I first encountered DJ Spooky’s multimedia project Rebirth of a Nation four years ago, when I was still a student at the University of North Carolina. Back then this radical revision of D.W. Griffith’s masterpiece was still making its rounds as a live performance, and the idea of it alone was enough to make it an ultra-hip, must-see event. Condensed from three hours to a little under two, the film was sliced up and projected on a triptych of large screens, allowing for a surprising juxtaposition of storylines, and giving off the sense that this monolith in cinema history was being fractured into a form commensurate to its multiple personalities. The DJ stood on the stage in deep concentration, mixing the music live as the towering images flickered above his head. And perhaps more than anything else I saw that night, the vision of DJ Spooky (whose real name is Paul Miller) working away at his turntable in the dim light was an intriguing addition to the Griffith legacy.
Like Miller’s quirky book-length manifesto Rhythm Science, Rebirth is designed as a grand statement on the vitality of DJ culture and the primacy of the sound-recycler as author. But beyond all the visual and sonic manipulations on display was the very presence of this young African American artist, which begged the obvious question: what extraordinary journey have we taken from these blackface caricatures we’re seeing on the screen to this black man on the stage freely expressing himself to a crowd of college students? The son of a former dean at Howard University’s School of Law, Miller studied philosophy and French at Bowdoin, then freelanced at The Village Voice and Artforum before becoming a pioneer in experimental hip hop. His attempt to publicly deconstruct and outwit a famously racist text seemed not only like poetic justice but also a rare personal and historical gesture in the art of turntablism, where the man behind the mixer so often gets lost in an avalanche of decontextualized sources. Click here to read the rest of Andrew Chan’s review of Rebirth of a Nation, playing at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, June 22 – 28.