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Same As It Ever Was - Acts of Digital Re-Authoring

  Michael Betancourt



This theoretical examination focuses on the idea that recombinatory practices commonly found in new media constitute a challenge to traditional author/viewer conventions. Placing this view in both a historical perspective and in relation to the suggestion advanced by Umberto Eco that these works assume a principle of “variation to infinity”, it is possible to recognize that instead of challenging or critiquing traditional author/viewer conventions, recombinatory practices serve to reify those positions and assert an authoritarian role for the original source material. The idea that these practices challenge authorship is thus a form of false consciousness.


There is an approach to making “new” art that begins by taking existing reproductions of other art—whether images, sounds, movies or text—and then recombines these in some fashion, using this pre-existing material as the source for a new work. This action has been called by various names—sampling/appropriation/cut-up/mash-up/remix/collage/montage—and each of these names refers to one of its many historical incarnations. Without the associated technologies of distribution, reproduction and mass marketing, the recombinatory work as it emerged in the twentieth century would be unimaginable. It is an aesthetic form that has recurred almost identically with each ‘new' technology becoming readily available. This reassembly from reproductions is characteristic of artistic responses to the emergence of technological reproduction over the course of the twentieth century and extends into present uses of digital technologies without any sign of abatement.

While recombination of existing works into new ones has origins in folk art and elsewhere before the twentieth century, historical discussions of this approach often begin with Pablo Picasso who combined reproductions with his cubist paintings in the 1910s; the Soviet filmmaker Dziga Vertov who experimented with wax recordings to make “remixes” in the late 1910s and early 1920s 1 . Soviet montage itself owes its existence to experiments with the reassembly of existing film materials. Surrealist Max Ernst cut up engravings to make “novels”, and Joseph Cornell re-edited Hollywood films with other movies to create his own work Rose Hobart . The author William Burroughs created “cut ups” with audio tape.... As new technologies of reproduction became available, new artists performed some kind of recombination of those materials. The listing of these artists and their works could easily continue. This approach is so common it could be called “typical” when artists confront a new technology.

But what is most striking about the repeating pattern of artistic reuse is the increasingly strident claim that this approach constitutes a “questioning of authorship,” especially evident in the later forms that appear at the end of the century around the idea of “appropriation art.” 2 It is against this background that the reappearance of these forms (with new names like “mashup” and “sampling” and “database”) in computer based media art— new media —should be considered.

Their historical continuity with work by the historical avant-garde suggests these approaches (whatever their name) have become banal rather than disruptive since popular entertainment can successfully redeploy these approaches. Acknowledging this fact raises a basic question about how these recombinatory practices challenge traditional author/viewer conventions, as well as why this approach continues to make fundamentally the same claim that these actions constitute a “questioning of authorship.”

By examining the belief that recombination “questions authorship,” it becomes apparent that these approaches constitute a means to avoid the potential shocks each new technology implies by an assertion of traditional roles for audience and viewer. Thus, their repetition takes on a dual character: at the level praxis where it appears through the reuse of reproductions (the “raw” material of the work), and at the conceptual level as the specific procedure of adoption and reassembly.

These repetitions, instead of disrupting conceptions of authorship, (and originality, etc.) serve as a means to assert these values through the principle of “variation.” Umberto Eco has noted that viewers, aware of the rupture in appropriated or quotational works (and sampling cannot be anything but quotational) is aware of their nature as a repetition. What is of interest to the viewer is the way the new work reconfigures the old:

The real problem is that what is of interest is not so much the single variation as “variability” as a formal principle, the fact that one can make variations to infinity. Variability to infinity has all the characteristics of repetition, and very little of innovation. But it is the “infinity” of the process that gives a new sense to the device of variation. What must be enjoyed—suggests the postmodern aesthetics—is the fact that a series of possible variations is potentially infinity. What becomes celebrated here is a sort of victory of life over art, with the paradoxical result that the era of electronics, instead of emphasizing the phenomena of shock, interruption, novelty , and frustration of expectations, would produce a return to the continuum, the Cyclical, the Periodical, the Regular. 3

With the shift to “variability”, the more explicit the quotation, the more the audience may be expected to recognize it, and thus the more directly it plays the new instance against the original one. Variations imposed by the artist become the critical focus in relation to the original work. Instead of eliminating the authorship, or even critiquing it, the remix/appropriated work emphasizes the role of the author precisely because it is the differences (if any) that matter: the role of artist-as-author is not minimized here, it is maximized. The artist reestablishes traditional positions for both artist and viewer: the artist dominates, transforming an existing work into something “new.”

This image of artistic domination over materials is familiar—it is the traditional view of “genius” in a different guise. The coupling of such a traditional view of authorship with a consistent artistic practice whose name mutates, (but whose procedures vary only slightly), imposes a specific conclusion about the recombinatory procedure: that instead of challenging traditional notions of authorship, it tends to assert them while inviting the audience to (un)critically engage the work using their encyclopedic past knowledge of the sources for the “new” work. The audience is active in their engagement with the work, but such “activity” is a potential in any viewing situation and should not be regarded as unique to recombinatory works.

At the same time, this engagement with a “critical” or “active” audience is only superficial. The “activity” is one of comparing the new instance to established forms. This action assumes the prior authority of the existing work. The recombinatory actions exist in parasitical relation (as variations) to their source materials. By drawing together existing materials in new ways, the “variability to infinity” Eco describes comes into the interpretation, creating a false consciousness of challenge to authority and the conventional role of the viewer: the repetitions inherent to remixing existing materials escape the psychological dangers unheimlich works may pose through a reliance on established expertise and the implicit understanding of the “rules of the game” involved in appropriations.

To claim the recombinatory practices commonly found in new media—sampling, appropriation, remixes, mash-ups, etc.—challenge traditional author/viewer conventions can not be accepted as true. As Eco has noted, these practices constitute a shift to a pre-modern convention set where the traditional established work that is the subject of the transformations is elevated in status, and the artist appropriating serves to reify that status, while viewers, aware of the conventionalized variability at the heart of appropriation, recognize in the artist's actions an assertion of authorial dominance over the original work as well as a (paradoxical) subservience to that work.



Petric, Vlada. Constructivism in Films: The Man with a Movie Camera, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987); see also: Vertov, Dziga. Kino-Eye: The Writings of Dziga Vertov , ed. Annette Michselson, trans. Kevin O'Brien, (Berkeley: Universiy of California Press, 1984).

There are many sources for this claim, but it figures prominently in Douglas Crimp's “Appropriating Appropriation,” in On the Museum's Ruins , (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1995) pp. 126-136.

Eco, Umberto, “Interpreting Serials,” in The Limits of Interpretation , (Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1994) pp. 83-100


VJ Theory: TEXTS
Date published: 01/09/06
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