Mashed Up: Configurable Culture, Remixes As Art

image from a.onionstatic.com Recently, I spoke with Aram Sinnreich, who is assistant professor of journalism and media studies at Rutgers University and author of the book Mashed Up: Music, Technology, And The Rise Of Configurable Culture. In this interview, Sinneich talks about how society is confronting the romantic notion of the artist, why the lines between performer and consumer have blurred, and the need to recognize configurable music as art.

How has our romantic notion of an artist—the sole genius and originator of creative works of art—prevented us from respecting and understanding new forms of creativity such as remixes and mash-ups?

Aram Sinnreich: On a basic level, we’re all raised with a set of false assumptions about how music and art are made, and who has the right and the ability to make them. The notion of the solitary artist, alone in a room somewhere creating the next great style or genre through sheer force of will and creativity is just absurd on the face of it. Art is something that emerges from a cultural process in which we are all active participants, whether we know it or not. Even the most isolated, iconoclastic self-styled artist is in dialogue with other works, and is supported by an economic and legal system that allows him or her the necessary resources to get it done. And every innovation that is adopted is done so for social purposes, because it suits the needs of the society as a whole (or some element of it) at that point in time.

Of course, people have been revolting against the notion of the Romantic artist since the Romantic era. Duchamp, Warhol, Negativland – they’re all very critical of this concept. The problem is that our legal and aesthetic systems are built around it, so not only is it hard to change systematically, but it feels like the natural order of things to most people who don’t spend their time studying cultural history.

What adjustments to existing copyright law are necessary in order for these new forms of creativity to thrive and allow form these cultural creators to be able to pursue their passions without fear of litigation?

Aram Sinnreich: Richard Stallman and Lawrence Lessig started us on the right track with the notion of open licenses like GPL and Creative Commons. Basically, these licenses enable creators to use copyright law to ensure that their work can always be reinterpreted or redistributed by third parties. The problem is that, since 1976, everything we write down, record, or capture in 1s and 0s, no matter how trivial, is automatically copyrighted in that very instant. That means that 99.9999% of copyrighted work will never be available under an open license, and will be restricted for a century, give or take. What we need is a complete reboot of intellectual property laws, flipping the equation so that most of our cultural landscape is again available to us as a “commons” we can all draw from. And what controls remain should be limited in duration and more difficult to prosecute.

Of course, given the strength of the IP lobby, the laws are only going to become more draconian and less friendly to free cultural expression. During this election cycle, for instance, the entertainment, publishing, Internet and pharmaceutical lobbies collectively contributed over $100 million to candidates from both parties. With that kind of money flowing in, there’s zero chance Congress is going to reconsider these laws anytime soon.

In what respect have the traditional lines between artist and audience, performers and composers, art and craft, and copy and original blurred? 

Aram Sinnreich: All of these distinctions are fairly new ideas. For most of history, in most cultures, there was no such thing as an “artist,” conceived as a separate class of individual, or a “work of art” as opposed to other forms of human expression and endeavor. A copy was deemed to be every bit as valid as the original, if it looked and sounded the same and accomplished the same ends.

We developed these new binary distinctions around the same time that we developed industrial society, because they helped us to believe in the “naturalness” of our new order: the division of labor, commodity capitalism, and the propertization of cultural expression. That’s part of what aesthetics do: provide us with a map for how the world works, and a blueprint for social organization.

The interesting thing about configurable culture is, it makes these binary distinctions untenable. Is a mashup DJ an artist or an audience member? Is a song consisting entirely of samples an original or a copy? Is an MP3 file a material, a tool or a finished product? The answer is, of course, entirely subjective and open to debate. And the debates we’re having at this moment in our cultural evolution are a microcosm for our larger debates about what society should look like in the post-industrial, networked age.

Why have traditional institutions refused to view configurable music as an art form and how does it serve to threaten the top-down, commercial sphere of music that audiences have come to know in the 20th century?

Aram Sinnreich: Up until now, traditional institutions have largely rejected the idea of configurable music as an art form precisely because it threatens to erode the very foundations on which they’re built. The amazing thing about aesthetics is that this reflexive self-preservation can happen entirely automatically, without DJs or record labels or lawmakers sitting down and puzzling through the larger political dimensions of their battles. Typically, the sides are drawn up through linguistic associations: new cultural behaviors like sampling and file sharing become “copying” and “stealing,” which we understand metaphorically as old taboos. And the aggressive moves to criminalize these behaviors (neither has been addressed in copyright legislation; both are understood entirely in terms of caselaw) are an ex post facto attempt by the old guard to validate and normalize these metaphorical comparisons.

The interesting thing that’s happening now is that configurable music has become so common that the industry can’t help but address it. And it’s simultaneously trying to criminalize these behaviors and appropriate them. For instance, the major labels paid DJ Drama hundreds of thousands of dollars in promotional money to include their artists on his mixtapes, then organized a S.W.A.T. team to raid his studio, seize the CDs, and arrest him on racketeering charges. It’s clear that criminalization won’t work – as I’ve been arguing for over a decade, the proverbial genie is out of the bottle, and our culture can’t return to its pre-Napster state of ignorant bliss. However, it’s unclear whether or not appropriation will succeed, the way it did for rock, rap, punk, and pretty much everything else that ever rocked the boat through sound waves. The reason it might not work this time is because configurability isn’t just a style – it’s a new way of communicating, and of understanding our relationships to one another. For the first time in a long time, millions of Americans are really questioning whether we need record labels, or critics, or radio networks. Can churches, schools and governments be far behind?

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