DJ Spooky’s Rebirth of a Nation

Opera House, Wellington

17/03/2006 - 18/03/2006

New Zealand International Arts Festival

Production Details

Written, presented and performed by Paul D. Miller as DJ Spooky

An infamous 1915 film gets a 21st century makeover in the latest project from NY-based ‘turntablist intellectual’ Paul D Miller, aka DJ Spooky That Subliminal Kid. Using the same techniques he applies to audio, DJ Spooky ‘remixes’ DW Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation on three giant screens, adding new and borrowed imagery along with a live audio mix of strings, hip-hop and the blues of Robert Johnson. While Griffith’s film is rightly hailed as visionary in its ‘cut-up’ techniques, The Birth of a Nation is also a blatant piece of racist propaganda – glorifying the Ku Klux Klan and using white actors in blackface to depict blacks as lazy, weak and violent. Rebirth of a Nation uses the film as a springboard to create new social commentary, revealing how the original film’s symbols and myths endure today. Philosopher and world-renowned disc-man DJ Spooky has collaborated with a wide range of musicians and composers, and has courted both controversy and acclaim as a multimedia/performance artist and writer. Built from “a historical evil that stinks of the future” (Sydney Morning Herald), Rebirth of a Nation is beautiful yet disturbing, uncompromising but hopeful.

Cabaret , Burlesque , Theatre , Solo ,

Taking liberty

Review by John Smythe 18th Mar 2006

Take liberty. Great topic. Liberation from oppression is history’s favourite justification for wars that are more likely to be about territorial power. And oil. The quest for freedom can be counted on to capture the hearts and minds of most sentient human beings.

About two score and ten years on from the American Civil War that abolished slavery and reunited the states, D Dubbya Griffiths revolutionised silent film-making with his 190-minute epic The Birth of a Nation (1915). It actually premiered as The Clansmen – the same title as the Thomas Dixon novel and play it was based on – and its fast-cutting editing style moved president Woodrow Wilson to describe it as “like writing history with lightning.”

With an emotive power that pulled back from the hyper-melodrama of most silent movies, the film stereotyped African Americans, mostly played by white actors in blackface, depicted the Ku Klux Klan as would-be liberators of the “helpless white minority” from subjugation “under the heel of the black South”, and helped the KKK attract new recruits to their fight “against the common enemy of their Aryan birthright”. Insidious stuff, although some may say it confronts its audience with genuinely held perceptions of their time that compel the next generation to work out where they stand.

Now, four score and ten years on from Birth of a Nation, New York-based musician, conceptual artist and writer Paul D Miller – a.k.a DJ Spooky: revolutionary turntablist and multimedia intellectual – brings us Rebirth of a Nation. Live on stage, working in the gloom beneath three large screens, he remixes images from the D Dubbya Griffiths film with new and found footage – dance imagery from the Bill T Jones/Arnie Zane Dance company, architectural blue prints, circuit diagrams (but no road map to peace) – to an original sound track of strings, hip-hop and the blues of Robert Johnson.

Powerful? Yes. Like an audio-visual cyclone. Political? Yes. It’s not long before we get, loud and multi-mixed, that the more things change the more they’ve stayed the same, given George Dubbya Bush’s notions of “liberty” and the rights of the “free world”. And some of the many oft-repeated images are haunting, like the spindly white figure that made me think of Hitler in a tutu (I think it was a dancer in jodhpurs).

But where do we, the audience, sit in relation to liberty and freedom? How do our hearts and minds respond to the endless barrage DJ Spooky unleashes on us? In what way do we get to play with the show? Throughout the relentless hour and forty minutes (the Festival brochure said it would take an hour), everyone sits mesmerised by the visual imagery and sonic assault, processing the information in hyper-survival mode. Are we at liberty, here, to engage with material and the ideas within it from any position of independence? Not really. This is the Shock and Awe concept of entertainment. Rebirth of a Nation is pre-digested sound and sight candy, non-nutritious, over when it’s over. Attractive, perhaps, to those who like to be told what to think and feel.

Do we even have a collective experience? I don’t think so. I can’t say I detect one moment of shared response – not one laugh, gasp or ripple of anything – throughout the show. Sure there is lots of whooping and applause at the end but most dictators know how to generate that. And that, I assert, is what DJ Spooky does. He dictates the show. We just sit there, taking dictation. Where’s the freedom in that?

Certainly the crowd in the foyer and out in the street seem very animated afterwards. But that’s probably because their temporary deafness is making them shout about whether to go for a drink or coffee and if so, where. Or maybe they’re just happy to be free from oppression.


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