The video mashup as political protest: “Imagine This”

“Imagine” my surprise when I discovered that an academic paper entitled “Political video mashups as allegories of citizen empowerment” has included an analysis of “Imagine This”, a short film/music video I created in 2006….

“Imagine” my surprise when I discovered that an academic paper entitled “Political video mashups as allegories of citizen empowerment”  had included an analysis of “Imagine This“, a short film/music video I created in 2006 with the help of Waxaudio. The exceprt including “Imagine This” is below, but it’s worth reading the full thing.

It’s strange reading an analysis of something that was done from instinct, I’d never considered some of the points he makes, now that I think about it he is right about quite a few things….My favourite part is “Callaghan as an editor demonstrates the interrelated dimensions of syntagmatic and paradigmatic construction quite explicitly in the video mashup”, 😉

The video mashup as political protest: “Imagine This” (2004/2006)

Wax Audio originally created “Imagine This” as an audio–only mashup. The song originally appeared in 2004 and was spread online by audiences who were opposed to the War in Iraq and frustrated by George W. Bush’s media–ready promotion of the War. The “Imagine This” track was part of a seven–song EP produced in 2005 by Tom Compagnoni called “Mediacracy.” Compagnoni, an independent recording artist based in Sydney, Australia, uses remix and mashup techniques in his “Mediacracy” project to challenge and recontextualize sound bites by politicians and the corporate news media about the War in Iraq. In “Imagine This,” Compagnoni mashes together John Lennon’s “Imagine” and “Give Peace a Chance” [13], with a new vocal track featuring the voice of George Bush. Instead of a mash–up between Lennon’s music and Bush’s war rhetoric, Compagnoni makes it sound as if Bush is actually “singing” Lennon’s pacifist anthems. Compagnoni accomplishes this through micro–edits of Bush’s speeches. Compagnoni located the necessary words from Bush’s public statements to match the verbal components of Lennon’s song “Imagine,” then edited them together to fit lyrically, and finally employed filtering techniques (especially echo) to give Bush’s words a slight melodic lilt. The effect is eerie and disconcerting: while the lyrics match those of the John Lennon songs, the see–sawing cadence of the words and sputtering delivery emote a manufactured and robotic reality.

In April 2006, Dublin–based video artist and DJ, John Callaghan of Cal–TV created a video based on the Wax Audio song. Within days of its appearance, Callaghan’s video was posted to dozens of high–profile blogs [14], circulating quickly around the world. As these high–profile blogs picked up “Imagine This,” other bloggers joined in by linking and offering brief commentary on the video, allowing them to participate not only in the sharing of the video but also to feel a sense of political protest and semiotic solidarity with others who shared the clip’s politics. And, like “Vote Different,” “Imagine This” inspired a number of politically oriented responses, including the “Bush Blair Endless Love” video and a version of President Bush appearing to sing U2’s anti–war anthem, “Sunday Bloody Sunday.” But the politics of protest in a video mashup can be quite complex, and frequently it is the idea of remix as a process — a process that opens up a space for debate and discussion, and originating from DJ culture — that is central in these videos more than a unified ideological statement (Miller, 2004).

The first shot of “Imagine This” shows the Presidential Seal, with the words “A Message from the President.” Callaghan’s next shot is of President Bush seated as if ready to give an address to the American people with the first bars of the National Anthem playing. However, that quick insert shot is quickly foiled by a shot of TV static that wipes out both the image and the music. The “TV static” shot operates as a type of guerrilla television interruption, whereby the viewer gets the sense that the signal has been hijacked, that Bush has been forced off the air. The fourth shot is of John Lennon talking about his anti–war views. As Lennon speaks, we see a slow motion shot of a 1960s countercultural icon — a hippie chick — that harkens us back to a previous era of anti–war flower–power sentimentality. But there is a clash between the aggressive tone and vulgarity of Lennon’s words (“you fuckers” and “fuck you all”) and the day–glo, slow–mo optimism of the hippie chick. It is not clear that this video will be able to reconcile Lennon’s strident anti–war rhetoric with an image of a countercultural idyll reminiscent of the “Summer of Love.” But if the TV static wrested control of the video from Bush, a shot of a military explosion takes control back. In its first 14 seconds, the video spans the “left–right”, “hawk–dove” divide to argue that any approach to the debate that is non–conciliatory is probably doomed to failure: just like the war protesters want to co–opt or interrupt the President’s message, those in favor of military action in Iraq equally want to interrupt or silence the protesters. There is very little space, the video suggests, for meaningful debate about the War.

After this opening, the video proposes the figure of the DJ as one way to avoid polarizing positions. The metaphor of turntablism is appropriate here. There is no singular narrative being advanced but two competing power systems that are in direct collision: the classic clash between hawks and doves, war and peace. However, the DJ can shift between tracks and improvise new ideas on the fly, and might be a potential mediator between these two colliding ideologies. The importance of the recombinatorial power of the DJ is highlighted since it is the only footage that is repeated in the opening 25 seconds. It signifies the DJ as the actual author in control of this narrative. And in fact, the rest of the video will be dominated by a DJ or VJ logic. At the same time, the identification of the DJ as author places emphasis on the challenges of assembling footage to match the audio track, highlighting the degree to which the mashup is an editor’s rather than a director’s medium. The DJ as editor is forced to work with already existing material, ceding control to available material while trying to produce a new understanding of these competing ideologies.

Callaghan as an editor demonstrates the interrelated dimensions of syntagmatic and paradigmatic construction quite explicitly in the video mashup (Manovich, 2002). Existing video footage is selected from a paradigmatic dimension, i.e., Callaghan needs to locate actual footage that can be matched with the Wax Audio soundtrack. However, each piece of video footage must also operate syntagmatically — i.e., the footage will eventually be read in a linear fashion as the footage is literally “strung together.” But constructing new meanings out of a database of video images is not the same as creating new sentences in spoken language; the paradigmatic dimension is a constrained set of images that lacks the full utility of the linguistic sets of “verbs” and “synonyms.” For example, a mashup editor might want to include an image of George Bush in a mashup, but the images of George Bush will all be constrained — in the paradigmatic dimension-by specific contexts: a State of the Union Address, a press conference, a photo op. Therefore, while the shot might call for George Bush in the syntagmatic dimension, choices have to be made both paradigmatically and syntagmatically in selecting the most appropriate video clip or image at that point in the video. Most often, the syntagmatic dimension has priority in governing the choice of clips, as it is the dimension that controls the overall time sequence of the video; where the video starts and where the video ends are decision made in the syntagmatic dimension. And if your paradigmatic choices are limited (i.e., there are not a lot of images that will work both paradigmatically and syntagmatically at the same time), that can lead to some paradigmatic choices being unusual or even at odds with the overall meaning of the video as images must be placed in every frame in the syntagmatic dimension.

In terms of highlighting the conflicts between paradigmatic vs. syntagmatic construction, “Imagine This” contains a notable example: an extended (and potentially problematic) shot of a Muppet — the character named Animal — playing drums. On one level, this can be seen as a paradigmatic choice to keep the meanings of the syntagmatic axis flowing, since Callaghan needs an image of a drummer to coincide with the drumming that is clearly heard on the audio track. But beyond the paradigm/syntagm distinction, there seems to be another meaning that emerges at this moment that deserves additional commentary. While it might be tempting to conclude that a Muppet playing drums is done — without any great attention to unruly meanings — to create a matching shot to the drumming on the audio soundtrack, it adds an element of surreality to the opening of this video. At precisely the moment the video announces the power of the DJ, the inability to conceive of a connection between two diametrically opposed thinkers (Bush and Lennon) give way to a fantastical and imaginary interlude, an absurdist romp: a Muppet appears to take center stage. We have to conclude intentionality on the part of Callaghan, who had many choices for drumming footage. The deliberate inclusion of Animal seems to suggest a need to depart from our expectations, as if we need to really “imagine” something wholly different, with Callaghan using an unexpected lexia to remind the viewer to keep her sense of humor at the ready [15]/

While “Imagine This” is masterfully edited, it cannot avoid certain conflicts inherent in matching visual data to the original sonic blueprint. These conflicts suggest how mashups operate as a form of political resistance. It is important to remember that since mashups rely on found footage, that original footage will always act as a constraint in the final product, no matter how cleverly the juxtapositions are conceived. In actually seeing Bush sing the song, we are aware (doubly aware) of the song’s constructed nature. We no longer need a good “ear” to hear the edits; we see them as jump cuts that break the diegetic illusion of a “singing” President. At the same time, the song’s utopian words are challenged by the dearth of images we have to deploy for “utopian thinking.” As we are asked to “imagine” this other world, we have trouble picturing it. In fact, Callaghan does not show us images of a post–war utopia, but instead shows us our current reality, especially during a final montage that crosscuts between tanks racing across the Iraq desert and the smiling children who have been endangered by the War. Here, we see only the anti–war side in the images of war protests, dead bodies, and Administration photo ops. And while this is perhaps inevitable in a video that is clearly more aligned with liberal, anti–war sentiments, it does negate — to a degree — the integrative logic of the DJ. The opening promise of this video is that we might find a way of framing the war that moves beyond the polarizing politics of the moment, but in fact, we find those positions, while in play at certain points in this video, to be somewhat stuck in their original positions at the conclusion. In fact, the inability of the DJ to reconcile the two competing discourses may leave viewers with a sense of resignation regarding political action. Unlike a video that analyzes the reasons and causes for U.S. involvement, this video never moves beyond satire into the realm of political activism. While “Imagine This” functions well as a critique of the political rhetoric of the Bush administration, its utopian vision is limited.

One Comment

  1. Meryl K added these pithy words on May 16, 2010 | Permalink

    John – am so glad you’ve written about this yourself – I’ve attached a link to my academic site, where I wrote a paper about this as well :) and I’m not alone. Your video (which was, by the way, fabulous!) really showed a movement to many of us who pay attention to web culture towards shifting what political engagement and being part of a community looks like. And I’m still working on these things – I hope you are, too!

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