DJ Spooky: Rebirth of a Nation- Friday September 9, 2005
Chillin’ in a Spooky living room
Catie O’Keefe
I’m not so sure where to start. Could it be that I loved this performance because of the amazing man that came out on stage and obviously put his heart and soul into the work he was performing? Or was it the fact that he was playing some amazing beats and I can’t believe I’m the only person in my row that seems to want to stand up and dance like no one’s watching? I realize this would have been inappropriate due to the subject matter on the screens, but still I can’t get the rhythm out of my blood. So instead I calmly bob my head, tap my foot and let out a silent scream every time the bass drops back in. In addition it’s very dark in the theatre and so I let my pen write down whatever comes to mind without seeing if I’m even hitting the paper below it. I’m transfixed in a manner of speaking.

Maybe I love this performance because I can tell how much DJ Spooky loves his performance. I know our attention is supposed to be on the screens but I let it drift occasionally to the blue glow of his head and watch. He too bobs his head in appreciation and enjoyment of the music and I feel less alone. But he does something else too. He turns and watches the screens. He’s working with his work while his work is in progress. That’s a mouthful in itself. I like the way he looks up at the three giant screens behind him even though I’m certain he has the material in from of him. He’s one of us now. He’s creating and observing.
Now about the work, there’s a lot there and will not attempt to describe nor analyze everything I saw because I’m sure that would be a small novella. (Note: Coincidence that Paul D. Miller has just written a book about the art of spinning. How appropriate at this time.) So back to the work. It doesn’t take a brain surgeon to figure out what this piece is about. Coupled with the pictures of black slaves in the south, the abolitionists, the KKK, Lincoln’s assassination, etc., even the music seems to reflect southern influence with the twangy sounds of the harmonica and perhaps a banjo.
The silent film style montage of movie footage, quotes, graphics and story lines come together to weave not only a good expression of art but one of the most educational history lessons I’ve ever had. Besides Birth of a Nation, I recognize some of the footage (Gus and the death of the white woman he chases up the mountain; sorry I’ve forgotten the name of the movie) from an American History class I audited when I was 13. I will never forget how strange I thought Gus looked at the time, later finding out it’s because he was actually a white man in blackface.
DJ Spooky’s choice of footage was very important because it tells a number of stories. It shows the actual struggle of African American’s at the time, it shows how white people interpreted the struggle as well as the threat some of them felt from the black race, the fear white people held as well as the desire to help and finally the power and the fragility of the black people at this time. It wasn’t just the story of one person; it was the story of a nation.
Lots of images stuck out to me as being especially significant. For example, the white couples ballroom dancing to DJ Spooky’s music. It was oddly haunting and made me think about the similarities between that time and now. A sort of comment on if times have really changed. Another interesting stylistic choice was the computer generated shape graphics that he placed over people or their movements. It seemed to put people into direct focus but also limited them by the shape that confined them. Lastly, the blurriness that flows over screen seemed to represent the blurred lines of reality and the illusion of a history not too far behind us.
My one criticism is that it seemed too long. The progression of events was very slow and often replayed many times. While I liked that we were giving a second chance to see what was quote was splashed across the screen or an image that might be better drilled into our heads, it became a bit tedious at times and storyteller in myself yearned to see the progression of the beginning, middle and end of the story. Also, the sheer amount of material that was displayed before us was intense. My eyes were a bit sore after the performance from attempting to absorb every new piece of information that crossed the screen.
My favorite part was when Paul D. Miller spoke to us in the beginning wishing that we would all just imagine ourselves chillin’ in his living room listening to some music. I like to think that’s what we were doing and my-o-my what an amazing living room it was.