The remix, the mashup, and the reboot have come to dominate Western popular culture. These texts are the ‘monsters’ of our age—hybrid creations that lurk at the limits of responsible consumption and acceptable appropriation. Like monsters, mashups offer audiences the thrill of transgression in a safe and familiar format. And like other popular texts before them, they are often read by critics as a sign of the artistic and moral degeneration of contemporary culture.
With this context in mind, my research explores the boundaries and connections between contemporary remix culture and its Others (adaptation, parody, the Gothic, Romanticism, postmodernism). It often does so by examining remix culture’s most ‘monstrous’ and liminal texts: Frankenfictions, or commercial narratives that insert fantastical monsters into classic literature and popular historical contexts. In this definition, Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel Frankenstein serves as a touchstone, offering an ideal metaphor for appropriative creativity in the twenty-first century.
Frankenfiction includes direct appropriations of classic literature, like the bestselling Quirk Classics novels, but also literary-historical dramas like the Sky/Showtime TV series Penny Dreadful(2014–2016), the depiction of monsters through an historical aesthetic in Travis Louie’s photorealistic paintings, and much, much more. It is monstrous not only because of the fantastical monsters it contains, but because of its position on the boundary between remix and more established modes of appropriation. Too engaged with tradition for some, and not traditional enough for others, Frankenfiction is a bestselling genre that nevertheless remains peripheral to critical discussions of remix.
As a teacher, I deal with plagiarism all the time—usually in the sense of advising students how to avoid it in their academic essays. As an academic blogger, though, and a web editor before that, I’ve often had to deal with another form of plagiarism: the visual kind. Where most of us are clear on what constitutes textual plagiarism, some of us are less up-to-date on what visual plagiarism might entail. Which images are you allowed to use where, and when are you allowed to appropriate, manipulate, and replicate them without permission from the creator?
With kind permission from Follio.com, in this post you can find a few excerpts from their infographic on image manipulation and international copyright standards. Click here for the complete version.
“To find yourself in the spotlight for plagiarism would be concerning and could even be expensive, even worse when you have fallen foul of copyright laws without even knowing it. Most people have a basic level of understanding relating to copyright law but things have become a lot more complicated since we all started downloading text and images from the internet.
The following post is part of an early, discarded draft of the introduction to my PhD thesis on monster mashups. Having just completed a second, and (hopefully) infinitely more readable version, I thought it would be fitting to celebrate by looking back to where I started. Since it will no longer become part of any published work, I’m sharing it here on my blog for posterity. There is of course a reason this was cut—so take it with a grain of salt! It unfolds over two parts; you can find part one here.
As the monster undergoes changes in our society’s narratives, so too does our society’s way of telling and distributing those stories. When I suggested in part one of this post that the form and distribution of neo-historical monster mashups contributed to their posthuman nature as cultural objects, I was suggesting that, in twenty-first-century culture, globalisation and transmediation contribute to the fragmentation of meaning. Both the figure of the author and that of the subject are becoming decentred by our processes of cultural production and consumption. Much like an academic essay, popular culture is inherently relational, ‘always defined, implicitly or explicitly, in contrast to other conceptual categories’. Drawing on Storey’s first of six theories of popular culture, Peeren advocates the following definition:
Popular culture comprises those cultural artefacts that are seen and talked about by large audiences, whose members do not always fit neatly into a social class or any other category of social differentiation. One of the most important aspects of this definition of popular culture is that it reaches across the entire social spectrum, even if not everyone interprets its products in the same manner. […] In the end popular culture, as I regard it, is the site where the struggle between dominant culture and the cultures of marginalized social groups is most openly and indeed most democratically played out.
This approach to popular culture, which emphasises its plural interpretations and relational nature, is compatible with a posthumanist framework. Like posthumanism, popular culture decentres the subject, using the language of dominant culture to ‘work through’ its influence and become something other.
The first contributor to the posthumanity of popular culture is globalisation. As Herbrechter argues, globalisation ‘is inherently posthumanist because at the very moment something like “humanity” seems geographically and representationally realizable, the “referent” of this humanity disappears and dissolves into its constituent and its others’. In other words, we understand the term ‘humanity’ as a concept, but whenever we try to conceptualise an example of this humanity we are forced to acknowledge that this example falls short of the concept. Our referent is always elsewhere. Over the past century the structure of the world’s population has shifted from a series of isolated local communities to a series of localised global communities. Though lack of education and access to technology still limits participation in the global community, these limits are far less pervasive than they were even ten years ago. In the capitalist world, which is also increasingly global, consumers are becoming steadily more involved with the products they consume, sometimes even dictating or appropriating their production. This complicates our understanding of the process of interpretation as taking place between an ‘author’ figure and a ‘reader’ figure.
Likewise, transmediation and crossmediation complicate readings of texts and their audiences by splitting the same narrative across multiple media platforms. Crossmediation does this by simply transplanting a story from one medium to another – for example with both a novelisation and video game version of an upcoming film. Transmediation expands one story across multiple media, with as little overlap as possible. The Assassin’s Creed novels, for example, tell stories that are completely new, but are supplemental to the Assassin’s Creed video game franchise. In this case, as with many examples of transmediation, these stories reference each other, and fans are encouraged to purchase both to obtain a ‘complete’ understanding of the narrative. Both of these processes of remediation reflect the current state of the consumer market, where audiences demand both more and more content from their favourite products, as well as more niche products. If this material is not available from the product’s producer, fans will often create it themselves. This is especially true outside of the Western world, where storytelling methods are developing independently of the fixed commercial structures of the west.
The general expansion of a cultural product’s distribution and the change in its distribution method are both related to the recent and ongoing shift in our modes of cultural consumption. In the twenty-first century, the consumer is increasingly a producer/consumer (or prosumer) in a participatory culture that rejects the idea of passive spectatorship. As we have seen, one result of this shift is the remix or mashup. As author William Gibson describes:
Today’s audience isn’t listening at all – it’s participating. Indeed, audience is as antique a term as record, the one archaically passive, the other archaically physical. The record, not the remix, is the anomaly today. The remix is the very nature of the digital […] the recombinant (the bootleg, the remix, the mash-up) has become the characteristic pivot at the turn of our two centuries.
Even when audiences do not actively participate in an object’s creation, they often respond to that object in an active and social – though also highly personal – way, for example on social media or through fan fiction.
For Henry Jenkins, rather than ‘talking about media producers and consumers as occupying separate roles, we might now see them as participants who interact with each other according to a new set of rules that none of us fully understands’. This blurring of the border between producer and consumer is made possible by recent technological advances like the internet, and has wide-reaching implications for authorial supremacy, and for existing power structures in media production. As Bruce Sterling asserts in his digital remix ‘Death of the Author 2.0’:
The user-producer is a concept that speak [sic] to the digital experience and the freedoms that this digital culture allow [sic] for ordinary people to become artist and producer. This model fundamentally challenges the traditional assumptions of author, it moves away from the idea of the romantic notion of authorship, which saw authorship and cultural production as an isolated activity of a genius sitting and creating something out of nothing.
Sterling’s title clearly references Roland Barthes’ comments in Image, Music, Text on the ‘death’ of the author. Like the humanist subject, the author ‘is a modern figure, a product of our society in so far as, emerging from the Middle Ages with English empiricism, French rationalism and the personal faith of the Reformation, it discovered the prestige of the individual, of, as it is more nobly put, the “human person”’. Referring here to the same cultural process that brought us humanism, Barthes argues that authorial intention is ultimately useless as a hermeneutical tool, serving only to grant the figure of ‘the author’ (or ‘the artist’) an unrealistically pivotal role.
As with so many of the ‘deaths’ ushered in by poststructuralism, the death of the author has never quite been realised in either academia or popular culture. Even in popular music, where the success of the ‘vocal artist’ is more and more a team effort, the figure and power of the author lives on. Remix (along with other forms of participatory culture) fulfils Barthes’ description of the author in a way other texts still struggle to do: as ‘a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centers of culture […] the writer can only imitate a gesture that is always anterior, never original. His only power is to mix writings, to counter the ones with the others, in such a way as never to rest on any one of them’. Though Barthes would not have been familiar with remix culture at the time of this description, it strongly evokes the remix ideology.
For Barthes, efforts to ‘decipher’ texts in an authorless world become meaningless. Without authorial intention, there can be no inherent meaning. As Gunkel asserts in response, this means that ‘the objective of the reader, listener, or viewer is not to unearth and decode some secret meaning situated outside of and just below the surface of the text, but to engage with the material of the text itself, to disentangle and trace out its various threads, and to evaluate the resulting combinations, contradictions, and resonances’. This new objective, which resonates with the aim of the critical analysis approach to texts, is increasingly popular in contemporary criticism, and vital to any analysis of remix culture.
Into this world monsters emerge, perfectly suited to play to the needs of the posthuman era’s prosumer. They symbolise the other, but also the self and the self-as-other. Their identity is mutable. Monsters are heavy with the weight of history, and rich with historical meaning. Their use in everything from folk tales to breakfast cereal marketing makes them endlessly versatile. They have come signify nothing, and thus are capable of signifying everything. They are the ideal posthuman vehicle, always elsewhere.
 John Storey, Cultural Theory and Popular Culture: An Introduction, 5th edn (London: Pearson Longman, 2001), p. 1.
 Esther Peeren, Intersubjectivities and Popular Culture: Bakhtin and Beyond (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2008), pp. 21, 23.
 Stefan Herbrechter, Posthumanism: A Critical Analysis (London: Bloomsbury, 2013), p. 142.
 Consider the example of Susan Byles’ performance on Britain’s Got Talent in Henry Jenkins, Sam Ford and Joshua Green, Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture (New York: NYU Press, 2013), pp. 9–16. The network failed to spread the video widely themselves, but fans did so on their own terms, clipping parts of the broadcast and sharing them on YouTube and other social media. This represented unintended and unplanned publicity for the network. See also Henry Jenkins, Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture, 2nd edn (London: Routledge, 2012).
 See Jenkins, Ford and Green, Spreadable Media.
 William Gibson, ‘God’s Little Toys: Confessions of a Cut & Paste Artist’, WIRED Magazine, 2005, para. 11–12 <http://archive.wired.com/wired/archive/13.07/gibson.html> [accessed 14 January 2015].
 Henry Jenkins, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide (New York: New York University Press, 2006), p. 3.
 Bruce Sterling, ‘Death of the Author 2.0’, WIRED Magazine, 2007, para. 1 <http://www.wired.com/2007/09/death-of-the-au/> [accessed 27 January 2015].
 Roland Barthes, Image, Music, Text, trans. by Stephen Heath (New York: Hill and Wang, 1978), pp. 142–143.
 David J. Gunkel, ‘What Does It Matter Who Is Speaking? Authorship, Authority, and the Mashup’, Popular Music and Society, 35 (2012), 71–91 (p. 20).
On this blog I’ve previously written about Travis Louie and Dan Hillier, two fine artists whose work I’ve been researching. I also wrote a post for the Victorianist on Colin Batty, who paints monsters onto old Victorian cabinet cards. A fourth artist whose work I’m writing about is Kevin J. Weir, though he wouldn’t necessarily consider himself under that label.
Despite including very little paratextual material or source information, Weir’s work is still very much story-based, and can be considered as a kind of historical fiction. Though gifs represent a relatively new field in the world of art, in many respects they are essentially short, silent films on a continuous loop. In Weir’s words, they are the ‘shortest of stories’. Weir’s brand of historical fiction is the most ghoulish of the four, and arguably the most affecting, but is also the least transformative. All he does is combine existing images and animate them – and in some cases he simply animates the background of a single image. Nevertheless, early on the animations took around a week to build. Weir would draw 80 to 100 frames in Photoshop, ‘cutting things out into layers, moving them a little bit, making a new layer, moving that a little bit’ until the moving image could be compiled.
What Weir particularly likes about the format is how ‘it allows you both to use suspense and to freeze one moment’. At first blush the idea of suspense runs counter to the looped nature of the gif, which repeats the same series of images over and over again. By adjusting the length of time at the end of each loop, however, Weir creates a moment of calm in the image, in which everything returns to normal. This pause between loops sometimes extends to eight seconds. These images also gesture towards a sense of historical repetition more generally. Before every loop of the gif exists a moment where the viewer wonders whether things might turn out differently. As interviewer Paula Cocozza notes, however, ‘it is just a moment of illogical hope’. The cycle cannot be changed.
Consider ‘Peekskill’, ‘Doberitz’, or ‘Decoy Howitzer’. These images are already ominous, not only because they are old and uncannily familiar, but because in our minds we presume to know know what comes after the events photographed. Those pictured have died, and in many cases were murdered or killed on the battlefield. They already represent something grim to us. What Weir is actually doing, then, is diffusing the horror of war through popular Gothic, which in part exists to make horror manageable. His animations paradoxically make these images less terrible, by making them horrific. By forcing its viewers to experience past horrors through the lens of popular Gothic, it both re-enacts past horrors and layers on contemporary ones, all without using a single ‘original’ image.
I’ve been in touch with Kevin Weir about his work, and he was kind enough to give me a brief interview. You can find an edited version below:
Have you ever considered yourself as mashup artist, or as an author of historical fiction?
Both sound pretty apt in describing the flux machine project. On a personal level, I think that I’m just someone who makes a lot of stuff. This is just one project. I have another project where I make GIFs of birds being sassy, using nature documentary footage (sassybirds.tumblr.com) and I wouldn’t consider myself a bird artist.
Have you ever sold prints of your work?
I’ve never sold physical copies of my work, but I have been commissioned to create GIFs for the occasional brand or film. Tumblr has a program called ‘Creatrs’ where they pair up clients with artists on their platform, and I’ve been lucky enough to get a bunch of those opportunities. Other times, people will reach our directly. I’ve also created GIFs for digitally-savvy authors who want to promote their book online.
Some of the monsters and creatures you add to your art don’t look like they come from archive material. Do you draw them in yourself? If not, where do they come from?
Everything is either built from little bits of other things I find or created from scratch. Some pixels from here, other pixels from there, some videos filmed in my apartment, etc. Every GIF is a mishmash of a hundred different bits.
Are there specific kinds of monsters and horror that particularly inspire your gifs?
Surrealist humor, fantasy and sci fi books, video games etc. Specific inspirations would be Lovecraft, Tolkien, Terry Gilliam, Cyriak (incredible animator) and Miyazaki.
Would you call your work nostalgic?
I’m not sure. I think that the work I create lives in more of a science fiction, fantasy or horror fiction world. In my mind, these are modern musings on past events. Or reimaginings of old worlds and explorations of alternate histories. The flux machine project (which draws from the library of congress archives) started out as rather playful, but has certainly gotten a little dark as I’ve grown more interested in the actual history of the photos I’m using.
You use images in your art that are out of copyright, but that depict real events and people. What would your response be if someone were to ask you about the ethics of using these people’s likenesses in your art?
These photos are very very old, which is part of what draws me to them. They’re representative of a history that feels almost unknowable. So I guess the factor of age and history makes me feel like I don’t have all that much to worry about in terms of likenesses or ethics. I don’t think I’m profaning history. And even if I am, the internet is a culture of remixing. Everything’s up for grabs. It’s what you do with what you dig up that matters. If someone were to come to me with a sincere concern about something I made that is a hurtful affront to their family history or something, then I’d probably respect that. Hasn’t happened yet though.
Do you see yourself as a full-time or part-time artist?
I’ve never thought about that. I never really set out, with flux machine, for it to be an art project, or an outlet for me as an artist. I guess, as someone who is always making stuff on the internet, that I am a full-time artist? I don’t know. I always considered my dad, who has an art studio in his backyard and paints with oils, an “artist.” I’m just a guy on the internet. Maybe that means we’re all artists?
In a previous blog post, I mentioned the Ellis Island immigrant portraiture of Augustus F. Sherman. I wrote:
Sherman was an amateur photographer working as Chief Registry Clerk at New York’s Ellis Island station from 1892 until 1925, and he photographed some of the twelve million immigrants to pass into the USA before the station closed in 1954. Many are photographed in their native dress, which Sherman appears to have encouraged, but which also seems logical given the nature of the passage these people had just completed. If you couldn’t carry it with you, you had to leave it behind. Though Sherman’s photographs are clearly staged rather than candid, unlike some of Lewis W. Hine’s work, there is a certain sense directness or frankness to the images that lends them an air of historical authenticity. These portraits are only accompanied by a date, and the subject’s country of origin.
Recently, Wolfgang Wild, the creator and curator of the Retronaut website, and Jordan Lloyd, the director of the colour reconstruction team at Dynamichrome, have teamed up to create The Paper Time Machine. This book, which they are currently crowdfunding over at Unbound, takes famous black-and-white photographs (including Sherman’s) and renders them in full colour. The project description promises both historical accuracy and a tantalising level of historical engagement:
Each element in the monochrome images has been researched and colour checked for historical authenticity. As the layers of colour build up, the effect is disorientatingly real and the decades and centuries just fall away. It is as though we are standing at the original photographer’s elbow.
In the gallery below, you can also view some of the black-and-white images I displayed in my original post in all their full-colour glory:
The book describes itself as ‘a collection of historical “remixes” that exist alongside the original photographs but draw out qualities, textures and details that have hitherto remained hidden’. Wild and the team at Dynamichrome have also added their own annotations to the photographs, explaining the rationale for selecting these particular images and offering some insights into material features like clothing or architecture. Where the colorisation process brings the images to life for contemporary audiences visually, these descriptions add a sense of touch, as well as the occasional sound or smell.
The following post was originally delivered as part of a Cardiff BookTalk screening of James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931). After watching the film, three academics (including myself) delivered short presentations on the story’s cultural contexts. A report of the event will be available shortly, but you can find the contents of my presentation reproduced below, with some minor modifications and corrections.
In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) the creature has the following to say about human communication:
I found that these people possessed a method of communicating their experience and feelings to one another by articulate sounds. I perceived that the words they spoke sometimes produced pleasure or pain, smiles or sadness, in the minds and countenances of the hearers. This was indeed a godlike science, and I ardently desired to become acquainted with it. (Chapter 12, paragraph 9)
Here the creature identifies communication (in this case, speech) as a stimulant that, when used correctly, produces human emotion – a ‘godlike science’ much like the one Victor Frankenstein used to give him life.
Fittingly, it was Mary Shelley’s communication of emotion nearly 200 years ago that provided the spark of life for the Frankenstein myth, which is still very much with us. She didn’t immortalise Frankenstein alone, however. Other texts, in other media and over many decades, have contributed to the legend and remade it along the way.
Rather than tracing all of these adaptations and revisions, which is a formidable task even for Wikipedia, instead I want to address one question:
What does it take to make a text immortal?
In his 1987 reception history of Mary Shelley’s novel, Chris Baldick suggests that all books (and Frankenstein in particular) have this potential:
Books themselves behave monstrously towards their creators, running loose from authorial intention and turning to mock their begetters by displaying a vitality of their own. […Shelley’s] novel manages to achieve a double feat of self-referentiality, both its composition and its subsequent cultural status miming the central moments of its own story. Like the monster it contains, the novel is assembled from dead fragments to make a living whole, and as a published work, it escapes Mary Shelley’s textual frame and acquires its independent life outside it, as a myth. (p. 30)
For Baldick, then, something about the novel itself encourages textual resurrection and transformation. This by itself is not enough, of course. In an article about the cultural success of William Shakespeare and Jane Austen, Linda Troost and Sayre Greenfield suggest that ‘the key to cultural survival of a text is to adapt it to a changing audience; the key to cultural growth of a reputation is to expand it beyond the text’s native reach’ (p. 432).
As demonstrated by their choice of authors, the actual content of the stories matters less for the immortality of a text than the cultural processes that take over once they are written. Shakespeare’s melodrama is worlds away from Austen’s understated comedy of manners, and Shelley’s serious, somber work again differs dramatically from Shakespeare and Austen. There is no exact formula for writing an immortal story. Instead (for Troost and Greenfield), it takes three forces: fictionalisation of the author, adaptation, and travesty. So. both author and text need to come alive in fiction as well as in history, and new audiences need to feel free to use the author’s name and work in ways they were probably never meant to be used. Only then does a text enter the realm of myth.
Iconic images and ‘little personal stories’ are key ingredients in bringing the author to life (p. 442). We’ve got an iconic image, painted by Richard Rothwell in the mid nineteenth century, and we have the story of Frankenstein’s inception at Villa Diodat, by Lake Geneva in Switzerland. This is the story that is most often revisited when Shelley makes an appearance in fiction. While Mary Shelley herself hasn’t quite reached the same level of fictionalisation as Shakespeare or Austen, she has made cameos in a number of films and television shows – usually works of genre fiction (fantasy, horror, sci-fi).
In a 1997 episode of Highlander: The Series, Duncan MacLeod visits Lord Byron and the Shelleys, inspiring Mary Shelley to write Frankenstein. In the 10th season of the TV show Supernatural, which aired just last year, the Stynes are an ancient family of magic practitioners, who had to change their surname from Frankenstein after Mary Shelley wrote about them. In the 1990 film Frankenstein, Unbound (based on a 1973 novel of the same name), a scientist travels back in time to meet Victor Frankenstein and his Creature, as well as Mary Shelley herself (played by Bridget Fonda). In a 2006 episode of the children’s animated series Time Warp Trio, Frankenstein’s creature becomes real and shows up in the main character’s apartment, necessitating a trip back to 1816 Switzerland to bring him face to face with his creator – Mary Shelley.
Fictionalisation of the author? Check. What about adaptation, then? As Troost and Greenfield write:
Works of literature prosper not through simple reproductions but through re-interpretations, quotations and transformations […] Megastardom for a writer comes only by being adapted to interest an audience far beyond the natural one. (p. 431, 438)
Shelley’s other work has received minimal attention from adaptors, but her best-known novel, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, absolutely fits this category. Its most iconic adaptation, the 1931 film version directed by James Whale, has also spawned countless adaptations, references, and reimaginings.
Again, it would be futile to try and take you through more than a small sampling of these adaptations, but as it’s always more effective to show than to tell, I’ve put together a brief montage:
The last clip in this montage is from an episode of Mary Shelley’s Frankenhole, a show that ran from 2010 to 2012 on the Adult Swim network. In the show, fictional and historical characters seek help at Victor Frankenstein’s laboratory, which is accessible through a series of space-time portals. The scene, in which Frankenstein’s creature and Adolf Hitler have a beer together at the local pub, is one great example of the unexpected ways in which Frankenstein’s creature can be read.
The show could also easily be considered a case of what Troost and Greenfield call travesty – extreme adaptations that stretch our definition of the term. While some may even appear to attack the text they are adapting, Troost and Greenfield argue that they too are vital to a text’s immortality: ‘travesties are themselves markers of high reputation and respond to textual transformations that have already occurred’, and ‘transformations that play against the forms and reputations of the works actually promote them while mocking them’ (p. 439).
In the case of Frankenstein, we have examples of the story stretching far beyond what we would traditionally call adaptation. The text is embedded in our very language. Think of Eddie Van Halen’s Frankenstrat, the Frankenfish, Frankenfoods or Frankenstorms. My current research is on Frankenfiction. All of these references carry the text far beyond its natural habitat, to new audiences and new meanings.
Without all three of these elements – adaptation, travesty, and fictionalization – our relationship to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein would be quite different, 200 years on. In the end, as Baldick argues: ‘That series of adaptations, allusions, accretions, analogues, parodies, and plain misreadings which follows upon Mary Shelley’s novel is not just a supplementary component of the myth; it is the myth’ (p. 4).
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and James Whale’s Frankenstein, and Kenneth Branaugh’s Frankenstein, and Pemberley Digital’s Frankenstein are all Frankenstein. Every time we read or watch them, we recreate Frankenstein as well.
In the end, the story of Frankenstein has power because we give it power, by using it over and over again. If you love Frankenstein, then – whether we’re talking about the novel or the film or some other version – the best thing you can do to ensure it lives on for another 200 years is to keep watching it, keep reading it, and keep re-writing it. Keep re-stitching it into something new. And while you’re at it, add a few anachronous bolts (or gears) for good measure.
Baldick, Chris, In Frankenstein’s Shadow: Myth, Monstrosity, and Nineteenth-Century Writing (Oxford: Clarendon, 1987)
Troost, Linda, and Sayre Greenfield, ‘“Strange Mutations”: Shakespeare, Austen and Cultural Success’, Shakespeare, 6 (2010), 431–45
On on August 9, 2014, Michael Brown was shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. Seven months later, on March 13, 2015, American poet Kenneth Goldsmith sparked an internet controversy when he performed a remixed version of Michael Brown’s autopsy report at the ‘Interrupt 3’ event at Brown University. Recordings of the reading were never released (at Goldsmith’s request), but details and quotations were spread in textual form.
Responses to the reading were varied. Most questioned whether Goldsmith, a white man, had the right to appropriate Brown’s autopsy report – and by extension, his body and his memory – in this way. The answer, in most cases, was ‘no’.
In a post on his Facebook page that has since been deleted, Goldsmith initially defended his appropriation and performance by arguing that he was simply artistically reproducing a text that already existed (as all writing does):
I altered the text for poetic effect; I translated into plain English many obscure medical terms that would have stopped the flow of the text; I narrativized it in ways that made the text less didactic and more literary […] That said, I didn’t add or alter a single word or sentiment that did not preexist in the original text, for to do so would be go against my nearly three decades’ practice of conceptual writing, one that states that a writer need not write any new texts but rather reframe those that already exist in the world to greater effect than any subjective interpretation could lend.
Of course, Goldsmith contradicts himself a bit here. He both claims responsibility for the text and doesn’t. What is more important in a work of art, the content or the context? In an interview at the 2015 Poetry International (PI) festival in Rotterdam, Goldsmith reiterated his opinion that context is, in fact, everything:
You can watch the full interview (plus a poetry performance) below, and can find more video of this and other festivals over on PI’s YouTube channel:
Goldsmith’s presence at the PI festival was also considered controversial by some, especially in light of other ongoing diversity issues. The Amsterdam-based literary journal Versal issued an open letter to PI in response to their invitation of Goldsmith (and other white, male poets), calling for the organisation to ‘redistribute [their] public funds to the full array of poets engaged in our art, in line with the Dutch Cultural Policy Act’s stated intention for cultural diversity’.
In the above discussion, which included fellow poet and then-PI editor Mia You, four panelists discussed the delicate politics of diversity and representation in contemporary poetry and conceptual art. You referred obliquely to the Versal letter at the beginning of the discussion, which involved several other questions about diversity in contemporary poetry more generally:
Crucially, in the discussion Goldsmith also recanted his previous defences of the autopsy report performance. He explained that while the words he appropriated were capable of being powerful and potent art, the form and context into which he put those words was a mistake:
@kg_ubu “‘The Body of Michael Brown’ was a failed artwork on my part. I miscalculated the apparatus.” #pifr
In a move that still echoes the attitude of many mashup artists and critics, however, Goldsmith did also suggest that remix is fundamentally liberating and boundary-breaking, partly because it can give its authors a new kind of anonymity. As examples he cited music sampling and re-sharing over the internet, usually unsigned, and later the revolutionary hacking group Anonymous. Anonymity is seen as increasingly central to many social and economic processes in the age of the internet.
In other words, don’t some people deserve the right to be celebrated as authors, or artists, or creative geniuses in their own right, because they were never really accepted in these roles by mainstream culture in the first place? Does the rest of the world have to be done with these modes of identity because white men are?
This was certainly one of the issues in the case of Michael Brown, whose identity came to be defined in the public eye through the work of white men: the police officer who shot him, and the poet who appropriated his autopsy report as a piece of conceptual art. The public never really knew him in his own right, through a persona that he himself constructed.
It’s been nearly two years since Brown was shot and killed in Ferguson, and just over a year since Goldsmith performed his reading at Brown University.
I started this post last June, but I’ve been sitting on it for a year now. Primarily because it’s a subject I’m still digesting, but also because discussions of cultural appropriation seem to have remained a very relevant and unresolved part of our current media landscape. What do you think? Is remix inherently oppressive in the hands of the cultural majority? Does it create a new kind of anonymity, or a new kind of celebrity authorship? If so, how might we change the discourse?
Earlier this year I posted a selection of book trailers for monster mashup titles in honour of World Book Day (…in the UK and Ireland). This week I’ve been doing some research into several YouTube productions, and thought I’d take the opportunity to do a second instalment. This time, instead of trailers for actual books, I’ve got a series of trailers and videos for nonexistent mashup projects that I wish someone would actually produce.
The first (an old SNL sketch) mashes up the creature from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein with the first Twilight film. If you thought Edward was broody, wait until you see Frankenstein’s creature in action. Also, they substituted Jacob’s werewolf with another classic monster:
This next one takes footage from the Harry Potter films and mashes it up with audio from a Pride and Prejudice adaptation. Why not fill two literary voids at once?
There’s also a ‘Real Housewives of Jane Austen’ parody trailer that I would absolutely watch if they ever made it into a proper series:
My personal favourite was the following video, a mashup of Jane Austen’s novels and the movie Fight Club:
I like this video in particular because it’s tonally incongruous with Austen’s books (I don’t remember Lizzie going around punching people, unless we’re talking about Pride and Prejudice and Zombies), and yet humorously true to her feminist message, and the bold personalities of her characters.
For a few more parodies that run on incongruity and anachronism, see Pineapple-Shaped Lamps‘ sketch, in which Jane and Lizzie Bennet encounter spam mail (bonus points for their exaggeration of the way Jane and Lizzie address each other – ‘my gleaming beam of familial charity’):
And this BuzzFeed production, ‘Things Jane Austen Characters Do That Would Be Weird If You Did Them’:
And of course, Mitchell and Webb’s parody of dancing in Pride and Prejudice:
If music’s your thing, check out this montage of period dramas set to the tune ‘It’s Raining Men’:
And for a break from Austen (and also for the hell of it), here’s an Epic Rap Battles of History episode in which Charles Dickens character Ebenezer Scrooge faces off against Donald Trump:
I have long been a fan of photomanipulation. I like the way it disturbs our preconception of the photograph as a faithful representation of reality. It’s an exciting time to be interested in photography and photographic appropriation more generally, as the work of Richard Prince, Kevin J. Weir, or Whitney Bell can attest. We are entertained and intrigued by appropriations of other people’s images (and historical traces). As they test the limits of copyright and the ethics of appropriation, they rewrite the objects they reference.
Enter artist Colin Batty, whose most 2014 project ‘Meet the Family’ appropriated over a hundred cabinet cards – postcard-style portraits popular from the late nineteenth century, circa 1870, to the end of the first World War. Batty hand-painted each cabinet card in his collection to include Gothic monsters, aliens, and various other figures from popular culture. No Photoshop necessary. The physical cabinet cards are currently held by the Peculiarium Gallery in Portland, Oregon (where you can still buy some of them from the gallery’s website). Originally, they were purchased in bulk from a thrift store.
Batty’s art works almost as a kind of historical revision or ventriloquism. In Batty’s own words, the cabinet cards ‘suggest their own stories. Some are just crying out for me to stick something in there’. Behind his art, then, Batty sketches a story of forgotten archive material that has lapsed from memory, and is just waiting to be repurposed, its story retold for our entertainment.
Batty’s cabinet cards express a desire to expose the strangeness of the past, and he seems mainly interested in doing so by exploiting the uncanny resemblance between the supernatural and the everyday. At the same time, however, they are intended to be patently ridiculous. Consider ‘Blobby McGee’ (left). This image would never be mistaken for a Victorian photograph, although that is indeed what is being represented. Because of the way sections of woman’s body have been painted out, and other sections have been added, in her new form she resembles a human lava lamp – an invention that would not exist for more than a century.
Batty’s other work (mostly sculpture) often involves garishly coloured caricatures of well-known people and characters. His default mode of expression is the surreal, but his cartoonish exaggeration of real people’s existing features are not normalised in a way that situates them firmly in the traditional world of fine art. Some of his previous work has been as a modeller in the special effects and arts departments for various films, including Paul Berry’s short film adaptation The Sandman, and a number of Tim Burton’s projects (specifically Mars Attacks! and The Corpse Bride). This affiliation occasionally shows through in his work on the cabinet cards as well Consider ‘Brainiac and Son’ (Figure 16), which bears a strong resemblance to the aliens from Mars Attacks!. Like the rest of his work, Batty’s cabinet cards ultimately make monstrous caricatures of the people depicted.
In each card, Batty teases out the uncanny aspects of the characters or environments depicted, painting in a seemingly random assembly of monsters, aliens, and ghosts, mostly from popular culture. Some of the images do make a more direct link to a Victorian past, however. Cards like ‘Chimp Siblings’ or ‘Elephant Dude’ (see below), are nods to well-known Victorian freaks like Stephan Bibrowski (a.k.a. ‘Lionel the Lion-faced Boy’), or Joseph Merrick (the ‘Elephant Man’). Others reference conservative ideas about femininity and domesticity, depicting Victorian women as robots or puppets to convey a lack of mobility, autonomy, or personhood (see ‘Fembot’ and ‘I’m Your Puppet’ below). Still others draw inspiration from Victorian spirit photography or 1950s images of alien sightings (‘Girl and Frank’, ‘Alien in Crowd’, ’Smoking Smiling Demon’, below).
At first glance, these images seem to possess the ‘posture of critique, even assault’ that Sanders attributes to appropriative works. It is difficult to find the historical commentary in an image like ‘Miss Chairy’ (below) which, to borrow Jerome de Groot’s comments on ‘histsploitation’ and popular television, seems to be ‘wrong just to be wrong, and to demonstrate that historical fiction does not need to have a point’. The various paratextual presentations of these cards, however, suggest that all of the images – even the overt caricatures – can be read in a less negative light. Though Batty’s caricature is exploitative, it comes from a place of fondness rather than violence, ultimately finding an almost earnest revelation in its historical anachronism.
Batty’s cabinet cards have a strong family motif. They are a kind of freak show of what, as the 2014 collection of his work claims, are our own kooky aunts, uncles, and ancestors. This is of course an ironic assertion, as the characters in these images are no longer human, but it implies a kind of monstrosity in humanity that feeds back into a very twenty-first-century idea of the monster that is spiritual or social, rather than physical.
The photobook collection of Colin Batty’s cabinet cards, edited by Mike Wellins and Lisa Freeman, contains precious little background on or introduction to the work contained within its pages. It does, however, include a very interesting epigraph and postscript, which help to give the collection some context. The epigraph, attributed to American novelist Mark Twain, reads ‘A man with a hump-backed uncle mustn’t make fun of another’s cross-eyes aunt’. This is part of a longer excerpt from an interview, published in the New York World on 11 May 1879, in which Twain explains why he never wrote a book about England:
I have spent a good deal of time in England […] and I made a world of notes, but it was of no use. […] No, there wasn’t anything to satirize – what I mean is, you couldn’t satirize any given thing in England in any but a half-hearted way, because your conscience told you to look nearer home and you would find that very thing at your own door. A man with a hump-backed uncle mustn’t make fun of another’s cross-eyes aunt.
Though it is possible that this refers to the British origin of the cabinet cards, it seems more likely that it suggests a motivation for Batty’s alienating imagery. Rather than acting from some urge to preserve history or write immigrant identities back into public memory, as Travis Louie does, Batty’s motivations seem more inclined towards problematising the white, Western world’s understanding of its own past.
Take ‘Melissa Muscles’ and ‘Captain Clevage’ (below), in which the subject’s head has been transposed onto the body of an apparently opposite gender. The first bears a similarity to vintage images of circus strongmen, and the second is visually resonant of mid twentieth-century pinups. Not only are these bodies incongruous with the subject’s visibly masculine or feminine facial features, the mild nudity in these images is incongruous with the stereotypical historical prudery imagined by twenty-first-century audiences. (Note: there are some NSFW images at the gallery’s website).
In addition, they indirectly reference humorous twenty-first-century memes and pop culture icons, including ‘overly manly man’ and Marvel’s Hulk. Batty’s titles for the cabinet cards, which often alliterate or rhyme, also contribute to the ridiculous tone his work creates. By constructing these images as ridiculous, Batty both draws attention to the problematic depictions of gender that populate the contemporary media landscape, and indirectly challenges our stereotypes of historical culture as well. Batty’s cabinet cards suggest that we would do better to get comfortable with the uncomfortable elements hidden in our Victorian past, so that we can begin to work through them on a more productive level.
The book’s postscript presents a similar reading of Batty’s images. It states: ‘The family – that dear octopus from whose tentacles we never quite escape, nor, in our inmost hearts, ever quite wish to’, and is attributed to another, British novelist, Dodie Smith. It forms part of a toast in her play Dear Octopus (1938), which depicts the relationships between three generations of a large family. In the context of Batty’s work, this citation seems to suggest that instead of laughing at our strange ancestors, we must recognise our similarity (and attachment) to them. In Wellins and Freeman’s book, then, Batty’s cabinet cards are all about equating the aesthetics of historical family portraiture with the strange and uncomfortable entity that is modernity, and modern historiography.
In addition to questioning the necessity of taking history seriously, Batty’s work also raises questions about the ethics of historical appropriation. Is Batty defacing these photographs? Yes, quite literally, though there is still an amicable side to Batty’s exploitation of these forgotten images. By virtue of the existing historical evidence, which is composed mainly of white, middle class subjects, these characters are already ’neutral’. Despite – or more accurately, because of – their ridiculous monstrosity, we come to recognise these people as ‘family’. The distance between them and us is bridged through laughter. Where these photographs have been universalised and anonymised, Batty makes them familiar again through humour and caricature.
I’m currently wrapping up a draft of my thesis that looks at the way intertextuality functions in the monster mashup. I argue that it revives the past in a very specific (and monstrous) way, while at the same time having wider implications for studies in historical fiction, adaptation, and remix culture more broadly. More on that later.
At this exact moment, I’m looking for your help in researching my next chapter. This chapter will examine the way remix culture, with special focus on the monster mashup, deconstructs the relationship between fan, superfan, and antifan. What, exactly, is the distinction, and how do both individual fans and corporations capitalise on these categories? Any relevant sources or information you have on any of these topics would be much appreciated. You can send them to me here in a comment, on Facebook or Twitter, or by e-mailing me at DeBruinMJ@cardiff.ac.uk.
The premise is this. Contemporary culture, we are told, is obsessed with the remake and the reboot. There is nothing new or original to be found. Remix takes this idea and runs with it, creating new objects explicitly out of old ones, and blurring the borders between the original and the derivative. The recent popularity of this creative trend has interesting implications for fandom and fan studies, which has long been concerned with the things fans create (products, communities, artworks) around the intellectual property of others. Beyond questions of legality, what distinguishes fanart from homage, or a fan from a superfan (professional fan), in this context?
Take these t-shirt prints, and the above poster print. Qwertee.com capitalises on specific types of fandom, and targets specific kinds of fans. In addition, the company assumes a positive, even fan-like stance (right down to in-jokes in the copy) in order to sell these t-shirts.
Using examples from the world of monster mashup (suggestions welcome!), in my next chapter I hope to explore how the language of fandom is employed in discussions of artistic appropriation in twenty-first-century popular culture. Monster mashups – in which fantastical monsters run amok in historical texts and contexts – range from actual fan productions to big-budget projects cashing in on fan aesthetics and interests. These texts often construct themselves as the figurative monsters of the creative world, and are marketed as revolutionary responses to copyright law and big industry, or even as anti-fan productions.
In the case of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, for example, a marketing campaign that started off from an anti-fan perspective (‘making the classics less boring’) was quickly transformed into one that sold Seth Grahame-Smith and Quirk Books as ‘true’ fans (‘the book underscores what we all originally loved about Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice’). I’m hoping to argue that in the monster mashup, and in remix culture more broadly, the line between fan, superfan, and anti-fan is a fine one.