On Recontextualisation…

[Originally published @ What About a Birdseed Shirt?, 15/04/2007]

A week or two ago, Do You Trust Your Friends? leaked online. According to the Arts&Crafts website, it’s “a collection of re-mixes, re-interpretations and re-imaginings of Set Yourself on Fire. So essentially, it’s a Stars remix album. It’s no better or worse than most, generally hit and miss with a few standout tracks, specifically the Final Fantasy take on “Your Ex-Lover Is Dead”.

Stars – Your Ex-Lover Is Dead

Stars – Your Ex-Lover Is Dead (Final Fantasy)

Owen strips the song of its entire backing track, including the gorgeous interplay of the cello line and the harmonica and replaces it with swirling dissonant violins and a (pentatonic?) piano line, and the end result is beautiful. That said, as much as I love it, it requires a significant amount of effort for my brain to avoid filling in the spaces in the song with the instrumental accompaniment that I’ve been used to hearing for three years. It’s not present in anyway whatsoever, but I expect it to be.

Point being, to what extent can I say that my slight preference of the original is an objective judgment of quality, or to what extent is it simply a matter of comfort and familiarity? Is it similar to watching a movie after having read the book it’s based on? Children of Men was one of my favourite movies of the past year. I’ve never read the book by P.D. James, but I’ve been told they differ significantly. Had I read the book in advance, would I have been crippled by familiarity with the source material and thus unable to appreciate Cuaron’s tightly-paced, sharply written allegory? When I saw the film version of Everything is Illuminated last year, it left a bad taste in my mouth, while Sarah, Jam and Anna were profoundly affected by it. Was the movie truly not particularly astounding, or was it a brilliant piece of film that I missed out on because I couldn’t turn my brain off and stop noting the excisions and alterations?

Moreover, who holds the main credit for the remix? Clearly the vocals and melody and conception of the original song are Stars, but this isn’t even a collaboration. When you’re not simply remixing a song by pasting on some half-assed beats and speeding up the tempo, but instead completely shifting the tone, mode and sound of a song aside from the melody, absent the original creators of a song, is it your new sole creation, or is it a cooperative effort with the originators-in-absentia? How is this similar/different from Found Art?

The Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal has a Jérôme Fortin exhibit of giant canvases formed of meticulously folded paper. One is completely made of Japanese Manga, another of highway maps, yet another of clipping from an art magazine. The Musée de Beaux Arts has a floor as part of its Disney exhibition where various artists have incorporated aspects of Disney creations into a wide variety of art in all media, including a fairly intense, albeit not particularly original, piece featuring a crucified Mickey Mouse. If you’re creating art with someone else’s art, how much of a debt do you owe them? Does the meaning of a piece change simply based on the surrounding context?

The contemporary art museum also has a series of Jean-Pierre Gauthier installations. One of them is a room in the gallery filled with trash and litter being mechanically swept up by various cleaning tools, and a janitors closet that bubbles over. It’s supposed to confront your concept of what is acceptable within an art gallery, I guess. More interestingly was a room with wire-shapes mounted on the walls of a spider, a cockroach and something else. They had pieces of graphite stuck to their feet and are connected to motion sensors. They move in reaction to the observers that pass by and stand in front of them, drawing on the wall in fairly random patterns. Given that Gauthier has little control over how the scribblings will appear, is his piece of art simply the wires and the motion? Are the fractal-like patterns that emerge part of the art, or simply a by-product of it? If the installation is reacting to the observers via motion sensors, do we have a part in the creation of the art? He also had a piano (wrapped in metal foil of some sort) hooked up to a mechnical randomiser that began playing when people entered the room in which it was contained. Although there didn’t seem to be a specific pattern, if you closed your eyes, there was a strange beauty to the collision of sounds, and absent the knowledge of its context and creation, you could mistake it for avant-garde jazz.

Is this different from the leap that goes on in my head while reading a book to create the visions and impressions in my head as I interface with the text? Reading is a creative act in an of itself. When presented with visual and aural media, to what extent are attempts to comprehend and seek meaning within it similarly creative? Does placing a book I read within the context of my life and viewpoint have a similar effect to Owen shifting Torq and Amy’s vocals into his minor key world from the original context? If our perceptions of art are shaped by individual experience and perception, am I ever going to read/watch/listen to the same book/movie/music as someone else, even if we’re working from the same source?


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