Thursday, April 28, 2011

Derivation vs. Recontexualization in the Modern Process

Our music is composed of samples; our images crafted from consolidated clip art, and our movies from stories that have been told draw from a well of tired tropes and conventions. So, we might as well ask ourselves how to tell the difference between Origination, Derivation, Recontexualization and Plagiarism, and no better way to exemplify these concepts than by framing the modern mashup as a metaphor suitable to representing the modern art process as it applies to all platforms.

The mashup is sometimes presented as synonymous with collage, but in fact the two concepts differ in intention and produced effect. Collages ala Rauschenberg are created from deconstructed or found elements, which once combined do not for the most part bring attention to their source/s, but rather present the viewer with a new image, much the same way a child is not a copy of his or her parents, but a synthesis and then also, something new, as this work, untitled "combine," (1963) so adeptly illustrates:

Whereas the mashup is not really born of synthesized concepts, but rather any given mashup represents a recontextualization of pre-exisiting concepts within a single 'frame'. It's purpose is not so much to advance, but to reflect; not to break down beyond recognition and recombine into a new form/s, but to layer existing elements in a manner that comparison is forced. The mashup itself does not present itself as something new. But its curator/creator hopes it will inspire new thinking.

As it happens, Rauschenberg was also a trickster and often revealed a sublime conceptual side to his craft, which doesn't necessarily support my argument, but it's a worthwhile look if you haven't seen it before:

Robert Rauschenberg - Erased De Kooning

It may be that one day we think of Rauschenberg not as a prominent 20th Century American artist, but as the Father of 21st Century Art.


If you accept my premise, mashups are always derivative by definition, as they are by nature always constructed from pre-existing works, be they text, graphics, audio, video, animation, etc. But it would be hard to argue that this work, 'Blue Nudes' by Henri Matisse (1952) is derivative (except of the life model on which it is based). Though it is a collage, it is not a mashup. Like J.S. Bach or Max Martin, BLUE NUDES represents an original expression made manifest.

It's easy to think mashup is a synonym for collage, but in fact the two concepts differ in produced effect. Collages ala Rauschenberg are created from deconstructed or found elements, which once combined do not for the most part bring attention to their source/s, but rather present the viewer with a new image. Whereas the mashup's purpose is often just the opposite, not to combine beyond identification, but to layer in a manner that comparison is forced.

Collages are Frankenstined together from recycled bits of other works, and then given a new life. Mashups, on the other hand, represent not reanimation but a realignment of the original corpses, wheatpasted up on the wall and one laying or metaphorically 'beatmatched' next to the other, with the purpose of illumination. Conceptual art was always interesting but was it ever exciting?

Whereas the traditional artist would, say, sculpt oolitic limestone into The Venus of Willendorf, the modern artist takes the The Venus of Willendorf, positions her next to an Enoch Bolles Pin Up, and then sign his name to the composite image:

Venus Versus Venus, by Terry O'Gara (2011)


If we are already familiar with the statue and the pin up, then the recontextualization may be interesting, strike us as novel, and even be something we Twitter about, and it may even be art – but it is not art in the way we have long considered it. But in our brave new world, whether it is, or isn't art is actually besides the point, because the point of the thing is not to be judged as a work of art, but as a lens on our personal relationship with the culture, to demonstrate a new way of seeing, or hearing, or sensing in any capacity. See, the thing itself is incidental. All the value is loaded in the idea. And if you find it instantly forgettable, it's because ideas by themselves are like balloons: pretty, color, things, that eventually lose gas if they aren't first popped by the next new thing.

But is it okay to appropriate other people's works of art?

No, not without credit, but then it doesn't really matter, actually, because everyone is doing it. The digital medium has democratized art, and the most popular mode of expression is remixing other people's yellow-around-the edges objects into our own cutting edge, cut and paste 'new' ideas.

See, we are not simply citizens anymore, bound by the rigid rights and responsibilities of the state, we are something more than that. We are DJs.

–With the immediate result being an Internet powered global explosion of 20th Century memes into 21st Century culture. It begs the question: if we are so immersed in the past, then are we actually living in the present? The effect from all this stimulation is titillating, that's why we tweet each new trending fact, not because we think no one else reads the New York Times or the Daily Mail, but rather to make it clear to everyone else plugged into the zeitgeist, (all together now) "Look, my brain is infected, too!"

And it's also a bit like spending hours and hours learning how to manipulate a video game? Sure, maybe you are learning a new skill set that will be useful when you have to navigate your X-wing fighter at light speed to find just the right position to take out a Deathstar and save mankind, or maybe it's just a huge waste of time? Or maybe you've spent so much time taking out Deathstars that simply standing still in order to appreciate someone's subtle application of dirt on canvas, knife to wood, chisel to stone, etc –it all lacks an bit of iThrill that you now require to enjoy anything? It's a possibility, yes?

Even otherwise young and healthy Brooklyn based digerati, though their thumbs appear to text in the 21st Century, their brains remain soaked in 20th Century popisms. Will it take another generation before we can begin living in the future? In fact, it may be more accurate to say that our future is not in nineteen year olds or even nine year olds but in nine month olds.

Imagine then how it feels to be over forty and suddenly realize that not only have you been living in The Matrix all this time, but that you're actually the BETA version.

In real life, however, you hit forty, and realize that's what your twenties were –beta. Only today, it may be that our entire culture is twentysomething (in nation years).

President John F. Kennedy is noted for declaring in a 1963 speech that "Ich bin ein Berliner". Except that today, in 2011, he might well have declared, "We are all 25."

The proof is in the tweets.


With Art, one dose can last a lifetime. It's like being inoculated from stupidity, but of course, it doesn't always work. Consider for instance how smart you usually are, and then consider the hot laptop resting on your lap.

Granted the line between mashup and collage is as fine as the one between medication and meditation, especially in the areas of graffiti, remixes and digital photo manipulation, all three of which are exercising tidal forces on our culture. But for the purposes of this discussion, mashups deconstruct; their aim to direct viewers to compare and contrast, the medium is not so much paint or pixels but context.

Collages, on the other hand, combine and construct, rendering source material obscure or irrelevant. Rauschenberg's Riding Bikes (1998) simply posits two bicycles side by side, but the effect is unique in every way imaginable, so much so that it we easily forget that we are looking at bikes.

Mashups shout: 'Look at this!'

Collages, ask: 'What am I looking at?'

In direct contrast, consider this next video, apparently produced for the sole purpose of comparing and contrasting one rock band's music and hairstyle with another rock band's music and hairstyle:

The Final Teen Spirit Mashup (Nirvana vs Europe) by Wax Audio

But of course, we enjoy layered media, don't we. A symphony, for instance, might be composed of a simple melody, but arranged for an orchestra, it demonstrates one pinnacle of human intellect. What's different today is that much music in the past was the construction of one mind. whereas today, layered mashups find their final form as the result of a division of labor. This activity, in and of itself, is not new in the commercial arts, but it represents a dynamic new trend for the fine arts.

My immediate inclination is to say that either Jeffery Koons or Damien Hirst (who are both known to work with teams) initiated this trend, though I know the process goes back centuries, and possibly millennia. It is curious to note that at least one thing we learn from Hirst, Koons and even DJs spinning wax in Ibiza, is that when art is presented as the effort of many, whether crowd sourced, remixed or mashedup, the originating or 'actual' artist/s themselves are relegated towards increasing obscurity, because the final work is said to belong to the curator/creator.

The Physical Impossibility of a flower from a Balloon
by Terry O'Gara (2011)


Contrast again mashups (of any medium) with traditional art. I don't mean pre-Impressionist works. Traditional art, for our purposes is simply that which is born from unique, recombinant conceptual material. In the creation of traditional art, the artist's progeny grows to maturation from a mutated meme into a wholly original work.

And sometimes, a meme is not even involved, and we are presented with the artistic treasure of a true soul diver who has descended into his or her psyche and returns from pituitary depths with archetypal treasure. And in this category we will also include the ocular seer who simply, but also superbly, captures wisps of our external world and presents them in a way that pleases the senses and strikes our fancy.

But here we are: we live smack in the middle of an age when Derivations have proven more popular to those who can afford nifty new media than 'Originations'.

It's as though it's not enough that something may be new or unique or original, or even simply decorative. What we're really interested in, is a Celebrity Deathmatch between competing ideas. And make no mistake, while many of us are at least delighted by the expression of ideas, others are just in it for the fight.


This Digital Dadaism reminds me also of Duchamp's 'Readymades'. For some, Duchamp's Fountain (1917) "is the most influential work of art of the twentieth century".

Whether it is or isn't, it's interesting to note that a man named Duchamp created nothing and became celebrated for it, and if that doesn't characterize our age, what does?

His genius, if you will, was not in the creation of a new object but in its 'recontextualization'. Or as it has been argued: What makes Duchamp an artist and the urinal his creation is that he "created a new thought for that object."

Yet, if the urinal is a work of art (I think it is), then the fact that Duchamp tagged it (with the name "R. Mutt") does not make him the artist, or even an artist, but a curator with a sense of humor. If that was not the case, then I know a kid in Brooklyn with a spray can who owns a train.

To compound things, what if you photograph the thing, what have you got then? Another original work of art? A copy? A representation? And what if I print the photograph to a T-Shirt and I only make one shirt. There are many 'Fountain' reproductions in the world, so if I only have one T-Shirt, what becomes the more valuable thing, the original or the derivative?

What Duchamp has done, really, to use modern parlance, is that he 'sampled' an object, and in the process demonstrated that industrial design could be and should be considered Art. Therefore the real artist of 'Fountain' is –MUST be– the actual designer/s of the thing, and his or her or their name/s appear lost to history (and/or to the Bedford Ceramic Urinal Manufacturer files).

As it happens, Duchamp's original 'work' was accidentally thrown out with garbage but authorized forgeries exist in museums all over the world, and we couldn't be happier about that, because we don't need the original nothing Duchamp didn't create, when we have something even more valuable and interesting to 21st Century audiences: a reproduction.

Not to mention, this circumstance makes my one-of-a-kind T-Shirt worth a million bucks.


So, no surprise, right, that today's TV/PC and possibly Adderall enhanced human chooses this exercise –COPY AND PASTE– to exemplify the height of new media/ new millennium creativity. And why not, when the process is democratic and damn fun to boot, even if the results inconsequential (and even profitable)? Art (With a capital 'A') has had its golden age; maybe this moment (right now) is a Golden Age of Entertainment? I think it is.

And yet, even if that is the case, then you still have to ask: If everyone is doing it, how special can it be?

The answer?

Only time, critics and copyright law will tell.


'The Physical Impossibility of A flower from a Balloon' is composite two works: The shark image is from the Damien Hirst work, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1991); the image of the balloon sculpture is of a Jeff Koons work: A flower from a balloon (Purple) (1995-2000).  All other images presented here are provided for the necessary purposes of illustrating points of this essay.

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