Eduardo Navas (Pennsylvania State University) has become one of the main scholars theorizing the phenomenon of remix. A few years ago he published the five-part essay «Regenerative Culture» in Norient – it was a critical reflection on network culture. In this interview, the Norient editors Theresa Beyer and Hannes Liechti asked him to clarify some of his points and to talk about algorithms, the surplus of remix studies, and cultural appropriation.
[Hannes Liechti]: Eduardo, just to start with: what is a remix?
[Eduardo Navas]: Remixes are specific forms of expression using pre-existing sources (sound, image, text) to develop work that may be considered derivative while also gaining autonomy.
[HL]: That means that remix is much more than the well known musical remix?
[EN]: The musical remix is a very direct and concrete form of the remix. Actually, it is the initial definition of the remix. But principles of remix had been at play in culture long before the musical remix and practices of sampling occured. As computers were introduced to the home, these principles became part of the vernacular of everyone’s lives.
[HL]: What’s the importance of sampling for culture?
[EN]: Sampling makes transparent what had been going on for many many decades, if not hundreds of years in terms of communication: we take ideas, even phrases and reposition and repurpose them in new forms. With sampling we had the ability to take an actual thing and reproduce it just as it was produced before. Sampling made evident that remixing is actually a thing we constantly do. In a way, sampling is a node of the world that allows us to keep track of creativity in ways that were not possible before.
[HL]: But what’s the difference between sampling and remixing then?
[EN]: Sampling makes a remix more efficient but it doesn’t lead necessarily to remixing. Sampling is more or less open-ended: we can use it for different things. Some art work could be developed based on samples but maybe it’s not necessarily a straightforward remix, although you would have those same principles at play once we start to realize how remixing works.
[Theresa Beyer]: Whether it is about sampling or remixing, is it crucial that foreign material is used, let’s say material from other artists, material from outside?
[EN]: There is no way of creating anything without having something from the outside. This begins from the moment we are born: we learn words, we associate them with images and things based on repetition and constant exposure by learning from others around us, from «the outside». Remixing just makes these processes evident.
[HL]: So you could basically say that everything is a remix?
[EN]: No, not everything is a remix. Let’s think of it this way: Everybody writes but that does not mean that everyone writes novels. Everybody remixes (or uses principles of remixing to communicate), but that does not mean everybody produces remixes.
[HL]: What is not a remix then?
[EN]: The news for example is probably the earliest and common form of appropriation that has been at play for some time. Let’s take the newspapers: they are composed of elements that are blatantly copied. You could now easily argue that they are sort of remixes. But it wouldn’t be fair to do so simply because they aren’t legitimated as remixes. But for sure it is an example of a form that is informed by principles of remix. And we might realize that all these elements that made the news possible later became the foundation for musical remixes.
[HL]: And what about the social networks of these days?
[EN]: I consider them to be postproduction houses. If you think of postproduction in the traditional sense, of a sound or film studio where you edit all your raw material into a final product, this has been expanded in contemporary times: we can just produce as we stream. One of the most basic principles of the social network is thus the constant regeneration of content. And, in turn, this is one of the main principles of what I call the «regenerative remix». This form of remix «consists of juxtaposing two or more elements that are constantly updated, meaning that they are designed to change according to data flow» (Navas 2012: 73).
[TB]: But still, it makes a fundamental difference if an algorithm is remixing or a human being that expresses her or himself artistically.
[EN]: I think that the regenerative remix somehow exposes the fallacy behind authorship: you can never control how your artwork is going to be perceived. I would even say that in fact the artwork has never been yours. You are just a node that was actually exposed to many things. You produced something because you had an intense moment of interest in doing this particular thing. You put it out and it goes out into the world and affects other nodes. And if you look at people from that standpoint it’s really not so different from the way social media functions. We should be aware that the networks that we might not think to be so human such as social media are just an extension of us and they flow just because we have the drive to get out every day to do these things and if they do anything it is that they become the mirror of the fact that we are not really authors as we have claimed to be out there in the past.
[HL]: How can remix help to «develop a world beyond Eurocentrism» (Navas 2015: 119) as you write in one of your recent publications?
[EN]: You are referring to my essay on remix and cultural sublation. What I explain there is how the world has been largely shaped by eurocentric ideas, and how colonialism played a crucial role in this process. In the essay I aim to demonstrate how remix can be a powerful creative form that exposes the reality that things are actually constructed with elements from different places and cultures. Hybridity has always been the binder of all things, and Eurocentrism during the modern period pushed for purity and binaries, which are encapsulated in the concept of the author. We are now more aware of this process, albeit continue to function within it in many ways. Remix questions this process and shows that difference and diversity are the cultural forms that should be supported and celebrated.
[TB]: Is everybody allowed to remix everything or when does it become critical?
[EN]: I don’t think that anybody owns remixing. Remix is not good nor bad, it is production, it is a result of our own way of being. It’s extremely commercial on the one end and then it is also extremely alternative. It can be on the fringes, it can be part of the industry. It’s even popular because of the latter. For example remix enables them to take a song that maybe didn’t do as well and then they can do a remix and then it becomes a hit, the remix may even become more popular than the original.
[HL]: There is this huge discussion about «cultural appropriation» going on. How do you see that?
[EN]: For me I’m not really interested in originals. I have never been. I’m interested in ideas and I think ideas flow and they materialize in different ways. It could be in a film, it could be in a photograph, it could be in a music composition, and so forth. I’m more interested in experiencing the intensity of a thing and its uniqueness. With this background the idea of originality for cultural appropriation becomes meaningless, at least for me. But I think that this is something that is up for debate right now and you’re probably touching on the next sort of cusp of things to come in relationship to this.
[HL]: So you don’t care about this debate?
[EN]: Having said that, cultural appropriation is the outcome of colonial ideology. To be able to appropriate likely means that the appropriator is in a privileged position, and the appropriated likely is not. This is not always the case, but it often is due to its colonial lineage. The thing to do is to be fair in the process of appropriation and be conscious of how and why one may be repurposing a cultural form. I wrote on the issue of fairness in terms of dividual agency in the past, where I explain that «interest should be placed in being open to process and making the most for it, to enable those who participate [in cultural production] to have a fair voice» (Navas 2017a).
[TB]: Are you only ignoring the concept of originality or are you criticizing it?
[EN]: Originality is really a capitalistic interest. Because if you have an original you can sell it and it becomes a very clear commodity whereas if you have a copy it’s very hard for it to be of monetary interest. I think being more honest about this relationship of originals to a market is what’s at play. So until we don’t have an honest and clear discussion about that I think it’s going to be difficult.
[TB]: What is going to be difficult exactly and why?
[EN]: It will be extremely difficult to let go of the concept of originality because its inherent monetary value is closely bound with other types of values such as cultural value and intellectual value which have their own kind of capital. The concept of originality is completely embedded with money and understanding that is not only difficult but also hard to let go of. The concept of originality not only supports an intellectual interest but is also linked to a way of making a living, as well as a stature of a certain lifestyle that is often mythologized as desirable for people with a creative drive.
[HL]: After writing your five-part essay «Regenerative Culture» for Norient you have extended the academic article into an art project, that now illustrates this interview. Can you tell about the background of this project?
[EN]: When I wrote the essay for Norient I noticed that I had these sort of aphoristic sentences that were be proven further within the essay. I then thought well, how about if I take all these sentences that make these claims and show how they actually flow online on Google with images? Now what kind of images would I get? That allowed me to explore in a very direct way some of the claims I was making in the essay but not as a data mining sort of thing (although I did do some of that to make the images possible) but more of developing a piece that shows you that this thing that I’m claiming is being experienced through the piece itself. That’s the power of art.
[TB]: Imagine that YouTube, SoundCloud, Mixcloud, and all these platforms are gone from one moment to the other. What does it mean for the practice of remix?
[EN]: I think it would be great! [laughs] I think we’re gonna keep doing it. It might take longer to get things around but it’s still gonna happen. I mean you can look at it at Puerto Rico right now they have no electricity (because of hurricane Maria, ed.) but they’re still making things work. I don’t think it’s gonna stop. It’s just gonna shift. It’s like a virus, it will figure its way out.
[HL]: Finally, why should we study remix and what can we learn about the world, about society when studying remix?
[EN]: I think we mainly learn how we’re different and how we’re the same: what makes us who we are. I think if we understand those basic things then we can get along better than we actually do at this moment. That would be my contribution. A lot of the stuff that I have written about embeds a lot of issues dealing with cultural friction.
The interview was conducted in Bern, Switzerland, 4.11.2017. This article has been published in the context of the PhD research on sampling in experimental electronic music by Hannes Liechti. For more info click here.
Further Key Sentences from the Regenerative Culture Series
by Eduardo Navas, 2016
Further Reading on Remix by Eduardo Navas
> 2018, ed. et al.: Keywords in Remix Studies, New York/London: Routledge.
> 2017b: «The Elements of Selectivity: After-thoughts on Originality and Remix. Notes from a series of lectures presented during October and November, 2017» in: RemixTheory.net, 16.12.2017.
> 2017a: «Mashup the Archive and Dividual Agency» in: RemixTheory.net, 21.11.2017.
> 2016: «Regenerative Culture» in: Norient.com, 27.3.2016.
> 2015, ed. et al.: The Routledge Companion to Remix Studies, New York/London: Routledge.
> 2012: Remix Theory. The Aesthetics of Sampling, Wien/New York: Springer.