“Mise en Abyme”: DJ Spooky on the Recursive Loops of Culture

DJ Spooky's Rebirth of a Nation is a "destabilizing" remix of D.W. Griffith's original propagandist film, performed by Kronos Quartet. Spooky (aka Paul D. Miller) shares the evolution of the film's relevance and his unique take on how life imitates art.
DJ Spooky with Kronos Quartet
Rebirth of a Nation

Paul D. Miller is a professor of music at two universities, a magazine editor, an author, a visual artist, an app developer, and a political organizer.

Not least of all, Miller is also entering his 20th year performing as DJ Spooky, That Subliminal Kid. His work under the moniker includes a massive solo discography and countless collaborations. For Miller, however, there is little internal separation between the artist and academic.

“Each project helps me understand things better,” Miller explains. Of course, these “things” reach far beyond the scope that most DJs feel comfortable treading: the Spooky lexicon encapsulates musical dissertations on everything from climate change to quantum physics.

His recent release, Rebirth of a Nation, is an original composition of his performed by the legendary Kronos Quartet. The album serves as a companion and soundtrack to Miller’s fully-realized visual remix of D.W. Griffith’s polarizing silent film Birth of a Nation. A project in continuous growth since 2008, Rebirth‘s resonance and commentary deepen with each new presentation. When the remix was performed at MoMA in 2009, President Obama’s first term was in its infancy, providing Miller with an incredibly potent opportunity to juxtapose the historic moment against the events outlined in Griffith’s propagandist film. Rebirth‘s release is auspiciously timed: it’s been 100 years since the 1915 debut of Griffith’s original. The move doesn’t feel cheap, though. Rather than cash in on the timing, Miller is most interested what those hundred years’ distance means to the American psyche.

“It’s more a meditation on current political issues than a historical thing,” Miller clarifies. “It’s eerie, [as Rebirth] has been a solid chunk of my career in a weird way. It’s never something that I’d ever thought I’d be doing: going around DJing a KKK film. But the idea is, as much as possible, to show that this is now. It’s kind of a political statement from the viewpoint of sound, but also I want people to think of history as an ongoing process. [Griffith’s] original was meant to be a call to arms for white supremacy and the remix is more of a destabilizing, saying ‘Wait a minute, if that’s the case, after 100 years of American cinema, then what’s the aftermath?'”

When viewed in 2015, after the deaths of countless unarmed people of color at the hands of police officers, Rebirth speaks volumes. By touring the film at different intervals, through the end of Obama’s presidency and the beginning of the Black Lives Matter movement, Miller provides audiences a much-needed continuous point of reflection.

“America is the place of the Uncanny. Your policeman, your KKK, your militias, your anti-immigrant xenophobia; a lot of that is eerily resonant with the film. Disenfranchisement, fake elections, corruption — the list goes on. Griffith unassumingly put that on the shoulder of black Americans and you realize that there are only white actors in blackface, it’s a pretty searing reverse mirror image of Americana. As much as possible, I wanted to be the mirror of that mirror. To say it’s not in the rearview, but it’s now.”

Mirroring penetrates the bulk of the remix’s visuals. Characters share desperate glance with themselves, while others fold in and completely disappear in moments of crisis. The effect is unnerving, but it also invokes the sense that these people are living in two distinct Americas. Historically, they were — but there is deeper artistic meaning in this framing.

“The good news and the bad news is that this is a crazy art project,” he explains. “I think art should be a mirror that you hold up to society, not just to show what’s going on but to show what could be and has been. Art is a non-linear mirror. As we move into the 21st century, we’ll be seeing a lot of non-linear loops. Loops within loops. You know when you hold up a mirror to a mirror and you see these weird corridors? Now we’re not just holding up a mirror to a mirror, but a cellphone up to a cellphone and seeing all these different permutations of the digital possibility that our moment exists in. The eerie thing is, whether it’s the Iraq War (which was the biggest fiction in American history), one could argue that these kids of myths and stories are still very prevalent and strong. That’s why we need new storytellers, new methods of conveying difficult truths.”

The idea of storytelling is important to Miller; it comes up multiple times in our conversation. He explains how stories like Birth of a Nation eventually reach mythic status, transforming a work of fiction into a moral benchmark. “It’s about the politics of perception. Birth of a Nation essentially set the tone for how people portrayed corrupt elections, political campaigns, racial politics and of course, sexual aggression and fear. [It’s all] still there, to this day.

“To me, reality today is the cinema,” he continues. “Reality is cinematic, at this point. People are conditioned by multimedia context. Your average American watches between five and seven hours of video a day. And on top of that, it’s all on their cell phone or tablets, so when you see people walking down the street, they’ve got these earbuds in. So multimedia has kind of displaced traditional media, but there’s still a cinematic quality to that. I think it’s really important to contextualize this all, to give people better tools to pull apart the stories of our crazy contemporary reality.”

One sticking point in our conversation becomes the balance of who holds the power of myth making. Who is allowed, either through access or support, to tell the stories that end up becoming future tenets? And what will these stories look like?

“We’re at an interesting crossroads,” Miller explains, “where the power of various computational processors and microchips and hardware are getting smaller and more compact. Things that would have taken me an entire studio to do have been democratized. People are able to make their own films, their own albums. Even Miley Cyrus, who is one of the biggest pop stars going right now, her newest album cost only $50,000 to make. And whether or not you like her work, I’m intrigued that the economics have come down so drastically. So when you download an app, you’re not just getting music: you’re getting an entire cultural relationship to software and ideology as operating systems.

“For apps and mobile media, it’s all about tools,” he continues. “I wanted to make Rebirth of a Nation a tool for deconstructing and pulling apart the narrative. We’re telling ourselves a story right now — global destruction, environmental collapse — and nobody gives a fuck. We’re ants marching over the cliff. So I think artists have a role to give people better stories, or different stories.”