Exclusive: DJ Spooky talks Rebirth of a Nation

Were you ever forced to watch D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation for a class? Considered Hollywood’s first “blockbuster,” the silent black and white film takes place before, during, and after the Civil War, and is controversial because of its positive portrayal of the Ku Klux Klan. It also clocks in at three hours.

Composer/multimedia artist DJ Spooky (aka Paul D. Miller) has created a cinematic deconstruction and remix titled Rebirth of a Nation that will be playing at the Museum of Modern Art from June 22nd through the 28th; he emailed with Flavorpill to explain what he hopes you take away from his post-Obama version of a 1915 classic.

Flavorpill: How did you decide which scenes from The Birth of a Nation to use in your project?

DJ Spooky: The whole idea is to get people to think about the current state of America after the election of an African American. The funny thing about the film is that it usually focuses on the sex-fear angle. I wanted to focus on the politics of perception. For example, President Obama’s nomination for the Supreme Court is being called “a reverse racist — like the KKK without the hoods.” It’s pretty mind blowing! But yes, I focused on the tension between politics and race, and the way that they can be twisted in the political environment of our red state-blue state, conservative/liberal contemporary climate. There’s a hilarious video here.

FP: You frame the remixed footage from The Birth of a Nation with some modern footage from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as images from Hurricane Katrina. Is the viewer supposed to draw his or her own conclusion from these comparisons?

DJS: Well… considering the kinds of material we’re presented with on an everyday basis, it’s hard to argue that the basic facts of being African American in America is pretty much a “work in progress.” That’s not to say that things aren’t changing — I’m just pointing out the dynamics of a system based on so many variables that seem to be in flux, yet remain, eerily constant. Occupied nations, terrorist movements, freedom fighters, Abu Ghraib… there are mirrors in our own history like Camp Andersonville (where Confederate troops treated Union captured soldiers in a hellish manner). In fact, the KKK was considered a “terrorist organization.” So the images are resonant with the past, and present.

For the most part, you really have to think of Birth of a Nation as the DNA of American cinema. So a lot of the issues that the film deals with — “the hero” “the close up” the “family under attack” — most of those themes have been widely expanded to our era. Think of Terminator and the idea of “liberating” a world occupied by the inhuman… and the same theme is still going on. What is human when African Americans weren’t considered people, except for tax purposes? So we’re just as much a part of the scenario as robots, and other science fiction.

I presented the art part of the film at Paula Cooper Gallery (I now show with Robert Miller Gallery) in 2004, and I wanted to think of each part of the project as a series of still frames that could be expanded like loops, like a DJ mix. So the whole film is remixable, and every time I present the film “live,” I edit the film with software to make each version different.

FP: Why did you decide to add voiceovers to a silent film? Was it to supply context? Or was it supposed to influence the viewer’s opinions of what they were watching?

DJS: The voiceovers were to consolidate some of the conceptual issues driving the film. I presented the film as an art project for several years all over the world — we had a premiere at The Acropolis, for example. And I realized that people “got” the idea of the film, but I wanted to make sure to have a director’s cut that had some of the text that I’d written over the years made into a kind of hip hop take on the film. My voice is too nerdy.

FP: Why did you choose to tint some of the scenes, for example, the pink bonfire? How did you decide what colors to use?

DJS: Griffith’s original film had tints to emphasize various aspects of the war scenes and to highlight the tension between characters. I think that the color schemata achieved a pretty solid tension. When I look at how artists of contemporary culture like Doug Aitken, Candice Breitz, or even what’s going on with the video game movement with stuff like “machinima” where kids remix video games for fun, that kind of edited moment combined with color and emphasis on mood can be a powerful effect. It’s hard to make old films fill the same cultural space as our technicolor 21st century reality’s films, but hey… I gave it a shot.

FP: What inspired the musical score you used?

DJS: I composed the music for the project based on blues, and some of the period music of people like Blind Tom Bethune, the blind piano player from the South that inspired a lot of jazz artists like Dizzy Gillespie. I asked Kronos Quartet to play my compositions, and we flipped it into a classical music meets southern blues kind of scenario. It worked really really well. Kronos interpreted my film soundtrack score really well. It was such a pleasure working with them.

FP: At the end of Rebirth of a Nation, all of the images from the beginning are played again, but in reverse: What were you trying to say?

DJS: Basically, that another world is possible.