This week we extend our discussion of Benjamin to think about the way contemporary art remixes the old and new. We think about how remix functions in globalised contemporary digital and social media contexts. We ask what kinds of myths are being made and remade within contemporary contexts.
1 The Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung proposed that the comparative study of myths could be used to understand and interpret the dreams and hallucinations of psychotic patients. For Jung myths are metaphors or dramatizations of the inner workings of the dimension of the psyche he calls the archetype, which in Jungian theory is the inherited part of the mind, namely our link to the collective unconscious. In a manner that Jung thought potentially therapeutic, myths illustrate to us the dangers of an archetype being given free rein. Myths can thus be treated as revelations of the structure of the pre-conscious psyche, that is, the psyche of pure archetypes as yet undomesticated by consciousness. The crucial implication here is that Jung assumes that the behaviour of the unconscious resembles the structure of myths, so when mythic elements appear in the course of treatment they are accorded a high level of significance. Canadian literary critic Northrop Frye adapts Jung’s theory in Anatomy of Criticism (1957) to develop his own powerful form of analysis of literature as essentially mythic.
2 The great French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss transformed the study of myth in a famous essay, ‘The Structural Study of Myth’ (1955), which asked the apparently innocent question: if the content of myths is contingent, if anything can be incorporated into a myth as seems apparent from the incredible richness of the world’s vast collection of myths created throughout the centuries, then how do we account for their apparent similarity of form? Lévi-Strauss answers this question, which encapsulates the structuralist approach in a nutshell, by drawing on the insights of Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure who observed that similar sounds recur in different languages, but have different meanings and argued that in the case of spoken language it is the combination of sounds (i.e. the form) that is significant, not the specific sounds themselves (i.e. the content). Applied to myth, as Lévi-Strauss explains, this logic results in the almost completely opposite view to Jung—now the elements of a myth (the challenges the hero must face, the special powers brought to bear, and so on) can be considered significant only in terms of the combination of their relations with other elements and not for themselves. The specific combination of elements will vary from myth to myth, but the way of producing this combination is unique to myth and universal according to Lévi-Strauss. Myths have the following constitutive characteristics: they are timeless or simultaneously historical and ahistorical (e.g. as Benedict Anderson argues in his account of imagined communities, although nations are only a comparatively recent invention in history, they always present themselves as eternal, as having always been there); they are the opposite of poetry inasmuch as they can be translated from language to language, from one type of media to another, without loss of coherence or consequence (and thus, there is no such thing as the ‘true’ or ‘original’ form of a myth—the myth consists of all its variations taken together); and they are effective or performative (their telling is itself a kind of message). This last idea has been taken up by Fredric Jameson in Signatures of the Visible (1992) to suggest that contemporary Hollywood films can be read as symbolic solutions to real problems, and that is why cinema has such an important place in society today.
3 Inspired by Bertolt Brecht‘s concept of estrangement, French literary critic Roland Barthes developed a concept of myth as a critique of ‘naturalness’ (i.e. that which appears to simply occur without any historical determination, just as the sun does every morning). In a series of short essays initially published in the cultural journal, Les Lettres nouvelles, and subsequently republished in book form as Mythologies (1957), translated as Mythologies (1972), Barthes used myth as a codephrase for that which ‘goes without saying’ because it is so widely accepted as a ‘truth’, and by this means he tried to demonstrate that what passes for ‘truth’ is in fact the result of careful ideological stage-managing. As Barthes puts it in the afterword to Mythologies, the widely read essay ‘Myth Today’, myth’s key principle is to transform history into nature. In the same essay, Barthes attempted to synthesize his theory of myth as follows: myth is a special type of speech (by which he means coded form of language use or communication); myth is not an object, idea, or concept, but rather a form of signification (it is a process rather than a thing); anything can be turned into a myth, though not everything is a myth (they are subject to history); myths are constructed from material that has already been worked on (they are a second-order or meta system that uses pre-existing symbols and icons); myths are not universal, they have to be dealt with in the specificity. Myths can thus take a variety of different forms—at the end of his essay, Barthes lists seven common varieties, all of which can be found in abundance in virtually any newspaper.
(Buchanan 2010, 327-9)
The inherited dimension of the psyche according to the analytical psychology of Carl Jung. Archetypes are ways of thinking and acting that derive from the most primitive aspects of our psyche, which for Jung means that dimension of the psyche we have in common with our most distant ancestors. There is a large variety of archetypes, each one pointing to a different mode of action such as caring for another or defending oneself from attack. Taken together they form a dynamic preconscious system which is actively seeking actualization in the form of an association, complex, idea, or at the negative extreme a symptom. The most well-known example is the binary pair animus/anima—the former is the archetypal image woman has of man and the latter the archetypal image man has of woman. Archetypes can usefully be compared with the structure referred to in ethology as innate releasing mechanisms. They are powerful forces compelling action, which is why the conscious has to engage them and bring them under control.
(Buchanan 2010, 25-6)
A long, narrative poem praising the deeds and person of a hero, often for their efforts in either founding or saving a particular community. The epic is an extremely old form in literature. Indeed, the oldest known written text is The Epic of Gilgamesh, whose origin is put at more than 3000 years bc. Other well-known epics include: Homer’s Trojan War poems, The Iliad and The Odyssey, thought to date from around 800 bc, the slightly later Indian work, Mahābhārata, and the Anglo-Saxon Beowulf from 800 ad. The principal defining feature of the epic is the grandness of scale and the sense that the destiny of the individual is the destiny of the whole world. In contemporary literature it is primarily the fantasy genre, typified by J. R. R. Tolkien’s work, which adheres to the epic form, in prose, though, rather than verse.
(Buchanan 2010, 152)
DJ Spooky 2007, Rebirth of a Nation.
DJ Spooky (a.k.a. Paul D Miller) mashes up DJ and filmmaking practices to re-examine, question and challenge one of the more brutal examples of cinematic propaganda, D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915). The original film was embedded in the myth of a white American racism and bigotry that DJ Spooky picks apart with interactive juxtaposition and remixing. When Rebirth of a Nation was first performed at the Tribeca Film Festival, DJ Spooky said: “Birth of a Nation focuses on how America needed to create a fiction of African-American culture in tune with the fabrication of ‘whiteness’ that under-girded American thought throughout most of the last several centuries: it floats out in the world of cinema as an enduring, albeit totally racist, epic tale of an America that, in essence, never existed,” (http://tribecafilm.com/filmguide/archive/512d056c1c7d76e04600277a-dj-spooky-s-rebirth-of-a-).dj). In this case, the reproduction of the original work has been used to disrupt the aura of the original in ways that is implied by Benjamin’s statement that when a reproduction meets the “listener in his own particular situation, it reactivates the object reproduced” (Benjamin 1999, 215).
For more of an idea where DJ Spooky was going with his ‘palimpsest of perception’ (and an interesting insight into the birth of the ‘cut up’ movement), read his notes on the project here: http://www.djspooky.com/art/rebirth.php. Think about what DJ Spooky was attempting with this project as you look at the alternative case studies and see what similarities you can find in the approaches.
ALTERNATIVE CASE STUDIES:
Gordon Bennett, 1989, Triptych: Requiem, Of Grandeur, Empire, oil and photograph on canvas, 120x120cm/200x150cm/120x120cm, Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane.
The ‘triptych’ comes out of early Christian art forms and was a common format for altar paintings from the Middle Ages. By appropriating the religious iconography for his work, Bennet is tapping into a historical construction of myth that is immediately familiar to the majority of Western audiences. By shrouding this visual discussion on the White Australia ‘protection’ policies applied to Aboriginal Australians, Bennet is opening a space to challenge the archetypal constructions of the Aboriginal body and culture, appropriating some of the “ritual value” Benjamin discussed (1999, 218-9). In doing this, Bennet was appropriating the forms of the colonisers, using what he calls a ‘strategy of intervention and disturbance’ to understand his own Aboriginality in a white-dominant culture: “My mind and body had been effectively colonised by Western culture, and yet my Aboriginality, which had been historically, socially and personally repressed, was still part of me and I was obtaining the tools and language to explore it on my own terms […] I decided that I would attempt to create a space by adopting a strategy of intervention and disturbance in the field of representation through my art,” (http://www.ngv.vic.gov.au/gordonbennett/education/03.html#01).
Use your visual analysis skills (looking closely, thinking hard, making up meaning), on these images to try and work out what story Bennet was trying to tell. Think about the colours used (like the great discussion about the Kate Bush film clip happening in the forum), the shapes and spaces, and what these might mean in your reading (personal, subjective understanding).
Igor Stravinsky Oedipus Rex, ( 1992) Seiji Ozawa Artistic Director; Julie Taymor Stage Production and Film Direction; Performers: Philip Langridge (Tenor), Jessye Norman (Soprano), Bryn Terfel (Baritone); Saito Kinen Festival, Matsumoto, Japan.
Oedipus Rex by Sophocles is an Ancient Greek tragedy of fate and destiny, where a king is doomed to a tragic fate by prophecy. The myth of Oedipus Rex has resounded throughout history, as have so many Greek myths, and this familiarity was what drove Stravinsky to reproduce the story. Like DJ Spooky, Stravinsky has taken an old story and retold in it, with changes to form and style. By minimalizing the set and restricting the movements of the characters (and particularly the chorus), he has stripped away the expectations of the old text to make room for a new understanding of it. By presenting an ancient Greek myth, sung in Latin and narrated in the language of the country it is being performed in, he’s left room for the extra layering of cultural, historical and mythical meanings. The version you see here is narrated in Japanese, and so has the extra messages of subtitles to infer meaning from. The NY Times review of this film claims that “Stravinsky wanted his transformation of the Sophocles drama to have an almost ecclesiastical power,” (http://www.nytimes.com/movie/review?res=9F0CE1DC173AF932A05750C0A965958260).
Watch the excerpts of the film and read the review and try to find those elements that have been used to add this ritual or cult value to the text. This is still visual analysis, just transferred into the moving image on the screen or into your imagination when you’re thinking about the descriptions in the review. Also spend some time thinking about some popular culture examples where old stories have been told in a way that changes the meaning (and we’d love it if you’re inspired by “Gimme the Mermaid” and RIP: A Remix Manifesto to make your own new versions of stories – post them to the forum).
Negativland 2005, “Gimme The Mermaid“, No Business, CD, Seeland, USA.
“Gimme The Mermaid” is a form of reproduction that I’m not sure Benjamin could ever have imagined, both a layering of texts but also a stripping back (like a form of palimpsest) used to explore the ownership and authenticity of music and televisual media. “Gimme The Mermaid” was a ‘bonus’ multimedia track included at the end of Negativland’s 2005 album No Business that uses the image of a very angry Little Mermaid, but speaking with the voice of a recorded entertainment industry lawyer ranting about intellectual property rights and copyright infringement. In a 2008 interview with Wired magazine, Negativland were asked how their work questions “theories of ‘authenticity’ and power”, to which Mark Hosler replied: “I think the particular way we very carefully approach collage can actually be a more honest way to make something that is, paradoxically enough, *more* authentic, as it conveys a ton of layered information and yet leaves so much of the interpretation up to the listener,” (http://www.negativland.com/archives/009interviews/wired-magazine.html). As a form of ‘detournement’ (reusing well-known media artifacts to transform a message), Negativland’s works use selective reproduction to challenge capitalist myths. (The recommended video below, RIP: A Remix Manifesto will give you a lot more insight into this style of music/multimedia.)
Watch “Gimme the Mermaid” and try to identify the copyrighted characters appearing in this song (think about what you can hear as well as what you can see – hint: I think Ariel appears more than once). Using what you already know about these characters, try to work out what extra layers of meaning the use of these characters adds to the story being told by this song.
Lisa Reihana, 2001-ongoing, Digital Marae, digital photography, video, performance and installation.
Like Bennett, contemporary Maori artist, Lisa Reihana’s digital photography project uses contemporary digital practices layered with mythical and historical subjects to peel back the layers of her own cultural identity. In the introduction to the Global Feminisms exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum, Reihana said that she “contemporised the underworld” by transferring her mythical subjects out of their traditional settings in order to increase her own identifications with “her Maori Goddess[es], by presenting them in this century” (
Pictured is Mahuika, from the “Digital Marae” series (200.7 x 116.8 cm, not kept in a gallery). Using your online research skills, find some more images from the project and try to identify the mythical subject she is representing. Think about other examples you have seen of historical figures presented as modern age and whether this allowed you a deeper identification with them.
Daniel Boyd 2009, We Call Them Pirates Out Here, oil on canvas, 226cm x 276cm, Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney
Daniel Boyd’s We Call Them Pirates Out Here is responding to Emmanuel Phillip Fox’s 1902 painting, Landing of Captain Cook at Botany Bay, 1770. In a work that can be understood as a direct challenge of the myths of British colonialism, Boyd uses the almost direct reproduction of Fox’s original painting, with just a few thematic shifts, to question the veracity of the Australian foundation myths and particularly to challenge the myth of ‘Terra Nullius’. Working in one of the reproductive formats that Benjamin identified as needing skill, prior to the age of mechanical reproduction, Boyd painted a reproduction of the original work, but recreated the Union Jack as a pirate flag and gave Cook the quintessential identifier of a pirate, the eye patch. He also added the caption: ‘We Call Them Pirates Out Here’. Thinking back to Benjamin and his list of reasons for the reproduction of art, ‘practice of their craft, diffusing their works, and pursuit of gain’ (1999, 212), it can be interesting to think about the ways in which this work which reproduces the original artwork but reframes it through an Indigenous perspective, can be seen to fulfil all three of these purposes.
Again, use those online research skills to find the original painting this was based on. Look at the images closely and see if you can find other differences between the two works. Look beyond the images in the picture to see if there are any differences in execution and style.
BEFORE CLASS WATCH:
RIP: A Remix Manifesto
Now that you have thought about all the different ways that stories can be told and retold, and how these layered use can change the meaning, sit down for a relax with this great documentary that digs into the ethics and laws of remix culture. This film is something that you can keep coming back to as a source and creative inspiration for the rest of your degree.