CALL + RESPONSE

Of or relating to a style of singing in which the melody sung by one singer is responded to or echoed by another or others.

Call + Response first came about out of my frustration with the fashionable yet limited vocabulary that is routinely used to describe the practice of a rather diverse and ever-growing group of artists who are ultimately as different as they are alike…. Terms such as ‘sampling,’ ‘piracy,’ ‘remixing,’ ‘appropriation’ and ‘recycling’ are too often used to collapse the complex and nuanced ideas of a variety of artists into easily-digestible sound bites. More harmfully perhaps, an insistence on distinguishing artists who are engaged in practices of sampling and appropriation from those who are not, creates an absurd and imaginary division between those who choose to continue making ‘original’ works of art versus those who contrarily opt for recycling and remixing in favor of originary creativity. The distinction is absurd because it assumes that each artist individually chooses whether to embrace or critique the weatherworn notion of ‘originality’ that has informed our understanding of the creative process for so many centuries. A central premise of this series of events - a premise that will of course remain open to discussion - is my belief that all creative acts are responses to other creative acts, all creative thinkers are in dialogue (consciously or otherwise) with other creative thinkers, and all works of art (subtly or otherwise) feed on and reflect existing works of art. It is therefore somewhat nonsensical to imagine that only certain artists are recyclers and samplers, as defined against those who continue to produce ‘original’ works of art. To remain of any use, this distinction must be displaced to distinguish between those artists who continue to insist upon ossified definitions of creativity and discredited notions such as ‘originality,’ as against those artists who, in their practice, accept and embrace a certain relationship to images and language that – for want of less sun-bleached terminology – I will refer to simply as the culture of ‘call-and-response.’ The artists, writers and performers who have been invited to participate in Call + Response are connected to each other not by the formal similarity of their work, but by a shared sensibility: each in his/her own way has consciously embraced the dynamics of call-and-response in their practice.

The phrase ‘call-and-response’ is borrowed from musicology, where it has been used for some time to describe the interactive quality that is key to musical experience in various oral cultures. Musicologists tracing the roots of Caribbean and African American music, for example, tend to agree that the important element of call-and-response that is shared by forms such as gospel, blues, jazz, reggae and hip hop can be traced back to the African continent. Within the continent’s rich and diverse oral cultures, communication has traditionally been characterized by a form of spontaneous verbal and non-verbal interaction between speaker and listener, in which all of the speaker’s statements (’calls’) are punctuated by expressions (’responses’) from the listener. This alternation (or call-and-response) between various participants is compelling because of the explicit importance that it grants to the listener. As a conversation bounces back and forth, the roles of speaker and listener are interchangeable, such that the traditional western separation of speaker/performer and listener/audience becomes irrelevant. In a call-and-response culture, participatory experience is not only encouraged, but expected. Creativity is understood as emerging between people rather than coming about under conditions of solipsistic isolation. Culture is not to be passively absorbed or enjoyed from afar, but ideally takes place in public and demands democratic participation. The African slaves who carried call-and-response culture to the Americas clearly did not benefit from the utopian potential implied. The influence of their culture nevertheless continues to live large in contemporary forms such as hip hop and rap, but also in the cross-referential aesthetic of much contemporary writing, music, film-making and art.

Corporate and legal entities have warmly embraced the existing terminology that artists, musicians and writers use to describe the dynamics of call-and-response: in referring to their own creative strategies as ‘piracy’ and ‘appropriation,’ artists may unwittingly be framing themselves in exactly the self-incriminating terms that will be useful for the conservative juries that will decide the outcome of the copyright and intellectual property trials threatening to become more frequent in the near future. Re-framing strategies such as ‘sampling’ and ‘remixing’ under the rubric of ‘call-and-response’ for the purpose of this series of events is on one level intended to raise the question of how artists can cope with the legal challenges facing creative practice at this juncture. Call-and-response patterns are fundamental to human communication and understanding. It is hard to accept that such forms are being written off as harmful or illegal by certain lawmakers. Intellectual property legislation that was originally intended to protect creative freedoms is now more often used to contain and criminalize cultures that openly embrace the dynamics of call-and-response, cultures that have become widespread and vibrant with the increasing availability and domestication of digital software.

In an increasingly digital world, terms such as ‘sampling’ and ‘re-mixing’ are no longer the privileged vocabulary of an edgy cultural avant-garde. Cutting and pasting feel as natural as eating and breathing, and cultural innovation is no longer ascribed purely to the mythified realms of creation and invention, but equally to the work of translation and recycling. The flood of hype and marketing that has accompanied this cultural shift – as various corporate interests move to cash in on the death of originality – makes it easy to forget that we are experiencing the culmination of an artistic revolution that has been building its momentum for the better part of a century. The highly-coded game of call-and-response that is endemic to contemporary artistic practice was being played by artists long before Apple and YouTube sold it to us. Rather than viewing digital strategies like cut-and-paste and remixing as new, this series of events will ask whether creative innovation has not always relied, to some extent, on the logic of call-and-response.

Candice Breitz
Berlin, February 2007

Program

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