Reconstructing Harry

Altered Statesman: DJ Spooky explores "the idea of continuous transformation"

You don't have to be a romantic believer in some immutable human nature to realize that our notions of reality probably haven't undergone as many paradigmatic shifts as techno-futurists imagine. This often stuns said futurists, who are inevitably amazed to find evidence of their splintered, postmodern worldviews in the supposedly coherent, organic culture of decades past. And when confronted with an artist of an earlier era whose work mirrors their sensibility, they treat him as a prescient freak--an aberrant genius standing in stark contrast to his more innocent time.

The genius of Harry Smith may be debatable, but his aberrant nature is unquestionable. Best known for compiling 1952's monumentally encyclopedic Anthology of American Folk Music (and writing the aphoristic annotations therein), Smith was also an obsessively experimental filmmaker. In his artistic heyday (roughly 1940-1965), he toyed painstakingly with photographic images and, at times, photographic material itself--scratching it, doctoring it with masking tape, and painting on it, even smearing it with Vaseline--to construct short movies of spiraling and unfolding shapes and patterns. Recently, Smith's films have been reconstructed by his old friend, expert projectionist M. Henry Jones, for their first showings in years, and this weekend four of them, ranging in length from 14 to 66 minutes, will be screened at the Walker Art Center. Smith had originally hoped that the amorphously energetic opening short, "Early Abstractions," would be screened with Meet the Beatles as its soundtrack. But the task of providing live music for the event has been entrusted to Paul D. Miller (a.k.a. DJ Spooky), whose work as hip-hop bricolage artiste, journalist, and theorist has made him the darling of '90s techno-futurists.

According to Miller, whose potential for aberrant genius remains embryonic, the Harry Smith project began when conversations with Jones revealed just "how weirdly resonant Harry Smith's work was with DJ culture. He wanted the music for his films to change all the time, and not stay in the same zone of what he had been doing. He wrote in his will, 'The music should change.'"

Talking over the phone from the New York studio, Miller, like most writers, speaks more casually than printed evidence would have you suspect. Only a few untethered flights of B.S. are floated during our 15-minute conversation. (Check his description of Smith's original soundtrack: "[It was] music that had a certain vitality with what was going on within its regional zone, i.e., the youth culture that we are all inundated with.") But despite his matter-of-fact delivery, Miller speaks of discovering elements of the cut 'n' paste aesthetic in Smith's work with a kind of shock.

He won't be alone. Harry Smith was hardly as gifted, or even as interested, as Spooky in alerting the world to his work, and today much of his biography is still unknown. In a way, this makes their pairing all the more interesting. Spooky is the anti-Smith, a Bowdoin grad with the good sense to parlay his philosophy degree into the toniest sort of downtown scenemaking. Of course, there are better ways to flaunt one's high-priced education, a fact not lost on his many critics, and Spooky's intellectual dilettantism--best evidenced in cartoonishly cryptic applications of Deleuze and William Gibson--has often been little more than a distraction.

Ultimately, the issue isn't the coherence of Spooky's philosophy, but the music he makes when translating those tenets into sound. Last year he called the bluff of naysayers who claimed he couldn't keep a beat by dropping the startlingly coherent, practically pop full-length Riddim Warfare. And the brush with history that marks this latest collaboration may expand upon (or ground) both his theory and music. Reviewing a recent showing of the Smith films in the Village Voice, J. Hoberman described Spooky's mixes as "smooth and historically conscious," underscoring a reverence that's sure to please anyone leery of Miller's penchant for confrontational "messthetics."

Certainly, the artiste seems to have taken on a historian's perspective of the work he's doing. "The idea of continuous transformation" that Miller notes in the phantasmagorically shifting images of Smith's films is hardly a new idea. But the potential for "floating space, [where there's] no one narrative going on, [that] evokes a kind of strange plurality that leaves you feeling that there's several soundtracks layered and going on underneath the film" suggests a number of encouraging possibilities--and, maybe, a bright techno-future waiting in the wings.


DJ Spooky accompanies the short films of Harry Smith 8:00 p.m. Friday at Walker Art Center; (612) 375-7622.

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