Remix has often been called the first modern art form. Enabled by modern copy-paste technologies, by the wealth of material opened up for recycling by the information age, and by the legal and ethical provisions of fair use, remix has been given a central place in the history of the digital revolution. It has also been hailed as an inherently egalitarian practice, open to anyone with a computer or a pair of scissors, indiscriminate in its mixing of media, its combination of high art with low art, and its appropriation of both proprietary materials and those in the public domain.
In practice, of course, remix is not always liberating, nor is it really new. Recent histories of remix have linked the practice back to twentieth-century collage and readymade artists like Pablo Picasso or Marcel Duchamp, to seventeenth-century collectors, and to thirteenth-century bookmaking. Troublingly, through their narrow definitions of remix and even narrower selection of sources, these histories seem to suggest that remix, now and then, is the purview of the powerful and the professional: of those most traditionally deemed ‘worthy’ of display in museums and praise in the history books. Little reference is made to the domestic, non-commercial collage and photomontage by eighteenth and nineteenth-century women like Mary Delany, Constance Sackville-West, or Georgina Berkeley, or to the African-American and working-class scrapbookers remixing at the same time across the pond. And there are undoubtedly many other early remixers whose work remains undervalued or under-researched.
Over the summer I visited the Page Collection at Manchester Metropolitan University, which is home to a vast collection of scrapbooks, sketchbooks, stitchworks, and other Victorian handicrafts. Here I was hoping to uncover some examples and tactics of remix that could be considered precursors to our current, digital practices, which I could use to begin to fill in some of these gaps in remix history. I was not disappointed! The copyright agreement I signed means I can’t share my full photographs of the collection until I have properly filed for permission. This will follow as I continue my work on this project, but in the snippets below you can see some initial examples of the cut-and-paste work, as well as the creative additions and reworkings, that can be found amongst the pages of this British and European collection:
The MMU Special Collections website has the following to say about the Page Collection, and its body of Victorian ephemera:
The word ephemera derives from the Greek word ephemeron meaning ‘about a day’ and refers to something that lasts through the day. Ephemera is therefore by definition transient material, originally intended to be thrown away after use. The scope of such material includes greeting cards, bookmarks, cigarette cards, bills and tickets, billboards and posters and other advertising ephemera.
Special Collections hold two major collections of Victorian ephemera, each collection in two sections. The Page Collection, created by Sir Harry Page, includes around 300 original albums and commonplace books mainly compiled by Victorian and Edwardian ladies in their leisure time. These albums contain all types of material: original watercolours, drawings, verse and prose, alongside prints, cuttings, cards, scraps and calligraphy. The second part of the Page Collection consists of some fifty scrap books of similar material compiled by Sir Harry Page. We also have a number of albums of twentieth century bookplates, each themed by subject by Sir Harry.
Such items can tell much about social and business history, printing history and methods of design and production. Ephemera can be a rich primary source for historians or designers, offering delightful forays into nostalgia or as sources of design inspiration.
Watch this space in the coming months for more on this and other collections of early remix!
Top image: Watercolour and ink drawing from an album compiled by E and T Wilson, c1815 (Sir Harry Page Collection)