Reading the Remix: Methods for Researching and Analysing the Interactive Textuality of Remix

Rob Cover

Abstract


Introduction

With the proliferation of remixed (audio-visual) texts such as fan music videos, slash video, mash-ups and digital stories utilising existing and new visual and audio material on sites such as YouTube, questions are opened as to the efficacy of current forms of media textual analysis.  Remixed texts have been positioned as a new and transformative form of art that, despite industry copyright concerns, do not compete with existing texts but makes use of them as ‘found material’ in order to produce an ostensibly intertextual experience (Lessig).  Intertexts include pastiche, parody and/or allusion to extant texts and, at the same time, acknowledge that no text is purely original but is built on its ostensible or tacit relationality with a broad range of other texts—relationalities which may be activated in reading or be coded into the text. 

Remixes are often the work of fan audiences who seek to engage in a participatory manner—a particular reading position that shifts into the act of writing—with texts, television, film and music of which one is a member of an avid audience or a community audience that engage with each other through collaborative production of new texts based on old.  The remix is a substantial outcome of such readerly, writerly and collaborative engagement whereby meanings drawn intertextually from the original text are re-produced, expanded upon, critiqued or re-framed through several different activities which may include:

  1. re-ordering existing audio-visual material in a way which, according to Constance Penley, was once done by Star Trek fans using magnetic tape and two video recorders to produce new narratives and interpretative frames by cutting and suturing material in an order different from that broadcast (Penley);
  2. presenting new meanings to texts, stories or narratives by taking visual material either in short cuts or long scenes and layering over popular music audio tracks, which is commonly done by television fans, such as fans of Buffy the Vampire Slayer in the early 2000s, who produce new meanings or re-emphasise old ones around relationships by bringing together (sometimes cheesy) songs with televised footage (Cover, More Than a Watcher).  In both cases, the texts are both new and old—they are a remix of existing material, but the act of remixing produces new frames for the activations of meanings or new narratives, that sit between the interactive and the intertextual. 

The fact that these forms can be traced back to pre-digital technologies of the 1970s (in the case of Penley’s Star Trek fan videos) or the pre-YouTube and Web 2.0 participatory sharing (in the case of Cover’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer fan videos, distributed through newslists, email and private website) indicates the deep-seated cultural desire or demand for participatory engagement and co-creative forms of encountering texts (Cover, Interactivity). 

In light of this new form of participatory communication experience, there has emerged a methodological gap requiring new frameworks for researching and analysing the remix text as a text, and within the context of its interactivity, intertextuality, layering and the ways in which these together reconfigure existing narratives and produce new narrative.   This paper outlines some approaches used in teaching students about contemporary interactive and convergent digital texts by undertaking practical textual analyses of sample remix audio-video texts.  I will discuss some of the more important theoretical issues concerning the analysis of remix texts, with particular attention to notions of interactivity, intertextuality and layering.  I will then outline some practical steps for undertaking this kind of analysis in the classroom.

By understanding the remix text through a metaphor of layering (drawn from Photoshopping and digital manipulation terminology), a method for ‘remix analysis’ can be put forward that presents innovative ways of engaging with textuality and narrative.  Such analyses incorporate narrative sourcing, identification of user-generated content, sequencing, digital manipulation, framing and audio/visual juxtaposition as starting points for reading the remix text. Remix analyses, in this framework, optimise a reflective engagement with contemporary issues of copyright and intellectual property, textual genealogy, intertextuality, co-creative production and emergent forms of interactivity.

Interactivity and Intertextuality

For Lawrence Lessig, remix is a form of creativity that puts in question the separation between reader and writer.  It emphasises instead the participatory form in which read-write creativity (or co-creativity) becomes the normative standard of high-level engagement with extant texts through both selection and arrangement (56).  Remix culture, for Lessig, makes use of digital technologies that have been developed for other purposes and practices and delivers forms of collage, complexity, and co-creativity directed towards a broader audience. 

The role played by YouTube as a sharing site which makes available the massive number of remixed texts is testament to the form’s significance as an interactive, intertextual creation or co-creation.  As Burgess and Green have argued, consumer co-creation is fundamental to YouTube’s mission and role in the distribution of texts (4-5).  It is more than a peripheral site for re-distribution of either existing texts or private video-logs but, today, operates as a mainstream component in a broader media matrix. In this matrix, the experience of textual audiencehood is re-coded as participatory engagement with prior texts, in order both to reflect on those texts and to produce new ones in a co-creative capacity.  This is not to suggest that YouTube is not complicit in copyright regimes that actively seek to restrict participatory and co-creative artistic practice in favour of older models of textual ownership and control over distribution (Cover, Audience Inter/Active).  Its digital capacity to police remixed texts that have been marked by corporate copyright holders as unavailable for further use or manipulation has been a substantial development on the side of traditional copyright in the push-pull struggle between free co-creativity and limiting regimes (Cover, Interactivity), although this does not altogether stem the production of the remix as a substantial experience of artistic practice and of user participatory engagement with media matrices. 

Central to understanding and analysing the remix as a text in its own right is the fact that it is interactive, a point which leads to the assertion that analytic tools suited to traditional, non-interactive texts are not always going to be adequate to the task of unpacking and drawing out thematic and conceptual material from a remix’s narrative.  Although interactivity has been difficult to define, the form of interactivity in which we see the remix is that which involves an element of co-creativity between the author of a source text and the user of the text who interacts with the source to transform it into something new. 

Spiro Kiousis has argued that while definitions of interactivity are amorphous, there is value in the concept “as long as we all accept that the term implies some degree of receiver feedback and is usually linked to new technologies” (357).   For Lelia Green, however, interactivity implies the capacity of a communication medium to have its products altered by the actions of a user or audience (xx).  In the case of the latter, interactivity covers not only the sorts of texts in which audience or user engagement is required as a built-in part of the process, such as in digital games, but those texts, forms, mediums and experiences in which existing texts are manipulated, revised, re-used or brought together, such as in the remix. 

Drawing on Bordewijk and van Kaam, Sally McMillan delineated the concept of interactivity into a typology of four intersecting levels or uses:

  1. Allocution, in which interactive engagement is minimal, and is set within the context of a single, central broadcaster and multiple receivers on the periphery (273). This would ordinarily include most traditional mass media forms such as television and the selection of channels.
  2. Consultation, which occurs in the use of a database, such as a website, where a user actively searches for pre-provided information but does not seek to alter that information (273).  Access here does not alter the content, source, narrative or information that has been requested.  Drawing information from Wikipedia without the intent of editing information may alter the metadata or framework through providing the site with tracking information, but in this case the textuality of the text as accessed is not transformed through this level of interactivity.
  3. Registration, which does record access patterns and accumulates information from the periphery in a central registry which alters the information, significance or context of the material (273).  McMillan’s early Web 1.0 example of registrational interactivity was the internet ‘cookie’, which tracks and customises content of internet sites visited by the user.  However, as a category of interactivity in which the narrative or form of the text itself is altered in its reading or use, it might also be said to include the electronic game as well as forms of communications engagement which access a source text, manipulate, customise or re-form it using commonly-available or sophisticated software, and re-distribute it through digital means.  Here, the narrative is knowingly acted upon in ways which alter it for other uses. 
  4. Conversational, which occurs when individuals interact directly with each other, usually in real-time in ways which mimic face-to-face engagement without physical presence at a locale (273).  An online written chat using a relay platform provided by a social networking site that does not record the text is an example; likewise using a video skype account is also conversational interactivity.

While McMillan’s ‘registrational’ definition of interactivity, as the one which gives greater capacity to an audience to change, alter and manipulate a text or a textual narrative, allows considerable redefinition of the traditional author-text-audience relationship, none of the four-scale definitions adequately allow for the ways in which remix texts are at once interactive, intertextual, intermedial and built through participatory re-layering and re-organising of a broader corpus of material in ways typically not invited by the original texts or their original distributional mediums—hence the concerns around copyright and distributional control (Cover, Audience Inter/Active). 

As an outcome of registrational interactivity, the remix presents itself not merely in terms of how the relationship is structured in the context of new digital media, but also shifts how the audience has been conceived historically in terms of its ability to control the text and its internal structure and coherence.  In light of both new developments in interactivity with the text as found in the increasing popularity of new media forms such as electronic gaming, and the ‘backlash’ development of new technologies, software and legal methods that actively seek to prevent alteration and re-distribution of texts, the historical and contemporary conception of the author-text-audience affinity can be characterised as a tactical war of contention for control over the text.  This is a struggle set across a number of different contexts, media forms, sites and author/audience capacities but is embodied in the legal, cultural and economic skirmishes over the form and use of remix texts. 

More significantly, however, the remix is an interactivity that is conscious of the intertextuality that produces the various juxtapositions to create new narratives.  All texts are intertextual, and the concept of intertextuality takes into account the network of other, similar texts to which any new text contributes and by which it is influenced. This similarity can be produced by several factors, including genre, allusion, trace, pastiche and aesthetics.  Intertextuality can include the fact that a text is related to and permeated by the discourse of its sources (Bignell 92), but in all cases it shapes the meanings, significations and potential readings of a text in a way attuned to the polysemy of contemporary cultural production.  In the context of interactivity, however, it is through co-creative engagement that intertextuality of both the source and the new text are drawn out as a deliberate act of creation. 

Layering

As an interactive and deliberately intertextual text, the remix or mash-up is best understood as layered intermedia, that is, as a narrative comprised of—or fused between—moving image and sound, audio which includes dialogue, effects, incidental and narrative-related music.  In that context, no individual component of the text can be understood or analysed away from the elements into which it has been remixed.  New meanings emerge in intermedia remixes not simply because originary or new intertextualities are produced by user-creators relying on existing sources, but because those sources themselves no longer operate with the same set of meanings and significations, allowing the productive activation of new meanings (Bennett). 

While it is important to pay attention to the fact that the narrative of a remix text works only through the reconfiguration of the intermedia of audio and visual in order to create a new text with subsequent new potential meanings, the analysis must pay attention to the various forms of layering that constitute all audio-visual texts.   For Lessig, such layering is a digital form of collage (70). However it is also the means by which, on the one hand, new intertextualities are developed through juxtaposition of different sources in order to give them all new significations and to activate new meanings and, on the other hand, to draw attention to the existing potential intertextuality of the sources and the polysemy of meaning. 

Understanding layering of texts involves understanding a text in a three-dimensional capacity.  This is where some basic awareness of digital image manipulation through application software such as Photoshop and Gimp can be instructive in providing frameworks through which to understand contemporary digital media forms and analyse the ways in which they, as potential, productively activate sets or ranges of meanings.  Such digital manipulation programs require the user to think about, say, an image as being built upon and manipulated across different layers, whereby a core image is ‘drawn out’ into its third dimension through adding, shifting, changing, re-figuring and re-framing—layer over layer.  The core remains, but is radically altered by what occurs at the different layers. 

Likewise, the remix is produced through interacting with a number of different source texts together within a conceptual framework that is three-dimension and operates across layers.  These include the two primary layers of the visual and the audio—for remixes are typically audio-visual—but also through interacting with a range of intertextual meanings that, likewise, can be understood in three-dimensional layers across the temporality of an audio-visual moving text. 

Method of Analysis

A simple typology for analysing remix texts—focusing particularly on fan videos on YouTube, including  same-sexualised fan fiction known as slash and those texts which re-order television and film material juxtaposed against popular music tracks—emerged from a first-year undergraduate digital media cultures course I taught at The University of Adelaide in 2010.  With a broad range of meanings, views, interpretations and engagements emerging in large-group teaching, we workshopped possible scenarios with the aim of establishing some steps that can be used to consider the place of the remix in the context of its narrative interactivity and intertextual groundings. 

A typological method for analysis is not necessarily the most sophisticated way in which to draw out narrative threads and strands from a remix text and, indeed, there may be value in exploring remixed texts from other perspectives such as the YouTube-enabled participatory reflectiveness that emerges from community and commentary perspectives.  However, to understand the narrative elements that emerge from a remix there is also great value in beginning with an unstitching of its constituent components in order to understand the interactive, intertextual, intermedial formation of the remix through its structuration and selectivity and assembling of extant texts. 

To best describe a typology for analysing the remix as a text and an interactive intertext, we might use an example.  Let us say, hypothetically, a YouTube remix video of three- minutes-and-fifty-seconds in length that takes various scenes from the television series Arrested Development, perhaps the two characters of adult brothers GOB and Michael Bluth, from across its four years and sets them against a single audio track, Belle & Sebastian’s Seeing Other People

Such an example would not be an uncommon remix, which may be an expression of fandom for Arrested Development or perhaps an expression of critical engagement that actively draws attention to the range of reading positions, formations and potential productive activation of meanings (Bennett) around sibling relationships in the original.  That is, by juxtaposing a popular audio track about the awkwardness of romantic relationships against images of the closeness, distance and competitiveness of the two brothers is to give it a ‘slash’ element, thereby presenting a narrative which either implies a pseudo-sexual or romantic component to the brotherly relationship (an activity not uncommon in the production of slash) or makes a critical statement about the way in which the theatrics of touch, familial hugging, looking and seeing or positioning in visual frames is utilised in the series in ways which are open to alternative readings. 

Now that it is determined such a remix might actively and self-consciously play with the juxtaposition across two layers to create additional meanings, the real work of analysis can be undertaken.  This, of course, could include thematic, discursive or narrative analysis of the text alone.  However, if one is to work with the notion that a remix is always produced in both interactivity and intertextuality, then a number of steps must be taken at the level of individual layers and, subsequently, together.  This aids in understanding the sourcing, collocation, positioning, re-ordering in order to come to a depth of interpretation as to a possible meaning of the remix among the many available in a polysemic cultural product. 

Step One: Determine the Video Narrative Source.  This involves establishing if the remix’s video material is from a singular source (such as a single film or television episode), multiple sources (many films) and, if multiple, if these are from the same genre, with the same actors, same director or different in each case.  It also involves ascertaining if there is user-generated visual content such as additional material, animation or captioning.  Exploring the possible arrangements of the visual source, while assuming that the audio track remains singular and identifiable, provides opportunities to consider the thematic, genre and story elements and their significations for the resulting new, co-creative narrative of the remix.  This step invites the scholar to consider how the remix’s discernible narrative differs from the scholar’s reading of the source video texts, how the visual material signifies without its original audio component (for example, the dialogue in a television episode) and the ways in which the separation of the source visual from audio presents new interpretative frames. 

Step Two: Understand the Narrative Sequence.  Has the video material been cut (pieces extracted and re-joined? Has the temporal order of the video material been re-sequenced.  How do these shifts and changes impact on the narrative or story told?  In our example here, we might find a series of scenes of two characters hugging or touching, with the narrative elements from the original episode that occur between—that is, that give a context to those hugs—removed.  Asking how the removal of that contextual material presents the source clips as a new narrative and a new interactively-derived creation is central to this step. 

Step Three: Visual Manipulation.  What additional visual manipulation features have been added—fade-ins, fade-outs, framing, changes to the speed or playback time of the source video?  Accounting for these enables the viewer to position the remix narrative at a point of distance from the source, shifting from derivative to intertextual.  Naturally, these must be understood in the context of the earlier steps while foregrounding the interactive form of the remix as a co-created piece that is more than just an intervention into an original text but the utilisation through manipulation of a range of texts to produce a new one. 

Step Four: Narrative Engagement and CollocationHere, the scholar must assess the extent to which the audio source has a ‘fit’ with the visual.  Thematic and discourse analysis (among others) can be applied to determine the way in which audio track, in addition to the above four steps and manipulations, productively activate new meanings, contexts and frames in the narrative.  Importantly, however, this step requires not only asking what the audio does to the video, but the reverse.  Using the Arrested Development example, one must ask what the visual material does for the meanings that are denoted within the audio, its musical elements and its lyrics: to what extent does the video source ‘fit’ with or re-position the significance of the audio dialogue and present it with meanings it would not otherwise have in an audio-online context (or, of course, in the context of its use in an ‘authorised’ music video). 

Together, these four steps present one possible means of ‘coming at’ the interactive and intertextual roots of the remix as a co-creative text.  It is not merely to analyse how the source has been used or how the remix allows the sources to be presented or distributed differently, but to understand how new narratives emerge in the context of the various ‘mixings’ that come out of interactive engagement with the text to produce intertextual activation of meanings.  Analysing remix texts through this method opens the possibility not only of being able to articulate readings of the text that are built on interactivity and layering, but a critique of the contemporary conditions of textual production.  By demonstrating the ways in which a text can be understood to be located not just within intertextuality but within intertextual layers, it is possible to reflect more broadly on all textuality as being produced, disseminated and having its meanings productively activated in the context of ‘degrees’ of layers and ‘degrees’ of of interactivity.

References

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Burgess, J., and J. Green. YouTube: Online Video and Participatory Culture. Cambridge: Polity, 2009. 

Cover, R. “Interactivity: Reconceiving the Audience in the Struggle for Textual ‘Control’.” Australian Journal of Communication, 31.1 (2004): 107-120.

— — —. “Audience Inter/Active: Interactive Media, Narrative Control & Reconceiving Audience History.” New Media & Society 8.1 (2006): 213-232.

— — —. “More than a Watcher: Buffy Fans, Amateur Music Videos, Romantic Slash and Intermedia.” Music, Sound and Silence in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Ed. P. Attinello, J. K. Halfyard & V. Knights, London: Ashgate, 2010. 131-148.

Green, L.  Communication, Technology and Society.  St. Leonards, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 2002.

Jenkins, H. “What Happened before YouTube.” YouTube: Online Video and Participatory Culture. Ed. J. Burgess and J. Green. Cambridge: Polity, 2009. 109-125. 

Kiousis, S. “Interactivity: A Concept Explication.” New Media & Society 4.3 (2002): 355-383.

Lessig, L. Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2008.

McMillan, S. “A Four-Part Model of Cyber-Interactivity: Some Cyber-Places are More Interactive than Others.” New Media & Society 4.2 (2002): 271-291.

Penley, C. Nasa/Trek: Popular Science and Sex in America. London & New York: Verso, 1997.


Keywords


remix; interativity; intertextuality; narrative; analysis



Copyright (c) 2013 Rob Cover

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