasons, and then, as a society, we should give them a bunch of regulations, keep an eye on the implementation, and interfere when things are going in the wrong direction, socially, economically, ecologically.
I agree in principle that we should exercise our collective strength via the market and the political process to limit the cultural power of oligarchs to the extent that such power impinges on the liberties of everyone else. I guess our disagreement is really one of semantics and scope. I don't let myself believe in a world in which everyone participates and shares on an equal footing, because I don't have any interest in waging a Quixotic battle, or in being perpetually disappointed. Yet I certainly believe that we can effect change towards a more equal distribution of power, and that has always been one of my primary focuses.
You mention: the structure of the participation is more relevant than the content of the participation. But, before we can speak about the structure of participation, we should first deal with the power and ownership relations that structure the conditions for participation. If we have done this well, it is not up to me to decide about the content of the participation: let thousands of flowers flourish. And be attentive that we develop critical attitudes, professional criticism and forums of critical debate. This is, as you argue, more difficult in configurable contexts. True. However, we should learn how to do this in a meaningful way. In a democratic society we have to learn how to appreciate and react on all the cultural expressions that come our way, and that influence us, more or less, but mostly more. Not every expression has value, aesthetically, morally, or whatever. The opposite may be true, as well. How to distinguish? It is not self-evident that we as individuals and as social groups have the capacity to distinguish.
I'm not sure I agree with your claim that "Not every expression has value, aesthetically, morally, or whatever." I certainly don't find value in every expression, but I've never seen an expression that wasn't valued by someone. Even the bombardment of advertisements and commercials in every communications channel, which I largely detest, are evaluated with critical enthusiasm by members of the marketing community. So the problem with this assertion is that you have to privilege your own subjective vantage point above all else -- which I'm not willing to do.
As to the rest of your argument, I wholeheartedly agree. We need to understand cultural power relations as emerging from separate but related processes at the symbolic, infrastructural, regulatory, and market levels, and to ignore any of these dimensions would undermine our understanding and effectiveness on the others.
Page 105: I guess that there are many modalities between good and bad.
On this page I start to get the impression that configurable culture or music is a specific genre, according to your analysis. Or, is it an overall idea that one may apply for all different kinds of music where someone works with existing musical compositions and fragments, and eventually changes them fundamentally?
It's an overall idea. I focus on DJs because they were "ahead of the curve" in dealing with the destabilizing effects of configurability.
Page 107: Concerning whether there should be distinguished between art and craft, in my Arts under Pressure. Promoting cultural diversity in the age of globalisation (London, 2003, Zed Books) I define the arts as a neutral concept of expressions (in language, music, images, etc.) that have an aesthetic aspect in it, that are more slow, more dense, more vivid etcetera than our normal daily communication, and that have been presented on more or less specific platforms. This definition helps that one does not have to distinguish between art and craft, or between good and bad. In our societies we have a specific segment where the expressions are more loaded, and penetrate in our consciousness on other ways than with the normal daily communication. In that segment we should have an enormous diversity of expressions and owners of the means of production and distribution and reception, in order to do justice to our democratic rights that many voices can be heard and be made and be discussed. In those processes one comes to judgments why something is attractive, or not, worthwhile or bloody nonsense. And therefore it is necessary to have very good and many critics that help us in forming our judgments.
I like your analysis a lot, and it doesn't differ much from mine. In my model, aesthetics, semiotics, semantics and functional design choices coexist in every form of human expression, and though the aesthetic dimension (which I conceive of as a cognitive/affective map) is more immediately evident in some forms, ultimately the distinction can only be made functionally (e.g. Duchamp's "Fountain"). Ultimately, however, I critique the value and purpose of distinguishing between aesthetic and non-aesthetic (or less-aesthetic) works as a fundamentally politicized and therefore suspect undertaking.
To be precise, also for me the distinction between aesthetical and non/ or less aesthetical, in itself, does not make sense. A melody is a melody, a film a film, and a text a text. After having stated this, I - and everybody - starts to judge: this film is more important, beautiful, inspiring, seducing, sexually enticing, etcetera, for me than the other one, or just the opposite. In this process the huge marketing efforts of cultural conglomerates play a role that should not be neglected. From this pressure we should be liberated. We should not tolerate that a few companies influence our judgments in a substantial way. We kicked out the church and the king as masters over our judgments. Now it is the time to dispel the other forces that try to influence our processes of dealing with what we see, hear and read. Moreover, those huge marketing activities of conglomerates falsify competition.
"Emancipate yourself from mental slavery -- none but ourselves can free our minds." I agree completely. the only question is one of efficacy. Should we work to eliminate the power of cultural oligarchs altogether through political and/or market forces; counter that power through democratized production and critique; focus on the independence of our own minds through meditation and/or cultural engagement; or some combination of the above? Our conversation keeps returning to the question of whether (cultural) power must necessarily be monopolizable. Maybe I'm brainwashed for thinking the answer is yes. Or maybe I'm just trying to develop a critical strategy based on actual rather than ideal circumstances.
Page 110: Indeed, if one makes music one be called an artist. A second question is whether one is an artist that matters, and for whom, in what context, and for what reason?
I would give more importance to critics.
It might be that mash-up artists have huge musci collections, but also in those situations they have made choices.
I think the concept of the critic is vital to art worlds as we understand them, but part of my argument is that, like the role of "artist," the critic has become more difficult to detect in a configurable context.
Page 125: In one case I know for sure that there is theft: if someone takes the whole work from someone else, and does not change anything, and claims that it is his or her.
So you don't recognize any value or merit in the work of Sherrie Levine, for example? (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sherrie_Levine). As her work argues, there's no such thing as taking work without changing it.
Yes, I know the work of Sherrie Levine and other appropriation artists, and the may times they got sued because of copyright infringement. Even if they do not change the work itself, they contextualize it differently. I don't think this is theft.
For the rest, if someone changes even a little bit, there is a new work. For the critical judgment there is, then, to do a lot of work: is it worthwhile what has been done, is it lazy, is it respectful, or is it good that it is not respectful, what are the aesthetic merits of the intervention, etcetera?
That's essentially what I ask my interviewees in Chapter 6.
Page 153: On creating configurable instruments that emphasize the physicality and ephemerality: in Amsterdam there is an important and very stimulating center/ studio that it is just doing this. The name is Steim. What they do might be very interesting for you. This is their website: http://www.steim.org/steim/about.html They are not far from where I live.
Looks very cool. I wish I'd known about it when I was there last month!
Page 156: If one would not have any longer copyright, the performance/ composition dichotomy does not make sense anymore, in any case not from a legal perspective.
True, although there are also economic and professional structures in place, as well as aesthetic traditions, that reinforce this distinction.
Page 159, 160: While reading about distinctions in Western instrumental music, I am listenting to J.S. Bach' Hohe Messe.
Page 166: On ... every part of a song should be equally covered by copyright. John Collins descibes this extensively for music from Ghana: The problem of oral copyright: the case of Ghana: in Frith 1993, Simon (ed.), Music and Copyright: 146 - 158 (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press)
Yes, I've read that article, and it's excellent.
Page 190: On the cover of Time. It is a misunderstanding that it was You. It was Apple, Google, Rupert Murdoch and Amazon.com, and the illusion that it was You.
Page 193: This collective consciousness and Obama could switch quite easily to Sarah P.
Page 193 etc.: Following on your page 107 You are right that a larger paradigm shift is at hand, but to repeat what I said before, does it change our cultural habits and institutions?
Page 194: Here I get the impression that you see configurable music as a specific genre. That is right?
Not exactly. You're right that I use the term ambiguously at times. To me, nearly all cultural expression is becoming configurable in nature. However, there are some genres and traditions in which the logic of configurability has become central over the past 25 years -- e.g. hip-hop, techno, house, karaoke, remix, mashups, etc. Therefore, I focus on these communities of practice because they have a more evolved discourse and debate on the subject. My survey responses are intended to address the discursive landscape on behalf of configurable cultural actors outside of these relatively narrow fields.
Page 196,7: What you describe there about configurable music is challenging and stimulating.
Page 198: In the context of networks and the network society, it might be interesting for you to read from Geert Lovink: Zero comments. Blogging and critical internet culture (Routledge 2008). He is directing the Institute of Network Cultures. They do quite a lot of research, publications and conferences that may be of interest for you: http://networkcultures.org/wpmu/portal/about/the-institute/
Yes, I know Lovink's work fairly well. You're right, I should be in better touch with them.
Page 202: I guess that you may be right to make the comparison with postmodernism, and see it as a greater challenge to the linear logic of modernity.
Page 208: When Andrew keen started many years ago his webradio, he made a long telephone interview with me about my ideas on the abolishment of copyright, and was very enthusiastic about it. As you may know, now his view changed radically!
Yes, one almost suspects he's staked out his claim just to enjoy the privileges of the contrarian!
He is right that the risk of impoverishment is there. However, I do not see what Disney and Rupert Murdoch present as an enrichment.
Yes, that's treated as a given in the standard discourse.