November 23, 2004

DJ Spooky spins Birth of a Nation on its head

Beneath an ambient blue light at the Museum of Contemporary Art, DJ Spooky—a.k.a. "That Subliminal Kid" —played strange beats to disturbing images of Ku Klux Klan propaganda. The New York-based artist/musician, also known as Paul D. Miller, performed his newest 75-minute work, Rebirth of a Nation—along with its score, "The Rebirth Suite"—every night from Thursday the 18th through Sunday the 21st. Miller remixed D.W. Griffith's 1915 white supremacist film The Birth of a Nation, which deals with the civil war and its aftermath.

Miller's film begins with quick flashes of international flags and logos. It then launches into manipulated scenes from Griffith's film. Miller divides the film into three large screens. He often repeats images and text, adds in other images (such as ballerinas and circuit boards), speeds up and slows down the scenes, and doubles the images so that they emerge from one another. He disorients the viewer by taking such lines of text as "Disarming the blacks," "Dare we dream of a golden day when bestial war shall rule no more," and "Liberty and union, one and inseparable, now and forever," out of context. He also often presents the text and the scenes they narrate out of sync. The electronic, moody soundtrack heightens the peculiarity and drama of the film.

Miller identifies the main purpose of his film as questioning how we identify ourselves as American. He uses Griffith's historically infamous American film to remind us of the horrifying past of our country. He then manipulates the film to mimic the bombardment of images we experience everyday. Such images have so infiltrated life around the world that state barriers have dissolved and cultures have melted together—hence, the stream of international logos and flags. Miller thereby prods us to question multiculturalism in an increasingly homogenous world and how we should define our own cultural identity.

By presenting images of KKK clansmen parading together in their haunting costumes, bodies piled on top of each other, and suffering slaves, Miller portrays a history dominated by war, oppression, political propaganda, the imposition of laws, and corrupted leaders. By doing so, he reflects modern society—where the same problems persist, only in new ways. He hopes to inspire his viewers to envision an America that has overcome these issues.

Despite recognizing The Birth of a Nation's abysmal viewpoint, Miller greatly respects the film for its masterful direction. Rather than chronologically stringing together a set of images (like his predecessors), Griffith reinvents cinematic relations between space and time by successfully presenting four different stories within one film. He uses sophisticated cutting techniques, especially in his juxtapositions between one time period and another.

Through this method of rewriting space and time, Miller shows how filmmakers like Griffith were the DJs of the early 20th century. While filmmakers splice together images to create a narrative, DJs splice together sounds. Miller now adds a new layer by splicing together music and film. In effect, he synthesizes a new varied viewpoint.

With this new medium, Miller provides a solution for this constant barrage of everyday images flashing before our eyes. He presents the detached text and confused scenes to show how these images have been inverted and lost their meaning. The signifier and the signified have become disconnected. Miller is particularly interested in the process of seeing an image—how millions of pieces of information stream through the brain to register and interpret it. Sometimes, with slight reorganization of that information, a new thought arises.

Miller, therefore, suggests that the viewer reorganize these images to create new ideas. He wants the viewer to pick and choose, splicing the images together as both he and Griffith have done. He wants you to create your own narrative, your own experience. And here Miller presents his solution. Perhaps he is overly idealistic. But in a time when we have lost our cultural identity, and when we are facing as many political and societal problems as ever, Miller (a.k.a. DJ Spooky) suggests we take on the role of DJ and remix our own identities, our own nations.