Paul D. Miller, more generally known as DJ Spooky, aka That Subliminal Kid, brought his new mixed-media show to Duke's Reynolds Theater to give the Duke Performances "Soul Power" series attendees the first look at/listen to his Video Soul: From Wattstax to the Avant Garde.
DJ Spooky is a musician and conceptual artist of the hip-hop persuasion whose written work is published by, among others, Artforum and MIT Press, and whose audio/video/performance works are presented around the world in festivals and exhibitions, as well as on college campuses. He is a collagist by nature, and thanks to the opportunities offered by the digital revolution, has pioneered the ephemeral techno-collage, deconstructing and re-mixing existing filmic and musical pieces into a new form of artwork that depends partly on his "performing" it in the manner of a dj spinning the turntables. As well as an aesthete, DJ Spooky is somewhat of a cultural historian — a revisionist one, naturally — being perhaps best known for his remix of D.W. Griffith's infamous 1915 film into Rebirth of a Nation.
Spooky compiled Video Soul from bits of Mel Stuart's film documenting the 1972 Wattstax music festival in the Los Angeles Coliseum, as well as film of some of the great soul singers in concert, a clip of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. giving his "I've Been to the Mountaintop" speech, a clip of the 1968 Memphis sanitation workers on strike, assorted still images, and a few contemporary clips of rappers like Public Enemy. He appeared to be tracing the cultural lineage of black music in 20th century America forward to the present from, if not its roots, then the low branch that includes gospel, soul and civil rights movement struggle songs. (The roots are indicated by a briefly seen image of the hold of a slaver ship.) Exactly why this was a pressing artistic necessity was never clear, as it seems impossible that those links should not be universally recognized.
Organized by legendary Memphis soul music label Stax Records, the Wattstax festival was held on the 7th anniversary of the Watts riots, and was a remarkable event, featuring some of the biggest Afros and coolest clothes ever seen, not to mention a young Jesse Jackson in a dashiki exhorting the crowd to believe in themselves. Seeing the entire film would probably have been more satisfying than seeing a few bits of it sliced and diced, intercut with the aforementioned other things — some of which would also have been very enjoyable, and meaningful, in their entirety. But that is not the way of the collagist, especially not one with the technology toys to make the digital images loop and stutter and to keep himself in the show.
DJ Spooky worked his machines from a table on the side of the stage, out of the way of the projection screen, but in a position where he could see and react to the projected images. The pre-edited video sequence remained locked to its soundtrack, but Spooky could add other audio layers, and he could treat the video track like a record on a turntable, looping it with the delicate circling of his fingers on a touch-pad, making it jitter rapidly back and forth as if he were scratching the needle across the vinyl. The apparent artistic purpose of this was to increase the rhythmic qualities of the work as a whole (while breaking the rhythms of the source materials) and to make it more immediate and variable — live, as it were.
I found the whole thing mildly interesting, but bizarrely removed from "live." It was as if he were caricaturing something that was already several steps away from "live." Live action had been filmed, then edited; that material had been digitized and cut up and re-edited; then on-stage DJ Spooky made it into his cartoon, or maybe more accurately, his puppet, jerking and twitching to his commands. If his edited material had been richer in all the ways that video can be, with more layered images, and more interesting editing effects such as fades, dissolves and colorization, perhaps the on-stage manipulations would have been a meaningful addition to the aesthetic impact. And perhaps the scheduling was not the best: The previous night, the Blind Boys of Alabama had lifted the roof off of a sold-out Page Auditorium and sent us all to heaven, crying and clapping, and Ms. Mavis Staples and her band had whipped us back to a steaming, rocking earth. After those soulful performances, Video Soul struck me as shallow and thin, a late-starting and early-ending short piece of head-game art, notably lacking in soul.