Paul D. Miller a.k.a. DJ Spooky: Subliminal Minded

April 30th, 2001 | Category: Interviews

DJ SpookyIf ever there were a postmodern-day Renaissance man, he is Paul D. Miller. Painter, philosopher, social scientist, DJ, author, and producer (among others) are all hats that fit snugly on his head. He is probably best known as “DJ Spooky aka That Subliminal Kid,” but this is only one of many roles he has taken on and made a success of in a process he calls “social sculpture.” He’s also the only DJ I’ve ever seen cut up a Marshall McLuhan record, closing the loop in more ways than one.

Roy Christopher: The worlds of academia and pop culture are oft found at odds with one another, yet your work resides — and prospers — decidedly in the crossfire between the two. From your unique vantage point, how do you perceive the two worlds and their interaction?

Paul D. Miller: Well, the basic idea for me is to somehow convey a sense of how conceptual art, language art, and an engagement with some kind of idealism can function in this day and age. Basically, as an artist, my work is an investigation into how culture gets made. I guess you could say it’s process oriented. That doesn’t mean I’m going to sit down everyday and write “cultural crit” stuff. Folks who I like to call “low-level cultural bureaucrats” do that; it’s a false and ultimately sterile way to try to beat culture into some kind of formula that they then try to stamp their name on to make some kind of “career,” and it’s a modus operandi that disgusts me.

A weird hero of mine is a Victorian age biologist, Paul Kammerer, who in the late nineteenth century was the first person to really explore ideas of “synchronicity” — how things converge in patterns. He would walk around and collect examples of simultaneity – coincidences would be marked and registered with exact mathematical precision, and he searched long and hard for an equation that would describe how things manifested in urban reality. He’d call this kind of stuff “the law of sequences” or a “law of series” — “Das gesetz der serie” in German (that’s also parallel to how we name the elements of a music track these days: “a sequence”). He was looking for algorithms of everyday life, how patterns appear — stuff like what the biochemist Rupert Sheldrake would call “morphic fields,” or how morphology of structure can affect all aspects of the creative. In other words, patterns ain’t just about bein’ digital, they are global, they are universal. They are rhythms that hold everything we know and can understand together.

But anyway, Kammerer’s idea of sequential reality and process-oriented events — it’s one of the first systematic attempts at figuring out a rhythm of everyday life in an industrial context. It ended badly — he committed suicide. I’m more concerned with praxis: how to foster a milieu where dialog about culture becomes a way to move into the pictures we describe with words, text, sounds — you name it. Like I always enjoy saying, it’s a method that becomes “actionary” rather than “re-actionary” — you end up with a culture that is healthier and more dynamic.

What Kammerer would call a series, someone like Henry Louis Gates would call “signifyin'” — it’s all about how we play with perception of events, and this is the link that I make between DJ culture, techno-science, and the art of everyday creativity in a digital environment. I’m not really concerned with the “academy” per se — it’s one reflection of the illusions of class structure and hierarchy that have clouded any real progressive contexts of criticism and think have been an absolute bane to any kind of creativity in American culture for the last decade or so. When theory gets too in the way of culture, it’s dead. Period. No comma, no colon, no semi-colon — it’s the end of the sentence, and it’s time for a new paragraph. Turn the page, close the book, check a different website, ’cause that’s when things get really, really boring. I think that youth culture reflexively understands this.

Part of my goal was to bypass the notion of the “critic” as an “authority” who controls narrative, and to create a new role that’s a lot more concurrent with web culture: you become the cultural producer and content provider at the same time. It’s a role consolidation. Especially when you’re in a situation where the pop culture mags are terrible, and the art/theory stuff is so out of touch with what’s going on; it’s time for a new situation. End the mix tape, stop the CD player, press cancel on that file that was downloading, whatever. I started DJing as a conceptual art project that critiqued a lot of the absolutely terrible things I see in American media, and the end result was to create my own platform: social sculpture — self as shareware or generative syntax for a new language of creativity, or something like that. Heraclitus of Ephesus said way back in the day:

The soul is undiscovered, though explored forever to a depth beyond report (Fragment 73)

The critics that I respect in an arts/culture/theory kind of context — Erik Davis, Simon Reynolds, Beth Coleman, Alondra Nelson, Kodwo Eshun, Margo Jefferson, Ron Eglash, Manuel De Landa, N. Katherine Hayles, Neil Strauss, Peter Lunenfeld, Douglas Kahn, Friedrich Kittler, and a host of others — these are progressive voices in the world of cultural criticism, and I think that they’d be interesting people whether they were writing, or doing music or art, or whatever. Life is interesting. The writing that gives meaning and some kind of hope to life in this world should be interesting as well.

The DJ “mix” is another form of text and its involutions, elliptical recursive qualities, and repetitions are helping transform an “analog” literature that is increasingly becoming digitized. The “mix” mirrors that kind of web of text that you can find anywhere from hypertext missives from to the cesium clocks at the Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C., that keep the time for the whole country. I guess I sit at that crossroads like the old blues singers, thinking of better ways to make rhythms of information. Only there’s no devil to sell my soul to — I have a different muse. Kind of like Giambattista Vico’s book from way back in the day, The New Science (Cornell University Press, 1984).

RC: Realizing that the aforementioned juxtaposition of mental territory could be the least of your obstacles or concerns, what do you find most challenging in your various areas of work?

PDM: What I find challenging is the basic sense of mental inertia that carries our culture along. People really don’t think about the absolute wonders that surround us and make this life livable and our way of thinking sustainable. DJing for me, like science fiction, points us to a place where everything doesn’t have to be the same. The same track? The same beat? Day after day, night after night — it would be like some kind of living death if that were to happen in DJ culture. And, yeah, that’s how a lot of the culture works. There’s an old phrase from Olaf Stapledon’s classic, old-school science fiction (where a being from the edge of the universe comes into contact with humanity through mental waves — kind of reminds me of voodoo):

“First he conceived from the depth of his being a something, neither mind nor matter, but rich in potentiality . . . it was a medium in which the one and the many demanded to be more subtly dependent upon one another; in which all parts and all other parts and all characters must pervade and be pervaded by all other parts and all other characters; in which each thing must seemingly be but an influence in all other things; and yet the whole must be no other than the sum of its parts, and each part an all pervading determination of the whole. It was a cosmical substance in which any individual spirit must be, mysteriously, at once an absolute self and a mere figment of the whole.”

But on another realm, in another zone, I wonder what he would have said of something like New York’s Soundlab, a digital art happening where all elements of the mix are shared by everyone who participates in the event. Soundlab is cool, and I like stuff like that where the formalized considerations of art and digital media are live and direct — living, breathing material to play with as the rhythms speak their codes to all present at the event. I like the Jamaican and Silicon Valley approach to what Amiri Baraka called “the changing same”: versions and versions of everything, all change all the time. But the main essence of the culture’s most progressive stuff is unconscious, and that might be the most healthy thing going on.

Anyway, that’s just my basic response. Inertia — it’s not just boring, it’s against the basic principles of physics! I wake up almost every day with this on my mind: if everybody knows things are completely fucked up and bound to get worse, do they just want to forget about things? The answer is pretty much a resounding “yes!” And as with 1984 or Brave New World, and most of the fictions that make up the fabric of everyday life today, the game is: how do you remember? How can we make sense of the loops if there is no space outside them? This is the most interesting thing I try to convey in my art projects — life at the edge of language; my mixes are a kind of post-literary “aphasia,” but still within the loops that hold reality together these days. I want to break those chains and see what else there is. It’s like hearing a time stretched sound at the end of a loop cycle on an Akai S-3000 sampler and knowing where the closure points are, but somehow it always just sounds right to close the loop, repeat the phrase ad infinitum.

The Situationists had their concept of the “derive” or “psychogeographie,” but these days that kind of sense of wandering through an indeterminate maze of intentionality is what makes up the creative act — selection and detection, morphology of structure. Those are what make the new kind of art go round. My challenge to myself is to always try to create new worlds, new scenarios at almost every moment of thought. It makes me feel like floating in an ocean of possibility. The challenge is to narrow the focus to convey that state of mind; there’s a lot of translation issues involved, but anyway, that’s how I see it. There’s an intense moment in Andre Breton’s Second Manifesto of Surrealism where he writes, “the simplest Surrealist act consists of dashing down into the street, pistol in hand, and firing blindly as fast as you can, as fast as you can pull the trigger, into the crowd. Anyone who at least once in his life, has not dreamed of thus putting an end to the petty system of debasement and cretinization in effect has a well-defined place in that crowd, with his belly at barrel level.” Your average kid in high school can relate to that at this point. For me the idea is to show where art can take new directions and become a total form to inhabit.

RC: What’s your take on why the hip-hop world, once open to so many new forms and variations, now has such high barriers to entry for new and innovative sounds?

PDM: I think that Hip-hop has really given us such a powerful tool to create some kind of cross-cultural dialog, and it’s given a whole generation of African Americans a sense of self that’s profound, while at the same time, it’s been a window into America at large for most of the rest of the world. Paradoxically, it’s re-enforced so many clichés about what “Blackness” can be, and that’s an intense paradox in a world that is truly hybrid (far more so than anyone wants to admit).

There’s a great scene in Samuel Delaney’s Dhalgren (Gregg Press, 1977) where the main character, “The Kid,” focuses on the ruins of the city that the story takes place in and it reflects his own sense of psychological dispersion. I feel like that sometimes. Samuel Delaney is such a powerful voice in describing these kinds of issues and so is Ishmael Reed, but, again, they are a different generation, and I can only imagine what it was like to be African American and creative and have to deal with all the total bullshit that critics, art-world people, and the assorted people who make up the “cultural discourse” of each time period create. It took someone like August Wilson something like thirty years to “break through” the “pink ceiling” (it’s not transparent, and it’s certainly not glass — race in cyberspace can play all sorts of tricks on your mind), and it’s definitely a racially coded world in terms of cultural discourse.

Again, the idea is how to, like Napster, create milieu where people can exchange culture and information at will and create new forms, new styles, new ways of thinking. Think of my style of DJing as a kind of memetic contagion, a thought storm brought about by my annoyance and frustration with almost all the conventional forms of race, culture, and class hierarchies. Hip-hop is a vehicle for that, and so are almost all forms of electronic music. Again, it’s all about morphology of structure — how things can shift from one medium to another. Culture in this milieu acts kind of like what Derrida describes in his infamous essay “Plato’s Pharmacy”: “science and magic, the passage between life and death, the supplement to evil and to lack . . . the difference between signifier and signified is no doubt the governing pattern. . . . In being inaugurated in this manner, philosophy and dialectics are determined in the act of determining their OTHER.” Dialectical triangulation — language becomes its own form of digital code. Check the theater of the rhyme as it unfolds in time.

I can only wonder what James Baldwin would have said if he had been at the Detroit Electronic Music festival last year (I was one of the headliners). There were over 1.5 million people at that festival — it was bigger than Woodstock (where I also played in 1994). No fights, no weird sense of alienation, just folks from almost every race, color, and creed hanging out. It was the first twenty-first century carnival of the north. Hip-hop is always innovative and it can absorb almost anything. The music itself is far more dynamic than many of the people who make it. There’s so much more to be done. We’re just beginning — and even after twenty years of hip-hop, I think that the amount of permutations it can handle has just scratched the surface. Stuff like Q*Bert’s Wave Twisters, artists like Daze, DZINE, Soundlab, Saul Williams, Anti-Pop Consortium, Talvin Singh, Kodwo Eshun — all are pushing the envelope and making more room for new sounds and thoughts. The amount of new stuff happening is almost giddy in sheer volume.

I think I’d have to disagree with the statement that there are boundaries about how new sounds can be spread. When people are faced with conditions where “conservatives” control the zone, they have to innovate to get their message out. Innovation leads to constant elevation. And that’s not “Social Darwinism”; it’s more like a cooperative model of how information spreads in the hothouse environment of net culture, where “newness” is celebrated with how many people check in on the information. And if stuff like “All Your Base Are Belong to Us” or the “I love You” virus are any indication, this kind of “social engineering” — as hackers call it — can happen with an ease far and above almost any word-of-mouth situation in human history. I’m just happy to be around to see if it can change even more.

RC: Brian Eno has said that music was the center of our lives for such a long time because it was a way of allowing Africa in. He even went on to say, “A nerd is a human being without enough Africa in him or her.” Do you feel that the current American musical milieu is lacking in Africa-ness?

I think that the whole Brain Eno thing about black culture and Africa is just simply a miscategorization. I respect and enjoy Eno’s work, but the whole “Africa is not computer oriented” thing just doesn’t fly. Yes, there is a “digital divide,” but if you look at the precedents — cultural and metaphysical — the systems Africa developed have influenced net culture at a deep structural level. Word-of-mouth culture, rhythm structure, the routing of information in a networked environment — all of these have African and world precedents, and to ignore that is to be almost solipsistic. The current American music milieu is totally African! From Britney Spears (yes!) on over to David Bowie and U2 and, of course, Hip-hop like Eminem and DJ culture at large; techno, rock, hip-hop, jazz — you name it, it’s almost all part of an African recontextualization.

What Paul Gilroy called the “Black Atlantic” is just a small pond in the world that I portray here. You have to think of all the issues involved with aliases, multiple narrative threading, social engineering environments, identity as a social cipher. All of these are tropes brought to the forefront of immigrant culture in America. Afro-Diasporic culture was the first Generation X, and the current multivalent entity we call the U.S. is enthralled with the unconscious implications of Africa in the New World. It’s just that it’s beneath the radar screen. William Gibson took the “loa” concept of his book Neuromancer (Ace, 1984) as a sampled fragment from John Shirley’s City Come a Walkin‘s (Four Walls Eight Windows, 2000) “city avatars,” and if that isn’t a kind of transmigration of context and form, I don’t know what is. The best thing that happened in the 1990s was the explosion in youth culture’s engagement with electronic media. The best is yet to come. Close the circuit, flip the switch, upload the file — it’s time to beta test the new wetware, or something like that. Anyway, it’s more exciting than going to the mall maybe. Africa beats that any day of the week. Hands down.

Eno was wrong. McLuhan was right. He said a long time ago that the forces of language in an electronic context would release the “Africa Within.” Maybe Eno doesn’t use computers enough.

RC: Do you have any upcoming projects you’d like to mention?

PDM: Yeah, I’m in the middle of setting up a new magazine called 21C that’s a re-invention of the 21C of the mid 1990s — only a lot more multi-cultural oriented. Also, I’m almost finished with my book projects, and there’s a whole bunch of art projects and installations — I have some work in “Bitstreams” at the Whitney Museum, a piece in the show at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney, Australia, and an installation at an alternative arts space in Houston, Texas, called “Project Rowhouses.” It’s a very busy time. The easiest way to check out that stuff is my website; it has funky beats.

But anyway, yeah, the whole literary/arts angle in America is so fucked up and conflicted, the only way to maintain a “stay of execution” on your artwork and cultural production if you are a progressive African American in this day and age is to constantly innovate and change your mode of production. If you don’t, it’s kind of like that “unique circumstance” in Philip K. Dick’s classic short story “The Minority Report” (a story where people are put in jail or sent into exile because of crimes they might commit) — stuff that would make the “normal” critics scream with joy in my case. Psychological involution becomes psychological profiling (kind of like driving down New Jersey drive if you’re black); racial profiling becomes emblematic of the way people can even think about literature, art and culture. “Better keep your eyes open,” the main character says to someone asking for advice on how to avoid the thought police. “It might happen to you at any time.”

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