19 November 2007

From Remix to Re-enactment

I wrote recently about the remix and it's relevance to an open content world. Here's an interesting exploration of remix's sibling, re-enactment:

Once you start thinking about the idea of re-enactment, you start seeing it everywhere. Maybe the argument could be made that we're in a cultural moment devoted to re-enactment. Much of what we write off as novelty can be put into this category. The Internet recently was excited about old people re-enacting iconic photos of the twentieth century; see also choirs of old people performing Sonic Youth's "Schizophrenia". Or choirs of small children doing much the same. But less ironic presentations abound: off the top of my head, Japancakes just released a note-for-note country-inflected cover of Loveless, My Bloody Valentine's seminal drone-rock record. Going further, German new music ensemble Zeitkratzer has played and recorded Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music. Tom McCarthy's excellent recent novel Remainder concerns a wealthy man who maniacally reenacts scenes; McCarthy springs from the art world, which has been interested in re-enactment for a while. Examples spiral on ad infinitum. But there seems to be something in us that wants to see or hear what we've seen or heard before again.

These are quickly composed thoughts, and I'm ignoring a great deal; parsing the difference between re-enactment and adaptation could be fiendishly complicated, as might be the role of copyright in all of this, etc. I'll simply tie this back to the Communist Manifesto problem. I think it's become apparent that we're no longer reading texts in isolation: now when we read Hamlet, digital media has made it possible to read any number of possible versions at the same time. The archive presents us with an embarrassment of riches, though I suspect that we still lack the tools to let us make sense of the pile: both to make sense of the growing number of versions of texts and to usefully compare versions. The Wooster Group's Hamlet can be seen as a close reading of the 1964 Hamlet. But such a one-to-one reading might just be the tip of the iceberg.

What made this particularly apposite for me is that I've been watching Kenneth Branagh's film version of Hamlet, and the sense of hearing a hundred other uses of Shakespeare's famous lines is very strong, and makes the film feel, indeed, like a re-enactment rather than a performance, brilliant as it is.

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