This essay is in response to the book ‘Collage Culture’, by Kahn, Rose, and Roettinger. 2011. JRP|Ringier
Through the course of human history, media has been at the hands of those with access to the machinery necessary to facilitate communication. And traditionally, these machines have been either expensive, or the knowledge required to operate them was at a specialist level. But over time, these technologies were sold to the public.
First, it was by selling to educated amateurs, those who possessed a somewhat higher level of technological prowess than the average person, usually attained through independent education. We saw this shift with the free press newspapers, the reel-to-reel four and eight track audio recorders of the early 80’s, and the web of the early 90’s. While these amateurs may not have produced the same quality product as a media professional could, they were able to make something passable in comparison to what was being put out by the media elite.
With the introduction of digital media, the swell of affordable digital chips and sensors, and the arrival of user friendly software for the web, we saw a democratization of media, extending production capabilities to a large chunk of the consumer market. Now the average person could produce something comparable in production quality to that of mass media products, and the savvy amateur can go head to head with the best of professional media.
For years, media has been something shown/sold/given to us. In the attempts of consumers to become producers, the only hope was to emulate/join/assimilate into the ranks of the professional media, as production required money, and only large institutions could afford it. The professional media elite were considered the ‘reality’ of production by us, because of the agency/value assigned to them, first by themselves with their own associations and awards, then by recognition from the owners of other elite fields and companies, and finally by us with our consent and dollar.
It was with this perspective; that of the binary world of elite producer vs average consumer, that many of us joined in colleges, hoping to be granted agency as producers. And what were we asking to be allowed to do? To be funded. To have our visions determined important enough to receive money from the media elite, of which itself would make us elite, as there is only so much money, and only so much capacity in the traditional distribution channels for ideas. Essentially, because we wanted to produce things, we had to adopt the media elite framework, and become elite ourselves.
But, as technology has become more equal opportunity in it’s availability, we became able to produce and distribute our work without the big budget. Simultaneously, our system of distribution shifted our own media consumption away from the mass media system that requires big money and has finite capacity, to the distribution channels that we ourselves can publish from, shifting first with blogger journalists, then with YouTube (showing both the individual’s response of the news as well as corporate media), and now with Facebook. In these frameworks, both the large institution as well as the small artist/producer/label, share the same availability, the same capacity, existing within the same format.
And in our extended capability to produce and distribute, ‘Collage Culture’, as termed in the book of the same name, or ‘remix’ culture, as Lawrence Lessig previously termed it, arises.
We had been living in a consumer culture. We looked at the art of others, read the words of others, listened to the music of others, and watched the movies of others. This was what we ‘did’. It was our mode of operation. It was our culture.
And traditionally, when we engaged ourselves in a similar field to that of the elite, like painting, writing, making music; it was treated by us, and those around us, as having a value of ‘less than’ that which was produced by the media elite. It was called folk art, folk music; not a memoir, but a diary. It was vernacular photography. It was home movies. It was crafts. The enormous lack of agency, IE, lack of institutional approval to assign value, to in turn, assign capital funding, and to then accrue social capital and prestige, was non-existent in these works.
And so they were treated as hobby, a term derived from the separation of work from life, and the creation of a new term, ‘leisure’. We taught our kids to draw with easily erasable crayons. We taught them to finger paint. We taught them to learn the works of others in music class, and asked them to play cover songs on their guitars. We made creativity safe for them. No risk of making something lasting. And with a binary vision of regresseive class consciousness, the vernacular (profane) vs the professional (sacred), we crushed their ability to create. We told them that maybe, one day, you can be assigned agency and receive capital for your work as well. But don’t count on it. Have a backup plan.
And perhaps rightfully so, as both money and distribution capacity were limited in supply to that which only a few could take advantage of. But today, it’s wide open. We see the passive role of consumer, turning the media market from, as defined by the sociologist C. Wright Mills, a ‘mass’ situation, in which communication was a one-way action oriented from the message sender towards a body of people, into a ‘public’ model, where the body of people receiving a message engages in communication back with the sender of message (Mills, 1956).
Technically, there are a few reasons behind this; through the commodification of electronic components, the cost to produce is now low. With the rise and availability of the internet around the world, the capacity for distribution is ever increasing, and capital, as the critical and deciding variable in judging whether one can produce a particular media, is needed in smaller and smaller amounts to produce work. Accordingly, capital is being replaced with desire, in the requirments of production. Do you want to make a video? Do you want to write a song? Do you want to write a story? Those with passion will do it. And they will upload it to YouTube, sell it on iTunes, and post it on their blog. We are limited by what we can imagine.
‘Collage culture’ critiques what is made today, saying that we have begun to rehash the past. And it’s true, we have. We have because, like a person who has spent much of their life forced to be silent, we are now able to speak. And we have a lot to say. So we spit back this culture, our culture, the culture of consumption, back into the eyes, ears, and collective mind of the world around us.
Remember when we were kids? Remember how lasers sounded in 80’s movies? Remember the first Nintendo? Remember the crappy ROM music we thought was so awesome, and how it accompanied so many of the best days of our youth? Here they are, over a hip-hop track. Remember the late 80’s, and that time my mom drove us to Mcdonald’s, and the sun was out, the windows were down, and I saw a beautiful girl drive by with her folks, and this Phil Collins song was playing? Here is that mixed over some bass and drums. This is not a culture of copying, or simply rehashing things past. This is a culture of celebrating and subverting. Turning the mass model of communication on it’s head. Repossessing the culture we have been sold, and making it closer to what we really experienced, and what we actually value. And laughing at it, enjoying it.
But to do this succesfully, to fully embrace the potential of the threshold on which we currently stand, we are required to throw out all of the rules and values that were built upon the previous models of operation. And by doing so, destroy the positions of those that depend on the traditional external agency, derived from capital and finite resources and distribution capacity. Trying to value the work of any new time with the formula of the old will always prove fruitless. In this case, The past only had room for the most original of ideas, due to it’s limited capacity and abilities. Our new time has room for everything. Anything and everything we can imagine.
To move through this new time, we have to rebuild the way we quantify what is valuable to us. The filter, the gatekeeper of what we see, hear, and read, has moved from guarding the door of entry, to guarding the inbox, the RSS feed, the Facebook news feed, the web browser. It has moved from protecting production, to that of protecting consuption. We are now our own filters. Now we see millions of personal gatekeepers appearing; our friends or acquaintances or strangers, but of no higher agency than us, with their tumblrs, blogs, tweets, and Facebook posts, they curate the world that appeals to them. And if we like what they show us, we choose them to be our own gatekeeper. We ‘follow’ them, subscribe, ‘like’. Along with hundreds others, we assign them the agency of ‘gatekeeper’, not based on the amount of capital they have, but solely on our experience with their content.
So what are we to do in this new time of production?
If we are to judge the value of an egalitarian, open-media society, based on the rules of the old elite society, we are going to have a bad time. If we are still looking for the original idea, as pinnacle, one devoid of obvious reference, we will never move forward. Art has always been a reflection of current culture, we just were not able to physically incorporate it. So we made crude reference to it, with words, or with the brush. When Hip-hop came along, it made reference with bits of the actual preexisting idea itself, sampled, and built upon, growing an old melody into something new. And when we have exact digital representations of everything, as we do now, and in some cases, the actual digital thing itself, we must entertain the idea that we may be richer for it. That our products may be richer, more expansive. That the collage isn’t a limitation of the world, but the opening of a new world.
As every medium has it’s boundaries, our duty is to learn the framework of the new medium, to learn what gives the new medium quality, what gives the new medium value, and where to build our work. And then, to judge it accordingly. We have to develop a literacy for the new medium. And as literacy comes with understanding, which comes with a exploration of the new medium, Art is one of the best places to explore from. Let’s open ourselves to this new world and work.
But be warned; the new medium will destroy much of the style and tenants of the old. As the old media is legitimized by a system of belief conducive to it’s existence, the new media requires an ethic all of it’s own. So get ready. Evaluate what you believe is value. Re-valuate what you regard as valuable. And be ready to adapt to the new framework.
And while moving forward, instead of holding the values of old as our currency, be ready to change what we assign worth to. And for the sake of everyone involved, lets make that currency be based upon something that is human in quality, and caters to the world we dream of living in. Perhaps, referencing compassion, rather than scarcity.
Citation: Mills, C. Wright ‘The Power Elite’ pg 320-8. Oxford Press. 1956.