“What is Remix Culture?”: An Interview with Total Recut’s Owen Gallagher (Part One)

Several weeks ago, I announced here that I was serving as part of a panel of other “remix experts” as judges for a video competition being hosted by the website, toralrecut.com. Participants are being asked to submit videos which address the question, “What is Remix Culture?” The contest is intended to help educate the public about the debates surrounding remix, copyright, and fair use. As someone currently developing a teacher’s strategy guide for teaching remix in the context of high school literature classes, I am very interested to see what kinds of materials emerge from this competition. The submissions will become visible on the site soon and the public is being encouraged to help rank the submissions.

In the spirit of sparking further conversation around the issues the contest is exploring, I asked Owen Gallagher, the mastermind behind TotalRecut, if he would respond to some questions about the contest and about remix culture more generally. Alas, his responses got lost in my dreaded spam filter and are just now seeing the light of day. In this two part conversation, he explains why he created the site and sponsored the contest, identifies some of his favorite videos, and offers some insights into the politics and aesthetics of remix video.

Here’s a brief bio Owen shared with us:

Owen Gallagher (28) is a graphic, web and digital media designer, an accomplished musician and a graduate of the University of Ulster, Northern Ireland with a first class honours Masters degree in Design Communications. Originally from Dublin, Ireland, he has been travelling around the United Kingdom and the United States for the past 12 months as part of the NCGE / Kauffman Foundation Global Scholars Entrepreneurship Program. Gallagher is the founder of TotalRecut.com, an online social networking community for fans and creators of video remixes, recuts, and mash-ups that facilitates online collaboration between video artists. Total Recut has been shortlisted for a number of prestigious awards including the Golden Spiders Awards, the NICENT 25k Awards and the BBC Innovation Labs.

Gallagher is the CEO and Creative Director of GDG Interactive, a web design and development business based in Ireland. In his spare time, he dabbles in video art and has created a number of political video remixes that received significant media attention in his home country. He is an avid piano and guitar player and has composed and recorded over 100 songs as well as performing in various bands since he was 16. He is a qualified music teacher and has taught piano and guitar to a number of students. He has also acted as a part time Assistant Lecturer of Design at the University of Ulster, Northern Ireland teaching web design, flash animation and digital video production.

Gallagher is passionately involved in remix culture and has a particular interest in Intellectual Property law as it applies to creative content. His Masters thesis, entitled ‘Video Recuts and the Remix Revolution: Whose Rights Are Being Infringed?’ explores some of the issues surrounding the appropriation of previously published content, focusing on the delicate balance between copyright and freedom of expression.

What can you tell us about your new contest? What are its goals? What kinds of videos are acceptable?

The Total Recut Video Remix Challenge is a contest that we are hosting to try to encourage people to think about the issues around remix culture and creating remixed media. We want people to create a short video remix that uses footage from any source to communicate the message: ‘What is Remix Culture?’ The video can be anything from 30 seconds to 3 minutes long. The idea of the contest is to produce a series of videos that raise awareness and help people to more clearly understand what is going on in the world of digital content creation, remix and intellectual property. Ideally, the videos will be educational and will communicate a clear message but we essentially want our entrants to be creative and portray what remix culture means to them. The prizes include a laptop computer loaded with all of the software needed to create high quality remixes, a digital camcorder, a digital media player and lots of Total Recut goodies.

The contest began taking entries in May and judging will begin in June. We have an exceptional judging panel of some of the elite thought-leading personalities involved in remix culture today including yourself, Larry Lessig, Pat Aufderheide, Kembrew McLeod, JD Lasica and Mark Hosler. The contest is open to everyone so I would encourage anyone who is even slightly interested in video remix to put a video together and enter the contest in May to be in with a chance of winning.

The Video Remix Challenge was an idea that developed out of my Masters project at the University of Ulster, Northern Ireland, which was very much focused on Remix Culture and intellectual property issues as applied to the digital creative arts, in particular, online video production. As part of the project, I developed a basic version of the Total Recut website and set up a small scale video remix contest where the idea was to create a 60 second PSA commercial using found footage to portray a particular theme e.g. Environmental Issues, Safe Sex or Drug Abuse. At the time, I was also working as a part time lecturer, teaching an interactive design class to undergraduate students at the University of Ulster, so I decided to use the students as guinea pigs and get them to produce a remixed video for their project, which had to be entered into my contest, as a requirement of their design brief. It worked like a charm and the end result was over thirty highly creative remixed videos on a diverse range of socially conscious issues which the students themselves rated and commented on, before a small judging panel decided on the final winners. Following the success of this contest and the ongoing development of Total Recut as a whole, I decided that I wanted to try and host a larger scale contest. My original idea was to try to open it up to other Universities in the U.K. and Ireland and build from there, but it has now scaled to the point where it is open to anyone who wants to enter. The basic premise of the Video Remix Challenge is to create a short form video remix that portrays what ‘Remix Culture’ means to you, using found footage from any source.

The reason this is such an interesting theme to pursue is because of the ongoing debate about copyright and freedom of expression in the developing landscape of user generated digital content. This is a debate that a lot of people feel very strongly about. There are extremists on both sides, some advocating the complete freedom of all content and others fighting tooth and nail to extend copyright terms and protect their assets. Then there are those who are trying to seek a middle ground – a balance between these two opposing views. This is where Total Recut and this contest reside.

The current landscape places too much emphasis on the copyright owner’s control over how their content is used and leaves little room for new artists to exercise their rights to freedom of expression. However, a free-for-all where all content is free would result in no compensation for copyright owners, which would mean less incentives for people to produce new creative works. The balanced approach enables copyright owners to make money from their work, but also enables other artists to freely use samples from the entire pool of creative works to express themselves. This contest encourages people to draw inspiration from the culture around them, from the culture they grew up with and to use these images and sounds to produce something innovative with a brand new meaning.

The goals of the contest are to generate a number of creative video pieces that will help to raise awareness of these issues and perhaps help to educate people about the true nature of copyright, which is to promote the production of new creative works for society at large, by providing creators with a degree of protection over their work for a limited time. This message has been twisted and distorted almost beyond recognition by the likes of Disney and some of the larger corporations that own the copyrights to most of the content out there. Instead of creative works existing to benefit society, some of the corporations feel that creative works exist to make more money for them, for as long as possible. That is why they lobby for copyright term extensions and unfortunately, they have historically been successful in these attempts.

Ironically, many of Disney’s most successful works are based on Public Domain stories, which they would not have been able to create in the first place, had the original copyright owners tried to exercise the kind of control that Disney now displays over their works. There is an excellent educational remix video created by Eric Faden of Bucknell University, that uses short samples from Disney movies to communicate messages about copyright and fair use. Here’s the link.

In terms of the types of videos that are acceptable in our Video Remix Challenge, we are encouraging our entrants to be aware of, and exercise their fair use rights. The Center for Social Media at the American University of Washington have some excellent resources and guidelines. We are also encouraging people to use Public Domain and Creative Commons licensed material in their work, many of which can be found at the Internet Archive and Creative Commons respectively.

The videos will first be rated by the public and whittled down to the ten best videos, which will then be given to the judges to decide on three winners. We are very excited to see what kind of work will be produced. Going by my previous contest, there will be quite a mix of quality in terms of production skill, but sometimes the best ideas simply shine through.

Tell us more about Total Recut. How did this site come about? What are your overarching goals? What kinds of resources does it offer the remix community?

I remember very distinctly when I came up with the idea for Total Recut. I was lying out in the sun in Portugal, contemplating what I might consider putting forward as a proposal for my then upcoming Masters Degree, and the idea came to me. I wanted to create a collaborative environment for artists to be able to take existing media, remix it in some way and produce something completely new.

My interest in remix stemmed from an early age – I have always been into collage and mixed media and studied Fine Art in Dublin, Ireland before undertaking my Design degree in Donegal, but even before that, I always remember playing with toys as a young boy. My brother and I were the proud owners of many Star Wars figures and vehicles, Transformers, Thundercats, MASK, He-Man, G.I. Joe, Action Man and a whole host of other toys from various movies and TV shows. Our games always consisted of us combining these different realities and storylines, mixing them up and making up our own new narratives. It was not unusual to have Optimus Prime fighting side by side with Luke Skywalker against Mumm-Ra and Skeletor. So, from a very early age it seemed completely normal for me to combine the things I loved in new ways that seemed entertaining to me. I think that my generation and those younger than me have grown up expecting this sort of interaction with their media, on their own terms.

The idea that some corporation can tell you that you are not allowed to play with media seems ridiculous and wrong. Unfortunately, there are many who seem to believe that their control over how content is used should be absolute and unquestioned. I created Total Recut as a way to gather people together who believe that we, as a society, should be able to freely build on the works of the past. If this is successfully prevented by corporations, the practical result is that people will stop making new things out of old things for fear of being sued. Innovation will chill and the overall quality and quantity of new work being produced will be lower. Luckily, there are millions of people who refuse to accept the corporate line and they are continuing to produce new work, despite the veiled shallow threats by overzealous copyright owners.

So, when I was considering how to practically put a community of this nature together, my initial idea was to create a site for digital artists – I had the idea of taking public domain paintings and posting the images on the site, cutting them up into squares and then asking participants to choose a square each and reinterpret it in their own style. The remixed square would be uploaded to the site again and the end result would be a very interesting collaborative collage of styles inspired by the work of an artistic master.

Through my Masters research, I realised that one of the hottest technologies at the time was online video and so I decided to refocus the project to centre on remixed video work. I discovered a thriving underground community of video producers who were creating work as diverse as movie trailer recuts and machinima to remixed political parody and mashed-up music videos. One of the first remixed videos I saw was a movie trailer recut, created by Robert Ryang, of the Stanley Kubrick movie, ‘The Shining’, which casts the classic horror in a completely new light. Another amazing video remix that I came across early on was a political piece created by Chris Morris where segments of George Bush’s State of the Union speech were recut to create a new narrative. Some of the most technically accomplished and entertaining remixes I have seen were created by a Parisian remix artist called Antonio da Silva, known online as AMDS Films. He created a number of remixes, one of the best of which is Neo vs Robocop.

So, I set about creating a site ‘for fans and creators of video remixes, recuts and mash-ups that provides resources and collaborative opportunities for video remix artists in a social networking environment.’ The end result was Total Recut, but the site is constantly developing. Each week, something new is added or changed based on the feedback from our members and advisors. The main focus at the moment is the Video Remix Challenge but we have a plethora of new ideas and potential directions of where we are going to steer the site in the future.

The site works on a number of different levels. Primarily it is a place where people can find and watch entertaining or thought-provoking remixed videos. Our current categories are Movie Trailer Recuts, Political, Machinima, Advertising, Educational, Music Videos and Others. This category list is by no means exhaustive and we are looking at adding to it in the near future.

Secondly, the site acts as a showcase for video remix artists, to enable them to put their work in front of the eyes of a receptive audience. We also provide a growing library of Public Domain and Creative Commons licensed video work for people to download and remix in their own projects. We are working on developing our Tutorials section, which will eventually become a ‘Remix Academy’ with courses and grades for people to learn everything they need to know to produce a video remix. Information and links to literature and websites about remix culture, intellectual property issues and key players in the scene are included in the Remix Culture section. We also provide remix tools where users can gain access to video editing software, conversion tools and video downloading software. The community section includes a blog, forums, user profiles and job opportunities. Virtually every aspect of the site is set up to be similar to a wiki environment, which essentially means that all registered members have the ability to add things to the site or update information about any of the content.

With regard to long term goals for Total Recut, we would love to build up the community to the point where we are considered the primary online location for people to find the very best in video remix work and talent. We intend to host more regular contests and provide links between our remix artist members and potential employers. As the site scales up, we intend to take it global and offer a multilingual version of the site to accommodate the Asian and European markets and eventually become a truly global community website for remix culture.

You write, “Video recuts…are a new art-form enabled by the convergence of emerging technologies.” How do you respond to those who ask whether remixes and recuts are not creative because they build on the works of others rather than working with original material?

This is an area in which I have a huge amount of interest and have considered pursuing as a research area for my PhD – the origin of originality. It is of particular interest to me because I am what I consider to be an ‘original content creator.’ I write songs and lyrics using nothing but my mind, a pen and paper and a guitar. Are my songs original? If I use a combination of different chords and a variety of words to create sentences that rhyme, am I not using elements that have been used by other people in the past? What makes my songs original, in my opinion, is the unique way in which I composite the words, chords and melody. In this way, every song is created using the basic building blocks of language and music, but combined in a slightly different way.

Coming from a Graphic Design background, I often come across other designers who are adamant that their work is completely original. The nature of a Graphic Designer’s work is to combine elements from different sources in creative ways to produce new pieces of work. Similar to a collage artist who takes pieces of different photos, images etc and brings them together to create new meanings. Is the finished piece not original because it is made up of building blocks from a variety of sources? In the same way, when a video remix artist combines pieces of video from different sources in new ways to create new meanings, is this not original and innovative?

Yes, remix artists build on the works of others. But do so-called creators of ‘original material’ not build on the works of others also? Would you consider Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet to be an original piece of work? Even though the idea was based on a story by William Painter, which was based on a poem by Arthur Brooke? No matter how far back you go in the origin of a piece of work, you will find that the idea was built on or inspired by the work of someone else before it. I consider remixed videos to be original works. The finished piece is more than the sum of its parts.