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Cultivating Spontaneity

DJ Spooky remixes the classroom with MICA residency

Photo: J.M. Giordano, License: N/A

J.M. Giordano

WYPR host Aaron Henkin, who teaches a MICA class with DJ Spooky, refers to Spooky’s style as “a DJ-remix approach to the curriculum.”


DJ Spooky, or Paul D. Miller, as he’s known to the crop of MICA students he’s teaching this semester, likes to wander. “In the last three weeks, I’ve been to a remote island in the Pacific called Vanuatu, Australia, Korea, and then I got off a plane and came to Baltimore,” he says. The producer, beatmaker, academic, graphic designer, magazine editor, and free-culture advocate sips freshly squeezed orange juice at a Mount Vernon café on Super Bowl Sunday, plays around on his phone and tablet, and casually preps for teaching his class, “Creativity and Innovation: An Exploration of the Roots of the Modernist Creative Impulse.”

He speaks quickly, often in sentences that don’t quite wrap themselves up, always leaving the door open for thought tangents that might send his mind and the conversation in a new direction. He goes on: “Global fragmentation of geography and time and space—these are the things that some of my heroes like John Cage and Marshall McLuhan would’ve talked about, but now [they describe] how we can live.” He stares down at his tablet and wryly observes, “All my tools and equipment feel like they’re looking back at me.” With a smile, he adds, “I’m very into science fiction.”

The day before, the Washington, D.C.-born, globally formed renaissance man took a trip to the National Cryptologic Museum, which is located next to the black cube of a building that is the National Security Agency. He has decided he’s going to take his students there for field trip on Wednesday, syllabus be damned. After the field trip, he will hop on a train to New York for Visualized, a two-day “gathering of the brightest minds and social innovators from around the world who are changing how we understand and interact with data,” according to the official website.

Before coming to MICA, Spooky’s creative curiosity took him to Antarctica, where he gathered data and field recordings to make “a contemporary art piece about environmental issues and music.” The trip yielded a 2011 book, co-written with theoretical physicist Brian Greene, titled Book of Ice, a hissing, low-key dance album called Of Water and Ice, and an exhibit and residency at the Metropolitan Museum of Art during 2012 to 2013.

DJ Spooky arrived in the mid-’90s with two foggy dance albums, Songs of a Dead Dreamer (1996) and Synthetic Fury (1998), dubbed “illbient” at the time (hip-hop textures meets ambient vibes), and he very much predicted the stumbling, cloudy dance music now considered bleeding-edge in the underground. From there, his career goes in many different directions: He scored the 1998 neo-realist film Slam; created 2004’s Rebirth of a Nation, a hypnotic, clever cinematic remix of D.W. Griffith’s racist-film classic; founded a magazine called Origin; and put out a popular free DJing application for smartphones.

A sample of influential names he’s worked with (Japanese noise hero Merzbow, experimental composer Ryuichi Sakamoto, Dave Lombardo of Slayer, Wu Tang Clan associate Killah Priest) and remixed (doom originators Earth, Kim Gordon’s riot grrrl side project Free Kitten, as well as Yoko Ono, and even Korn) is beyond eclectic. This all-over-the-place worldview has defined DJ Spooky’s output and can be experienced by the public through a curated film series for MICA that began last month.

“Each movie is really different,” Spooky says, “which is the point.” The series’ themes hover around “free culture and open-source media,” with films that highlight that and/or “provide context” for it. It began on Jan. 28 with Downloaded, a documentary about the formation of the widespread file-sharing software Napster. Napster co-founder Shawn Fanning is a “composer,” Spooky claims. The difference is Fanning composes with code instead of musical notes. He compares Fanning to dissident musicians who were sidelined by the powers that be.

The next installment, which aired on Feb. 4, was Terms and Conditions May Apply, “about what happens when you click the ‘accept’ button on software,” Spooky says ominously. On Feb. 11 the series featured the hip-hop fiction-meets-verité classic Wild Style, which turns 30 years old this year. Its existence speaks to the importance of in-the-moment documentation of a musical revolution.

Coming up: Chasing Ice on Feb. 18, a fascinating and moving documentary which merges expressive art, hard science, activism, and Werner Herzog-character single-mindedness to tell the story of James Balog, a photographer who obsessively documented the erosion of glaciers due to climate change; How To Make Money Selling Drugs on Feb. 25 is about “the war on drugs, which is a really amazingly failed and spectacularly flawed experiment”; and on March 4, you can check out the Spooky-scored film Slam.

Monday’s Creativity and Innovation class on the fifth floor of MICA’s Graduate Studio Center building is supposed to revolve around The Revolution in Everyday Life by the situationist writer Raoul Vaneigem. The pages assigned function more like a jumping-off point for a freewheeling discussion, though. Aaron Henkin (perhaps best known as the host of WYPR’s The Signal), who teaches the class with Spooky, refers to Spooky’s style as “a DJ-remix approach to the curriculum.”

And indeed, the Vaneigem reading feels like the sample source to be remixed over the next two hours.

Spooky begins class by discussing the Super Bowl. Bemused, he refers to it as a “neo-pagan ritual” and casually mentions that his most vivid memory of the event is when Apple’s famous Ridley Scott-directed commercial appeared in 1984.

Class formally starts with Spooky saying, “Let’s talk about revolution.” Every student in the class is asked to visualize what revolution might look like in the United States right now or in the near future. He also provides the class a verbal supercut of the revolutionary moment in 1968 in the United States and France. Henkin is mostly silent today, though he steps into the conversation every once in a while and edits Spooky’s pointed rambling into a concise declaration. They’re a great duo.

Spooky then streams a New Orleans Bounce-tinged quasi-ironic celebration of Walmart from an MC called Mr. Ghetto and says the low-budget jokey clip “could be conceptual art” about consumerism. The Occupy movement—something these holy-shit-are-they-smart students feel strongly about while also articulating its flaws—frequently floats into the middle of the conversation, which leads to concerns about the co-opting of revolutionary voices. Spooky references the curious existence of major-label radicals from the ’90s like Public Enemy and Rage Against the Machine.

He reaches down and begins typing on his tablet. A browser pops up on the projector at the front of the room, and Spooky streams the aforementioned Apple ad that premiered during the 1984 Super Bowl. Rife with revolutionary imagery, Spooky calls the clip “charmingly ironic” because Apple has built its reputation on being one of the “most controlled internet ecosystems” that’s out there.

Did he plan this all along? Was that casual pre-class chatter about last night’s Super Bowl and neo-pagan rituals and that quick reference to this iconic Apple commercial intended to tie in to a class about revolution and its arguable impossibility and inevitable commercialization in 2014 United States together all along? Henkin chalks the coherent chaos of today’s class up to Spooky’s singular ability to “cultivate spontaneity.”

For Spooky, his MICA residency is yet another one of his numerous “collaborations”—in this case, between student and educator, and by way of the film series, between audience and curator during Q&A sessions. But, to him, there is no difference between the collaborations with friends and personal heroes that fuel his music and the talk about national security he hopes to encourage between students and the tour guide at the National Cryptologic Museum.

Suddenly, Spooky scoops up his phone and frantically flips through photos, locating a picture of himself with a number of Vanuatu natives: “I got initiated into their tribe, the Naihné people initiated me,” he says pointing at the photo on his phone. “That’s a collaboration too.”

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