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Rebirth of Birth of a Nation

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The 2004-05 Season at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco has proven to be an intriguing one. The center has featured programs supporting outsider art and street culture, Chicano/Latino art, form and architecture and art and politics. This past Friday, my friend Vani graciously offered me the opportunity to attend DJ Spooky’s “Rebirth of a Nation,” which was originally commissioned by The Lincoln Center Festival and has been performed in Paris and Vienna in addition to various performances in the U.S. NPR did a piece on “Rebirth” last October.

Paul D. Miller, aka DJ Spooky That Subliminal Kid is a NY-based musician, conceptual artist, and writer. As a musician, Miller has collaborated with diverse and reknowned musicians and composers, including Ryuichi Sakamoto, Iannis Xenakis, Pierre Boulez, Steve Reich, Chuck D.,Yoko Ono, Kool Keith/Dr. Octagon, the Wu-Tang’s Killa Priest, and Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore. As a media artist, Miller’s work as appeared at the Whitney Biennial, The Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, and the Ludwig Museum in Cologne, Germany to name a few. Miller’s well received first collection of essays was published a year ago. In other words, Miller has a pedigree.

I mention it as a backdrop to the sound and image blitzkrieg that is “Rebirth of a Nation,” a multimedia piece in which the artist has manipulated the racial and political images of D. W. Griffith’s silent film The Birth of a Nation, turning it into a reflection of the United States in the early 21st Century. Contrasted against the United States of 1912, when Birth of a Nation was made, it isn’t unsurprising that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Miller addressed the audience briefly before unleashing his work on us, and his comments helped fill some of the gaps that emerged during the performance. When Miller began cutting and splicing Griffith’s film, the news of today “dominated by broken treaties, ethnic oppression, raw power grabs, and security threats,” was on his mind. In the program notes he writes, “What Griffith did with cinema was create a context of mythic propositions—of a nation occupied by foreign troops, of laws imposed without concern for the populace, of exploitation and political corruption…. I invoke a parallel world where Griffith’s film acts like a crucible for a vision of a different America…. The past is prologue.”

While the Griffith’s film is acknowledged as a groundbreaking classic of cinematic technique, the movie’s themes and message have been the subject of consternation and debate for the ninety years since it was first viewed. In a synopsis and analysis of Griffith’s film, Filmsite.org notes:

“New controversy [arose] when [Birth of a Nation] was voted into the National Film Registry in 1993, and when it was voted one of the ‘Top 100 American Films’ (at # 44) by the American Film Institute in 1998. Film scholars agree, however, that it is the single most important and key film of all time in American movie history – it contains many new cinematic innovations and refinements, technical effects and artistic advancements, including a color sequence at the end. It had a formative influence on future films and has had a recognized impact on film history and the development of film as art. However, it still provokes conflicting views about its message[s], including the suppression of the black threat to white society by the glorious Ku Klux Klan.”

Miller has taken fragments of “time, code, and (all puns intended) memory and flesh” to create what in the program notes he calls “prosthetic realism.” He goes further to say that “whenever you look at an image, there’s a ruthless logic of selection that you have to go through to simply create a sense of order.” Using three video screens and dj mixing equipment, that sense of order was blown to smithereens.

Miller performed his music “live” from a set up on the corner of the stage. Meanwhile one large screen was flanked by two smaller screens, one on each side. The middle screen was probably the size of a screen at a small movie theatre; the smaller screens were about two-thirds the size of the bigger one. Sside by side, all three screens took up most of the length of the stage.

Once the lights dimmed, we were bombarded with a stunning, full color visual montage consisting of various nation state flags and universal symbols such as dollar signs; the visual was accompanied by the dizzying electronica sound barrage that is “The Rebirth Suite.” This intro eventually gave way to footage from the Griffith film, supplemented by video material from “Last Supper at Uncle Tom’s Cabin/The Promised Land” and “And the Maiden,” two dance performances choreographed by Bill T. Jones.

“Rebirth of a Nation” is a very difficult piece to describe. At first I was completely overwhelmed by all the stimuli in the flag montage. Once the film began, I wasn’t sure where to focus. Situated front and center, Vani and I had the best seats in the house. We were close enough to watch Miller’s antics at his mixing table and yet the emphasis of the show was what was unfolding on screen. I noticed quickly that the scenes unfolding on the main screen were deployed to the smaller screens with a delay of a few seconds. In other words, the images to the left and right of the main screen were in sync with one another and purposely lagging behind what appeared on the main screen. The main screen was also the stage for digital manipulations that didn’t occur on the smaller screens. At first I was swivel-headed, as if at a tennis match. I couldn’t figure out which vantage was the most advantageous, but my mind began taking a back seat as I let the audio/visual input wash over me. I also stopped reading the silent film captions, given that the narrative form, while present, had been too subverted for my mind to find useful. In fact, midway I no longer really knew what was going on, but it didn’t matter. That sentiment was echoed by others whom I spoke to afterwards.

This sort of work is not something that would be for everyone’s liking, but it’s worth seeing if you’ve the desire. It subverts and provokes. It’s trippy, it’s inventive, it’s relevant, and Miller continues to tour with it globally. You can catch a clip at djspooky.com, but keep in mind that the clip is small potatoes compared to sitting in a venue with a slammin’ sound system and multiple points of focus. My advise is catch it if you can.

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