The Future of Africa
The Rebranding of Paul D. Miller
On May 22, DJ Spooky made this announcement to the people on his e-mail list: "I started out as an artist, and DJing was pretty much meant to be an art project. I'm hoping over the next year or so to 'rebrand' out of DJ culture and continue my art projects."
Paul D. Miller became known to the world as DJ Spooky. He entered the DJ world in the mid-'90s by way of New York City's illbient movement. The illbient mode was retro-futurism, meaning its adherents did not look ahead to the future on the horizon but always backward to versions of the future that were imagined in the past (from the Italian futurists of the 1910s to the cyberpunks of the 1980s). Illbient DJs reanimated dead futures with hiphop beats, dub sonic effects, the hyperenergy of jungle, and electric ambient dreams. Miller was the leading proponent of this movement, which was organized around the record label Asphodel and had his 1996 album, Songs of a Dead Dreamer, as its sole masterpiece. When the illbient movement met its demise in the late '90s, Miller survived the death and continued DJing at clubs and producing a variety of mixes, collaborations, and compilations.
But of late, Miller's projects have been happening less and less in clubs and more and more in universities, concert halls, movie theaters, and galleries. The last time Miller was in Seattle, in 2004, he performed at Benaroya with the Seattle Chamber Players. A recent major work was a visual remix of the Ku Klux Klan movie Birth of a Nation, which he showed at the WTC site for the 2007 Tribeca Film Festival, with musical accompaniment by the Kronos Quartet.
This trend—coupled with the fact that from the very beginning, DJing for Miller has been a medium for his art, his global aesthetics, his Afro-futurism—has made it evident that his break with DJ culture was just around the corner. And his announcement on May 22 was also an announcement of his newest work at the African Pavilion of this summer's Venice Biennale, the digital-media installation New York Is Now and the sonic mix Ghost World: A Story in Sound.
That made the break official. And raised the question: Will his future art projects be better than his past club projects?
Judging from New York Is Now and Ghost World, the answer so far stands on the platform marked "yes."
New York Is Now is many things. For one, it's Africa as imagined by Dadaist/surrealist artists and filmmakers of the early part of the 20th century. "I appropriated their appropriation of Africa," he explained to me during a short phone conversation several weeks after the studio visit where I first saw it as a work in progress. In that way, it is much like Stephanie Syjuco's Body Double (2005), which appropriated images of her homeland, the Philippines, from the Hollywood blockbuster Platoon.
It's also about New York City as a "global starting point" to the global spectacle of today. "He starts with the poem 'Mannahatta' by Walt Whitman," according to the website for the Luanda Triennial in Angola in 2006, where New York Is Now had its premiere, "and rapidly moves through a series of architectural invocations that leave the viewer with a sense of the 'city.'" It's the city seen through a collage of appropriated material, from Duke Ellington's "Harlem Tone Poem" to Hans Richter's Rhythmus 21 and Thomas Edison's portraits of the electrification of Coney Island.
But most impressive of all is the sonic mix, Ghost World, which Miller produced for the Venice Biennale. (You can hear it in Venice or on his website.) A stew of black liberation speeches, pop songs, dancehall, French hiphop, classic African music, and modern jazz, Ghost World stands as the 21st century's most convincing attempt to revive Fanonian pan-Africanism, which died with what is known in postcolonial theory as "the betrayal."
With the exception of South Africa, all independence movements in black Africa had their moment of betrayal; Kenya, Ghana, Zambia, Malawi, Zimbabwe—each was brought low by a dictator who betrayed the principles of the revolution. The aftermath of this betrayal was the death of the OAU (the Organization of African Unity) as an idea and political force. Miller's mix reanimates those dead ideas and forces, and they return not as a monster, as Frankenstein's zombie, as something that should have stayed dead, but as a renewed possibility.
The mix reawakens the powerful feelings and hopes that made the liberation wars in black Africa and the emergence of black internationalism in the U.S. moments of black greatness. "Digital Africa is here, and has been here for a while," Miller wrote about Ghost World. "This isn't 'retro'—it's about the future." The future of Africa is Miller's next and most important step as an firstname.lastname@example.org