Interview: DJ Spooky Talks His Rebirth of a Nation Revival at MOMA

"For me, the idea is to use the movie to highlight some issues that resonate with today's culture of cut-and-paste, collaged-out-the-ass, wildly fragmented post-YouTube nation."

Spooky, performing Rebirth of a Nation in San Francisco
Spooky, performing Rebirth of a Nation in San Francisco

Paul Miller, a/k/a DJ Spooky, takes a lot of flack (sometimes from this publication). Nothing, though, will stop this man from getting busy: he is responsible for a slew of experimental films and records, scholarly essays on the likes of Kehinde Wiley and Harry Smith, and production on the new Yoko Ono album, among lots and lots of other projects. Spooky's most famous creation, 2004's Rebirth of a Nation, will be showing at the MOMA this week. The film mashes disparate sounds and images with clips from D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation, remixing the original into a commentary on the contemporary political and racial landscape of the US. To find out how his attitudes toward the work have changed since the film's debut in 2004, how he feels about the rapid decline of the media world, and what he's up to these days, we spoke with Spooky over email.

The political context for Rebirth of a Nation has certainly changed since its first performance.

The last 8 years have been one major spectacle after another-from the "selection" of Bush to 9/11 to the continuous horror of Iraq, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. Even the whole red state/blue state divide of 2000 and 2004 mirrored the Union/Confederate battle lines of the Civil War. The basic idea is that now that we have an African American president--does this change anything? And of course, the whole issue of Birth of a Nation was the fear of exactly what has happened--that an African American was elected to the highest office.

The original Birth of a Nation serviced a pretty scary cause. Is "Rebirth" a kind of reverse agit-prop?

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I think that when you look at Birth of a Nation as a kind of DNA of American cinema, the whole idea isn't to expose Griffith's film as crazy racist--people already know that! For me, the idea is to use the movie to highlight some issues that resonate with today's culture of cut-and-paste, collaged-out-the-ass, wildly fragmented post-YouTube nation. To say--'this is now, that was then, this is the remix.' As Amiri Baraka says, it's about the "changing same." It's like when you sample an old record. You want people to know that it's an old song--that's kind of the point.

Mainstream media has reached a crisis point. How do you relate the current media turmoil to your own work as a media artist?

Everything is in flux. Normal newspapers are going under. Ditto for normal record stores. Ditto for bookstores. Everything that's based on physical goods will need to update its business model. So many stores are closing in New York--just take a walk anywhere, and you'll see signs saying "for rent" or "going out of business." I think that the media is in total fragmentation, and has been going that way for most of the last decade. Like Warhol used to say--everyone will be a DJ, for at least 15 minutes. From your phone to your iPod to your laptop, the notion of being locked to one medium or another to get news is super old school. So is just watching a normal film.

You haven't made any albums recently-why the hiatus?

I've been shooting some film projects. I went to Antarctica to shoot a film about the sound of ice. I'm going to Nauru this summer to shoot an art film about off-shore banking. And there's only 24 hours in the day. I had two books come out in the last couple of years, and each one took a lot of time. Now that I'm done with those, I'm finalizing everything for my next album. It's called The Secret Song. It'll be out later this year.

Anything you're currently itching to remix?

That crazy place we all (or most of us, at least) inhabit: reality.

DJ Spooky's Rebirth of a Nation screens at MOMA through Sunday. Showtimes and tickets are still available here.


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