Illegal Art: Deconstructing Beck

by Steven Shaviro writing for ArtByte, June-July 1998

An anonymous group known as Illegal Art ( recently released its first commercial product: an underground CD called Deconstructing Beck. The album is a brilliant exercise in guerrilla art-making. Deconstructing Beck is built entirely out of samples taken, without authorization or payment, from music by the alternative-rock hero of the moment, Beck Hansen. The samples have been manipulated electronically in various ways. The resulting thirteen tracks, by a number of different pseudonymous artists, have a do-it-yourself feel. Most of them were made on Macintosh computers, with relatively inexpensive software. By the standards of the recording industry, this makes it low-tech. The CD’s sound varies from track to track, but overall it is far more abrasive than Beck’s original music. Some of the pieces work as witty commentaries on their source. Others change the music unrecognizably, breaking it into abstract formal patterns. For instance, Huk Don Phun’s "Killer Control Enters Blockhole" melts down Beck’s music into varied percussive patches. Sometimes these come across as insectoid clickings; other times, they coalesce into complex cross-rhythms. "Doublefolded," by Hromlegn Kainn, entirely omits Beck’s voice, but accentuates the beat and layers the harmonies, thus transforming the music into a dense ambient/techno soundscape. Jane Dowe’s "Puzzles and Pagans" cuts up a single Beck song into 2500 tiny sound morsels, which are "reshuffled taking into account probability functions that change over the length of the track." The result is a surrealistic collage of starts and stops: the sonic equivalent, perhaps, of reflecting the original song in a funhouse mirror. Steev Hise’s "Stuck Together, Falling Apart" cuts and pastes fragments from multiple tracks, in order to extract and foreground Beck’s most characteristic compositional procedures. He thereby creates what amounts to a manic roller-coaster ride through Beck’s unconscious. Dowe’s and Hise’s tracks are fascinating listening in their own right, but they are also analyses and critiques of Beck’s own role as a musical innovator and cultural icon.

Such critique and analysis is the major point of Deconstructing Beck—though the critique is carried out by musical and commercial means, rather than discursive ones. The whole basis of the album is musical piracy: the deliberate appropriation of copyrighted material. There are good reasons for this. We live in a world of ubiquitous images and soundbytes. The electronic media are to us what ‘nature’ was to earlier eras. It’s the background against which we live our lives, and from which we derive our references and meanings. In such a framework, the distinction between high art and popular culture becomes ever less viable. For any cultural work must come to terms, one way or another, with the mediascape that’s always Out There. That’s why appropriation is the major aesthetic form of the postmodern digital age. It’s everywhere, from rap records, to film and video, to installation art. Everyone now understands what Andy Warhol was perhaps the first to enunciate: that our lives have to do, not so much with fruits and flowers, or rivers and mountains, as with cans of Campbell soup, and images of Marilyn and Elvis.

What’s too often left out of this scenario, however, is the question of ownership. Who owns the images and sounds that are all around us? What does it mean to own one, anyway? What are the implications of reproducing one? For that matter, how do we even delineate a single image or sound? Where does one end, and the next begin? Given a pre-existing visual or sonic source, how radically must it be changed before it is turned into something new? Should the notion of authorship apply to images and sounds themselves? Or only to the uses to which those images and sounds are put? Or should it not be utilized at all? These questions are both theoretical and pragmatic. They touch on legal and economic issues, as much as on aesthetic and conceptual ones. Advances in digital technology have only made them even more urgent than they were in Warhol’s time. Internet utopians like John Perry Barlow argue that the current ease of digital copying and dissemination makes the very idea of copyright obsolete ("Selling Wine Without Bottles," But the property owners will not give up control without a fight. Big corporations are becoming increasingly vigilant about alleged electronic piracy. New legislation is being proposed to tighten the definition of intellectual property. And new technologies are being developed to make more difficult the free reproduction of sounds and images.

This is the situation seized upon by Illegal Art. Deconstructing Beck was conceived from the beginning as a media event. Since the CD violates copyright laws, it cannot easily be sold in stores. Instead, it has been publicized and marketed exclusively over the Internet. Illegal Art’s website has the album’s liner notes, and Real Audio excerpts of each track. And if you want to buy the CD, you must email the group in order to find out how to get it. The disc is a steal for only $5; Illegal Art boasts that this represents a mere 100% markup over costs, in contrast to the 800% markup record companies usually charge. Illegal Art produced the CD with funding help from another anonymous group of provocateurs, called â Ôark ( â Ôark acts as a sort of anti-art foundation, funding acts of subversive culture hacking. Most notably, they sponsored the work of the Barbie Liberation Front, which switched the voice tapes between Barbie and GI Joe dolls. They also aided the programmer who surreptitiously inserted explicit homoerotic sex scenes into SimCopter, a CD-ROM shoot-‘em-up game.

When Illegal Art announced Deconstructing Beck last February, they made sure to notify Beck’s record company, publicist, and attorney. The result, of course, was instant scandal. Beck’s attorney threatened to sue; and the story was quickly picked up by a number of online news sources. The furor provided much-needed publicity, and aided sales. Now, several months later, the publisher of Beck’s music is still trying to pursue legal action. But according to the most recent press release from â Ôark, they have been unable to get anywhere, since they "can’t find a physical address to which to deliver a threatening letter, the necessary prelude to any legal action." For Illegal Art’s Internet presence has allowed for anonymity as well as publicity. There is no public indication of who the members are. The group’s spokesperson, for instance, calls himself Philo T. Farnsworth (which is actually the name of one of the inventors of television).

But why did Illegal Art choose Beck, in particular, as a target? I think it is because of the way in which Beck’s own music is largely made up of samples. Beck is eclectic in the best sense. He incorporates everything from hip-hop to country music into a quirky sound that is recognizably his. His music suggests many genres, but belongs to none. It has rough edges, but it never seems confrontational or aggressive. Beck is pleasingly idiosyncratic, but in a manner that freely acknowledges larger cultural trends. His wry, laid-back, off-kilter observations exude a sense of slacker cool. His lyrics always seem to be on the verge of making sense; but they never congeal into identifiable meanings. Beck seems to relish being a sort of Dylan manqué. He doesn’t claim to be a spokesperson for "Generation X" or any abstraction of that sort; but his off-handed refusal of any such role makes him seem like a representative figure nevertheless. In all these ways, Beck exemplifies the culture of appropriation at its most attractive and benign. And this is what the makers of Deconstructing Beck want to confront, with their appropriations that have much more of an edge. However cool and hip Beck may be, he is after all still signed to a large record company owned by a multinational conglomerate. That engagement is the condition of his commercial success. It not only gave him the publicity that turned him into a star; it also paid the money for copyright clearances on all his samples. In addition, like most recording artists today, Beck doesn’t really own his own music; the company does. This means that the copyright payments for sampling go more to swell corporate coffers, than actually to reward the original artists. Given all this, Deconstructing Beck asks a simple question: Why should the freedom to create by appropriation, the major form creativity takes today, be denied to those who are unable to pay enormous royalty fees?

The makers of Deconstructing Beck know that what goes around, comes around. They are aware of the multiple ironies that surround their project. Use of the Internet makes it easier for them to disseminate their wares, while at the same time making it harder for hostile attorneys to find them. Their public flouting of copyright laws has given them credibility and media presence, in a way a more covert form of appropriation could not have done. Above all, they have plugged into the dirty secret of postmodern capitalist merchandising: that transgression sells. By violating the rules of the market, they have had a modest marketing success. The provocateurs of Illegal Art and â Ôark are not romantic revolutionaries. They are all too aware that their cultural pranks will not overthrow, or even really upset, the world capitalist system. They know that extreme radical action is beyond their capabilities; and that, even if possible, such action would probably only backfire. But they hold out the hope that postmodern corporate power is not as absolute as it has sometimes appeared to be. They suggest that there is room for playful subversion; that creativity is not entirely dead; that some good can come from messing around in the margins.