Digital Researcher Profile Interview on Remix Video

Digital Researcher Profile: Jonathan McIntosh of Rebellious Pixels

Interview by Robert W Gehl of the University of Utah.

Editor’s note: Here’s another installment of our Digital Researcher Profiles, an interview series with people working in new media. This time I have the pleasure of sharing the insights of Jonathan McIntosh, otherwise known as the mind behind Rebellious Pixels. He’s a “pop culture hacker, video remix artist, new media teacher and fair-use activist.”

McIntosh is getting a lot of deserved attention recently due to his brilliant video, “Right Wing Radio Duck,” a mash-up of old Donald Duck cartoons and Glenn Beck radio rants. I’ve had the pleasure of asking McIntosh a few questions about how he makes his pixels so rebellious.

RWG: “Right Wing Radio Duck” is a complex media object. You’ve mixed cartoon shorts from the mid 20th century with very recent Glen Beck radio programs. Then you posted this material to YouTube and it’s being promoted on Twitter and on blogs. In terms of media production, what’s changed since the times of those Donald Duck shorts? What’s stayed the same?

JM: The classic animated shorts were originally produced by the Walt Disney company from about the 1930s to 1960s. The Disney studio employed hundreds of people and had access to enormous financial and technical resources. Upon completion each cartoon was released as a short in front of a major Hollywood motion picture in movie theaters nationwide, a model of distribution which of course guaranteed huge public exposure (along with huge profits).

Now I’m not an expert on modern animation production, but I can talk about what it took to make and publish my “Donald Duck meets Glenn Beck” remixed cartoon. First my video was produced by one person (me) on my computer in my living room with zero funding – so that’s obviously very different. Instead of creating new original animation my remix was created by re-framing and re-contextualizing fragments of pre-existing animation embedded with pre-existing pop-cultural meaning.

One aspect of the work that has not changed is the time it takes to put something this complex together. I spent an enormous amount of time doing research, scripting, story boarding and editing. The first few months on the project were spent meticulously collecting the audio-visual sources (including trading with collectors for rare Disney TV specials). After that I transcribed and clip-farmed hundreds of cartoons and hours of Glenn Beck’s shows. (Clip-farming is the practice of digitally skimming larger audio and video files and pulling out smaller relevant fragments for use in editing). The bittorrent file sharing protocol was also invaluable for collecting both the Disney cartoons and for recordings of Beck’s TV and radio programs; luckily there are obsessive fans of both sources out there on the Internet.

Lastly, I relied on self-publishing by uploading my finished cartoon to YouTube, and my blog, which again is very different from Disney. The remix was immediately picked up by popular blogs like Boingboing. Roger Ebert saw it, liked it and tweeted it, and it snowballed from there passing from person to person through social networks like Facebook and Twitter.

There is another important point of similarity between this work and the production of Donald Duck shorts. Like Walt Disney did before me I’m building on and transforming existing works, stories, personalities and narratives which already exist in the popular culture. Given that we live in a world that increasingly communicates in a mass media driven audio-visual language, as citizens of that emerging world we all must be allowed to speak in that audio-visual language.

RWG: I see you rely on Creative Commons to speak in that “mass media driven audio-visual language.” You’re especially clear to make a claim for fair use. Do you see Creative Commons as a viable vehicle for expression in new media, especially given the constant drumbeat over intellectual property violations, piracy, and plagiarism?

JM: Overall I think Creative Commons is a great project. I obviously use and support CC licenses. However, it is only useful to a degree for the type of remix video work I create.

At this moment in history most of our popular culture is unfortunately produced, controlled and owned by massive multinational corporations.

These huge institutions have no incentive or interest to make that audio-visual culture freely available to the pubic for remix and re-use. I honestly don’t think they will ever give up control and hand that material back over to the public commons (at least not without a long social-movement-driven struggle).

Regardless of whether the original creator (or copyright owner) gives permission – people must have the right to remix the popular culture to make comment, parody and critique (without the fear of being sued into oblivion). This is where the doctrine of fair use becomes very useful because, cool as Creative Commons is, we should not be restricted to remixing only material where permission has already been given.

The Center for Social Media has done some fantastic work putting together a series of great fair use guides for filmmakers and online video creators.

RWG: Glenn Beck has responded to your work, calling it “incredible propaganda.” I will play devil’s advocate and take the side of Beck for a second. Is this propaganda? How do you define propaganda? [Editor’s note: if you want to study Beck’s reaction in cartoon form, check out this video.]

JM: “Propaganda” is an interesting and very loaded term; all sides of social-political discourse seem to revel in throwing the charge of “propaganda” at each other. I tend to reserve the term propaganda for powerful institutions, states and corporations rather than individuals making political, social or cultural works in their living rooms – but perhaps that’s for others to debate. Some of the comments in response to my remix have pointed out the irony of Glenn Beck of all people calling my DIY video propaganda.

I did not make the video simply to make fun of Glenn Beck; I made it more as a sympathetic look at Donald Ducks’ economic situation as a proxy for Main Street USA – careful viewers note that there are also few criticisms of the Obama administration in the piece. But I tend to think that its important for audiences to approach all media (especially mass media) but media in general with a healthy critical eye – that includes my remixes.

RWG: On a similar note, there’s always the danger that the things we see and read are taken out of context. How faithful to the original are the clips you selected from Beck’s programs?

JM: The “everything is out of context” change has been the main defense from supports of Beck on his “The Blaze” site and elsewhere. The original format for the Beck audio sources I used were often long rambling diatribes on his daily of radio and television broadcasts. The man can certainly talk and he fills up a full four hours of airtime everyday. Given that, it was of course necessary to remove his quotes from their original format. However, I was very careful to keep Beck’s overarching meaning and messages intact. He can be a rather goofy entertainer and so it can be very easy to make fun of him. He often makes fun of himself and seems to enjoy doing these odd third-person, self-mocking voice impressions. I purposely did not use any of that type of audio. I tried not to use anything he said in jest out of context; instead I relied on his serious statements to remain true to the Glenn Beck character. What I did was to pick out his core themes and topics then just place those into a cartoon format. Overall I wanted to highlight Beck’s aggregated paranoid, revisionist, and xenophobic rhetoric. The juxtaposition works well because Beck’s media persona is already an over the top caricature.

Another related question could be: “Did I stay true to Donald Duck’s character in this remix?” I thought it would be fitting to ask what would happen if Donald were placed into our current economic and media context. To accomplish that it was critical for me to stay as true to Donald’s original character as possible. I worked hard to create narrative situations that our favorite Disney Duck might believable find himself in. So its satisfying to see commentators on sites like Cartoon Brew pointing out that Donald does indeed stay true to his personality throughout the remix.

RWG: I’m hearing something in your response: a sort of responsibility of the remixer to be faithful to the original material while simultaneously making a new, original media object. How do you do this?

JM: The question of the responsibility of the remixer to their source material is an important and often overlooked one.

I always try to work from a basic power analysis when deciding what to remix. I choose sources that are not only part of the popular culture but also represent institutional power structures or uphold dominate mythologies. That means I primarily remix audio-visual material borrowed from mass media, corporations, government, public figures, and politicians.

The remix video medium can be used to either ridicule or celebrate the source. It can sometimes even do both at the same time. Each approach can, of course, be useful in adding to the larger public discourse on a given topic. For example, as the Daily Show has demonstrated, remix can effectively (and bluntly) illuminate the hypocrisy or dishonesty of public figures or institutions.

In my own remix works I try to exercise a degree of subtlety and complexity that moves beyond simple ridicule. I often attempt to celebrate aspects of one popular source and use that to critique elements of another popular source – in the case of “Right Wing Radio Duck,” this is the sympathetic use of Donald Duck to critique Glenn Beck.

As a general rule I don’t remix footage of people without power for the purposes of ridicule (I don’t use webcam recordings on YouTube for instance). Many other online video remixers however don’t seem to view their sources through a power lens. There are countless remixes out there that ridicule footage of relatively powerless people for the “ironic value.” Its sad that irony (for its own sake) seems to have become one of the major currencies of Internet video. Its especially sad when that ironic value often comes at the expense of people without any real structural, institutional or financial power.

If ridicule is the goal of a remix video (and sometimes that’s a very worthy goal) it becomes important to ask: what or whom is being ridiculed? What institutional power, if any, do they hold? What is the purpose of the remixed ridicule? Is it ridicule for its own sake? Is it remix for its own sake? Or is there a larger subversive cultural, social or political goal behind it?

One of my favorite bell hooks quotes can apply to the genre of remix video in this regard. She said ”It’s a sad moment where people are seduced by transgression in and of itself, as if transgression makes you radical, and not what you are transgressing in the service of.”

RWG: I know you’re interested in examining race and class issues in this work. Can you elaborate on the messages and ideas you’re trying to convey, and the hidden social elements you’re trying to expose?

JM: Donald Duck seemed an appropriate choice for this remix because he was originally created to represent a frustrated down-on-their-luck “anybody” character during the Great Depression. The current economic recession and unemployment epidemic is strikingly similarly to the situations Donald faced in the old Disney shorts from the 1930s and 1940s.

One of the catalysts for creating the remix was my frustration with how many mainstream liberals critique the Tea Partiers. Don’t get me wrong: there is certainly much to be critical of – especially around racism, hyper-individualism and McCarthyism – but the discourse often devolves quickly into insults and ridicule of the participants. Things like “those people are just idiots” and “see they can’t even spell” are common and imply that their anger and frustration is also invalid.

This type of schoolyard ridicule is unhelpful, un-strategic, and downright elitist. Plus it misses the point that many of the folks drawn to the Tea Party have very real economic grievances. It’s no secret that the middle and working classes in America have been systematically disenfranchised (and frankly screwed over) by corporations and both political parties for the past 30 years. As noted early in “Right Wing Radio Duck,” the income gap is at an all time high, wages are basically stagnant, and foreclosure rates continue to skyrocket. So people are justifiably angry. They know something is wrong, deeply and systemically wrong. Naturally they are seeking answers and figureheads like Glenn Beck are happy to provide them with answers – though as Donald Duck finds out, those answers are both crazy and also ultimately serve the interests of the powerful and wealthy.

And this is where class is especially important. On many occasions Beck uses his media megaphones to rant against people who are losing their homes to the economic crises (and to predatory or fraudulent banks practices). Those reprehensible attacks provided a perfect way for the remix to reveal Beck’s underlying agenda and allegiances – not to mention his bullying and heartless chauvinism. Those rants against homeowners at the end of my remix are real and not constructed through fancy editing.

So instead of simply making fun of Beck (which as I’ve mentioned is really rather easy to do) I wanted to try and present a sympathetic look at one reason why someone might be drawn to Beck’s device rhetoric. Donald Duck provided a great narrative vehicle to tell that story both because of his built-in character traits and because of his beloved icon status in the popular culture. Plus I have been a fan of Donald since childhood; I watched all the classic cartoons over and over on the Disney Channel in the mid 1980s.

In addition to the economic question, I wanted to hold Beck accountable for his relentless use of deeply racist language and rhetoric. The two sources felt like a particularly good pairing in light of the racist stereotyping found in the old Disney material. In fact some of the classic animation almost perfectly mirrors Beck’s xenophobic fear-mongering and scapegoating people of color.

This was the reason for including remixed sequence where Donald is driven to a fear-induced, nightmarish dream by a long list of racially charged words and names spoken by the radio. That section was in many ways the hardest part of the remix to complete because its largely nonlinear and abstract in nature. But I thought it was important since race-based fear is one of the cornerstones of Beck’s message. He constantly and very intentionally uses words and phrases which are deeply race-coded in our country – words like “reparations,” “welfare,” “illegals,” and so on.

As an added bonus to the other layers of meaning in the remix, it seemed fitting to use Disney Cartoons because Walt himself eagerly joined McCarthy’s Hollywood witch hunts and even testified for the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947. Today Glenn Beck continues that sad tradition from the 1950s. He has effectively helped bring about a mainstream resurgence of McCarthyist- and John Birch Society-style rhetoric.

RWG: Finally, what’s next for Rebellious Pixels?

JM: That’s a good question. These remix projects, as I have mentioned, take an enormous amount of time, effort and planning. I’m toying with the idea of doing something about Immigration or perhaps about the Citizens United case and corporate person-hood. I also have been developing a series of workshops for youth using remix video as a critical media literacy tool, specifically focusing on using remix video techniques as an educational tool to deconstruct (and re-construct) gendered messages and myths embedded TV commercials aimed at youth.

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