Multimedia

A history of subversive remix video before YouTube: Thirty political video mashups made between World War II and 2005

Jonathan McIntosh

San Francisco, California, United States

[0.1] Keywords—Fan vid; Film; Gender; Government; Media; News; Politics; Race; Remix; Sexuality; TV; War

McIntosh, Jonathan. 2012. "A History of Subversive Remix Video before YouTube: Thirty Political Video Mashups Made between World War II and 2005." In "Fan/Remix Video," edited by Francesca Coppa and Julie Levin Russo, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 9. doi:10.3983/twc.2012.0371.

1. Introduction

[1.1] Filmmakers, fans, activists, artists, and media makers have been reediting television, movies, and news media for critical and political purposes since almost the very beginning of moving pictures. Over the past century, this subversive form of populist remixing has been called many things, including appropriation art, détournement, media jamming, found footage, avant-garde film, television hacking, telejusting, political remix, scratch video, vidding, outsider art, antiart, and even cultural terrorism.

[1.2] The politically oriented mashup video subgenre has its roots in the rich and diverse history of left-leaning, often deeply antiauthoritarian, creative traditions. These transformative works, by their very nature, are suspicious of and challenge political, corporate, media, and social power structures. They focus on a wide array of issues, including race, gender, sexuality, and economics, in addition to more overtly political topics of government, public policy, and warfare.

2. A very brief history

[2.1] The very first political remixes can be traced back to Russia during the 1920s, when Soviet filmmakers like Esfir Shub began recutting American Hollywood films to give them a sharper class commentary. In 1928, the leftist Popular Association of Film Art in Berlin screened recut newsreel scenes "combined in such a manner that they suddenly lost their political innocence and assumed an inflammatory character." German police shut down the screenings. A decade and a half later, during World War II, Charles A. Ridley created (and gave away for free) the first viral political mashup by reediting footage of Nazi soldiers to make them appear to dance and sing in time to the tune "The Lambeth Walk."

[2.2] Throughout the 1970s, Situationist International artists like René Viénet remixed Chinese propaganda films and kung fu movies to ridicule Mao and Stalin from a left-wing, antiauthoritarian perspective. Around the same time, feminist artist Dana Birnbaum released her influential 1978 video remix "Technology/Transformation: Wonder Woman" (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k6xZOUXNyQg), and although it falls into the high-art category, the work did inspire many subsequent artists to work with pop culture imagery.

[2.3] In the mid-1970s, female media fan communities produced their own form of critical remix: the art form now known as vidding. Following Kandy Fong's pioneering 1975 use of slide shows, groups of female fans began creating vids or fan vids by remixing television and film footage to create works that spoke to female (and sometimes to queer) audiences. Often these works were overtly or implicitly critical of mainstream popular culture narratives.

[2.4] When VCR technology became more widely accessible in the early 1980s, a group of politically minded UK artists calling themselves video scratchers appropriated television footage to create biting critiques of pop culture media and Margaret Thatcher's economic policies. Scratchers Sandra Goldbacher and Kim Flitcroft were known for recutting television commercials and music videos to provide a feminist critique. In the early 1990s, several US-based groups of media jammers like EBN and Negativland responded to the televised footage of the first gulf war by creating remixes of evening news broadcasts and TV ads. Underground filmmaker Craig Baldwin documented many of these media jammers and the controversy surrounding their work in his 1995 feature film Sonic Outlaws. That same year, multimedia artist and self-described childhood cartoon fan Jesse Drew released his remixed "Manifestoon" (http://www.archive.org/details/Manifestoon), combining dozens of appropriated Golden Age Hollywood animations with the words of Karl Marx.

[2.5] The second Bush administration—followed by the second US war in Iraq—provoked an explosion in subversive remix works, spurred on, in part, by cheaper and better computer-based editing applications. Before YouTube and other large-scale video sharing services came into existence, political remixers relied on community Web portals like the Guerrilla News Network (GNN) and Adbusters to find, share, and discuss remix works, as it was often too expensive for individuals to host video.

3. What constitutes a subversive remix video?

[3.1] While political or subversive remix video as a transformative category is obviously very broad, it is possible to pick out some shared characteristics to determine if remix works fit into this subgenre. Five essential features are present in all the included videos. (1) Works appropriate mass media audiovisual source material without permission from copyright holders, and often rely on the US fair use doctrine or UK fair dealing. (2) Works comment on, deconstruct, or challenge media narratives, dominant myths, social norms, and traditional power structures—they can be either sympathetic to or antagonistic to their pop culture sources, sometimes both at the same time. (3) Works transform the original messages embedded in the source material, as well as the source material itself. (4) Works are intended for general audiences or do-it-yourself (DIY) communities rather than elite, academic, or high-art audiences, and thus tend to use familiar mass media formats such as trailers, television ads, music videos, and news segments as vehicles for the new message. (5) Works are DIY productions and rely on grassroots distribution methods such as VHS tape duplicating circles, underground screenings, and, eventually, self-hosted Web sites. Many subversive video makers now put their work on YouTube, or similar sites, since its launch in November 2005.

4. Thirty subversive remix videos created before YouTube

[4.1] The following is a representative collection of subversive video remixes made between World War II and the launch of YouTube in November 2005; many of these works may also fit into other remix video genres. A version of this playlist is also available online via YouTube (http://www.youtube.com/playlist?p=00D0543F493057D1).

Video 1. "The Lambeth Walk—Nazi Style" by Charles A. Ridley (1941).

[4.2] During World War II, Charles A. Ridley reedited footage of Hitler and Nazi soldiers (taken from the propaganda film Triumph of the Will [1935]) to make it appear as if they were marching and dancing to the popular tune "The Lambeth Walk." He used that music because members of the Nazi party had referred to the song as "Jewish mischief and animalistic hopping." The remixed short was distributed for free to Allied newsreel companies in the United States and United Kingdom, making it the first viral remix video—created over 60 years before YouTube.

Video 2. Peking Duck Soup (excerpt) by René Viénet (1977).

[4.3] This is a short excerpt from the feature-length détournement documentary Peking Duck Soup (also called Chinois, encore un effort pour être révolutionnaires) by French Situationist director René Viénet. The situationist cinématheque film appropriates and repurposes 1970s TV ads, kung fu films, newsreels, and official Chinese Communist Party (CCP) propaganda films to create a devastating anti-Maoist critique of the CCP, the Cultural Revolution, and Mao Tse-tung himself. The full-length film can be seen via the UbuWeb avant-garde repository (http://www.ubu.com/film/vienet_chinois.html).

Video 3. "Death Valley Days" (excerpt) by Gorilla Tapes (1984).

[4.4] This excerpt—entitled "Secret Love"—is part of a longer video called "Death Valley Days," created by the British scratch video group Gorilla Tapes in 1984. The full 20-minute remix compilation consists of five parts and appropriates news footage, TV shows, and Hollywood movies to reframe the relationship between conservative politicians Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. In the early to mid-1980s, scratch videos would be seen in nightclub performances, at independent cinemas, and through DIY distribution on VHS tapes. Some scratch video artists referred to their work as antiart or even cultural terrorism.

Video 4. "Blue Monday" by the Duvet Brothers (1985).

[4.5] This remix video was created by the UK scratch video duo the Duvet Brothers in 1985. It was created by combining recorded TV footage with the popular song "Blue Monday" by the New Wave band New Order. The music video remix is constructed as a comment on class inequality, privatization, and the economic polices of the Thatcher government. Ironically, even though the UK video scratchers were largely outcasts from the high-art world in the 1980s, much of their work now resides in elite museum collections. As a result, much of it is not available on the Internet.

Video 5. "Apocalypse Pooh" by Todd Graham (1987).

[4.6] This VCR-made remix from the late 1980s appropriates famous fictional animals from Disney's animated version of Winnie the Pooh and recasts them as characters in Francis Ford Coppola's gritty Vietnam War drama Apocalypse Now. In the new narrative, the beloved Hundred Acre Wood is transformed into a horrific war zone in which Pooh, Piglet, and the rest of the gang struggle to keep their sanity. The humorous and slightly disturbing juxtaposition was an underground viral hit at comic book conventions, and bootlegged copies were passed around and traded on VHS tape. Graham's work, which he called telejusting, differs in some respects from that of later media jammers in that it requires viewers to at least know, if not be a fan of, the original source material. Graham, unlike many political remixers, also managed to create some sympathy for his telejusted cartoon characters.

Video 6. "The Reagans Speak Out on Drugs" by Cliff Roth (1988).

[4.7] This classic remix was made by Cliff Roth in 1988 with two VCRs. The footage, taken from a 1988 antidrug address by both Ronald and Nancy Reagan, has been reedited to suggest the inauguration of a prodrug campaign in the United States. This humorous mashup attempts to undermine the US government's scare tactics and serves as a poignant critique of the disastrous Reagan-initiated war on drugs that has left hundreds of thousands of nonviolent offenders languishing in prisons all over the United States.

Video 7. "Oh Boy" (excerpt) by Sterling Eidolan and the Odd Woman Out (ca. 1990).

[4.8] This fan vid uses footage from the 1980s sci-fi TV show Quantum Leap, created by Sterling Eidolan and the Odd Woman Out, who were members of a larger fan collective called the California Crew. The remix plays off both the main character's weekly catchphrase "Oh, boy!" and the famous Buddy Holly song. Through the use of two VCRs, the vidders remarkably manage to sync up the actor's lips to make it appear as though he is mouthing those lyrics. Quantum Leap was a show that inspired a huge female fan base, and this vid celebrates female sexual desire at a time when most television narratives catered to heterosexual male desire. Also, as Francesca Coppa points out in "Women, Star Trek, and the Development of Fannish Vidding," the show's clichéd "bimbo of the week" narrative has been transformed here into one story featuring scores of female characters (doi:10.3983/twc.2008.0044).

Video 8. "The Iraq Campaign 1991: A Television History" (excerpt) by Phil Patiris (1991).

[4.9] These culture-jamming parody commercials for Exxon and GE are part of a 20-minute remix film entitled "Iraq Campaign 1991," created by San Francisco–based media artist Phil Patiris. In response to the first gulf war, Patiris appropriated and transformed network news footage, clips from Star Trek: The Next Generation, and the movie Dune, as well as NFL sports coverage, to playfully critique the media-industrial complex. The full remixed film is available via YouTube (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tg7_ouYmO6Q) and the Internet Archive.

Video 9. "Gulf War: Ground War" by Emergency Broadcast Network (1991).

[4.10] This is the second half of a two-part 20-minute remix called "Gulf War: The Ground War," created by the multimedia performance group Emergency Broadcast Network (EBN). They created the remix in 1991 in response to the first gulf war. The video transforms cable news broadcasts by cutting them to a beat, often having the lyrics "sung" by newscasters or politicians through quick jump-cut editing techniques. The VHS tape of this project, which contains a clip of George H. W. Bush singing Queen's "We Will Rock You," became a underground viral hit distributed by EBN fans, who passed around bootleg copies. EBN's video remixing style was largely aggressive and unsympathetic to pop culture media, and often implied that television audiences had become victims of brainwashing or mind control. It was one of the first political agitprop remixes, and in the two decades since, it has remained popular with both left-wing and right-wing political activists. Part 1, "Gulf War: The Air War," is also available via YouTube (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d6OmnsbMci4).

Video 10. "Read My Lips" by A Thousand Points of Night (1992).

[4.11] This remix music video was built around George H. W. Bush's now-infamous "read my lips" sound bite from his 1988 presidential election campaign. The song was recorded by Don Was (of the band Was Not Was) under the pseudonym of A Thousand Points of Night. The music video for the single later caused a media controversy when it was shown on MTV during the Bush/Clinton/Perot three-way presidential election showdown in 1992. The second half of this clip is a PBS discussion about the sinister implications of remix video with Bill Moyers, Doug Bailey, and Kathleen Hall Jamieson.

Video 11. "And Now a Word from Our Sponsor" by Dangerous Squid (1994).

[4.12] Dangerous Squid (artist Bryan Boyce) was inspired to make this hilarious TV advertising mashup by the classic early 1990s "Barbie Liberation Organization" (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eMHMf9y-27w) culture-jamming project created by ®TMark. The remix combines a TV commercial for the remote-controlled Dancing Barbie with one for the G.I. Joe Cobra Detonator to subvert the stereotypical gender roles in the marketing of toys for boys and girls.

Video 12. "The Street Muppets N.W.A" (1994).

[4.13] This VCR-made remix was created by an unnamed student at Florida State University in 1994 by combining footage from Sesame Street with the protest rap song "Fuck the Police" from N.W.A's 1988 album Straight Outta Compton. The result is a humorous juxtaposition of the lovable, but now fed up, Kermit the Frog singing (in Ice Cube's voice) lyrics highlighting the widespread police brutality against black urban youth in the United States.

Video 13. "Detachable Penis" by Media Cannibals (1997).

[4.14] This VCR-made remix by the vidding crew Media Cannibals appropriates footage from the late 1970s British TV show The Professionals and sets it to the song "Detachable Penis" by the band King Missile. The vid reinterprets the lyrics to create a humorous commentary about the series' phallic imagery and emphasis on guns, and the connection to mass media representations of masculinity. Viewer interpretations of the vid's intent vary widely, from critique against gun violence on TV to a celebration of that type of imagery.

Video 14. "The Greatest Taste Around" by Harold Boihem and Negativland (1997).

[4.15] This remix video was created by Harold Boihem for Negativland's critically satirical single "The Greatest Taste Around" off their 1997 popular album Dispepsi. The video borrows from numerous Coca-Cola and Pepsi soft drink commercials, including Max Headroom's famous 1980s Coke ads. This remix is collected with others from Negativland on their 2007 DVD Our Favorite Things.

Video 15. "Special Report" by Bryan Boyce (1999).

[4.16] Remix artist Bryan Boyce combines appropriated footage from CNN, NBC, CBS, and ABC news broadcasts with audio from classic 1950s sci-fi and horror movies to make the anchors deliver a message of electronic hypnosis and impending doom. The remix is made particularly convincing by a technique Boyce uses called stunt mouths, in which he films someone lip-synching the dialog, then pastes the mouth onto the face of a mass media figure. Boyce has created many political humorous remixes over the years; "Election Collectibles" (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BshlSeJe3Ps) is another example, using both Al Gore and George W. Bush as Home Shopping Channel hosts.

Video 16. "Close To You" by Tzikeh (1999).

[4.17] The practice of taking, expanding, and/or altering popular mass media narratives to create new derivative works is a core part of creative fan cultures. Tzikeh made "Close to You" by combining footage from The X-Files with love metaphors from the famous Carpenters song. While Tzikeh's remix is not overtly political, it is an exercise in reading against the original source. The X-Files portrayed Fox Mulder as the tortured, pained, but ultimately lovable hero, with his skeptical sidekick, Dana Scully, along for the ride to provide sexual tension. Tzikeh's vid transforms and mocks this characterization of Mulder by using the song's lyrics to poke fun at him, along with many of the show's larger tropes and clichés. The vid also functions as humorous metacritique of the fandom itself by gently making fun of popular Mulder-Scully romance fan fiction.

Video 17. "Bless Your Car with Love" by PHO (2000).

[4.18] This mashup criticizes car culture in the United States by overlaying automobile accident footage and car commercials with the soft repetition of a seductive advertising voice-over saying "Bless your car with love." The remix was created by the "mass media manipulation" collective Paul Harvey Oswald or PHO (http://vimeo.com/user157882), which was started in the mid-1990s by Doug Connell and Kevin Cronin, but also included a large number of rotating anonymous members.

Video 18. "John Ashcroft vs. the Aliens" by Davy Force (2001).

[4.19] Video remix artist Davy Force transforms a 2001 press conference by US attorney general John Ashcroft on illegal immigration into a warning of alien invaders from outer space. This remix can also be seen on the DVD Not 4 $ale released by Other Cinema.

Video 19. "S-11 Redux: (Channel) Surfing the Apocalypse" by GNN (2002).

[4.20] This ambitious remix video was directed by Steven Marshall and released by the Guerrilla News Network (GNN) in 2002. It pulls from over 20 hours of television footage recorded over a 1-month period and across 13 networks to challenge the messages emanating from mainstream media news networks about the US government's war on terror.

Video 20. "Wouldn't It Be Nice?" by Laura Shapiro (2002).

[4.21] "Wouldn't It Be Nice?" is a meta slash vid made using a wide variety of TV and movie sources, and featuring some of the most famous slash and femslash pairings in fan fiction. The vid was intended by vidder Laura Shapiro to be a plea for more gay characters in mass media, as well as a celebration of the few existing on-screen gay and lesbian relationships. After the release, it was also embraced by some fan communities for its unintended message of advocating legal gay marriage. (The term "slash" comes from the punctuation mark fans historically used to delineate same-gender pairings in fan fiction works, such as Kirk/Spock—shortened to K/S.)

Video 21. "Cinderella+++" by Eileen Maxson (2002).

[4.22] In this video, a series of famous Disney characters find out that their lovers aren't exactly the perfect idealized visions of deified manhood seen in the original animated features. Artist Eileen Maxson placed audio clips from 90210, Dawson's Creek, and Jack Nicholson in the film Carnal Knowledge to video clips of classic scenes from Disney's Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, and Lady and the Tramp, resulting in eye-opening juxtapositions that deromanticize the stereotypical gender-based fantasies ever present in Disney fairy tales.

Video 22. "Read My Lips: Endless Love" by Johan Söderberg (2003).

[4.23] Beginning in 2001, Swedish filmmaker Johan Söderberg began experimenting with editing news footage to make it appear as though world leaders were singing pop songs. The series, entitled "Read My Lips," uses song lyrics to provide hilarious yet biting critiques of politicians and their policies. In this example, George W. Bush and Tony Blair lovingly sing the classic Diana Ross/Lionel Richie duet to comment on the "special relationship" between the US and UK governments; of course, this relationship not only led Britain to follow the United States into the second Iraq war, but also eventually led to Blair's ousting as prime minister. Johan still occasionally adds to his remix collection; in 2011 he created a new duet between Libya's Muammar Gaddafi and Italy's Silvio Berlusconi ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8FZwf1XPpd8).

Video 23. "State of the Union...Not Good" by Edo Wilkins (2002).

[4.24] In 2002, Edo Wilkins recut George W. Bush's State of the Union address to make the then-president appear to boast about committing acts of state terrorism. Wilkins drove home his critique by intercutting this alternative speech with extended clips of the United States Congress erupting into thunderous applause. Since Web-based video became a practical reality, State of the Union mashups have become something an annual tradition for media activists and remix artists. However, the first State of the Union remix was created in 1997 by video artist Aaron Valdez, using two VCRs, when he mashed up Bill Clinton's presidential address (http://vimeo.com/2717623). Six years later, Valdez followed up with a remixed sequel, using George W. Bush's 2003 State of the Union address (http://vimeo.com/2717588). That same year, Cartel Communique and Chris Morris used the 2003 address to create their popular remix "State of the Union: Bushwhacked" (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8PAGb2O7lms).

Video 24. "The Lord of the Rings of Free Trade" by St01en collective (2002).

[4.25] In 2002, a group calling itself the St01en collective created this reinterpretation of Peter Jackson's blockbuster motion picture version of J. R. R. Tolkien's famous series The Lord of the Rings. The group creatively added subtitles over an extended trailer for the fantasy epic, transforming the archetypal struggle between good and evil into a pointed commentary on corporate globalization, the World Trade Organization, and free trade in the 21st century. The remix was originally uploaded to Indymedia (http://www.indybay.org/newsitems/2002/12/22/15532811.php), both to provide a level of anonymity and to avoid potentially expensive video hosting costs.

Video 25. "Bush for Peace" by Jen Simmons and Sarah Christman (2003).

[4.26] George W. Bush's speech announcing his illegal invasion of Iraq in 2003 has been the subject of many remixes, but "Bush for Peace" is unique in that it reedits and reimagines the president as delivering an aggressively pro-peace message. In this alternative version, Bush is made to admit the US military's historical role in state terrorism, and he commits to dismantling the Pentagon to make the world a safer, more peaceful place. In this way, the remix makes it possible to imagine the impossible: what it would be like to have a sitting US president earnestly promoting a genuinely nonviolent foreign policy.

Video 26. "The Adventures of Hercubush" by BangZoomTV (2003).

[4.27] A pre-YouTube viral Internet hit by the group BangZoomTV, consisting of Jim Paul, Jay Martel, and Brian O'Connor, was created by dubbing new voices over portions of classic Hercules epics from the 1960s to recast the characters as members of the Bush administration. George W. Bush is reimagined as a half-god, half-mortal, half-Texan hero named Hercubush, who is engaged in an ill-advised war for more body oil that he can slather on his manly muscles.

Video 27. "Keeping America Scared" by Brennan Houlihan (2004).

[4.28] This example of the supercut mashup genre—a remixing style characterized by obsessively cutting together all similar words or phrases from a particular piece of media—is used to illustrate the fear-based messaging strategy employed by GOP politicians at the 2004 Republican National Convention. Houlihan reduced the convention's prime-time speeches to their core themes by editing together only the specific words designed to trigger fear in the audience like "terror," "terrorist," "Saddam Hussein," and "September 11th."

Video 28. "Perhaps Perhaps Perhaps" by Killa (2005).

[4.29] This slash vid hints at a romantic relationship between Captain Kirk and first officer Spock using footage from the 1960s television show Star Trek and the song "Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps" by the band Cake. The Star Trek media franchise now includes six television series and 12 feature films, all without even one openly gay or lesbian main character. The Kirk/Spock relationship, however, has a long, vibrant, and complex history in fan works. Killa's remix is a playful meta comment on and celebration of that long-standing fan fiction tradition.

Video 29. "George Bush Don't Like Black People" by The Black Lantern (2005).

[4.30] This is one of two music video mashups illustrating the lyrics of the remix hip-hop single "George Bush Doesn't Care About Black People" by The Legendary K.O., which samples Kayne West's song "Gold Digger," which had sampled Ray Charles's song "I Got a Woman." The title is based on Kayne West's spontaneous live television statements immediately after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. The video is highly critical of the mainstream media and then-president George W. Bush's slow and prejudiced response to the 2005 storm. The Black Lantern self-published the remix on his personal Web site a month before YouTube officially launched. The remix went viral in its first 48 hours, causing him to exceed his bandwidth limit and forcing him to temporarily remove it. A few weeks later, another mashup artist, Frank Lopez, released his own remixed video mashup (http://www.archive.org/details/dontlikeblackpeople).

Video 30. "Planet of the Arabs" by Jackie Reem Salloum (2005).

[4.31] Artist and filmmaker Jackie Reem Salloum combined footage from scores of movies and television programs to create her epic remix "Planet of the Arabs." The mashup is a movie trailer–like montage spectacle of Hollywood's relentless vilification and dehumanization of Arabs and Muslims. Salloum was inspired by the book Reel Bad Arabs by Jack Shaheen, which noted that out of nearly 1,000 films made between 1896 and 2000 with Arab and Muslim characters, only 12 were positive depictions, 52 were evenhanded, and the rest—900 or so—were negative. The project reveals the systematic racism toward Arabs and Muslims propagated by American cinema.



Transformative Works and Cultures (TWC), ISSN 1941-2258, is an online-only Gold Open Access publication of the nonprofit Organization for Transformative Works copyrighted under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License. Contact the Editor with questions.