A Remix Manifesto: Culture Jamming Graffiti

In an earlier post “Legal Expression”, a reader who went by the alias “Anon” stated that there is a certain type of graffiti that elicits similar thoughts that fine art does. (Anon, 2012). There usually is a higher amount of engagement required from the viewer before arriving to the idea illustrated.  This type of graffiti is not beating the audience over the head, so that there is an understanding.  Where and how will this work be displayed is a persistent dilemma, as there is only one graffiti zone in Edmonton.

“There is no reason a person should not be able to make public space better. Not all public art is graffiti of course; some public art is temporary and does no lasting harm to the public space it occupies.” (Anon, 2012). What are these less permanent ways to install public art?  Some artists have resorted green earth movements such as reverse graffiti.  This graffiti method involves washing away dirt to eventually reveal an visual message.  The process usually involves stencils and a good scrubby brush.  Some artists and companies carry around pressure washers to complete the act. Other popular mediums and tools for producing non permanent graffiti are wheatpastes and chalk. These works will break down naturally through time, but more often than not, the work is reported to the Edmonton 311 call center and disappears the following day.

The Capital City Clean Up program offers grants to community groups to complete murals.  This is a possible answer to the “where?”.  The program has offered funds to support non-profit community agencies to develop murals in Edmonton neighbourhoods.  There are drawbacks to the program, as the grant is for non-profit community agencies and not individuals.  The proposed idea must also be approved by the city before execution, which limits the creative process immensely.  However, this program is a fantastic opportunity and project for students.  Perhaps students can practice conveying their messages through art in this manner?

Before I present what popular thoughts one could expect from this “fine art” graffiti, I’m going to rewind and look further into the roots of the “remixing” culture.  Remixing “is derivative (copied) works by combining or editing existing materials to produce a new product”. As internet users share these novel ideas, a global language (and even humor) has emerged which transcends cultural barriers.  In the documentary “RiP! A Remix Manifesto”, Brett Gaylor protests that copyright has enforced limitations on our natural gravitation to the creative process of building “upon the past”.  With easy access to shared music and video files,  people are able to remix media and upload a finished product that has new meaning.  Brett also brings his own twist when it comes to affiliating with a left or right party.  He states that there is the “Copy Left” (more commonly known as the public domain), and the “Copy Right” which is intellectual property.  The computing dictionary states that, “if something is “in the public domain” then anyone can copy it or use it in anyway they wish. The author has none of the exclusive rights which apply to a copyright work.” Copy right appears more complex, as “Intellectual property (IP) refers to the ownership of an idea or design. It gives a person certain exclusive rights to a distinct type of creative design,  meaning that nobody else can copy or reuse that creation without the owner’s permission. It can be applied to musical, literary and artistic works, discoveries and inventions. Common types of intellectual property rights include copyrights, trademarks, patents, industrial design rights and trade secrets.”(Wiki).

Since these ideas are produced from a remixed culture, the materials appropriated do not belong to the public domain rather it is intellectual property.   Copyright perpetrators can expect to receive notifications which state that their “Internet account was identified as having been used to illegally copy and/or distribute copyrighted material over the Internet”.  When the popular peer-to-peer file sharing site Napster appeared, head media corporations such as the Motion Picture Association and RIAA began to exercise their “rights” to the fullest extent.  The popular WIRED magazine reported that in 2002 the RIAA had filed just above 2,000 lawsuits, reaching a peak of 6,000 in 2005. (Kravets, 2010).  Lawrence Lessig introduced balance to the war over ideas by founding The Creative Commons.  A nonprofit organization that enables the sharing and use of creativity and knowledge through free legal tools.

The intellectual property backlash has been sung by popular musicians such as: Radiohead, Girl Talk, and Negativland.  Radiohead controversially self-released their seventh album, In Rainbowsbefore a (2007) into the public domain and allowed listeners to twist the sound to produce something creativity new.  Negativland shouted to a crowd during a performance that he is tired of companies force feeding ideas through popular media. He continues his complaints by crying out that they never asked him permission to do such a thing in the first place.  As the microphone is lowered to his side, the audience reacts in a loud agreement, an introduction to culture jamming is made. This is the ultimate backlash that graffiti brings. “Culture jamming sometimes entails transforming mass media to produce ironic or satirical commentary about mass media, using the original medium’s communication method. Culture jamming is usually employed in opposition to a perceived appropriation of public space, or as a reaction against social conformity.”  One does not have to look far when traveling the city streets to see cleverly placed graffitied words or unwanted faces on billboards that create an entirely new meaning.  If executed correctly, the work can be quite smart and the viewer is forced to reevaluate prior beliefs.

How can educators enable students to think critically about the information presented through various media? The CTS Program of Studies continually revisits the importance of understanding and identifying copyright restrictions and permissions and teaching the students how they are to put them into practice.  Not only is this documentary a fantastic tool to facilitate classroom discussion about the issues of copyright, but also the practices of remixing.  These grants that the city offers have conditions that the students must meet. Conditions that certainly do not offer the freedom that culture remixers crave.  Lawrence Lessig created the Remix Manifesto which states:

1. Culture always builds on the past.
2. The past always tries to control the future.
3. Our future is becoming less free.
4. To build free societies you must limit the control of the past.

The bus stops, sidewalks, dirty walls, and billboards may remain the only empty canvas on the streets for now. It is a jamming act, in which the public is able to put companies and ideas into a “headlock”, giving power and control once again to the people.

RiP! A Remix Manifesto by Brett Gaylor, National Film Board of Canada















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