Mash-ups have been common in turntable culture since the early days of hip-hop in the 1970s. Peer-to-peer filesharing combined with open source audio and video mixing software accelerated rise of mash-up culture from the late ‘ 90s, spawning a whole new generation of DJs and VJs. In computing, mashware can combine code from open source sites, or embed and combine elements of sites that will benefit from the traffic directed their way, but they have to tread carefully if they want to avoid copyright infringments. For mash-up ecologies to function, whether for business or pleasure, they require a much more libertarian attitude towards intellectual property. Copyright has to give way to copyleft to enable mash-ups to realise their full potential. Access to the bazaar of knowledge is essential. Mash-up culture might, therefore, be our window into a future creative commons, one that promises us more freedom but which only offers a model of what that future might feel like.
As a method of recounting the rapid rise of open source software, Eric Raymond’s analogy of the Cathedral and the Bazaar is an apposite one in many ways for today’s emerging ambient culture. Structurally, the cathedral promises a universal goal towards which everyone is committed. As a space it implies singularity, solitude, respite, quietude. The bazaar, in contrast, represents a raucous commercial labyrinth within which we can find no vantage point but wherein we do, at least, find many different ways to scratch our various itches (and develop some new ones along the way).
Ambience, in its association with ‘background noise’ or ‘room temperature’, is most readily associated with the captivating immersive atmosphere of the bazaar and with the lack of ‘perspective’ it offers us. In order to get a clear picture of things, one free of static, such ambience is the snow that needs to be identified and discounted, an interloper to be calibrated out of the experiment. It is in this sense that Paul Virilio rallies against “soronity” and its “prosecution of silence”. For Virilio, silence is voiceless in today’s carnival culture of mash-ups, babble and chatter. This creates an impossible bind in which mutism signifies only consent to the omnipresent clamour of the souk. The choice to remain thoughtfully silent has been taken away by the increasing volume of noise, a buzz amplifed by a recently newly unleashed market of long-tailed aficionados.
The shockwave of repercussion that this participatory folksonomy has generated is tsunami-like. It promises to overshadow our established ideas about cultural canonisation, the social production of taste. Everyone wants their voice to be heard, and everyone now has a way of making it this happen. There is certainly truth in the observation that people, spaces and things can longer be considered mute in the way that Virillo seems to imagine they may once have been; everything is vacuumed into the semantic web of interference that denies autonomy. Soronity is a black hole, the louder it gets the more attractive its magnetism; it has no respite.
User-oriented design is concerned with this kind of transubstantiation, with the object as Host. Such designs have interpretive flexibility that proprietorial design attempts to withhold; they are resources to be cracked, taken-apart, reassembled, resurrected, cooked, remixed, recycled – the full knowledge of a new life is at our fingertips. Of course, we don’t need transformation design to award us this license, albeit that it might show us the way. The cult of the amateur enthusiast – Charles Leadbeater’s pro-am, had tended to trailblaze this process of design deregulation. In electronics, circuit bending has been going on as long as there have been circuits. Making playful new connections between circuits allows different, unexpected results opening up closed devices to different possibilities.
Does jamming leave any space for ‘professional’ auteurist art and design practice? If we are always in the middle, how might we slow down and gain some perspective from which to re-articulate and redirect the world we inhabit? Are mash-ups part of this problem? Can clarity ever come in the form of more noise? Virilio is unambiguous in his condemnation of this static. But this is to leave us with no possibility for that there might be different degrees of participation, gradations of volume, or different qualities of timbre, tone and pitch. Perhaps it’s only the concept of silence that can be prosecuted by soronity since true silence does not exist – we cannot eliminate or hide from resonance and reverberations. The conch shell will always pick up the faintest whisper from the ambient air that surrounds us. Cultural static may be loud or soft, diagetic or non-diagetic. It can come from beyond, but it can just as easily come from within. Cultural static may be dampened, re-directed or re-mixed, but it cannot be muted.
An awareness of or attention to ambience is one of the things that might provide us with a measure of perspective. An ambient approach to cultural practice is one that is lateral and always in the process of establishing its relation to its context. It is an approach that can filter through sanctioned transmissions to provide audiences with a few brief moments of clarity.
The jump-cuts of a mash-up, can be a way of making sense of the cacophony of objects, images, sounds and data – mixing them to procure different interpretations or inflating the rhetoric of the sources to the point of absurdity. Equally Virilio’s mutism – slow, calming, minimalist breaks in the media flow, refusals to signify – might facilitate moments of reflection. Minimalism and mash-ups are never silent, both have timbre, texture and volume. Mutism and soronity may appear to be at opposite ends of the dial, but, its important to note, that they occupy the same dial. There are no limits in either direction. Like Winston Smith’s TV, there’s no off switch.
The formalist problems that modernists wrangled with in abstraction – binary compositional issues of figure/ground, foreground/background, signal/noise, looking/seeing – are no longer seen as solvable problems when we think about them in this way. They are a form of self-diagnosis. A more holistic spectral analysis leads to an acceptance, rightly or wrongly, of in medias res, that the form is the field. If we accept that the primacy of the plateau, we need to figure out how and when to turn the dial, of which fader to push in which direction. If all of culture occupies the same terrain and is thus a form of tangential interference – what makes some of it ambient is its tactical lateralness, its bespoke stealth, its unpredicability. This, then, is a question of performance.
The field is played like an instrument. Unique timbre, assonance and dissonance, are produced by different agents jamming and drifting with the field. In ambient music this field-play is associated with quietness, gentleness, irregular repeating structures, limited parameters, layered textures, decorativeness and spatiality. Ambient music is characterised by its middle-ness, it appears to be part of a continuum of sound. The tactics or effects ambient engages with may be reproducible, but the timbre, the texture is unique. Just as the performance of a score will produce different results each time, so the re-performance of a jam will produce a different effect.
The death of the author is the birth of the player – a player who, in mash-up culture, has power to interact with and perform the field in new ways. The last century has used many different terms to describe this process: plagiarising, quoting, appropriating, ripping. With digital copies we have are able to produce genetically identical facsimiles. As part of the field, digital facsimiles have the potential to be easily mashed-up, to reassert their difference. Facilitating these performances can involve a light touch, a minimal form of intervention, a non-performance with the field or it can involve burying it all in the mix, in the synthesis of the Wall of Sound.