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Arts Fest Review: DJ Spooky's Rebirth of a Nation

Museum of Contemporary Art
Chicago, Michael Raz-Russo
Image copyright Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago. Photographer: Michael Raz-Russo

Arts Festival Review: DJ Spooky's Rebirth of a Nation

Reviewed by Lyndon Hood

DJ Spooky's Rebirth of a Nation
Paul Miller aka DJ Spooky that Subliminal Kid
17, 18 March
8:30 (1 hour 40 approx)
The Opera House

There is a wealth of parallels and reflection to be fond bouncing in and around DJ Spooky's Rebirth of a Nation - Paul Miller's remix of DW Griffiths' 1915 Birth of a Nation - the most famous piece of Klu Klux Klan propaganda ever. Miller pointed one out as he introduced his show: early hip hop DJs like 'Grandmaster' Flash used that title without even knowing it was a KKK rank. In a sense, the act of remixing Birth of a Nation is just following that tradition back to its roots.

It also traces the origins (in Birth) of standard cinematic tricks such as the closeup and intercut stories and of almost the whole range media stereotypes about black people - both innovations often appearing in the same sequence.

Rebirth of a Nation's video is projected onto three screens - the smaller ones at either side running the same images, compared or contrasted with those in the centre. Miller, working with calm, methodical enjoyment, assembles a soundtrack live while reconstructing Birth of a Nation on his laptop - mixing up and juxtaposing sequences and applying a boxful of digital tricks: overlaying different bits of video, reflecting half the frame so that the actual subject vanishes and the background is doubled, and much more.

There are few additions to Griffiths' footage - superimposed diagrams which draw a visual parallel between old floor plans and modern circuit diagrams, a small amount of footage of more modern black choreography - but Spooky isn't trying to make a new movie. He is asking Griffiths' one - and the world - some pretty tough questions.

A lot of work towards deconstructing Griffiths' movie is done merely by running it. Why, asks the audience, is a black man showing us Birth of a Nation? Following up that question turns up a lot of intriguing answers.

And one of the things Spooky is doing is simply adding his 21st century techniques to the ones Griffith set for the 20th, turning Birth into an audio-visual party with a pumping live-mixed soundtrack (at near rock-concert volume, it's surely the loudest thing the Opera House has heard in a long time). In a notable diverse audience (at least as far as age goes), young and old all had a great time.

There is of course more going on, as Miller playfully wrestles with the original and blurs the lines between Griffiths' creation and his own (among the wealth of effects that he has ready is one that replaces the "Griffith" frames on the movie's captions with ones that say "Miller").

Birth of a Nation is, it seems, a romantic historical epic which explains how the North won the American civil war but lost the occupation. So-called 'reconstruction' is given over to corruption. Elections are held, but with chaotic results, while those who were once the ruling minority just get angry and operate covertly against the regime with increasingly open force. Or try this: Elections are held, where a substantial part of one race is suddenly disenfranchised. It starts to look like Birth of a Nation has influenced more than just film-making and Southern racism.

The other part of the story of Birth of a Nation - the one that caused all the trouble - is the explicit suggestion that it's all black people's fault and that the KKK is the cure. Evil negros and mullatos are play by white people in blackface. They have grasping hands. They try to abduct white people's daughters.

The racism of Griffiths' film is generally taken as read - although Miller made a point of mentioning that he wasn't a member of the KKK. A joke, but useful for anyone at risk of missing the point. Miller does use the same techniques that subtly emphasise the movie's modern parallels - like repitition and juxtaposition of sequences or leading emotional response through the music - to point up the actual techniques used to create these images and let us recognise the stereotypes from our own cultural experience.

Once Birth of a Nation had spent a while in Spooky's cultural wringer - once Griffiths' heroic aryans had relected, in different moments, Florida's black voters or Iraq's insurgents and the other players in the drama had undergone similar conceptual gymnastics - the whole thing felt different. As if it really had been cleansed - what Miller has called a "digital exorcism" neared completion.

The complexity of the video - all the overlays and filters, the multiple messages, conceptual and literal inverting of the black and white film - became less. Miler was working with raw chunks straight from the climax of the film - most of which we had already seen - cutting them up and rearranging them. But now it was as if it could be handled without gloves. We still knew right from wrong, but these images - in which a black man wanting to marry a white woman seems to justify an army of anonymous vigilaties overthrowing the government - merely fascinate and intrigue rather than terrify.

Griffiths' final charge for the moral high ground - declaring his film against the horrors of war - seems as hollow as his earlier claim that the events are historical and do not reflect on any modern race. Rebirth of a Nation fits the former mould far better, and in Miller's mix the claim to be merely historical is even more false.

I left with a smile on my face and my mind brimming with a sense that I'd only just begun to grasp all the connections. Rebirth of a Nation is an audio-visual ride and an intellectual party.


NZ Arts Festival: Rebirth of a Nation
DJ Spooky website
Scoop Audio: DJ Spooky interview
Scoop Full Coverage: Festival 06

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