Third Eye: A Word With Kirby Ferguson of "Everything is a Remix"


Photo by David Lenker.

Written by: Jennifer Smith

“Everything is a Remix”, a web series created by Brooklyn-based filmmaker Kirby Ferguson, draws upon a rich history of film and music production to refine creativity down to its basic workable parts, raising questions about inspiration, ownership, and the future of creative discourse in the process.

From the story behind the personal computer and the World Wide Web to the countless cinematic references within Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill, “Everything is a Remix” dissects pop culture’s greatest influences in a context of imitation and combination, blurring the line between original and unoriginal.

BreakThru Radio: What compelled you to put “Everything Is A Remix” together?

Kirby Ferguson: It started a few years ago when there were a lot of crazy copyright cases going on. There were cases involving Harry Potter and Coldplay and Dan Brown. They seemed like clear-cut cases, not illegal acts. I started to wonder why do some people seem to think now that they can own the idea of a wizard doing whatever or in The Da Vinci Code case, it was a non-fiction book that The Da Vinci Code was loosely based on. I thought that was particularly rich because it’s non-fiction, you know? They got this stuff from their research. It’s not theirs. Why do people think they own these giant units of culture? I was working a full-time job at the time, and I thought, “This is something fun I could do on the side.” But of course, it ended up taking massive amounts of time.

BTR: The series delves into reoccurring ideas in popular media. Why do these ideas still have power even though they’ve been repeated over and over?

KF: Because people like familiar things. They feel comfortable. They go down well in your brain. I think that’s what people want for the most part. They want something that’s kind of the same but a little bit different. That’s nothing new. I just think we’re so good at feeding people’s needs now, and the business end of it is so hyper-refined about targeting niches and maximizing profits that a lot of the stuff is super cynical at this point.

BTR: To that end, do you think that people are growing more aware of the formulas at work and craving something different?

KF: I would hope so. There are definitely cycles to pop culture. There are periods where things are weak, and then there are little golden ages, where you get all sorts of good stuff happening. There’s also a recession going on now so when we’re talking about movies, it’s a very expensive art form so it’s high risk. You’ve got to be careful, or you can go belly up by making the wrong choices. So I think it’s drab right now because movies aren’t selling that great, but also I think there’s this trend of corporations just knowing what they are doing too well and serving needs too well, which I think only works to a certain extent. People actually do react to novelty, but there’s no business model to serve that. I think if a couple people get some left-field hits then that might help right things a bit.

BTR: Why do you think it’s important for people to understand that creativity does have workable parts, and it’s not just a matter of inspired genius?

KF: For one thing, I think it makes you less in awe of it. You don’t just think, ‘Wow, how can anybody do that?’ I think when it’s less scary, it’s good. I don’t think it’s good to idolize filmmakers or any kind of artist. They’re just people, and they’re doing work and at the end of the day, it’s not even that important.

When you think of Richard Pryor being a bad Bill Cosby when he was a young guy, someone who became a genius later on, you can feel better about being a hack when you’re starting out. You’re really not very good, and you know you’re not quite measuring up, you can know that you’re working on your craft in that period, and lots of people before you did the same thing.

BTR: Is there a point where democratizing creativity in that way is kind of undesirable in terms of the quality of the work being produced?

KF: That’s the flip side of it. The great thing is that anybody can do it, and the awful thing is that anybody can do it.

I think most people are going to be mediocre. Not even that they’re mediocre, just that they’re all at the same level so they all seem mediocre. That’s normal. There’s a small portion of people who can do extraordinary things. That’s not going to change. There’s always going to be a much smaller subset that can actually do special work. In the meantime, I think there are people that can have a living at it. Or a part-time living, just having a small audience and doing their work that isn’t fantastically original; but their fans like it, and they’re happy, and it’s a good relationship for everybody.

BTR: The series describes copying as an integral part of the creative process. Where do you legally draw the line between inspiration and stealing ideas?

KF: I personally don’t draw a legal line. I don’t think anybody should go to jail for taking a clip from a movie or taking a clip from music and using it in their music. I think you can get fined for it, and it could cost you a lot of money in certain circumstances, but it doesn’t seem like something that people should go to jail for. I think just social mores are plenty, and we do have that. If we know that someone is a copycat, people get their careers destroyed over that.

BTR: So how do artists make money in an environment where creative content is easily accessed and shared?

KF: It’s clearly up in the air. I think something that seems to be having some success is when you have your little micro-brand, and you have your 10,000 or maybe 100,000 supporters and you sell directly to them.

Louis CK released his last stand-up performance himself, and you just bought it through a site using PayPal, and I think it’s probably close to a million bucks that he made on the Internet. He just had faith that people would pay for it and they did.

Kirby speaking at Campus Party, the premier global technology festival, in Mexico City last year.

He said something great on his site, actually. He said, ‘When you’re taking from artists, it’s either because you’re kind of a sociopath and you just don’t give a shit, or just don’t think you’re doing any harm because you don’t think it’s really a person. You think it’s a corporation or some sort of faceless thing.’ When you’re selling directly to your audience, and they know that when they are taking it without paying for it, they are potentially doing you harm. I think that has potential.

But it’s still very much up in the air. I think Kickstarter is a good platform for small media creators, but basically I think it’s very much in flux and things are not figured out, which makes it interesting and exciting to be out there doing stuff.

I mean, I quit my job when I put this out there for free. I get donations, but I also get commissions and speaking engagements and stuff like that so there’s all sorts of things that you can get outside of selling your little chunk of media.

BTR: What can your audience expect with the last installment of “Everything is a Remix”?

KF: Part four is mostly done at this point, I’m just tweaking it and making some stuff work visually. It will be out February, and it gets into the legal implications of this stuff. It gets into why we think we own these things, some of the psychology behind that, some of the history … Why we think we own stuff that comes out of our brains when we know we’re social animals, and there’s all these ideas between us and the boundaries are not so clear. I get into some actual nitty gritty law stuff about things that I think are just awry with the legal system.

To me, it all builds towards the law and how we’re actually going to think about this stuff differently and maybe even change legislation to make things work in a better way.

Part four of “Everything is a Remix” will be available in mid-February, likely premiering at a live event in Brooklyn. The debut of the last installment will include a special announcement, which Ferguson couldn’t speak of in detail, other than to say it’s an ambitious project that’s political in nature.

In March, Ferguson will be speaking at SXSW and has future plans to work with Fight for The Future, which he teamed up with to produce a video on the implications of The Protect IP Act.

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