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State of the art
Rebirth of a Nation

Halfway through D.W. Griffith’s sprawling 1915 film masterwork The Birth of a Nation, there’s an intertitle that reads, "This is an historical presentation of the Civil War and reconstruction, and is not meant to reflect on any race or people of today." This was wishful thinking. Griffith’s magnum opus may be the Rosetta stone of American film, containing in its grainy silence the first instances of the jump cuts and close-ups and tracking shots that would soon become the rudiments of cinema, but it’s also a fetid swamp of supplicating Sambos, inveigling mulatto mistresses, and demonic Ku Klux Klan specters.

Still, Paul D. Miller, a/k/a DJ Spooky That Subliminal Kid, the NYC-based turntablist, scholar, critic, and chief proponent of the illbient genre, thinks Griffith’s groundbreaker can teach as much about sociology as about film history. That’s why he’s revisiting, "remixing," and otherwise rejiggering the film in an effort to explore and understand how it has contributed to American perceptions of race and identity. Miller presents a version of his creation, which he’s calling Rebirth of a Nation, this Saturday in North Adams at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (Mass MoCA).

"Everything, from race and class and social hierarchy issues to how people view their relationship to the nation state, is somehow touched upon in the film," he explains over the phone from a tour stop in Chicago. "It’s one of the core films of American cinema, but it’s all based on deeply racist issues. I’ll be cutting and splicing different scenes into themselves, changing the sequences of different events to highlight how masters and slaves related and how many people in the film were in blackface. The idea is to point out the paradoxes [that arise] when you try to have a mythology coming out of an artificial construct like a film, and how that affects the way people live in reality."

Rebirth is a work in progress. A finished product, with live actors and musicians interacting with the film plus a separate gallery component, will be staged sometime in 2003 at Mass MoCA. Although Miller’s experience in the video medium has so far been limited to digital shorts and Quicktime movies, Rebirth — a deconstruction of a source text using the tools of the DJ trade — is a natural progression for a performer who’s known for his essays in Artforum and the Source as well as for his exploratory spinning.

"DJ culture uses cut-up narrative, and it’s always dealing with continuous transformation," he points out. "What I want to do is to apply a kind of DJ logic to visuals." He’ll also be toying with the film’s original score — historic for its commingling of classical and folk idioms — by employing live acoustic musicians and adding electronic effects via his laptop computer. He adds that Rebirth isn’t meant to be cinematic revisionism, or an attempt to cleanse Griffith’s work of its iniquity. Instead of trying to "erase something, or reach back in history and change it," he says, "I’m going to highlight some of it." By doing so, he hopes to make viewers confront the racial dynamics of the American past and present.

And the very title of his project suggests a post–September 11 perspective. "What is America? How do we relate to things? It’s something right now I feel is incredibly timely. We’re finally accepting this idea of pluralism, the notion of America as an open country where everyone’s welcome. But also, due to the political and social issues after the shadow war following 9/11, I think people are less willing to think about what America is in relation to the rest of the world. I want to reach back in time and show different angles on how to think of the American country as a project — and by doing that, maybe show new ways of thinking about what America can offer to the rest of the world."

D.J. Spooky presents Rebirth of a Nation this Saturday, August 3, at 8:30 p.m. at Mass MoCA, 1040 Mass MoCA Way, in North Adams. Tickets are $12. Call (413) 662-2111.

Issue Date: August 1 - 8, 2002
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