The Mother Of All Supercuts: "Cut Up" Brings The Best of YouTube To The Museum

We chat with Jason Eppink, curator of new exhibition honoring remixed videos at the Museum of the Moving Image.

Rolling in the Beats. Image courtesy of Ithaca Audio

The popularity of certain forms of supercuts—as gauged by YouTube hits—frequently lies in an editor’s ability to re-contextualize the original material in a way that exposes a perennial but latent cultural affiliation. For example, not until Rob McLoughlin’s recut made Mrs. Doubtfire look like the sequel to One Hour Photo did people begin to realize that, for the last two decades, the razor-tongued, hirsute nanny had in fact been stewing as a prominent nightmare in America’s collective unconscious.

Recut movie and TV trailers exploded as a dorm-room fad in the early-to-mid 2000’s, sparked by Robert Ryang’s now-infamous reinterpretation of The Shining as a family comedy. Suddenly every classic movie and every Seinfeld subplot was receiving a genre-morphing makeover that strung all your favorite scenes together to create new meaning. By altering subtleties such as soundtrack, title sequence font, and promotional voiceover, anyone with amateur editing software and an encyclopedic knowledge of Elaine Benes quotes could turn Julia Louis Dreyfuss into a bitch, a lover, a sinner, or a saint.

With the founding of the website Total Recut in 2007, these witty pieces of layered juxtaposition found a devoted platform, a virtual museum that not only marked their legitimacy as a genre unto itself, but also provided educational guidelines to their production, ensuring their dissemination to the masses. Now, through Cut Up, a new exhibition organized by digital media artist Jason Eppink at the Museum of the Moving Image in NYC, these forms of reappropriated media are taken from the instantly gratifying (and thus instantly forgettable realm of the internet) and recontextualized in the prestigious white gallery space of the museum. 

The experience ends up feeling somewhat like this:

As modes of expression are increasingly becoming intagible, curators are feeling the need to question the changing purpose of the exhibition. Cut Up is arranged in eight sections (Supercut, Recut Trailer, Political Parody, Songification, Music Video Mash-Up, Trackjacking, Recompositing, and Vidding), “presenting contemporary videos by self-taught editors and emerging artists alongside landmarks of historic and genre-defining reappropriation.”

The Creators Project spoke with Eppink via email about Cut Up, as well as the challenges—both ontological and practical—of exhibiting materials that can just as easily be found online.  

The Creators Project: What were the criteria for selecting pieces for Cut Up?
Jason Eppink: I narrowed the incredibly broad field of “remix” by focusing on short form video works that use popular media as their source material. And then I looked specifically for techniques and genres that were distinct enough from one another and had several examples that were of historical significance and/or “high quality” (maybe a better word is “accessible”). And then I made sure they were made by as diverse a pool of creators as possible and that there was a variety of source material: television, film, news, music videos, science fiction, sitcoms, cartoons, reality TV, etc.

There were so many great pieces (some of my favorites) that didn’t fit through those various sieves, but had to be left behind to tell the larger story. While I was certainly looking for videos that were “good," I was just as importantly looking for videos that were “representative."

Why is this exhibition relevant now? 
Maybe the best answer is: “Why not now?” I can’t think of a historically bad time to talk about media reappropriation, and it will probably only become more and more relevant until the topic is so obvious that it will be like talking about how the sky is blue.

In a show where the physicality of each piece is fluid (working in digital media, I assume most pieces you’re dealing with are), how do you decide to organize the space for the exhibit?   
I think of it as interaction design, actually. Considering from the beginning the constraints of the space and how people will exist in it. And then you use physical proximity to posit relationships and make arguments. That’s basic curatorial stuff. With tangible objects, you have some physical restrictions that determine how you start thinking about this. With immaterial artifacts, you have a lot more freedom, but you have to justify those choices.

One example: with Cut Up there’s a basic linearity to how a visitor encounters the space. Vidding is difficult for the uninitiated to understand, so I wanted to suck people in with the more accessible work and then present the historical precedent for everything they just watched at the end. 

Do you find that recut media interferes with our viewing of original media? When you watch The Shining now, do you feel you’re also watching Shining?
I think rather than focusing on the separation between the original and the derivative, and the “sanctity” of the “original," what’s interesting here is how popular media is a source material for a fluid cultural conversation. When you hear someone quote lines from their favorite film, or someone writes a TV show recap, or someone wears a t-shirt with their favorite movie character, or someone posts an animated GIF of a moment from a TV show, does that interfere with your viewing of the original? Doesn’t everything we encounter in life change how we interpret the past?

Who are the people making these videos?
Fans, artists, editors, filmmakers, DJs, VJs from all over the developed world. Mostly white men (except for the vidding community, which is notable for being predominantly female).

One barrier I keep butting up against is this false distinction between “artist” and “amateur”, which I see as more of a continuum than a distinct line. I’m not particularly interested in art, by which I mean I’m interested in the whole of human expression, not simply the forms and commodities sanctioned by the market and its actors. And Museum of the Moving Image is not an art museum: as much or more of our attention focuses on the science and history of the moving image.

What programs are most amateur editors using to make these videos? Are there any that employ any surprising editing acrobatics?  
I didn’t have that conversation with any of the participants, unfortunately. The one interesting tidbit I can relay is from Andy Baio (founder of supercut.org), who told me that supercut creators look for specific words or phrases by searching subtitle text files. There’s a big community making their own subtitles and posting them online for anyone to download. Apparently big media companies take issue with this for copyright reasons: one of the sites, undertexter.se, was raided by police this week.

Your exhibition as a whole is a sort of supercut of supercuts. Most of these videos have a mischievous way of reimagining the original content they’re using, often resulting in an irreverent statement: do you feel like your show manipulates the supercuts to make its own statement? 
Any time something not intended for a museum ends up in a museum, its meaning changes, right? I wouldn’t go so far as to say Cut Up manipulates the videos, but it certainly presents them (and excludes many others) to posit and explore a phenomenon. On the reverence/irreverence dimension, I hope mounting this show moves the Museum towards irreverence more than the other possibility: treating the works too reverently. Museums are notorious for being suffocating.

According to doomsday prophecies, feature film is on it way out, or at least on its way to being niche.  Do you think that its replacement lies somewhere in the frenetic nihilism of supercuts? 
Nah, we’ll always tell stories in some form or another. The narrative is too efficient of a vehicle for the transfer and reinforcement of a culture’s values.