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“Remixing” the Birth of a Nation

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This story shows an excellent example of the creative usage of public domain material.

In 1915, “Birth of a Nation” changed the art of filmmaking. It also celebrated the Ku Klux Klan as heroes of the Civil War and Reconstruction.

Now the movie itself is under reconstruction.

The artist and musician DJ Spooky is treating the seminal but racist film like a piece of music — he’s doing a “remix.” Spooky’s work-in-progress, titled “Rebirth of a Nation,” was shown at the American Museum of the Moving Image this week.

Spooky chose D.W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation” precisely because it deals with issues of race. By manipulating it, and showing how it can be changed, he hopes to show how images and ideas about race are mutable as well.

“In one era, race is one thing. In another … it changes,” the DJ said. “There’s never one final answer for any of this, it’s always a remix.”

Carl Goodman, curator of digital media at the museum, called it “sampling cinema.”

“By allowing people to play with and remix and reconfigure the media of the past, it becomes a powerful form of commentating,” Goodman said.

On Thursday night, Spooky projected the film onto a large screen, adding layers of visual effects. An image of a fully robed Klansman underlay the scene depicting the South’s surrender at the end of the war. An image of a young Southern woman looking at cotton cloth for a dress was followed by an image of slaves picking the cotton.

Spooky also added material, such as images of a dance performance inspired by Southern history. And the soundtrack was of course his creation, a mix that ranged from a rendition of “Dixieland” to the type of beat-driven music one would hear in a club.

Spooky, born Paul Miller, has recorded with musicians ranging from Yoko One to Wu-Tang Clan’s Killa Priest. His artwork has appeared in the Whitney Biennial, the Ludwig Museum in Cologne, Germany, and the Andy Warhol Museum, among others.

Spooky said he planned to travel with the project and was working out arrangements to show it internationally. His ultimate goal is to show it on three screens at a time, accompanied by an orchestra.
What he’s really doing is creating a whole new piece of art built around pieces of the old movie, using the original film as a frame on which to add modern commentary and perspectives. Beauty.

The only bad thing would be if this were offered up fraudulently, tricking people into thinking that this was the DW Griffith movie, rather than a modern refutation of what DJ Spooky takes to be Griffith’s idea. The new title Rebirth of a Nation helps with that. In any case, it seems highly unlikely that anyone could mistake this new creation with techno music and such for a 1915 film.

It would probably be a bit sprawling, but it would be great to see the original Griffith film, then the Rebirth film with a group, and then discuss. I’d be all about that.

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