|FOCUS: DJ SPOOKY|
Ana Finel Honigman meets the New York-based conceptual
artist, writer and musician, Paul D Miller, also known as Dj Spooky that
Ana Finel Honigman: You have proposed the theory that the DJ-derived model of sampling and reassembling music is a paradigm shift in the history of art and music composition. By removing language from its narrative role does sampling elevate or alienate words?
Paul D Miller (aka Dj Spooky): Yeah, no doubt. It’s all
about language as divorced from the human body; language as an isolated
free-floating signifier. There’s nothing I can’t sample: the sound of the
sun, the sound of blood flowing through my veins, the electromagnetic and
fibre-optic-based pulses that hold the Internet together. It’s all grist for
the sampling machine. Here’s a metaphor: think Warhol meets Grandmaster
Flash while John Cage plays piano in the background, and Bob Marley sings a
song of redemption... at the same time... Or Ornette Coleman’s ‘harmolodics’
flipped onto vinyl by the X-ecutioners (a ‘turntablist’ ensemble that only
plays small snippets of sounds). In sampling there’s no structure save the
relationship of one sound to another, stuff like that. Sampling is a
disassociation machine: the more things are evaluated and made into
something else, the more they’re interesting. No one just samples old loops
except maybe Puff Daddy – no disrespect.
Well, these days everyone wants to see how to work the codes behind the sounds, and that’s part of language art too. Narrative troupes don’t have that much to do with this process, except as window dressing. It’s more of a pre-linguistic milieu where intent and raw impressions can bombard you as they do in Times Square. There’s meaning in the data cloud; that’s what poets like Rimbaud, Saul Williams, Mallarmé, or Oscar Michaux taught us. New poets like Anti-Pop Consortium or Linus Torvalds (the inventor of linux, an open source code system, who I consider to be an industrial poet) all point to a place where language is a raw source material, like paint or something. Press ‘play’ on the record, but never sit there and just listen! It’s all about making your own version fer chrissakes! Anything else is boring! Think of Jeff Koons, think of Michael Jackson: they’re both mirror images of the same devalued coin; creative accounting on a limited imagination. I like their work... they had to limit their vocabulary to deal with the issues of density they both evoke. I guess you could say Michael Jackson is the Jeff Koons of the music world, and Jeff Koons is the Michael Jackson of the art world, ha ha.
Do you believe there is a hierarchy between visual and sound art? In your view, is one form better suited for particular types of expression or the articulation of any specific issue?
Personally, I’m much more into the idea of many languages, many situations. Socially, I am aware that people tend to prioritise visual art, especially traditional mediums such as sculpture or painting, simply because there’s a specific market associated with collection. I started as a conceptual artist and writer, so I’m really into the invisible ‘dematerialisation’ scene. For me, DJ-ing was a critique of ‘total text’ – how sampling affects the idea of ownership of language, ownership of words or memories. It’s invisible sculpture. Just flip things inside out and upside down. I guess I have a deep irreverence for ‘hierarchy’, but the art world loves social hierarchies because they think hierarchies determine ‘taste’. Just look at Barnett Newman, Emmanuel Kant and Edmund Burke’s critique of the sublime. All of this is about a European mode of production based loosely on the Enlightenment, and art for the masses doesn’t really enter the picture. Language, like technology, is a lot more democratic, it’s: ‘Look mom! No curators!’ Things either sound cool or they don’t. That’s probably why language-based art-forms like hip-hop and electronic music are a lot more interesting than what’s going on in the art world these days. Not to mention a lot more fun.
So, how does sampling relate to appropriation in art?
‘This has been a pretty well travelled road… mimesis is the method of the mode.’ Many artists have based their whole aesthetic on this kind of thing: Oscar Wilde, Mary Shelley, Ovid, Zora Neale Hurston, and later folks like Duchamp and Picasso all stole all sorts of stuff, but they flipped it around, and that’s what makes their expression shine. Everything is quotation, including genetic selection. DNA is simply an encoded response to certain other ‘building blocks’ in the fabric of nature... it’s a call and response game. The art of sampling is what Emerson was talking about when he wrote of an America that didn’t exist. It’s our ‘narrative’. Turntables just brought the structure out into the open. Think of jazz as a quotation machine.
Does contemporary interdisciplinary practice make the delineations between poetry, music and art obsolete?
The sense of ‘no boundaries’ translates into everything, once it’s on the screen. We can make words into objects, objects into words, sounds into images, images into… DNA? The main thing is morphology of intent, since everything is up for grabs in this context. The old style is to look for strict definition, and that doesn’t fly in the world of the remix.
How does poetry function differently from other forms of language? Is the difference purely aesthetic or do the aesthetics alter the content?
Poetry is formalised improvisation. Poetry is fascinating because it is diffuse. It moves through so many different media. Think about how many stock phrases flow through the average day. Poetry makes us look for new ways of flipping the words around us. A good poet is a window into the very essence of language. So is a good painter or sculptor. My mom used to have a phrase: ‘Who speaks through you?’ I like that idea of moulding words as they flow through you.
What is the role of poetry in contemporary art?
Poetry underscores almost every part of the arts. Yet the psychology of the mid-twentieth-century/middle-Modernism crowd who run the galleries and museums has allowed poetry to be under-represented. There should be a lot more poetry in the museums. There should be a lot more attention paid to poetry as language, poetry as code and poetry as externalised expression. There is inertia in the galleries and museums around these issues. If they put together a show on hip-hop, they will display the tennis shoes Eminem wears but they refuse to deal with the text.As an artist, I certainly feel words are increasingly important. Flaubert famously described language as being ‘like a cracked kettle on which we beat out a tune for a dancing bear, when we hope our music to move the stars’.
In that regard, how does poetry/sampling relate to the inherent flaws in verbal communication?
Or, how does language art codify the experiences of daily living? I want to answer that by saying that I am an advocate of the invisible. A painter can talk about the images he or she summons up on a canvas but, at the end of the day, the expression is limited to the specific medium. With words, I can type, have a computer speak the words, save them on disk, and transform them into a DNA sequence. The options are open. The basic idea is translation into all spectrums of the creative act. These are issues I try to evoke in my work but these questions are inherently limitable. In my latest album, Modern Mantra, I was fascinated by the idea of repetition and erasure dealing with trance, or how when there are so many things to process, you have to slow things down. This is not necessarily a normal art world trope. Every culture has a very powerful relationship to language but in the West we are alienated from our own words. They are deemed distractions because they’re basically learned by rote and we absorb them by osmosis. If there’s something that William Burroughs taught us, it’s that we live interdependently of one another’s basic, primal thoughts. Splayed out into the world of electronic culture, I am you, you are me, with language, we’re three. That’s what mix culture tells us.
How does this relate to, say, language’s use as evocation in advertising?
Well, look at the way the Surrealists made use of what
they termed ‘automatic writing’ when they were trying to deal with the
impact of industrialisation and advertising on the formation of language.
They first looked to bypass this divorce through disassociating the text.
Following that was Dadaist ‘word pasting’ and Fluxus idea paintings where
Yoko Ono wrote on the page a description of what the image was supposed to
be. It’s just a remix of the way we think, but put down into some form that
other people can see and relate to. There’s that old DJ phrase, ‘there’s not
a problem that I can’t fix, ‘cause I can do it in the mix’. Flip that phrase
to Derrida and I think we’ll have the first philosopher of mixology. I
wonder what he’d put on the turntable decks?
Dj Spooky (right) in concert with Amiri Baraka and Carl Hancock Rux at the Knitting Factory’s Best Fest, 2002, 13 April 2002. Photo: Sarah Cucinelli