I was recently interviewed by Henry Jenkins, Professor of Communications at the USC, as part of a series in relation to the “DIY Video 2010” show at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. I curated the Political Remix Video section of that show organized by Mimi Ito, Steve Anderson, and the Institute for Multimedia Literacy. Text originally posted with my curated selections on Jenkins’ blog Confessions of an Aca-Fan.
HJ: Your selections here suggest a strong over-lap between fan vidding and political remix. Can you tell us something of the relationship which has emerged between the two DIY video communities?
JM: The overlap in my curated examples is definitely intentional on my part, though I’m not sure how much of a self-conscious relationship there is between the two genres. I can say little about the impact of political remix on vidding but I can detail the impact of vidding on political remix work.
Many of my favorite political remix videos are created by people from a wide range of DIY communities who felt inspired or compelled to make one (or several) remixes addressing a political/social issue. I think many of these people creating remixes with a critical edge would not necessarily describe themselves or their remixes as being part of the political genre.
There are of course, a relatively small group of remixers who primarily do political work, and I am one of them. Unfortunately, within this self-identified group I still find some resistance to include vidding as a legitimate part of the political/critical remix tradition.
From my point of view it seems clear that vidding is not only an integral part of remix history but vidding practice can also can teach political remixers an enormous amount on a wide range of practices and techniques. Through my engagement with vids and vidders I have gained invaluable insights about the fannish use of narratives and pop culture characters in remix videos. When I look at vidding I see as a core element the idea that it is possible to simultaneously enjoy and love a television show while also being critical of aspects of the show’s writing, characters, story arc, embedded messages etc.
Most people engage with mass media stories in a subtle and complex way – we both love it and are critical of it. I’m slightly embarrassed to admit this now but I didn’t really understand this tension very well before I learned about vidding. I think that part of the resistance to vidding I encounter from other political remixers might be related to this point. They may be uncomfortable with the fannish and or sympathetic relationship that vidders have to their source because self-conscious political remixers often have a relationship of ridicule or animosity to their source.
Political remix video can be a blunt tool that uses ridicule as a way to expose hypocrisy, illuminate tropes, and talk back to power – but it is a little harder to use the form in more subtle ways (especially if you still want to get the lolz).
Learning about vidding really gave me permission to embrace my fannish-side as a political remixer instead of hiding or being ashamed of it. It would have been impossible for me to conceive of making either “Buffy vs Edward” or “Right Wing Radio Duck” without the positive influence of vidding on me and on my work. In both I rely on my fannish (and therefore sympathetic) view of one pop culture icon (The Slayer and Donald Duck) which I use to critique another popular culture character or story (Glenn Beck and Twilight/Edward Cullen).
I would also say that political remix video does not really have a self-conscious or intentional community, at least not in the same way that communities have coalesced around vidding, AMVs or machinima. The love of source material(s) seems to be part of the glue that holds vidding, AMV and machinima communities together. Political remix video as a genre on the other hand does not have a fandom at its core – but rather rallies around a deep shared suspicion of powerful institutions, structures and the media itself. This base of criticism is what, I think, poses challenges to building a larger sustained online community organized specifically around political remix video.
HJ: Political remix makes about the strongest case possible for fair use as a fundamental right of citizenship. Yet, it is clear that our current legal environment does not always support that position. Can you tell us more about how political remix intersects with current debates about intellectual property?
JM: We are living in a culture that increasingly speaks in an audio-visual language. Videos which remix, transform, quote and build-on pieces of our shared popular culture are not only valuable to the larger social discourse but are actually an essential part of full participation in society. I absolutely agree that remix is a basic right of communication – it’s the right to communicate using the language of the new media landscape(s). This right extends to all genres of DIY video that appropriate fragments of mass media pop culture including vids, AMVs, machinima, lip-syncs etc.
As you point out, political remix video in particular should be one of the most protected transformative genres because of the unambiguous political commentary and critique. However, despite what should be fairly obvious fair use and free-speech arguments, these works still tend to be very vulnerable to takedowns filed by irritated copyright holders.
The widespread use of automated content ID bots for removing videos from media sharing sites like YouTube has been catastrophic for remix video makers. This practice has brought about huge increases in the number of fair use works being zapped into the void by baseless copyright claims. When a creator’s remix or entire channel is deleted, not only are all their videos lost, so are all their comment, subscribers and playlists.
These video removals leave gaping holes in the Internet – and I mean that quite literally. Video embeds on blogs, forums and social networks are suddenly missing. Tweets and links to remixes are all abruptly dead or lead to YouTube’s notorious pink line of death. In the past month alone five fair use political remix videos I had planned on posting to my blog politicalremixvideo.com have been removed from YouTube for “infringement”. To make matters worse many DIY video creators I speak with are either not aware of their fair use rights or are afraid to rock the boat by challenging the takedowns. As a result, valuable online conversations and visual discussions are being shut down.
All of this, for me, highlights a larger problem surrounding our creative new media culture which is that it is all taking place in private corporate spaces. There are effectively zero public spaces on the Internet. The online public square has been completely privatized from the beginning. This strikes me as especially problematic because the development of the Internet was primarily done with public funds. And then it was just unquestionably handed over to corporate interests.
At the end of the day, it all boils down to corporate power and the pursuit of profits being valued far more than the public good, media literacy or a free and open culture. I see no reason why we can’t begin to create a new and truly public commons with a little good old fashioned imagination and innovation.
(As an aside, I haven’t heard anyone articulate an argument for turning YouTube over to the public commons for the public good but I would be interested to hear a call for that.)
HJ: Glenn Beck attacked your recent Donald Duck video, assuming that it was heavily funded and produced by a professional media operation. Was provoking such a response the ultimate badge of honor for a DIY mediamaker?
JM: It was really fascinating to hear Glenn Beck concoct a conspiracy theory live on the air involving me, the stimulus package, the NEA, the “communist union organizers” and Donald Duck. But honestly it was even more exciting to see another remixer on YouTube take what Glenn Beck said and combine that with a Mickey Mouse cartoon. That remixed response – which built on my video to further the conversation – was ultimately much more a badge of honor for me. That along with the thousands of supportive, insightful, hilarious and sometimes scary comments left by people all over the Internet in response to my video was far more satisfying.
HJ: What does this controversy say about the blurring lines between DIY and professional media production? There have been, after all, some “astroturf” videos, such as Al Gore’s Penguin Army which also sought to imitate the look and feel of DIY political video. I recently showcased on my blog a range of mainstream political ads which deploy pop culture references, parody, and the remixing of news clips to make their case, most often against their political opponents. What do such videos suggest about the influence which Political Remix might be having on the rhetoric and imagination of American politics?
JM: There is no question that powerful corporate and political interests are actively attempting to co-opt the DIY video and remix aesthetic. (I also see this co-optation extending to the re-use of actual viral videos for corporate advertising campaigns like the recent Honda Odyssey ad built around David After Dentist and Kitten Afraid of Remote Control Mouse.)
Powerful institutions understand that they have a serious crisis of legitimacy on their hands resulting from widespread public cynicism about advertising. So as genuine DIY videos become enormously popular online, marketers are desperately trying to capture and bottle that sense of authenticity for their own brands.
This type of co-option has been happening for decades. Marketers have long been coming in and stealing from various DIY subcultures. But, though advertisers may be able to copy the mechanics of DIY video to mimic the look and feel of low/no budget viral videos, it’s obvious to almost everyone (especially DIY video makers) that these poser videos are made for a very different purpose and with very different messages.
The Jerry Brown for Governor ad you posted which mixed footage of Arnold Schwarzenegger with Meg Whitman may be political, and remix, and video but there is no escaping the fact that it was produced by an establishment politician with a campaign budget of millions. The ad was also shown ad-nauseam on television here in California – to the point where even people that may have agreed with the critique became incredibly annoyed by the video.
What the marketers don’t understand is that there is much more to political remix video than the aesthetics, style and production techniques. In my view the most interesting videos in the genre don’t just remix the source material, they also remix the larger dominant messages, power relations and social norms embedded inside that media.
HJ: In some of my work, I’ve argued that appropriation — the meaningful remixing of borrowed materials as a form of critical commentary — constitutes one of the core New Media Literacies skills. What kinds of knowledge and insight do you think emerges when young people create political remixes?
JM: I often facilitate workshops with youth using remix video with the aim of empowering young people to both understand and creatively talk back to the massive media propaganda machine targeting them. Earlier this year I taught a workshop on gender and remix with young women at Reel Grrls in Seattle.
We looked at several dozen highly gendered toy commercials recorded off the Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon. In our first discussion, the young women quickly identified some of what the ads were telling us about what is normal, valued and expected in terms of gender roles.
I then asked the participants to form small groups and remix the commercials by simply switching the audio and video of some of the ads directed at boys with those of the ads directed at girls.
We all had a lot of fun as we literally de-constructed and re-constructed the ads and marveled at the hilarious and insightful juxtapositions that resulted from the process. Through remix, the representations of young women in the ads were made into the heroes of epic barbie battles while the representations of young men were made to express nurturing and caring feelings for the world around them.
Before the workshop ended we screened their transformed ads and the young women pointed out further insights discovered during their editing. We discussed how, without exception, the “boys ads” focused on action, making, doing, building, competition and often engaging in battle. While the “girls ads” (even the ones for pink tech-toys) tended to focus on care-giving, child rearing, domestic tasks, physical appearance, shopping and finding a boyfriend. As they left for the day all the participants expressed interest in making more remixes in the future.
I think this workshop and others like it are are a fantastic way to empower young people to look behind the curtain the see the mass media wizard and to better understand the manipulation that is being directed at them. In the process participants also learn critical media literacy skills, new media technology, video editing and fair use rights.
After engaging in remix culture, people young and old, find it nearly impossible to experience media in a passive or uncritical way. As members of that remix culture even if we never make a remix video ourselves, we can’t help but make imaginary mash-ups in our heads when watching television or movies.
HJ: Most of the best known political remixes are progressive. Are there right wing groups who are also creating political remixes? If so, is there any relationships between these two DIY communities?
JM: This question starts to get at what is classified as political remix video, which can be a somewhat complicated answer. There are a wide range of big ‘P’ and small ‘p’ topics, beyond the narrow election arena, that are often the subject of DIY videos. I define political remix video to include a broad range of government, social, cultural, corporate, economic, privacy, gender, race, sexuality and media related issues that don’t necessarily all fit neatly in the current left/right dichotomy.
When considering if a transformative work fits into the political remix video genre I use the follow criteria:
1) Does it remix or transform the source material(s) used?
2) Does it remix, subvert or comment on some of the messages embedded in the source?
3) Does it subvert larger dominate social or political power structures and messages?
Before categorizing a work as part of the political remix tradition – I also like to consider if the work is DIY or created by a powerful institution or if it is hate speech, targeting marginalized groups or just totally batshit insane (I’m kidding about this last point, sorta).
While some remixers might be intentionally creating progressive messages, many others may not be self-consciously setting out to do that. They may simply want to comment on an issue or topic they are particularly passionate about and feel is missing, under-represented or marginalized by existing mainstream media conversations.
For me, political remix video has at its core a basic power analysis and a suspicion of powerful institutions. The goal is often to challenge oppressive norms, stereotypes and dominant media messages. Remixes dealing with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, for example, don’t simply follow red/blue lines but rather critique government policy, empire and military power from all sides of the political spectrum.
When it comes specifically to “right-wing” remix videos, many look and feel a lot like amateur commercials in support of existing power structures. The DIY aesthetic might feel subversive but the messages are often indistinguishable from public relations industry campaigns. Sometimes these works take a more extreme tone or position than even commercial media advertising would deem appropriate. An example would be GrouchyMedia who makes pro-war and pro-military mash-ups mostly in the form of music videos. He uses lyrically violent tracks to accompany violent imagery – like the videos “Die Terrorist Die” or “Taliban Bodies” – both of which celebrate killing, revenge and military power.
Similar mash-ups that ride the edge of online hate speech are works that promote or celebrate racism, sexism, homophobia and violence. Many of these pull clips, themes and messages from movies like Zack Snyder’s 300 in very uncritical ways to ridicule different peoples and cultures around the world. I don’t consider these videos part of the critical tradition because they are replicating or amplifying established systems of power and oppression.
It would feel rather absurd, for example, for someone to make a remix about how there just aren’t enough heterosexual characters or white men on TV. There might be people who are delusional enough to believe that but I don’t think such a mash-up would be taken seriously as a critique.
Examples of remix works that reinforce established sexist and patriarchal norms are everywhere online. The LazyTown mash-ups made popular by 4chan and Something Awful are some of the most disturbing in terms of gender. Typically, these works appropriate images or video clips featuring young actress Julianna Mauriello, who at age 12 starred in the hit Nickelodeon children’s television show LazyTown. The most popular of the videos combines Mauriello singing the song “Cooking by the Book” with a misogynist, hyper sexual music video by Lil’ John. It re-edits and manipulates her dancing to make her move in intensely sexualized ways in time to the beat and lyrics.
Though not all the media appropriating Mauriello’s image is sexually objectifying, it is not uncommon for her images to be photoshopped onto hardcore pornography. Not only is this practice horrifying – it also amounts to the virtual sexual harassment of a child via remix.
There is nothing subversive in sexualizing a young actress on a television show for young children. We have a word for people or institutions that use there physical, social, economic or technological power to demean and target those with less power – and that word is “bully”.
The DIY remix video medium is a tool for communication, which can be used for either oppressive or liberatory purposes. At its best political remix video has the potential to transform our relationship with the new media landscape(s) and help us re-imagine our shared sociopolitical systems.
Jonathan McIntosh is a pop culture hacker, video remix artist and fair use advocate. He blogs at PoliticalRemixVideo.com and is a member of the Open Video Alliance. He also facilitates workshops with youth that utilize remix video as a crucial media literacy tool. His latest remix “Right Wing Radio Duck” along with the rest of his work, can be found on his website RebelliousPixels.com.