At a time when even Sprite has been remixed, cut-and-paste art no longer seems novel. But DJ Spooky That Subliminal Kida producer, artist, and turntablist who studied semiotics at Bowdoin Collegehas found new territory for audio-video collage: this country’s racially conflicted past. Saturday night at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, he’ll present a “remix” of D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, a 1915 cinematic landmark that happens to be profoundly racist.
“When I was in school, I dabbled a little bit in film history,” says Spooky, a globe-trotting Washington native known as Paul D. Miller when he was a Washington City Paper intern 15 years ago. “I was always intrigued at how Griffith was put on a pedestal for his editing technique. The idea of him as a sort of storyteller of the American Dream. It seems ironic that most of his films are about intolerance, racial paranoia, and the destruction of the American Dream. I just wanted to explore that, especially after the Bush election in 2000, where black voters were turned away in Florida.”
If that sounds like an overload of themes for Spooky’s Rebirth of a Nation, the range of ideas is typical of the arty mixer’s aesthetic (and conversational) style. After introducing the issue of racewhich he calls “pretty much a social construct”he then rejects it as a crucial theme of Griffith’s film, which is set during the Civil War and glorifies the Ku Klux Klan. “To me, the film is more about paranoia of class mixing than race mixing,” he says. “What I’m focusing on is the body language of the characters and the way they relate to each other. Most of the characters are whites in blackface. There are very few blacks in the film at all, except in sort of chorus-line dance scenes.”
To emphasize human movement, Spooky will intercut footage from Griffith’s epic with dances choreographed by Bill T. Jones. “Mixed into the piece are all these dance pieces of his, which are digitized and edited to look very old. And I’ve remixed the interaction of the characters to highlight that kind of stuff. I’m focused on the idea of cinema as collective dream. And symbolism in dreams and symbolism in body language tends to converge.”
Like Abel Gance’s Napoleon, which Spooky also cites as an interest, Rebirth of a Nation will be projected on three screens. Griffith’s film takes the center screen, with choreographed pieces on each side and “mixed into the middle.”
“I’m using two laptops and various video mixing equipment to slice and dice the film against itself,” Spooky says. “I edit out two hours’ worth of material in the process of making the mix, so it becomes an hourlong stream-of-consciousness collage. I also use one other computer to make the soundtrack.” Both the audio and the visuals will be mixed live, as they were the few times Spooky has done the piece before.
Nominally based in New York, the multimedia kid flitted in and out of D.C. in August, and in the two weeks before the Hirshhorn performance was scheduled to visit Boston, Seattle, Sardinia, and the Burning Man Festival in the Nevada desert. He has two books due, will be producing a Joan Osborne album and a Slayer side project, and may score Blade 3. He also plans to post the raw materials of Rebirth of a Nation at www.djspooky.com so other multimedia DJs can cut their own versions.
Spooky admits that his eclectic workload and peripatetic lifestyle can be wearing. But he says that simultaneously mixing audio and video isn’t that much of challenge. “I have the multitasking mind. I’m always doing about 12 different things at the same time. And all are equivalent.”
What’s really hard, he adds, is simply DJing at a club: “It’s a lot more work, because I have to check the vibe of the crowd and see what’s going on.” Mark Jenkins
DJ Spooky mixes Rebirth of a Nation Saturday, Sept. 6, at 7 p.m. at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden’s Ring Auditorium, 7th Street and Independence Avenue SW. For more information, call (202) 785-9727.