Thursday, December 29, 2005

Jackson Bollocks

Happy Holidays, everyone!

I'm in the middle of a fun back and forth with an Anonymous commenter who apparently takes exception to the premise of my previous post, the idea that mashups are worthy of consideration as Art. I've decided to pull the discussion out of the Comments section and relay them in this new post rather than spending all my energy on stuff that many readers will likely never see. (I'm leaving all original comments in place, too.)

I'm assuming that all the Anonymous commenters are the same person. If they're not, well, they are now.

Here's the exchange so far (although I flipped the order slightly to improve the flow). Anonymous' comments in italics:

"The best mashups match beats and rythms, blending or contrasting tone and theme, into wholly new and original works."


Surely you jest...

...and the analogy to Picasso is absurd - Picasso mastered the form. Very different from taking two paintings and digitally laying them one over the other.

And my response:

Rare indeed is the work of art which does not in some way build upon existing sources. When two or more elements are combined to create a new work which comments on and expands on the sources, the new work is an original work of art.

I used Picasso to make a point, but I acknowledge in retrospect it may not have been the best choice since he DID in fact invent Cubism. But I think you'll find if you study Picasso that he lifted many forms from African art. This is the nature of art and culture.

Perhaps Roy Lichtenstein would be a clearer example of a major artist who appropriated material from popular culture and turned it into new works of art.

In music, avant-garde composer John Cage famously had a composition in which a bunch of people turned up radios set to random stations on pre-arranged cues. Imagine if some RIAA goon had been sitting in the audience taking notes ("Let's see, 12 seconds of The Beatles Lovely Rita, twenty seconds of Miles Davis, twenty-two seconds of Sinatra's Love and Marriage..."); Cage literally would have been unable to perform the work!

At any rate, I think American Edit is a superb work of art which is fundamentally different from Green Day's American Idiot. Obviously, "Dean Gray" took advantage of excellent source material, and their mashup honors Green Day while creating an original and fantastically energetic soundscape.

Remember, too, that this was a NON-COMMERCIAL work of art; no one ever attempted to make any money on this. The idea that artists can't freely make art unless they get "permission" strikes me as deeply offensive and anathema to a society that prides itself on its free exchange of ideas.

"In music, avant-garde composer John Cage famously had a composition in which a bunch of people turned up radios set to random stations on pre-arranged cues."

And it famously wasn't very popular. Coincidence? You decide...

Where did popularity enter the picture?

Kinda then depends on your definition of "make art."

If any hack with a computer can then sling together two existing works, then where's the art?

Here, I'll play: I'll drop paint splatters on a Sex Pistols album. Boom! Jackson Bollocks! See? I've made art!

[For my less hip readers, Anonymous is suggesting a hypothetical mashup between Abstract Expressionist genius Jackson Pollack, he of the "Action" paintings, and the seminal punk album, Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols, which sports one of the most famous covers in rock history.]

Jackson Bollocks? Brilliant! Pollack was the punk artist of his day!

In fact, sometimes inspiration like that can be better than you think; "Jackson Bollocks" would be a hell of a tee shirt! Of course, Art also depends on context; the same "Jackson Bollocks" tee shirt would have a different meaning coming from, say, David Byrne than it would if you saw it for sale at The Onion store. But I hate the idea that neither you nor I could legally create the shirt, regardless of context, even if we wanted to GIVE THEM AWAY and ask those who receive them to donate to alcohol and heroin rehab programs for starving punk painters.

Regardless, it is NOT the case that "any hack" slinging together two existing works can produce American Edit, any more then my ten-year-old slinging paint at a canvas can produce a Pollack. You're entitled to your opinion, of course, but if you can't see the Art in excellent mashups like American Edit or The Grey Album (or in Jackson Pollack, for that matter), then we probably don't have much more room for discussion.

There's a huge difference between 'influenced by' and 'lifted outright.' If you don't see that then we're speaking two different languages.

The term "lifted outright" is the same as "stolen," which seems a ridiculous term for an openly acknowledged remix. After all, American Edit is very much a tribute to American Idiot, and as such it has a significanly deeper meaning if you're familiar with the original work and understand the relationship between the two -- and the social and political meaning of mashups in general.

Incidentally, if you want to see "lifts," go check out The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, a film in which half the shots (the interesting ones) are lifted straight from the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Strange, I didn't see any attribution in the credits...


[A big shout out to Anonymous for the title of this post -- which I shamelessly appropriated.]

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Fun with Mashups

'Tis is the season of the mashup. Mashups are the combining of two or more songs into a new musical collage. The best mashups match beats and rythms, blending or contrasting tone and theme, into wholly new and original works. The concept of mashups has been around for years; one of the earliest popular examples, a 1978 novelty song known as Stairway to Gilligan's Island, inserted the lyrics to the Gilligan's Island theme song into the music of Stairway to Heaven. (Full story here).

Back in the day, such mashups had to be done acoustically; with the rise in digital media extraordinary musical collages can now be done by enthusiastic fans with computers and talent.

Unfortunately, such mashups don't sit well at all with the recording industry, which prefers to attack fans rather than encourage them. Stairway to Gilligan's Island was banned almost from the moment it first appeared (but -- thank God for the Internet! -- it's once again widely available via P2P). The most famous example occurred with last year's The Grey Album, DJ Dangermouse's excellent collage mix-up of The Beatles The White Album and JayZ's The Black Album. Despite being selected as the number one album of the year by Entertainment Weekly, The Grey Album received a "cease and desist" letter from Beatles song publisher EMI, which effectively outlawed the music. (Have no fear; it's still widely available here and via P2P, samizdat music for a revolutionary digital generation.)

EMI's heavy-handed attempt to ban the album earned them much contempt in cyberspace, and on Grey Tuesday (February 24th, 2004) hundreds of Websites carried mirrors of the complete Grey Album in protest. Far from stopping this new work of art, EMI in fact brought it worldwide exposure.

BoingBoing's Cory Doctorow summed it up nicely:

Copyright maximalists like to contrast copyright with the old system of patronage, when you could only make art if you could convince the Pope or a duke or a king that your art was worthy. Patronage really distorted creative expression, and copyright did indeed promise to decentralize authority over what kind of art was permitted.

But the EMI rep's answer to the Grey Album is patronage. "You must not make this art unless we permit it." If you work for one of a few big record companies, you can use their legal apparatus to clear the material you want to use in a mashup. Otherwise, your art is illegal and will be censored.

I think patronage is wrong -- I agree with the maximalists here. Let's end it. Let's share these mashups, make samples without permission, and continue to produce art without permission from the latter-day aristocracy of creativity.

Cut to the present. Another great mashup, this one a remix version of Green Day's phenomenally popular American Idiot called American Edit. The mashup's creators, who go by the Green Day-flipping handle "Dean Gray," release their extraordinary album and ten days later they, too, get a "cease and desist" order, this one from Warners, Green Day's label. Another "Grey Tuesday" (December 13th, 2005), roughly a quarter million downloads, more embarrassment for the recording industry, and worldwide publicity for American Edit, which is still also available all over the Net via P2P (and HIGHLY recommmended by yours truly).

Here are a couple of other mashup albums to whet your appetite:

Q-Unit: Greatest Hits combines 50 Cent and Queen. The results are fun, if less revelatory than those in American Idiot. The back cover art is a terrific visual mashup: 50 Cent reimagined as Freddy Mercury!

And, just in time for Christmas, the funky Santastic: Holiday Boots 4 Your Stockings.

Imagine if Picasso had received a "cease and desist" order from reps for the African sculptors who inspired his seminal 1907 classic Les Demoiselles d'Avignon. He might have painted Blue and Rose people for his entire career!

The Magic Circle Jerk - Coda

I was really hoping Andy of MCJ had just disappeared forever; I think it would have been the ultimate capper to his brilliant (and mysterious) career. But in fact Andy sent out a general letter to anyone who sent him an email, a part of which is reproduced below:

Dear Reader,

Thank you for your recent kind and/or furious e-mail in regards to my site no longer existing. It's really not coming back so you can go ahead and delete it from your bookmarks or whatever.

I've gotten a lot of questions about the whole situation so I wanted to make a final statement to the fine people who used to read the site.

First, there was nothing that happened that caused me to shut down the site. It was just something that was going to happen eventually and last week was when it did, that's all. Nobody threatened me. Nobody coerced me. I didn't find religion (putting down the sponge ding-dong and picking up the sponge bible). I just kind of decided I needed to stop. The truth is, when I started the site I figured I would eventually run out of things to say and when I did the site would be over. But what happened was I kept on coming up with new ideas and while that would have been a blessing if I planned on writing a magic blog for the rest of my life, I never planned on such a thing and so it just became a distraction from other creative endeavors that actually put food on my table....


Some people have questioned why I took down all the old posts. I didn't really put much thought into that, other than that it made more sense to me to say "poof" and have everything be gone, rather than say "poof" and have everything still be there. Those posts will be made available in some way in the future as well as about 50 unpublished posts that I have lying around here. I'm just not sure what I'm going to do with them yet.

Which brings up the question; what is next for this titan of magic? I'm not really sure, but I have a whole bunch of ideas. The first thing I'm going to do is take a few months off. Then I want to do a couple of things that are larger in scope and a lot of things that are smaller in scope than the blog was. Ultimately I just want to be involved in some different things magic-wise. The blog was a lot of fun, but what made it fun was that it was a new type of thing in magic, now it's something of an established form, so it's not as much fun for me personally.


So, anyway, if you want in on whatever happens next send me an e-mail and let me know. It's not necessary, but you might want to provide a mailing address too because not all the news that comes out of the MCJ camp is going to be e-mailed. Even if you're not interested, feel free to get in touch any time. I'll be in the usual place.


I hope everyone has a good holiday season if that's their thing.

Your pal,

Thursday, December 15, 2005

The Magic Circle Jerk

That broadly cynical bite in the opening sentence of my last post reminded me, as I was writing it, of Andy, the anonymous genius behind one of the greatest conceptual masterpieces the magic world has ever seen.


A couple of years ago, Andy made a fairly innocuous comment on The Magic Cafe, a popular Internet forum for magicians and wannabe magicians. Someone posted the question, "What's a good magic trick for picking up girls?" (The percentage of dorks on the Cafe is similar to the percentage of dorks in the magic community at large, which is to say about 95%.) Andy replied, "The Magic Ding Dong," a reference to a well-known smutty climax to the popular (and criminally overused) Sponge Balls trick.

Well, this silly little bit of risque humor got Andy banned from The Magic Cafe on the grounds that it was "inappropriate." No warning, no "check the rules and please refrain from making this type of post in the future." Just a flat-out ban.

I'm sure Cafe owner and operator Steve Brooks has regretted this banning ever since, because Andy's response was to start a blog, The Magic Circle Jerk, whose entire original purpose was to make fun of the Magic Cafe and it's overweight owner.

This is my forum to talk shit about magic and magicians. If you aren't into magic, you probably won't like it. If you are into magic, you probably won't like it either.

Rather quickly, The Magic Circle Jerk morphed into a more general blog about the sad state of magic and magicians. At the time, serious critical voices within the magic community were few and far between, so every post seemed like a blast of pure oxygen into a stale and stagnant community. As an added blessing, Andy proved to be an extraordinary blogger: by turns literate and raunchy, scathingly witty, ferociously astute, and casually hip.

Within a few months and with virtually no self-promotion, Andy's readership encompassed a quite healthy swath of the magic community. Andy had an amazing ability to cut right to the meat of any magic-related issue and find comic gold with his lacerating dissections. Frequent readers of this blog have probably followed more than one link to a Magic Circle Jerk post; in general, once Andy had covered a topic all the other magic blogs that sprang up in his wake had to scramble to find anything useful to add to the discussion.

I probably read the entire two+ years of MCJ posts all the way through at least three of four times; they were that astute and that funny. A small sampling of the topics either inspired by or covered by Andy:

The pros and cons of anonymous bloggers
The inanity of much of magic
The inanity of most magicians
The hypocrisy, greed, and inanity of magic marketing
The inanity of much of what passes for discussion on The Magic Cafe
The hypocrisy, greed, and, er, gluttony of Cafe founder Steve Brooks

Andy's beef with the Cafe emerged because of a double standard he noted; Cafe sponsors, especially if they were somewhat well-known in the magic community, got to say things mere mortals like Andy couldn't. As The Magic Circle Jerk became better known, Andy claimed to be getting inside information about the shady way the Cafe was run (exaggerating membership numbers in order to attract more advertisers, for instance), some of which he posted on his blog.

For a while (and perhaps still) Cafe members could get themselves banned just by mentioning The Magic Circle Jerk in a posting.

Andy always gave people a chance to respond, and some of the idiotic responses he got were jaw-droppingly funny. People threatened to sue him, threatened to beat him up, called him names...It's not a stretch to say that Andy was the Howard Stern of magic, the guy who broke open all the taboos with a combination of intellect, comedy, and scorching bad taste.

In one of his most inspired undertakings, Andy ran a contest to see who could start and maintain the most idiotic thread on The Magic Cafe. Circle Jerkers got points if their posts stayed up, which meant they couldn't be obviously fake (and with genuine threads like, "Which are better for card tricks, red-backed cards or blue-backed cards?", the challenge was harder than it seemed). I don't remember what post won, and it doesn't really matter. The point was that you really couldn't tell the fake moronic posts from the real ones.

Through all of this, Andy remained anonymous. From his posts one could determine the following:

He lives in New York.
He's probably somewhere between twenty-five and thirty-five (I'd guess around thirty).
He's very knowledgeable about magic.
He's very well educated.

From my own back and forth with Andy about psi research, I know that he has some mathematical and/or scientific training. Other than that, I know nothing. On his old Magic Rants blog (now reborn as MagiCentric), Steve Pellegrino claimed he knew where Andy worked.

As far as I know, no one else has a clue who this guy is. Rumors occasionally bounced around that he's actually a well-known magician who couldn't speak out under his own name for fear of losing his esteemed place in the magic world. But nothing ever came of any of the stories; Andy remains an enigma.

Since Andy started The Magic Circle Jerk, scores of magic blogs have sprung up. Many of them try to follow in Andy's footsteps; most of those come across as petty and nasty rather than astute. It's the difference between Jon Stewart and Michael Savage, wit and insight contrasted with infantile ranting.

A new generation of magicians has appeared on the scene in last decade, hip young magicians bred on David Blaine, Penguin Magic, and yes, The Magic Circle Jerk. For the first time in my lifetime, the public's image of a magician isn't necessarily the "fat guy in a bad tux with birds" (as Penn Jillette used to say). Young magicians are more aware of both their audiences and themselves -- and it shows in their performances.

The influence of The Magic Circle Jerk cannot be overstated, in my opinion. The Web has facilitated an open exchange of ideas impossible in previous eras, and among magic voices MCJ was in the vanguard of that shift. Many who never read it, indeed who never even heard of it, are benefitting from the dialogue wrought by MCJ. There have always been individual iconoclastic voices in every field; magic has had its Jarretts, its Annemans. But it took the distributed, networked power of the web to bring such a refreshingly caustic voice to the masses (of magicians).


On Tuesday, November 29th, at 2:22 a.m., the entire Magic Circle Jerk blog, archives and all, vanished with a --POOF--. It's Andy's final turn of the screw, his closing masterpiece, the sublime crowning touch of his short and brilliant career. I hope against hope that he remains anonymous forever, the Erdnase of his day, an enigmatic figure who arrived on the scene, changed the face of magic, and vanished into myth.

The historian in me would like to see his complete archives turn up in an expensive coffee-table book for the holidays, a Protocols of The Magic Circle Jerk. Of course, without those everpresent and hilarious links, a coffee table book of MCJ would probably be a leaden affair indeed. Perhaps it can reappear somewhere on the Web, an essential document in the early Twenty-first Century salvation of magic.

This was my forum to talk shit about magic and magicians. If you weren't into magic, you probably didn't like it. If you were into magic, you probably didn't like it either.

My New Venue

UPDATE: The picture is a hoax. After initially claiming it was 100% genuine, Josh sent me the same picture with different words in the sign. Oh well, I guess I can call off the lawyers.


Yesiree, I'm sure pleased to be able to bring my profound wisdom and folksy homilies to the good folks at the Baptist church...

Actually, magic buddy Josh sent me this pic, which he snapped in Santa Cruz. I have no idea what it's about, but I'm thinking of suing them anyway.

I'll update this post if I figure out who this wannabe "PeaceLove" is, and what he's "musing" about.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Stainless Steel Playing Cards

Update: I fixed the link below, so if you have an extra 195 quid the cards can be yours.

For the magician who has everything.


Via BoingBoing