Chris Mitchell’s wordsmith alter-ego William Stopha stands alongside a number of artists who have experimented with the spoken word as a means of self-expression, and who have incorporated various art forms in the process, typically to convey personal or social concerns.
From the ‘performance poetry’ of Hedwig Gorski to Linton Kwesi Johnson declaring ‘Inglan Is A Bitch’ on the BBC, spoken word as a platform, as performance, as the basis for rap and hip-hop and as an art form in itself has evolved alongside, and become incorporated into, popular culture and the mass media channels that support it.
As with most live performance, be it an intimate spoken word performance in a basement venue or a major concert to a sell-out stadium crowd, no form of reproducibility can ever recreate the sensation of actually being there, as confirmed by Walter Benjamin in his 1936 essay, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.’
“Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be…The presence of the original is the prerequisite to the concept of authenticity.”
Yet, this idea of authenticity is also extremely subjective. Any element of performance, be it spoken or sung, is never exactly the same when repeated even if the artist in question doesn’t change the set list or a single line.
Having seen a number of artists and bands throughout the years, sometimes multiple of times on the same tour within a matter of days, it’s easy to gauge whether or not it’s been a good performance by comparing it the more recent performances. The artist may be warbling the same lines, performing the same dance moves or recalling the same anecdote, but the performance remains individual – the energy in the performance can differ, just as audiences themselves can differ, and just as I, the spectator, may be feeling different that evening, therefore coming to a different, totally subjective conclusion about the performance.
In turn this can raise doubt into the authenticity of the show – the thought of a repeated performance, recalling previous performances and the effect of memory, of comparing previous performances and assessing whether the performer in question was ‘going through the motions’ night after night, can affect an audience’s sense of and assessment of authenticity. In turn this is tied into a spectator’s interpretation of the quality of performance and their own experiences and sensations at being there at that particular time.
Interestingly, Benjamin mentions the aura of a work of art and states that, “that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art.” – yet one can argue that mechanical reproduction can add a new aura / energy to the work – the opportunity to control the way in which a performance is given via rewind, pause and playback, can allow new meaning and understanding to be garnered, just as a reproduction of a painting, photograph or sculpture can allow closer inspection and scrutiny that gallery ropes and security cameras would never permit.
Of course the attendance at a performance, concert, exhibition or happening can be of great significance to the attendees. “You had to be there'”or “I was there” are clichés used by any enthusiastic culture-vulture keen to prove their sense of taste, experience or allegiance to an artist or scene. It can also be used in a cultural score-keeping exercise – being present at a performance essentially ranks higher in worth over the non-spectator relying on second-hand accounts or recordings.
If the artist in question is now dead, then that ‘genuine’ experience becomes even more valid, as the absence of the artist / performer becomes even more significant to the sense of authenticity and being there. Examining early photography, Benjamin (1936) states:
“It is no accident that the portrait was the focal point of early photography. The cult of remembrance of loved ones, absent or dead, offers a last refuge for the cult value of the picture.”
And the same can be said for audio / visual recordings of artists / performers no longer with us. Nirvana’s performance of the seminal ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ recorded at the band’s last gig in Rome in 1994 is available on YouTube. Shot by a spectator oblivious to the fact that it would be frontman Kurt Cobain’s last live appearance before his suicide three weeks later, the wobbly handheld footage now bears significant cultural weight. It would have been nothing more than mere fan fodder had Cobain survived to sing another note. Yet knowing the tragic after-story, in this instance, reproducibility is valuable as a means of documentation, of retaining memory and preserving artistic and cultural legacy. Of course you had to be there.
In his project proposal, Chris Mitchell states that “Homogenous product for sale stifles the plurality of creative voices and we are left with the self-serving dominant myth that commercial viability is the only measure of success.” Yet for some artists, the opportunity to work with those responsible for mass production and distribution of said homogenous products allows their message to be heard, which, in short, can be deemed as a huge success, even if the long-run, the enterprise fails to be financially rewarding.
Essentially, this line of argument stems back to the notion of credibility, authenticity and ‘keeping it real’ – a badge of honour worn by an artist that shows that they remain true to their roots or motives. Yet, any artist would savour the opportunity to perform to a huge audience via popular broadcast media. Despite traditional media channels and the music industry being affected by the Internet and the creation and distribution of media products (both legally and illegally), artists can creatively consider how, when and where they share their product and more means of doing so. In turn, the Internet also serves as an open forum for criticism and the wrath of commentators and fans alike, who will sneer at the first whiff of “selling out.”
The established forms of promotion and distribution – be it the gallery system, the record label, the TV channel or the popular press were, and remain, valid, powerful and effective in helping artists (regardless of their chosen media) gain exposure and reach a mass audience even when their work criticises mass cultural consumption.
Gil Scott-Heron’s 1971 spoken piece ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’ would not have been heard by black or white alike if it hadn’t been recorded and distributed by a record company whilst its second generation sequel, the 1992 track, ‘Television, The Drug Of The Nation’ by the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprsy boldly bites the music channel’s hand that feeds them.
Stoney Jackson’s blog – This Music Sucks provides regular commentary on today’s mainstream music scene, with his critical eye largely cast on the commercial aspect of music (product) distribution, ridiculing record companies attempts to give credence to their artists or, in turn, how artists lose their credibility through a change in their style or through blatant commercialism.
In his blog entry, 5 Ways Musicians Destroy Their Credibility, he calls the music industry, “as it stands today…a necessary evil…We understand musicians need to make money to be able to keep bringing us their music, but sometimes too far is too far,” before launching into a fantastic tirade about artists selling their albums via coffee shop chains, reforming for big-cash reunion concerts.
Mitchell’s statement that “Alternative values, and indeed alternative artists and thinkers, those Philips (2005) refers to as marginalised, are all too invisible in mainstream,” is also questionable when one considers the true meaning of what is alternative in today’s culture, how the term has been banded about and applied to cultural artefacts from clothing to comics as well as specific genres of music – alternative, at best, has now been reduced to a useful marketing term.
In this epoch of YouTube, Facebook, MySpace and other social networking and file distribution sites, reproducibility can benefit an artist, who can now communicate with a tech-savvy audience who can access, view and comment on their work around the clock. Yet, the advent of media manipulation software now means even the most ardent, sincere message isn’t safe.
Reproducibility can also lead to a variety of pastiches created in a matter of minutes. It’s also given way to a rise in video artists who will reinterpret audio and visual material to their own means – where reproducibility becomes a by-product of a new form of expression.
Take video artist’s Lindsay Scoggin’s 2008 re-edit of ‘Fuck The Pain Away’ by spoken word / performer Peaches, now reinvented with vintage clips from The Muppet Show in a new piece of work that’s as comical as it is deviant. To date, the clip has garnered over 2 million hits, exposing Peaches to her largest audience yet, in a medium that makes her credible, relevant and contemporary, all without leaving her studio. This two-minute university assignment has gone stellar, no doubt helping the artist’s original sales rocket past the original 50,000 copies of the album sold. Unsurprisingly, the clip received a blessing from Peaches herself. However, Miss Piggy was unavailable to comment.