Rebirth of the Nation

Miller remixed D.W. Griffith's "Birth of a Nation" as a critique on racial politics. His Antarctica project touches on many of the same ideas, differently.
  • Transcript


Question: What inspired your film Rebirth of a Nation?

DJ Spooky:  My film "Rebirth of a Nation," amusingly enough, was a component of a show I had at Paula Cooper Gallery and one of the things that really goes into my mind when I think about contemporary art and music is how weirdly divided they are.  The art world likes music sort of, but when they do they usually go for sort of I call white bread art rock.  They don’t get…  You’ll never see hip hop in normal Whitney Biennial or whatever.  I mean they don’t…  The art world has problems with rhythm.  Now at the same time you have really interesting electronic music and multicultural, specifically multicultural, takes on contemporary art.  My film "Rebirth of a Nation" was a critique of the way Bush had gotten into office playing off of racial politics and the fears that whites have of being… becoming a minority. And I think the code words for the Bush Administration and people like Karl Rove was that State’s rights and devolution of federal powers would make these kind of white…  Now all the sudden you notice with the Obama Administration they’re having a rise of all these white militias and stuff like that.  Yeah, I mean white Americans feel anxiety about some of the issues and I think that that needs to be addressed. 

"Birth of a Nation," the film by D.W. Griffith is one of the most important films in American History.  It set the tone for how America views racial politics in cinema. So I got the rights to the film.  We remixed it... when I say we I guess, well, me.  And the whole idea was to apply DJ technique to film in a way that kind of self-implodes the film and get people to think about as a you know maybe something that needs to be looked at a lot more closely, so with Bush you have to remember: they played games with the black vote, they disenfranchised a large amount of people by playing those games, and again it was a lot of it happened in the old south that were in places like Ohio. So Birth of a Nation was the first film to show a flawed election and in 1915, I mean, you know, a lot of games were being played with the black vote.   So disenfranchisement, black face, you know if you fast forward and update it you could easily see the same resonance with "Avatar" where most of the main characters were in blue face, those were black actors for example. Or Jar Jar Binks this annoying creature that is like a minstrel on the "Star Wars" thing.  The racial politics is still very much prevalent in American film.  "Terminator" or you know, what is the "Transformers" where they have the kind of minstrel robots who had this annoying black sort of almost-gay voice or something.  When I say gay I’m not… no disrespect.  I’m just saying it’s a minstrel kind of emasculated male voice where they always make a black character like a Jar Jar Binks an annoying, “What’s up you all?”  You know those kind of very annoying creature or something like that that has a high pitched and like yeah, really annoying like you know. 
So anyway, "Birth of a Nation," what makes this Antarctic project different than that is they’re both critiques of the nation-state's relationship to the individual.  Antarctica is the only place on earth with no government.  It’s the only place that really says: "You are you."  The subjectivity that goes into that I mean once you step off a boat and you’re on an ice field in the middle of nowhere you are without the idea of the nation-state anymore.  And I think "Birth of a Nation"... obviously "nation," you know, nationalism, nation, state, the environmental politics that go into how nations play with carbon trading, how nations play with the idea of pollution and all these kinds of things you could say that the divisions now are even more encoded because of the North/South divide. Like the industrialized nations of the north versus the more multicultural countries of like China, India, Russia.  Well Russia is still considered European, but if you go slightly outside of... you know there is plenty of Russians that look very Asian.  So the racial politics that go into environmental issues is something that hangs like a specter over a lot of the process right now.  So I had a big gallery show at Robert Miller Gallery called "North/South."  It was a pun about my "Birth of a Nation" versus Antarctica.  Sense of humor in the title, but nonetheless, I’m very concerned about the way environmental politics shapes out with industrialized versus non-industrialized nations.  It’s something that really we have to think about. 

Recorded on April 8, 2010