Watching D.W. Griffith’s 1915 silent film The Birth of a Nation once is a painful psychoanalytic immersion in America’s racist underbelly. Watching it twice is just painful. Not that this KKK recruitment film shouldn’t be seen or that what it represents should be swept under the rug. But, god, that silent-film acting.
Still, I was intrigued enough to risk the histrionic pantomime again for REDCAT’s recent exhibition of Rebirth of a Nation, a self-proclaimed “digital exorcism” by its creator, Paul D. Miller, a.k.a. New York–based artist, author and mix master DJ Spooky, who is taking the show around the country.
The premise: Throw in catchy, ill-bient beats, trippy, floating graphics and a montage of mutated film chunks, all mixed live, and the once-unbearable becomes edgy. The Reconstruction Era never seemed so hip.
Kara E. Walker’s video installation, Song of the South, set the surreal mood as you entered REDCAT. Arcing cardboard cutouts of weeping willows and swamp plants formed a four-sided square. Projected onto the walls of the shadowy “clearing” inside was a macabre shadow-puppet performance. Several couples stood silently near the edges, and a man kneeled on the ground, as we watched the jerky, sinewy figure of a female slave, forced to masturbate her master, dismembering him in revenge, then revealing the penis to be a baby.
Talk about a head trip.
A crowd was forming for the main event in front of the auditorium doors, pacified by the nearby coffee shop that was doling out wine. Hives of friends buzzed in conversation, each group representing a balanced cross section of L.A.’s ethnic mix.
Taking a seat near a bookshelf, I slipped a paperback out. It seemed all the books had been geared to this performance; they were slick and ironic, and all about race. This one was a humorous graphic novel by “The Boondocks” creator Aaron McGruder. The first frame joked about The Tavis Smiley Show.
With the consciousness of skin color hanging in the air, I felt very white (and none-too-fashionable in jeans and a plain sweater) as I took a seat in the theater and stared dizzily as three Mac desktops projected a massive psychedelic pattern of black and white bull’s-eyes onto a dark wall.
DJ Spooky came out to introduce the performance. “The art world is still trying to figure out the whole DJ thing,” he said, comparing his craft to the collagelike works of Marcel Duchamp and Andy Warhol. “Layering is part of the art process.”
The strength of the patchwork DJ collage, and this show, lies in the power of repetition. Seeing the haunting images over and over again — of white-hooded Klansmen, eerie as phantoms, or rolling-eyed blacks stalking their sexual prey — chills the bones more deeply than a once-through viewing.
DJ Spooky explained that the film’s layered remix was meant to expose the built-in “wiring” of modern race relations, our prejudices lurking like a centuries-old computer virus in the American psyche.
Inspired by the show, rap group Public Enemy, which has tackled racial issues in its music for 20 years, named its latest album Rebirth of a Nation.
On the group’s Web site, front man Chuck D decries what he believes are modern versions of an old mentality: “It’s as if volunteer slavery is in effect. The hanging pant, nigger callin’, fractured talking, dollar worshipping . . . cat is looking more and more like the shuffling, ragged overalls, slow talking, Massa abiding, Negro archetype of the films from the 30’s and 40’s.”
That the four screenings of Rebirth of a Nation sold out isn’t just a result of its artsy, techno-freak concept. It points to a larger desire to confront our American wiring today, even if it means feeling uneasy. But while Chuck D draws connections between the racist films of the past and today’s exploited African-American caricatures, DJ Spooky fails to. Though the sliding slivers of crazed mulattos and patriotic lynch mobs look unpleasant in his show, DJ Spooky’s flash falls short of connecting the racist virus of our past to the prejudices of the present. This enables D.W. Griffith’s disturbing images to appear too comfortably antique, and we all know this racist shit isn’t just from the past.