arts

SOMEONE CALL KARL MARX: the means of production is in the hands of the masses and a revolution is under way

BRIAN D. JOHNSON December 19 2005
arts

SOMEONE CALL KARL MARX: the means of production is in the hands of the masses and a revolution is under way

BRIAN D. JOHNSON December 19 2005

SOMEONE CALL KARL MARX: the means of production is in the hands of the masses and a revolution is under way

arts

THE BACK PAGES

BRIAN D. JOHNSON

Rollie Pemberton first started

recording rap songs in his bedroom at age 13. He’d take a coat hanger, twist it into a circle and stretch a pair of his mother’s pantyhose around it to create a buffer between his mouth and the microphone—a “popper stopper” to keep his consonants from distorting. Pemberton would post his music on the Internet and wage rap battles with other hip-hop bloggers. That’s how he got into the game. Now 19, this Edmonton rapper who calls himself Cadence Weapon is a player. His home mixes, released online, drew attention from major labels such as Defjam, which hired him to remix a single by rap sensation Lady Sovereign—a 19year-old Brit who parlayed her own online mixes into a seven-figure recording contract. Last week, Pemberton was getting critical raves for his debut CD, Breaking Kayfabe, a white-hot mix of dissident rhymes and dissonant rhythms. But between touring, he still works out of his bedroom. It’s the revenge of the amateur. Or to quote Oliver Square, a track from Cadence Weapon’s new CD: I don’t have a licence /But I’m trying to gain prominence / Because I’m living in a house / With a fridge full of condiments.

The days of making it on the Ed Sullivan Show are long gone. For artists of every stripe, the Internet is an open stage. An Edmonton teenager can acquire New York cachet without leaving the house. Through the portal of the home studio, the bedroom is a mouse-click away from the Big Time. And it’s a two-way street, travelled by amateur and professional

alike. Using camcorders and computer effects, desktop auteur Shane Felix spent three years in his Virginia basement creating a Jedi space opera called Revelations that has been favourably compared with the latest Star Wars blockbuster. And after directing Childstar, a $5-million movie, established actor-director Don McKellar shot a series of shorts with just a cellphone camera. Then there’s the rest of us, desperately turning our lives into data.

Documenting your existence used to be simple. Snap some photos. Keep a diary. Memories would gather dust in an attic, to be dug up by a future generation like lost scrolls. But now you can shoot a home movie in high definition on a small camcorder, cut it with the same software used by Oscar-winning editors, get your son’s garage band to lay down a soundtrack, burn the video onto a DVD, post it on a website, send it to friends by cellphone, and promote it in a podcast that you record while driving to work. If you happen to pass a plane crash on the way home, as a “citizen journalist” you can shoot the accident scene and get it on the evening news. Later, if you’re so inclined, you can have sex while a webcam streams your digital flesh live to the Internet.

The explosion in digital technology has taken us beyond home entertainment. We’ve entered a new age of mass communications that would make Marshall McLuhan’s head spin. The medium is not just thé message, it’s the messenger. The new medium is you.

To borrow a bit of branding from Apple, the company that has tried to trademark the lower-case vertical pronoun, you could call it

the ¡Revolution. Its icons are the iPod and the cellphone. They’re not home computers but body computers, fashion accessories that now want to be cameras, TVs and radios. The iPod has become a sex symbol of self-expression, a hi-tech fetish that’s helped us see the media as something to be individually programmed. With a computer and high-speed Internet, anyone can be a mini media mogul—producer, director, editor, recording artist, deejay, veejay, journalist, porn star. In the jungle gym of digital data, we’re all double-jointed.

The ¡Revolution is reversing the engines of the Industrial Revolution, and repatriating the means of creative production from the factory to the open hearth of cottage industry. In fact, it could be argued that the home studio is fostering a democratic renaissance in the arts the likes of which we’ve never seen. Traditionally, the major cultural industries— movies, TV, radio, music and publishinghave been controlled by large corporations. If you wanted to be a filmmaker, broadcaster or rock star, you had to rely on the system to sponsor your dreams. Media conglomerates still monopolize pop culture, bankrolling production and distribution. But their grip on the creative process is slipping. With affordable pro technology, artists can create at home and distribute via the Internet. It’s a phenomenon that Tyler Cowen, economics professor at Virginia’s George Mason University, calls “disintermediation”—a seven-beat word that means removing the middle ground between producer and consumer.

Canada’s hottest bands, such as Arcade Fire and Broken Social Scene, have become famous without radio or industry support—by

recording in home studios and building an audience through the Web. Even established talents, from Moby to Leonard Cohen, have deserted professional studios to record their CDs at home. Cohen, in fact, controls every aspect of the product, right down to drawing the album cover art on his Mac: he simply delivers the finished package to Sony, which organizes distribution and publicity.

Meanwhile, armed with inexpensive miniDV cameras, a new breed of indie director is challenging the studio practice of lining a city block with tractor-trailers to capture a few frames of celluloid. The phenomenon of The Blair Witch Project (1999)—a $60,000 movie that grossed $248 million—hinged on some footage from a cheap Hi8 camcorder and a sensational Internet campaign. And last year, filmmaker Jonathan Caouette won critical raves and worldwide distribution for Tarnation, a feature-length memoir that he claims to have made for $218.32. He cut it entirely on iMovie, the kindergarten editing program sold with every Apple computer.

Instead of just absorbing commercial media, consumers are creating their own. In the industry it’s called “content creation.” The result is a booming market in digital cameras, camcorders and audio recording gear, plus stacks of slick-boxed software to make sense of it all. Rick Lotman, senior vice-president at Future Shop & Best Buy, says sales of digital technology at the chain’s stores have more

than doubled since 2001, largely because of new digital imaging and audio product. “With analog film cameras, the industry never shipped much more than 1.5 million a year,” says Doug Borbath, imaging product manager at Panasonic Canada. “With digital cameras, we’re forecasting about 2.3 million.”

Home consumers are beginning to demand professional production values. Amateur photographers are buying eight-megapixel digital cameras that produce images of magazine-quality resolution. And Sony now has two HD “prosumer” camcorders (consumer versions of professional cameras)—the hefty HDRFXl sells for $5,000; the Sony HDR-

HCl, which fits in the palm of your hand, costs $2,400. “The allure of the FXl,” says Sony executive John Challinor, “is if you walk around with that on your shoulder, you look like you’re in a professional news crew.” But even if you just want to shoot home movies, and show every pore of your newborn’s wrinkled brow, you can create images on the cutting edge of broadcast quality. “Broadcasters set the standard for what consumers want,” says Challinor, pointing out that all American TV programming will be in HD by 2006,

Instead of just absorbing commercial media, consumers are creating their own

and all Canadian programming by 2007.

While the electronics companies flog HD cameras and TVs, there’s a burgeoning market for “authoring software”—editing programs that allow amateurs to create sophisticated home productions. Apple has long been the favoured brand. With only 4-3 per cent of computer sales, it still sets the creative pace, offering three tiers of authoring softwarebasic, advanced and professional.

These programs still make up a small slice of the consumer software market, according to Michael Gartenberg, an industry analyst with Jupiter Media. He says the most commonly used authoring application is the one

that lets you crop digital photos and eliminate red-eye. But as hobbyists and aspiring pros play with the new media, audio-visual editing may become as familiar as word processing. As Gartenberg says, “There’s no longer this notion of this tremendous technology standing in the way of creative people.” While new software allows novices to bypass the system, at least one Hollywood heavyweight, Steve Soderbergh (Erin Brockovich, Oceans lí), has seized on it to carve out more creative freedom. At September’s Toronto International Film Festival, Soderbergh premiered Bubble, the first of six HD features he’s slated to direct—movies to be released simultaneously on DVD and cable TV. Reminiscent of the early Dogme films, Bubble is shot on video in a vérité style, without lights, makeup or professional actors. It’s a murder mystery set in a doll factory. None of the cast had ever acted before, and one of the leads was a supervisor at a Kentucky Fried Chicken who was discovered at the drive-through.

The new technology “is very appealing,” Soderbergh told Maclean’s. “It means that someone who has an idea, with not a lot of money, can go and make a really good-looking movie. Now when young filmmakers come up to me and ask if they should go to film school, I say, ‘No, you should go buy some equipment and make a film.’ ” Conceding that we could see a lot of junk, he adds, “Just because you can make a movie doesn’t mean you should. But I do like the egalitarian aspect.” Soderbergh, who tends to commute between glossy studio projects and low-budget experiments, says he’ll continue to make Hollywood movies. But as theatres shift to digital projection, he says, “the studios are going to focus on the bigger, star-driven movies, and everything else will be done semiindependently. If I’ve got a movie of a certain budget, and it’s not big, I’ll just go to the bank and make my deal with Cineplex Odeon or Loews or AMC. What you’re going to see is that name filmmakers will self-distribute.” Meanwhile, no-name filmmakers are already self-distributing shorts online. Websites such as www.youtube.com and www.ifilm.com offer thousands of videos, from girls lip-synching in their underwear to a clip of riot police busting a rave. With videos popping up that went online “six minutes ago” or “four seconds ago,” the images keep washing up, a constant thrash of video surf. It’s the visual equivalent to blogging—and its audio counterpart is the new form of online radio called podcasting.

The podcast revolution hit my computer on July 7—coincidentally, the day of the London bombings, when cellphone photographs made their way to the front pages. That evening I opened my email and up popped a jolly little message from Apple announcing I now had free access to more than 3,000 podcasts (downloadable radio shows). The email declared “the Golden Age” of podcasting had arrived. That didn’t take long. In the digital age, even history has to move at warp speed if it wants to keep up. Overnight, my iTunes program had been infested with new media—thousands of little podcasts stacked in alphabetical order, complete with Top 10 and Top 100 lists. The most popular ones, such as The Al Franken Show and CBC Three, are Web offshoots from mainstream broadcasters. But most are “audio blogs” produced by amateurs sitting at home computers—people just talking to themselves, and to anyone who happens by. It’s Speakers Corner run rampant.

Reminiscent of the early Internet, the podsphere is an anarchic free-for-all, a honeycomb of basement broadcasters. But former MTV veejay Adam Curry, a.k.a. the Podfather, hopes to create a podcast network and corral it into the mainstream. He also hosts his own daily podcast, a diary-like reality show featuring himself, his wife and daughter. One Curry podcast begins with him getting into his car and driving through San Francisco. (“I’m off the Bay Bridge now. Now I want to get off at the 5th Street exit...”) If you think drivers on cellphones are crazy, you don’t want to think about them hosting shows.

The fireweed spread of podcasting is just one element of how the ¡Revolution may rewire the mass media. Curiously, it’s a revolution that’s embraced by both the left and the right. The left likes it because it puts mass media technology into the hands of the masses—iPower to the people. And the whole notion of interactive technology with homemade content seems inherently democratic. But if the socialist sees cyberspace as a public square, the capitalist views it as a utopian mall—a dream version of the ever-elusive free market. The Internet may turn out to be the ultimate big-box store, an ever-expanding universe of consumer options.

Then there are the corporate gatekeepers. A few communications giants, from Google to Microsoft, control access to the new media. And as computers monitor individual tastes

and buying habits, the Web could turn into a surveillance-style marketing tool beyond Orwell’s wildest nightmares. With its Crayola logo, Google may look like a warm and cuddly corporation, but it’s a powerful arbiter. “I love Google,” says Anna Serano, director of the New Media Lab at the Canadian Film Centre, “but there’s something a little scary about it... they’re going to control a lot of what people see.” In fact, plans by Google to scan millions of books for a digital library have alarmed Europeans, who fear it will become another form of U.S. cultural domination-one critic even raises the spectre of “unilateral command of the world’s thought.” So here’s the question. Is the new technology fostering a true cultural revolution, or an invasion of body snatchers? With the world at our fingertips, are we taking control of our

You can have sex while a webcam streams your digital flesh live to the Net

lives, or are we being turned into a matrix of creative consumers dreaming revolution while cocooned in ever more sophisticated pods?

Maybe both. But there does remain a huge gap between corporate and grassroots media. Tarnation may have cost Caouette $218.32 to make, but distributing it took a lot more money and corporate muscle, plus a hand from Gus Van Sant. “In theory,” says Caouette, “new editing technology brings film-

making to the people, so it’s like writing novels or playing in garage bands. But the film business is so heavy and cutthroat and crazy, with so many political factors getting in the way of who gets to screen what and where.”

With Tarnation, Caouette quilted a memoir from two decades of obsessive home moviemaking. Now he’s working on a feature that will weave an original story out of old footage. “I want to take three films from the 1970s, all starring the same actress, remix them into a whole new narrative—and then perhaps write a new coda for the actress, who’s still around.” But all that depends on Caouette acquiring rights to the old films from the studios. And it goes to the heart of what the revolution in self-expression is all about: sampling.

Hip hop thrives on sampling. But there’s a divide between the underground of unlicensed

mixes and the commercial mainstream. Some artists, such as Cadence Weapon, work both sides. Now that he has a legitimate CD, he still plans to sell his home-mix tape online and at shows. “There’s no bar code, no label, no contact on it,” he says. “When you’re on tour and you have this special CD you can’t buy in a store, with all this stuff that’s totally taboo and illegal, that’s a major draw.” Another promising Canadian rapper, Corrupted Nostalgia’s Jesse Gilmour (20-year-old son of Governor General Award-winning novelist David Gilmour), tapped unlicensed rhythm samples to record an incendiary demo CD. But now that he’s made a video, and is courting a commercial label, he says, “The new stuff we’re doing has to be with our own music, mangled the samples nobody have can tell. to There be so are guys who are paid to watch TV and listen to the radio for

illegal samples.”

If open-source data and software invite the democratic overthrow of copyright, sampling is the engine of promiscuity that drives it. And it’s changing self-expression the way the sexual revolution changed romance. In cyber-

Tn theory, new editing technology brings filmmaking to the people, so it's like writing novels or playing in garage bands'

space, everything is up for grabs. We’re filtering, filing and recombining data at an unprecedented rate. It’s as if we’re all busy editing the world—at least those of us who are hooked up to the IV drip of the Internet. In just a decade or two, we’ve become a mass culture of file clerks.

In the iWorld, where Google is God, we all behave like tiny search engines, running on the internal combustion of data. Even economist Tyler Cowen admits his daily blogs are a rummage bin of recycled material. “Threequarters of my posts are me filtering something I’ve read. I’m parasitic on other people. It’s more like being an editor than a writer.” Yet the daily hit of readership is addictive. Cowen says that, like most of his colleagues, he’s written scholarly papers that have been read by no more than 20 people. Every day he reaches 10,000 readers with his blog (marginalrevolution.com). He talks about crafting each instalment as if it were a pop song—“there’s always a hook.” Just as the iRevolution is democratizing music and film, it’s sweeping through the cloistered world of academics, and forcing scholars into the spotlight. The whole notion of “intellectual property,” the mortar of academia, is under assault. “My gut feeling,” says Cowen, “is that copyright as we know it will collapse.”

When everything’s online, the eccentric and the obscure acquire fresh currency. About a year ago, Wired editor Chris Anderson wrote an article about the “the long tail” phenomenon. He explained that the whole premise of box-office “hits” was manufactured on an

outdated model of the Hollywood studio. In the entertainment industry, the conventional wisdom is that 20 per cent of the products will be hits. But audiences congregate around hits simply because they’re there. Accessible, and easy to find.

However, people do have a natural appetite for more diverse fare. And increasingly, they can find it online, where there’s almost infinite shelf space, and shelf life. Anderson explains

how the long tail market for non-hits can generate more sales than hits. Pointing to Amazon.com, he says a large bookstore might carry 130,000 titles. “Yet more than half of Amazon’s book sales come from outside its top 130,000 titles.” In other words, the big money is in small products.

That’s good news for those looking for Korean action movies, cult TV shows, obscure jazz recordings—or work by emerging artists. The long tail theory of niche marketing is the consumer counterpart to the cottage industry of self-expression. Ephemera rules. But Anderson stresses that the hits remain an essential component of digital inventory. They focus attention and get consumers through the door, or the portal. Obscure artists get discovered through a cascade of mouse clicks through “similar artists”—the surfer can leapfrog from Britney Spears to No Doubt, to an obscure ska band in Coventry.

Some of the most revolutionary developments in digital self-expression may lie outside traditional media. Just 20 years ago, email, cellphones and iPods were unheard of. So you have to wonder: what’s

the next big little thing?

Here’s one contender. A team of young innovators at the Canadian Film Centre’s New Media Lab have invented a gadget called Doki-Doki, named after the word Japanese teenagers use for the heart flutter you feel when you have a crush on someone. The device consists of a leather bracelet with a fingertip sensor that monitors your heartbeat, then transmits it to an egg-shaped module that glows and vibrates with the pulse. Someone across a room can literally hold your heart in her hands.

The Doki-Doki could be used as a flirtation device in a singles bar, or be developed as a sex toy. But its inventors have broader goals— such as letting a mass audience feel physically connected to the pulse of a live performer. “If you want to think of it as a gimmick, you can,” says James Millward, 26, one of DokiDoki’s creators. “But imagine feeling Tiger Woods’ heartbeat as he makes a putt on the 18th green.” His team’s mission statement: “We seek to create visceral and transcendental experiences that connect people through technology and a shift in perspectives.”

Imagine a dance club where everyone’s heartbeat is wired for broadcast, and the deejay mixes the amplified tribal pulse into the music. What kind of mass cardiac feedback loop would that create, especially if you factor in designer drugs? Or how about feeling your lover’s heartbeat as a vibrating ring tone on your cellphone? Valentine’s Day may never be the same. McLuhan talked about media as an extension of our skin. And his metaphor is taking on a more literal truth as technology becomes wearable. The iPod, the camera phone—and the Doki-Doki—are just the beginning. McLuhan’s global village is shrinking into the global toytown.

As technology becomes more intimate in scale, the human body will be the last frontier of the iRevolution. The idea of the body as broadcast medium may sound far-fetchedlike something out of David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ. But there’s no reason to assume the new technology won’t be incorporated into fashions of tattooing, piercing and cosmetic surgery. Inevitably there will come a time when wireless communication will be grafted and implanted as interactive media in the flesh. And McLuhan’s playful spin on his famous slogan—the medium is the massage—will go deeper than he ever could have imagined. M

WE’RE STALKING...

KATIE HOLMES AND TOM CRUISE’S BABY

One medical doctor worries that baby Cruise may be exposed to avian flu if mom continues to visit dad’s movie set in China. In a recent South Park episode, it’s Cruise that everyone is concerned about, after he hides in a closet and won’t come out. And the parents-to-be seem to be suffering from a case of the chills—they were voted most frigid Hollywood celebrities by Film Threat magazine.