What is remix culture?

When I grew up, the word remix referred solely to the strange sounding, extended versions of songs that were often on side 2 of 12″ vinyl singles — they used to call them ”Maxi Singles”. Today, the notion of remix has gotten a widened use. It is still used in music, but it now also refers to a variety of things that people do to re-shape or talk back to media content. A sort of symbolic politics.

But it wasn’t always like this. The role of the media audience, and our understanding of it, has changed over time. About 150 years ago, the relationship between media content and its audience was seen from a propaganda-like perspective. It was believed that the intended message was transferred unproblematically into the minds of its passive receivers. A sort of brainwash idea of media consumption.

But during the 1940s and 1950s, theories were developed that nuanced this perspective by saying that media content had effects on peoples minds and ideas on several levels. For example, we are not only passive receivers, but we also discuss things that we have seen or heard with people around us. And these discussions in everyday social contexts may affect how we, in the end, evaluate the message.

Then, during the 1970s, an increased focus was put on the active interpretative activities of audiences. It was now claimed that people of different backgrounds, and in different social situations could perceive the same radio or TV program in very different ways. What is funny to someone may enrage somebody else, and so on. Sounds obvious, but at the time such a perspective was kind of new.

During the last couple of decades, especially since the mid 00s with the expansion of social media and peer-to-peer file sharing, the active role of audiences has been strengthened even more. Now, with the possibility for individuals to not only comment but also to re-edit and re-circulate media content, there is a potential for the boundary between producers and consumers of content to become seriously challenged.

Digital technologies provide the tools for democratizing production and for re-circulating content. It is important to remember, however, that only a small minority become remix artists or video activists. The traditional model of one-to-many communication and passive media reception is still widespread, and studies of what people do on the Internet show that we consume commercial content much, much more than we produce in terms of user-generated content.

Remix raises a lot of interesting questions about originality and copyright. Where does fair use end, and where does theft begin? Lawrence Lessig writes in his book ”Free Culture” about how the alleged creative genius of Walt Disney actually ”borrowed” a substantial amount of his stories from elsewhere, remixing folk tales or literary classics into his seminal animated films. Lessig goes on to argue that all media industries have been developed out of some sort of pirate behaviour.

But the most interesting thing about remix is the power it has when it can function as a sort of media criticism. For an already classic example of top-notch remixing, take a look at ”Buffy vs Edward” by Jonathan Macintosh. The really great thing is that Jonathan is actually coming to HUMlab at Umeå University next week. You can get more information about how to attend his sessions here and here.

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