Rupture and recycling … the media ecology has long thrived on the creative repositioning of artifacts created for one reason, but uprooted and recontextualized to serve other purposes. Whether representing fact or fiction, sounds and images acquire entirely new meanings when reconfigured into new texts through the arts of montage and collage. All is fair in the remixing ethos, since the form declares its radical origins.

Commonplace books

Commonplace books were a form of everyday information management.

Popular from the Middle Ages up through the nineteenth century, commonplace books were blank books in which people recorded excerpts from their reading, like quotations, anecdotes, verses, and witty sayings. These excerpts (or “commonplaces”) constituted a common form of information management before the modern era.

These books originated in a period when recycling and remixing were the dominant forms of engagement with culture. Throughout the manuscript era, when bookmaking was expensive and books were often chained to desks, the cultivation of a well-stocked and well-ordered memory was essential. Pedagogical training emphasized the arts of memory, and people often translated important concepts and lessons from their reading and daily life into forms that were easier to remember and re-circulate, such as rhyme. Commonplace books served as another instrument for storing portable fragments of culture; often the reader gave no indication of their connection to larger works, instead taking them down with an eye to storing up material for future compositions.


Hannah Höch, Photomontage

A pioneer of photomontage, artist Hannah Höch recombined photographs and other materials  to create collages.

An artist who belonged to the Dada movement in Berlin in the early 20th century, Hannah Höch was a major innovator in developing the technique of photomontage. Her photomontage works, which pieced together cut-up photographs into larger images, often combining them with other media such as painting and texts, speak to the excitement, violence, and complexity of modern life.


Esfir Shub, Compilation Films

Soviet filmmaker Esfir Schub’s combination of archival footage and montage techniques had a powerful influence on documentary film.

A pioneer of the historical ‘compilation film’ created primarily from footage found in archives,  Soviet filmmaker Esfir Schub used a range of archival films and newsreel footage to create Fall of the Romanov Dynasty, a historical film that tells the story of Czarist Russia from 1912 to 1917.

The shifting progression of images — jostling crowds in the cities, soldiers marching in greatcoats, wealthy landowners taking tea, peasants toiling in the fields — present a powerful argument about the causes of the Russian Revolution even in the absence, in the days before sound, of audio narration. Schub’s  montage techniques influenced later historical documentaries, particularly on television.


Walter Ruttmann, Weekend

Walter Ruttman’s sound documentary Weekend creates an audio collage of metropolitan life.

In 1930, the film director Walter Ruttmann decided to explore the potential of the new technologies of film production to create acoustic art. Using the audio track of movie film, he recorded all of the noises he encountered over the course of a weekend in Berlin, and cut and remixed the results to create an audio collage of metropolitan life. The resulting work is a deep and turning labyrinth of sound, moving past the mechanical rhythms of industry, the spasmodic roar of construction and demolition, the small, startling noises of wild animals, and the low burr of human voices in talk, laughter, and song.


Although we spend much of our lives picking and choosing, combining and recombining the clothes we wear or the food we eat, some things seem unquestionably intact, their state of wholeness untouched.

These special artifacts – certain classes of photographs, moving images, sound recordings, written reports – are valued for their coherence, for their ability to capture and re-present some aspect of the world around us, helping us to apprehend it as it is.

These artifacts are the targets of a special breed of hackers who shatter that coherence, using the resulting shards to build new compositions in which juxtaposition, contrast, and disrupted rhythms reveal something new, something once hidden beneath the smooth surfaces of the whole. Using techniques such as montage and collage, cutting and pasting, practitioners of the art of remix often manage to have it both ways: drawing on the representational capacity of the shard, while at the same time subverting it and working it into a new whole with a new meaning.

Although, remixing seems ubiquitous in the digital age, it has neither lost its capacity to confront and surprise, nor its ability to disrupt coherent surfaces and call our attention to the malleable and constructed nature of representation.

The World at War

Television documentary The World at War pioneered the combination of diverse sources, including archival video and photographs, radio, maps, newspaper text, and interviews.

An epic 26-episode series that followed the narrative of the Second World War, The World At War appeared on British television between 1973 and 1974. In presenting its story, the series mixed together a range of sources, including archival film and photographs, radio, maps, newspaper text, and interviews with people who had been part of historical events. The voices of historical witnesses also contributed to the voice-over, joining the voice of the central narrator, Laurence Olivier. Popular at the time of its airing, the series remains in circulation today.


Humphrey Jennings, Pandaemonium

Humphrey Jennings’s Pandaemonium creates a historical narrative crafted entirely out of extracts from letters, periodicals, government documents, and other archival sources.

A historical narrative crafted entirely out of extracts from letters, periodicals, government documents, and other archival sources, Pandaemonium: The Coming of the Machine (1985) tells the story of industrialization in Britain from the late seventeenth century to the edge of the twentieth century. It was compiled and edited by Humphrey Jennings, an English documentarian who, along with Charles Madge and Tom Harrisson, helped to launch the Mass Observation Project in the 1930s. Jennings took Pandaemonium‘s title from the name of the infernal city that Satan’s troops build in Hell in Milton’s Paradise Lost. Pandaemonium was published posthumously, with the help of Jennings’s Mass Observation collaborator, Charles Madge.


Ableton Live

Audio mixing software Ableton Live enables users to remix live performances in real time.

Not an artwork, but a tool for making art, Ableton Live is an audio mixing software that enables users to manipulate, mix, and recombine live performances in real time, “playing on” sound itself as on a keyboard. First released in 2001, it has gone through more than ten versions and has become extremely popular with DJs, producers, and musicians.


The Five Obstructions

The Five Obstructions mixes together five re-creations of a prior film.

The Five Obstructions (2003) emerged from a playful challenge between the director Lars von Trier and one of his mentors, Jorgen Leth. The challenge was for Leth to remake his 1967 film, The Perfect Human, while following a series of “obstructions” that would make the project more difficult. The result is a film that mixes together five re-creations of the original film, each of which takes up one obstruction. At the same time, the film documents the process of creating these five alternate versions.


RIP: A Remix Manifesto

RiP: A Remix Manifesto from Laurent LaSalle on Vimeo.

The “world’s first open source documentary” RIP: A Remix Manifesto exemplifies the remix culture that it seeks to explain.

In 2002, director Brett Gaylor opened up a call for submissions on his website, inviting people to send video clips, audio samples, and other media forms. Gaylor then recut and worked the samples–often in violation of copyright law, when the samples were ripped from other sources–into a documentary on remix culture and the history of future of copyright law. The result is what he calls the “world’s first open source documentary,” a film that exemplifies the remix culture that it seeks to explain and, by advocating changes to copyright laws, to promote.

Showing footage of a happy nightclub crowd dancing to music by Girl Talk, a musician who specializes in mash-ups of pop songs, Gaylor says in a voiceover, “Whether or not you think the music is original isn’t the point — because the rules of this game don’t depend on who made the songs. They depend on who owns the copyright…. That means these kids should not be dancing. and you shouldn’t be watching, since using these songs in my movie is against the rules, too. But the fact that there are people out there calling my favorite artist a criminal is exactly why I need to make this film.”

Today, RIP: A Remix Manifesto is still being “remixed” with new scenes and samples.


Welcome to Pine Point

Interactive documentary Welcome to Pine Point recreates a lost community in detail, warmth, and gaudy 1970s colors.

Richard Cloutier grew up in Pine Point, a mining community in Canada’s Northwest Territories that can stand in for many industrial towns that sprung up seemingly overnight and vanished just as quickly. Pine Point lasted for barely a generation, abandoned as the mining industry, and its residents, moved elsewhere. A website Cloutier created commemorating Pine Point caught the eye of Michael Simons and Paul Shoebridge, colleagues at the magazine Adbusters. Using funding from the National Film Board of Canada, they developed the core concept into Welcome to Pine Point, an interactive web documentary that recreates the lost community in detail, warmth, and gaudy 1970s colors, using archival footage, recent interviews, newspapers, maps, yearbook portraits, text, music, photographs, video, and other materials.

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