- Media Antecedents to Within Our Gates:Weaving Disparate Threads
No medium of communication exists by and of itself. Each operates in relation to other media forms, each with its own historical, cultural, economic, and societal development. This history of contrasts and intersections becomes all the more evident when differing media are consciously and simultaneously used to both enhance and interrogate each other in a single presentation. Multimedia performances provide a multiplicity of entry points both for creators and for their audiences. Mining ever-wider arrays of cultural and political referents, contemporary artists often use several media simultaneously in order to engage the audience/viewer/listener in the active creation of meaning. The more media that are incorporated by the producer, the greater the possibilities of experience for the listener/viewer. For the listener/viewer, the more parts of the multimedia piece one can recognize, and the greater the connections between them one can create, the deeper and broader the meaning one can derive from the experience. In this very real sense, the viewer/listener becomes an active cocreator of the meaning of the work.
When I was recruited to help construct and perform the Within Our Gates: Revisited and Remixed project, I drew on my own background [End Page 124] as a radio producer, historian, and theorist. I suggested that an important multimedia model for our endeavor was provided by the multiform performance, record, and radio projects of the 1950s and 1960s. In these projects, producers borrowed parts of different forms of media, counterpoising time and space in order to create something new. These audio collages—both live and preproduced—would form the foundation for the sampling techniques of the rap/hip-hop deejays of the 1980s and beyond. What unites these productions of different eras is the attempt to combine varied means of expression—genres of music, sound, and spoken word—to create something larger than the sum of the individual contents of the production. Like the audio collage producers of the 1950s, the scholars and musicians who worked on rescoring Oscar Micheaux's classic silent film made many different kinds of contributions, and, as a result, provided multiple points of entry for different listeners. Using spoken word, film images, digital mixes, and live music and dance, we offered to audience members many different sets of meaning, twined strands that provided the warp for the woof of Within Our Gates: Revisited and Remixed.
The most renowned of the multiform performance artists was Richard "Lord" Buckley (1906–1960). Buckley combined scat singing, ghetto slang, church preaching, and Shakespearean dialogue to create what he called the "Hipsemantic." A white man from the Gold Rush country of central California, Buckley told the story of Jesus in African American urban slang to describe the life of "The Nazz," whom Buckley described as "the sweetest, gonedest, wailin'est Cat that ever stomped on this sweet, swingin' sphere," while being backed by a solo gospel singer. Marc Antony's Funeral Oration from Shakespeare's Julius Caesar was recited as "Hipsters, Flipsters, and Finger-Poppin' Daddys! Knock me your lobes. I came to lay Caesar out, NOT to hip you to him," complete with Dixieland jazz band accompaniment, bringing the Bard to the masses in a vivacious, new way. He did the same with Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, providing multiple novel layers of meaning and possibility by purposefully combining contrasting cultural traditions and by tying past and present together.1
The most commercially successful of the multiform recordings was Flying Saucer (Parts One and Two) by Bill Buchanan and Dickie Goodman, which was released in 1956 (see http://www.cod.edu/People/Faculty/pruter/Horror/flyingsaucer.htm). In this humorous retelling of the classic 1938 radio broadcast War of the Worlds, Buchanan and Goodman presented a simulated radio broadcast that was interrupted by a bulletin that a flying saucer was approaching Earth, much as Orson Welles and the Mercury Theatre presented their radio drama as a news bulletin reporting an alien attack on a town in New Jersey.2 In place of a reporter presenting sound bites of people on the street as parts of his "news bulletin," Buchanan and Goodman...