EdTech & Design, Engagement

Mixing It Up: Bringing Young People’s Digital Creativity to Class

When you hear the name Mary Poppins, you probably think of Disney’s lighthearted musical movie. Mary Poppins descends from the sky to care for Jane and Michael Banks, taking them on magical adventures through the countryside. When the wind changes, the charming nanny disappears, though not before the Banks have been transformed into a happy, loving family. But in Chris Rules’ remixed trailer, “Scary Mary,” Mary Poppins is recut as an eerie horror film. Mary is an ominous figure, and when she arrives on the scene, strange things begin to happen. Objects become horrifically animated, heads spin, small children are sucked up chimneys. The cheerful lyrics to “A Spoonful of Sugar” are replaced with a haunting instrumental soundtrack. The mood is dark as the last frame of the video warns its audience, “Hide your children.”

The surprisingly chilling “Scary Mary” is just one of countless remixes of film and television to appear on video-sharing sites like YouTube. Such remixes are hardly an obscure phenomenon. Since it was posted by the young video artist in 2006, “Scary Mary” has been viewed over 12 million times. In fact, this sophisticated little video is an excellent example of the popular practice of remix, in which pop culture texts are re-edited, rewritten, and wholly re-imagined by enthusiastic audiences. Remix is a practice at which young, media-savvy creators excel. It is also, in the eyes of many literacy researchers, an important new way of composing texts and the sign of an emerging “remix literacy.”[1]

As a media educator and researcher, I have become increasingly aware of the role that remixed images, sounds, and words play in young people’s lives. Beyond being an outlet for digital skill and creativity, remix highlights some of the most important cultural issues of the moment, including debates over intellectual property and media representation. Remix should be taken seriously by those interested in understanding the role that digital media play in shaping adolescent identities and worldviews – and also in appreciating the influence that young people, themselves, now exert on digital culture. What we learn from studying young people’s remix activities can be incorporated into the classroom as the starting place for a creative and critical media education.

What is Remix?

Remix is defined as the practice of recombining cultural artifacts into new kinds of creative blends.[2] Of course, practices of remix are not entirely new. Making a quilt or a collage, for example, is a type of remix. Avant garde painters and writers have long experimented with remix techniques, creating works like beat poet William Burroughs’ famous “cut-up” films or the surrealists’ strange, dream-like collages. Still, within digital culture, remix has become easier, faster, and more relevant than ever before, especially among young people. Currently, we might think of it as including the recombination of music, sound, images, and words from sources such as film, television, video, online games, advertising, and novels.

In video remixes like “Scary Mary”, young creators use digital editing software to re-edit film and television programs. “Scary Mary” follows the popular practice of changing a film’s genre. These days, it’s not surprising to find Pulp Fiction recut as a romantic comedy, or The Lion King as a horror film. What is surprising, though, is the way in which relatively simple edits and the addition of new soundtracks can utterly transform iconic and seemingly fixed narratives – perhaps one reason that video remixers call their work “transformative art”. Another form of audiovisual remix can be found in machinima (pronounced mah-SHIN-eh-mah), in which video games are reworked into unique cinematic productions. These 3-D animations demonstrate not only sophisticated technical skills and profound visual knowledge, but also a striking convergence of media forms, as video games, animation, and film merge into a single genre. 

Like video remix, fan fiction involves young people in re-imagining popular narratives. Fans of novels such as the Harry Potter, Twilight, or Percy Jackson series rewrite their favourite stories and post them online for readers around the world. Perhaps one of the most remarkable things about fan fiction writers is their ability to create highly supportive digital communities. Many adolescents use fan fiction as a way of exploring sexual identities away from the gaze of adults. Fan fiction circles, then, often provide spaces that are both creatively and emotionally sustaining, and that tell stories radically different from those written inside the institutional boundaries of young adult literature.

The musical mash-up is an equally significant form of remix. Indeed, it might be considered one of its very first forms, as young DJs began experimenting with sampling and sound collage in the 1970s. With the advent of digital media, musical remixing has become important for both young audiences and young musicians, particularly those from racialized groups. The musician Paul Miller (also known as DJ Spooky) notes that remix has often been used by those pushed to the margins of cultural production as a way to rewrite the dominant culture’s narratives.[3] 

Finally, while acknowledging the technical complexity of many remix practices, I want to suggest that much simpler processes of selection could be considered remix. Even the act of maintaining a Facebook page involves elements of remix as a user recombines words, photos, images, links, and video from personal, political, artistic, and corporate sources in order to create a multimodal and highly personal text. If we take remix in this broad sense – as processes of re-assembling, recontextualizing, and creating new meanings – then we begin to see remix practices not only on YouTube, fan fiction sites, or at the DJ table, but as an important part of young people’s everyday media lives.

If we take remix in this broad sense – as processes of re-assembling, recontextualizing, and creating new meanings – then we begin to see remix practices … as an important part of young people’s everyday media lives.

Why Does Remix Matter?

Beyond being an interesting new form of creativity, do young peoples’ remixes really matter? Based on my research into adolescents’ online activities, I would argue that they most definitely do.

To begin with, remix often demonstrates the kind of critical thinking we associate with media literacy. Remixers are quick to point out problems in media representations of gender, sexuality, and race. In her critique of the lack of female characters in the latest Star Trek movie, for example, the young digital artist Sloane created a video collage of scenes featuring the mostly male cast, set to the song “Too Many Dicks on the Dance Floor”. Jonathan McIntosh’s wildly popular and very funny remix, “Buffy vs. Edward”, similarly addresses questions of gender representation in the mainstream media. In it, McIntosh splices together video from the television program Buffy the Vampire Slayer with clips from the Twilight films. According to McIntosh, the remix is intended to expose both Edward Cullen’s “generally creepy behavior” and the Twilight saga’s patriarchal undertones.[4] Through their work, digital creators like Sloane and McIntosh perform significant acts of cultural critique that are viewed by literally millions of people online.

Remix also demonstrates new collaborative approaches to digital production. During my own research, I have spent a great deal of time on young women’s video remix sites. The young female creators on these sites provide each other with a constant stream of praise, feedback, and advice. In response to a request for how to create split screens, for example, a young video-maker replies: “Use the pan/crop thing on the drop-down menu on the left. Good luck! I know you can do it! Let me know if you need more help! :)” By providing feedback, rating one another’s work, and inviting collaboration, young remixers not only improve their skills, but also work to create supportive learning environments.

Remix raises one of the most contentious questions of our time: Who owns culture?

While remix can be a site of community, it is equally significant as a site of conflict. Indeed, remix raises one of the most contentious questions of our time: Who owns culture? Remixers regularly clash with corporate media over the use of copyrighted material. Outspoken legal scholars like Lawrence Lessig argue that current corporate practices and laws are stifling young people’s creativity and criminalizing their modes of expression.[5] In fact, even the most conservative legal observers would argue that many of young people’s remixes fall within the legal parameters of “fair dealing”. Despite this, young people’s work is still removed from the Internet with startling frequency. During my own research, I often saw remixes that would be considered fair use taken down from popular websites. Young creators themselves engage in heated online dialogue about intellectual property and have developed numerous strategies to keep their work from being removed.[6]

It is also becoming increasingly apparent that youth are using remix as a powerful tool for bringing their concerns into the public domain. We can see this, for example, in the circulation of remixed images as part of the Occupy Movement. When a group of protesting students was pepper sprayed by a campus police officer at the University of California in November 2011, images of the officer were “photoshopped” into famous paintings and photographs (including Picasso’s Guernica and the Beatles’ Abbey Road album cover). The remixed images rapidly became an Internet phenomenon and the subject of comment by major newspapers like The New York Times and The Manchester Guardian. The images also sparked an international debate on the use of pepper spray, demonstrating the students’ ability to use digital remix to get their voices heard.

What Can We Learn From Remix?

So what does remix’s potential to create community, stir up debate, and give voice to critique mean for educators? I don’t want to suggest that bringing remix into an already crowded curriculum is a simple, additive measure. Still, I do think there is much that we can gain by recognizing this popular practice – and its relation to new kinds of literacy – within our classrooms.

In my past practice as an English teacher, I attempted to tap into the pedagogical possibilities of remix. In a unit on fan fiction, for example, students reimagined and rewrote our class novels, sharing their new stories with their peers through blogs. Together, they created a vibrant digital community that provided valuable feedback and a broad and authentic audience. Through this exercise, it became clear to both me and the students that remixing texts – whether video, music or fiction – involves the careful application of skills and knowledge. Before remixing a text, a young person needs to have a thorough understanding of its form, content, and genre. And in the process of creating the remix, the young creator must also make multiple intellectual, creative, and technical decisions. Producing remix, then, gives students the chance to act simultaneously as readers and writers, consumers and producers, a stance many media scholars say is indicative of today’s new media environments.

This kind of media production has the potential to promote greater conditions of educational equality. British media education scholar, David Buckingham, argues that schools must create access not simply to digital technology, but to digital cultural capital – “the cultural skills and competencies that are needed to use technology creatively and productively.”[7] In an age in which the ability to participate in creating, critiquing, and manipulating digital texts is a means of belonging and social power, schools committed to equity need to educate students in the practical aspects of symbolic meaning-making.

Remix also opens the door to valuable discussions of issues such as intellectual property, corporate media power, and the ethics of digital creativity. Media educators have long been interested in helping young people to analyze media texts, but in an age of interactive media, we must now consider what young people do with such texts. One of the greatest benefits of a discussion of media practices like remix is the possibility for students to critically analyze their everyday media experiences. Beginning from their own media use, students and teachers can analyze the emerging relationships between audiences and media industries, opening up a curricular space for young people to recognize and consider their own practices of creativity and consumption.

A growing number of resources are available to begin just these kinds of conversations. In his provocative National Film Board (NFB) documentary “RIP: A Remix Manifesto” (itself available online for anyone to remix), director Brett Gaylor creates a compelling case for citizens’ rights to share and re-use popular culture.[8] And in his online series “Everything is Remix”, independent filmmaker Kirby Ferguson traces the history of remix through film and music while examining modern attitudes to intellectual property.[9] Both documentaries signal a growing interest in exploring the meaning of creativity in an age in which reproduction, borrowing, and appropriation are easier than ever before.

Finally, the analysis and use of remix techniques in class has the potential to bridge the divide between young people’s experiences of media and technology inside and outside of school. As numerous media and education scholars have argued, the gap between students’ digital media experiences in school and out of school is significant. This gap may heighten the perception that adults are disconnected, unavailable, and largely uninterested in the complex role that digital media play in the lives of young people. Recognizing young people’s creative digital practices, and their centrality to communication, community-building, and public expression, is one way to begin to bridge that gap, and to move towards classrooms that embrace a range of contemporary literacies.

EN BREF – Le « remixage » consiste à réaliser une combinaison originale de musique, de sons, d’images et de mots provenant de sources diverses – cinéma, télévision, vidéo, jeux en ligne, publicité, romans, etc. – pour obtenir des amalgames inédits. Les jeunes créateurs habiles en médias excellent dans ce processus de réassemblage, de recontextualisation et de création de sens. De plus en plus, les jeunes en font un puissant outil pour faire passer leurs préoccupations dans le domaine public. Dans un contexte éducatif, une telle production procure aux élèves l’occasion d’être simultanément lecteurs et rédacteurs, consommateurs et producteurs – un rôle qui, selon de nombreux spécialistes en médias, reflète bien l’environnement des nouveaux médias. En cette époque où la capacité de participer à la création, à la critique et à la manipulation de documents numériques devient un moyen d’appartenance, de pouvoir social, les écoles qui privilégient l’équité doivent enseigner à leurs élèves les aspects pratiques de la construction d’un sens symbolique.

[1] See Gunther Kress, Multimodality: A Social Semiotic Approach to Contemporary Communication (London: Routledge, 2010) and Kyle Stedman, “Remix Literacy and Fan Compositions,” Computers and Composition 29 (2012): 107-123.

[2] Michele Knobel and Colin Lankshear, “Remix: The Art and Craft of Endless Hybridization,” Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, 52, no. 1 (2008): 22.

[3] Paul Miller, “Notes on Media Remix,” Institute for Distributed Creativity listserv, April 21 2006. https://lists.thing.net/pipermail/idc/2006-April/001499.html

[4] Jonathan McIntosh, “Buffy vs. Edward: Twilight Remixed,” YouTube, June 19 2009, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RZwM3GvaTRM

[5] Lawrence Lessig, Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy (New York: Penguin Press, 2008).

[6] See Catherine Burwell, “Rewriting the Script: Towards a Politics of Young People’s Digital Participation,” Review of Education, Pedagogy and Cultural Studies, 32, no. 4 (2010)382-402.

[7] David Buckingham, Media Education: Literacy, Learning and Contemporary Culture. (Cambridge: Polity, 2003), 18.

[8] Brett Gaylor, “RIP: A Remix Manifesto, National Film Board of Canada, 2008, http://www.nfb.ca/film/rip_a_remix_manifesto

[9] Kirby Ferguson, “Everything is a Remix: Parts 1-4,” Vimeo. http://vimeo.com/kirbyferguson

Meet the Expert(s)

Catherine Burwell

Catherine Burwell is an Assistant Professor at the University of Calgary. Her research interests include media education, adolescent literacy, digital creativity and copyright law. She was also an English and Media Studies secondary school teacher with the Toronto District School Board for more than 10 years.

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