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Remix, Cut-up, Re-work:

When does the remix add value?

Matthew Roberts
BA Hons Graphic Design

published 08/2009

Remix, Cut-up, Re-work: When does the remix add value?


03 – Introduction

08 – The remix: music

13 – The remix in visual communication

16 – What is visual communication?

17 – The use and context of visual communication

27 – How the remix affected my work

30 – Conclusion

32 - Bibliography


‘Remix’ is one of the terms used to describe how ideas or intellectual property are

appropriated and reused in the post-industrial/technological era. Related concepts

include ‘Cut and Paste’, ‘Cut-up’, ‘Mash-up’, ‘Mosaic’, ‘Collage’, ‘Montage’,

‘Bricolage’ or ‘Sampling’. The remix is sometimes known as a ‘version’ or ‘rework’,

and may be referred to (in the vernacular language) simply as ‘retro’ or ‘vintage’.

Existing works are referred to via, for example, metaphor, analogy, irony, parody or

pastiche, thus creating new works. The idea of the remix is used in a multitude of

contexts and media: Matt Mason (2008, p.70) describes the remix as “one of the most

powerful forces in pop culture today.”

The process of using existing things or ideas to create new ones certainly isn’t new; it

could be argued that it has always existed in human cultures:

There are many ideas we consider original innovations which are actually
versions of someone else’s idea. The Old Testament (Ecclesiastes) said it best:
“The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be: And that which is done is that
which shall be done: And there is no new thing under the sun.” And hey, even the
Old Testament is no exception. Many scholars believe its stories (and for that
matter, the similar stories that appear in the Torah and the Qur’an as well) are
rooted in pagan myths of ancient Mesopotamian cultures, based in a land we now
call Iraq. (Mason (2008 p. 70))

Christianity has continued the remix, commandeering pagan festivals such as Yule

and the Spring Equinox, which we now celebrate as Christmas and Easter. According

to Nichols (1988), Yule (the winter solstice) was when pagans rejoiced the return of

the sun god, and it was celebrated with feasting, drinking, carol singing, mistletoe,

Yule logs and Yule trees. The early Christians used to celebrate the birth of Christ on

the 25th of the month, but had no fixed month for this. Nichols (1988) claims that

Christ’s birthday was originally celebrated in spring (Jesus would have been unlikely

to have been born in December, as shepherds would have only ‘watched their flocks

by night’ during the spring lambing season). However, the decision to fix Christmas

in December at around the same time as the old festival of Yule made for a fairly

seamless cultural shift; the new religion could merge with the old. Easter is similarly

based on the spring equinox, celebrated by the Babylonians some 2500 years BC.

This festival represents the rebirth of life; the end of a ‘dead’ season in the north and

the start of the summer crops in the south. The name Easter is derived from the name

of the Germanic goddess Eostre or Eastre, who was the goddess of Spring and

fertility; with the coming of Christianity it again made sense to merge the resurrection

of Christ with an existing pagan festival (the early Anglo-Saxons were particularly

good at such remixes!) The old ideas were not lost, however: two of Eostre’s most

important symbols were the hare and the egg, and these symbols remain today, when

children celebrate with chocolate Easter bunnies and eggs. (Cline, 2009; Elliot 2009).

The remix exists for this reason: because many existing ideas have a value, although

the expression of the idea may need refreshing or updating for a new audience. The

ideas that get reused most often are the best ideas. This is why one still hears Bach on

ringtones, why William Shakespeare is constantly reworked and adapted both on

stage and in Hollywood (e.g. “10 Things I Hate About You”, “O”, Baz Luhrmann’s

‘Romeo & Juliet’), and why we have classics in every area of the arts and all areas of

design. In many cases a remix serves as a reinvention, and may be necessary to realise

a past missed opportunity, or to adapt an idea for a different market. There are

different notions of value, some of which are short-term or purely financial, but it is

often only time that ultimately shows the creative value of works or ideas.

The remix is often thought to be a purely “Post-modern” phenomenon, but I would

argue that this is not the case. Culture has always reacted to what happened in

previous generations, whilst also building on those same ideas to make new ideas. Art

and creativity are a reflection of culture, and art grows out if its times. It is however

useful to examine postmodernism, as the remix in all its guises appears to have

become ubiquitous in this era. Rick Poyner (2003) states that

Postmodernism cannot be understood without reference to modernism. While the

‘post’ prefix might seem to suggest that postmodernism comes after modernism,
or that it replaces it or rejects, many commentators point out that postmodernism
is a kind of parasite, dependant on its modernist host and displaying many of the
same features – except that the meaning has changed. Where postmodernism
differs, above all, is in its loss of faith in the progressive ideals that sustained the
modernists, who inherited the …. belief in the possibility of continuous human
progress through reason and science. (p. 11)

Postmodernism is a slippery notion, used in a multitude of ways. Academics suggest

we are living in the “Post-modern condition” today, said to mean globalisation,

deconstruction of meaning, the ‘cultural logic of late capitalism’, and what Poyner

(2003) describes as the lack of distinction between ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture, the idea

that these become ‘equal possibilities on a level field’ (p. 11). The Chambers English

Dictionary definition is more succinct:

...a style (in any of the arts) following upon, and showing movement away from
or reaction against, a style, theory, etc termed ‘modernist’.

Modernism is the umbrella name for a surprising array of aesthetic movements

including Cubism, Expressionism, Futurism, Dadaism and Surrealism in art, Serialism

in music, and other ideas such as abstraction, functionalism, atonality and free verse

(Weston 1996). Boyne and Rattansi describe how these movements

emerged in Europe in the 1880s, flourished before and after the First World War
and became institutionalised in the academies and art galleries of Post-Second
World War Europe and America, (1990 p. 6, cited in Barnhard 2005 p. 112)

The Modernist ‘faith in the tradition of the new’ (Weston 1996 p.7) was partly a

reaction to what had gone before, but mostly a reflection of society (so the early

Modernists employed the remix but little). The 19th Century had seen massive

technological progress and mass industrialization, and the start of the 20th Century

saw the Russian Revolution and the cataclysmic Great War. After the First World

War people were angry, and wanted change and progress in all areas of life. Many of

Modernism’s movements were based on distinct ideals. Modernist design and

architecture moved to the United States after the Second World War, and went on to

shape the appearance of the 20th Century. Post-modern theorists tend to disregard

these values and other older values, but even this is not new. In a newspaper interview

Henry Ford famously said

History is more or less bunk. It's tradition. We don't want tradition. We want to
live in the present and the only history that is worth a tinker's dam is the history
we made today. (Chicago Tribune, 1916)

This is a recurring idea, but as Burrow (2008) states, it is

…fashionable to think of our world as post- more or less everything, as though it

is cut off from the past by irreversible innovations. This is an illusion. We are still
in debt to the past.

The methodology of the remix involves taking a piece or pieces of work and

deconstructing, analyzing, experimenting, keeping desirable elements and discarding

others, rearranging and adding new parts, so that the new piece becomes more

effective or appealing to a different audience. It is essentially a “cut and paste”

technique (Broughton and Brewster, 1999; Schaal, 2006; Mason, 2008 p.82). This

process of appropriation can be seen in music, design, literature, art, film, fashion,

gaming, architecture, advertising and business models (Mason, 2008 p. 85-98). It

could be suggested that we live in a cut and paste society. The idea behind the remix

is evident all over the Internet, with the most popular applications built around user-

driven content (e.g. YouTube and Facebook). The programming code for video games

is intentionally left unlocked so that fans can tweak and improve it (Mason 2008 p.

169). The combination of digital television recorders (Sky+) and internet-based ‘on

demand’ services such as BBC’s iPlayer have reinvented broadcasting, and the ‘end-

user’ now creates their own remix experience; the way we use information, media and

ideas today is very different. It has become more personalised, but less socially


While the methodology of the remix is pervasive, the term was initially used and

primarily understood to apply to music, and particularly to dance music, such as Hip

Hop, Disco, and developments of these. I propose here to discuss some aspects of

remix or cut and paste in the ‘postmodern era’ (1960’s to the present), firstly in music,

and then in visual communications.

The remix: music

Appropriation and adaptation in music pre-dates modern remixing. Indeed, one may

argue it has always existed. Classical composers were influenced by the folk music of

their own countries, and have gone on to influence others. Mozart built on the work of

Haydn and Bach. The triumvirate of Mozart, Haydn and the early Beethoven are often

regarded as the core of the “Classical era”, where forms including the symphony,

sonata and concerto that we know today were consolidated and perfected (Rosen,

1998; M Files Online, 2009a). These three deeply influenced later composers.

Earlier composers still influence popular music today. One example is Johann

Pachelbel's “Canon in D Major”, composed in 1680. The following are all based on

this one piece: “Let It be” by The Beatles (1970), "All Together Now" by The Farm

(1991); "Basket Case" by Green Day (1994); "Hook" by Blues Traveler (1994);

"Scatman's World" by Scatman John (1995); "Graduation (Friends Forever)" by

Vitamin C (2000); "Yatta" by Happa-tai (2001); "Paris"(2004) by Delerium (sic). In

addition, "Don't Look Back in Anger" by Oasis (1996) borrows the chorus chord

progression from the same Canon, while "C U When U Get There" by Coolio (1997)

contains sections of it. Finally, the piece is repeatedly used in either its original form,

or in a later version, in television and radio programmes, films and in advertising

(Hickman, 2009; Origen Music, 2009). Taking another example, "If I Had You"

(1979) by The Korgis is based on Rachmaninov’s "Variations on a theme by

Paganini" Variation 18 (composed in 1934), and Rachmaninov’s piece is in turn

based on Paganini's "Caprice No 24 in A minor", published in 1819. Yet another

example comes from Procol Harum, a progressive rock band, whose 1967 hit “A

Whiter Shade of Pale” sold 6,000,000 units. In a 2004 poll, the British performing

rights organization Phonographic Performance Ltd (PPL) named it the most-played

record of the past 70 years (PPL Online 2009), as did BBC Radio 2 (Swash 2009).

Where this recording succeeds as a creative work is in the combination of disparate

elements; progressive rock styling and unusual ambiguous lyrics are superbly fused

with a dominant organ theme based on JS Bach’s Cantata No. 140 (Greenberg 1997).

Of course, not all great musical reworkings are based on “classical” music. The year

following Procol Harum’s hit saw another superb example of musical “cut and paste”,

when Jimi Hendrix recorded a cover version of Bob Dylan’s “All Along the

Watchtower”. After hearing Dylan’s original, Hendrix spent several months

perfecting his own version of this composition, constantly altering guitar parts, and

playing most of the instruments (Kramer 1994). The Daily Telegraph (2004), The

Independent (Bray 2008) and the British guitar magazine Total Guitar named it top of

their lists of ‘greatest cover versions of all time’. It is commonly revered as the

definitive version. The Telegraph describes how Hendrix’s version “completely

outgunned the original” (2004), whilst Bray describes the version as having “turned

the easy listening ballad into a technically brilliant rock classic with that legendary

guitar solo” (2008). Dylan has said that Hendrix’s version

...overwhelmed me, really. He had such talent, he could find things inside a song
and vigorously develop them. He found things that other people wouldn't think of
finding in there. He probably improved upon it by the spaces he was using. I took
license with the song from his version, actually, and continue to do it to this day.
(Dolen, 1995)

Hendrix recorded many cover versions during his short career, but these versions

were anything but plagiaristic; he would present the song in an entirely new way.

Hendrix was said to be influenced by Blues artists such as B.B. King (Egan, 2002),

Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters and Elmore James (Shadwick, 2002 p.39), and he spent

several years mastering his guitar style prior to reaching success. This involved a

multitude of then pioneering techniques, including distortion, detuning, and electronic

effect-pedals (Shadwick, 2002 p.92). He played and recorded with Little Richard’s

band, and in 1966 was quoted as saying, "I want to do with my guitar what Little

Richard does with his voice" (White 2003 p.125). Hendrix achieved this and more,

and it could be argued that Hendrix’s approach to music has parallels with great

artists in other media, such as Pablo Picasso; both began disciplined study from the

masters from a young age. This solid grounding (partly based on copying) enabled

both artists to innovate unique styles.

Matt Mason’s book ‘The Pirate’s Dilemma’ is replete with examples of inspirational

takes on the remix, but in reality the remix can be a random affair. Remixes can be

plagiaristic and exploitive, produced in the eternal quest for ‘easy money’. Such

examples have little creative value, and are unlikely to have any lasting appeal. A

great remix is more than the sum of its parts; there is an element of transformation, of

alchemy. The remix artist needs something good to build on (explaining why e.g.

Pachelbel and Bach, and indeed Bob Dylan, have been mined so often for source

material), but he or she must also use skill and creativity to produce something new.

There are many questionable examples of the remix. Earlier examples will not have

survived, but more recent examples exist. One might suggest that these are either the

product of laziness or are simply motivated by money. Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs’

reworking of the Police’s “Every Breath You Take” became the rap ballad “I’ll Be

Missing You”, a lament to his recently murdered best friend the Notorious B.I.G. It

was described as “mawkish” (Simpson 2008), and “a nauseating brew of gloopy

sentimentality and strategic-marketing mawkishness” (Blender Online 2009),

suggesting an overly opportunistic approach to self-marketing, ironic considering the

emotive theme of the song. Blender ranks “I’ll be Missing You” at number 25 on its

list of the “50 Worst Songs Ever” (2009). I concur, finding no creative merit or

transformative value in the piece, but it is worth noting that the same song appears at

36th place on the Guardian’s “Favourite 100 Songs” list (2002). In popular music the

least creative, most obvious remixes often make the most profit, whilst permission is

only granted to license a work for re-use if the new record is likely to generate a lot of

money. This is notion is illustrated by Madonna, who became only the second artist in

history to negotiate sample usage from Abba's songwriters, Benny Andersson and

Bjorn Ulvaeus (Hastings 2005). The ensuing 2005 single “Hung Up” topped the pop

charts in 45 countries, earning Madonna a place in the Guinness Book of Records

(Glenday (2007)).

The democratisation of the remix can arguably be attributed to the innovations and

developments of Kingston’s Reggae sound systems of the 1960’s and the block-

parties and nightclubs of the New York Boroughs in the 1970’s (Broughton and

Brewster (1999)). DJs became artists and producers, moving the creative process

away solely from musicians. These DJs invented many tactile techniques, which then

led to the development of the digital tools that are readily available today. During this

period, DJs instigated the design and build of bespoke, custom-built audio equipment,

such as turntables and mixing consoles, or where necessary adapted and reinvented

existing equipment (Broughton and Brewster 1999). As the DJs became producers,

remixing became a professional occupation; the period between the late 1980’s and

the turn of the 21st Century were both lucrative and prolific.

The contemporary idea of the remix differs from these previous case studies. Today,

anyone who owns a computer can make a remix (Mason 2008). This is not to say that

such remixes are without artistic merit. Of the numerous examples, the most succinct

is Kutiman, who creates new pieces of music using anonymous videos found on

YouTube; the craft of the remix is visually underscored through the interplay between

strangers, spliced together on the screen (2009). One might say this is a remix of a

remix. But, generally speaking, remixing in popular music has been transformed into

a hobbyist’s activity, and as such has lost its direct monetary value (Mason 2008).

The Oxford based rock band Radiohead recognized this trend, setting a competition to

remix their ‘Nude’ single. The potential remixer is required to purchase all the

necessary parts (known as stems) from iTunes. Radiohead’s site allows the completed

remixes to be uploaded, to be judged by the band (2008). Record companies and

bands are now able to promote their work at virtually no cost.

The remix in visual communication.

The visual arts also have a historic tradition of appropriation. Picasso and Georges

Braque utilised ‘real objects such as newspapers … to represent themselves’ (Tate

2009). This form of appropriation would later be called synthetic cubism. Marcel

Duchamp began his Readymades soon after, which were based around found objects,

most famously his parody of the Mona Lisa, “L.H.O.O.Q.”, replete with moustache

and goatee (Ill. 1), and “Fountain” (Ill. 2) which is described as ‘a men's urinal

signed, titled, and presented on a pedestal’ (ibid). Surrealist artists would later use real

objects in their work, e.g. Salvador Dali’s 1936 work Lobster Telephone. Andy

Warhol is most famous for mass-producing screen prints of Campbell’s soup cans and

Marilyn Monroe.

Illustration 1: Marcel Duchamp - L.H.O.O.Q

Illustration 2: Marcel Duchamp - Fountain

The visual arts are a huge field. It is important at this point to specify that, for the

purposes of this dissertation, our focus will examine visual communications in the

postmodern era, mainly for the music industry and advertising (late 1960’s to the

present). We will consider:

1. What is visual communication, and how does it differ from fine art?

2. The use and context of visual communication, with case studies.

3. Discussion of how the notion of the remix has informed my own work and
ideas in music and design.

What is visual communication?

It may be necessary to point out some differences between graphic design and fine art.

Upon entering university, I considered the difference to be that Graphic Design is

commercial art. In the wider application of graphic design, many other disciplines can

be included, such as illustration and motion graphics, and can be referred to as visual

communication. Malcolm Barnhard suggests the difference between art and graphic

design “depends upon the notion of the reproducibility of image and text”. (2005

p.175). Hollis states that: “unlike the artist, the designer plans for multiple

production” (2001, p. 8). Walter Benjamin argues that “some works of art possess

‘aura’, and that others, mechanically reproduced works (such as graphic design) do

not”. (cited by Barnhard 2005, p.175). To clarify, Barnhard describes Aura as “the

sense of uniqueness and authenticity that is felt before a work of art” (ibid). There are

clearly ambiguities between what is art and what is design, but in general terms

graphic design (or visual communications – advertising, illustration, motion graphics)

are produced for a client, and intended for mass distribution. It is intended for

communication, produced to a brief, often to sell, present or decorate information for

commercial use. I still consider graphic design to be commercial art, but I now

propose to discuss its worth as a communication tool and a problem-solving aid.

The use and context of visual communication.

Graphic design is used in a large variety of ways, but is often produced for a specific

client or for a defined purpose. Examples of such uses are packaging, advertising,

branding, identity, information, and presentation, through a variety of media.

Designers must juggle with typography, image, symbols, and codes to communicate,

or to reach their objective. So exactly what is the designer role? Milton Glaser states

that the key point is to ‘make people pay attention... understand what your audience

knows’ (quoted in McAlhone & Stuart 1996 p.196). It is clear that without good

ideas, design can lack any meaning, and thus be ineffective. If designers are to make

people pay attention, they need to be creative and fresh. In an attempt to analyse the

creative process, I have endeavoured to explore the question of whether there is such

as thing as ex nihilo creativity.

Every object necessitates cultural references, or we would be unable to recognize it,

and designers play with images to create new ideas. James Webb Young states that

‘An idea is nothing more nor less than a new combination of old elements’ (1960

p.25), whilst Ivan Chermayeff also describes a process of combining simple, obvious

and straightforward images and connecting them to another idea to create a new idea

(McAlhone & Stuart, 1996 p.182). Chwast (ibid p.184) and Glaser (ibid p.196) both

play around with clichés and existing images as a starting point, whilst Alan Fletcher

states that ‘What distinguishes designer sheep from designer goats is the ability to

stroke a cliché until it purrs like a metaphor’ (Fletcher & Myerson 1996 p.68). This

process is analogous to lateral thinking, as illustrated by De Bono (2007). It is indeed

creative, but it does not come from nothing.

Symbols and signs are a visual language, whose theories are expanded upon in the

study of semiotics (Chandler, 2002; Hall, 2007). Designers are visual magpies:

appropriation is part of their DNA (McAlhone & Stuart, 1996), but it seems clear that

there needs to some transformation to create original solutions. Clients commission

design for a variety of reasons, and can pay considerable sums of money for bespoke

imagery and identity, therefore there are good (and legal) reasons to avoid plagiarism.

Despite these constraints, there are many instances of the remix in design, and we will

shortly consider their context in some case studies and attempt to evaluate whether

each remix adds value.

In literature, writers have long appropriated financial metaphors as a significant

element in the way they describe literature itself. Burrow (2008) describes how we

might of a particular genre as being "bankrupt", or of a work's "poverty", or of an

author's "borrowings" from another writer, or about their "debts" to Shakespeare
or to Dante. We don't only use "derivative" to mean an unbelievably complicated
financial product "whose value derives from and is dependent upon the value of
an underlying variable asset, such as a commodity, currency, or security". A
financial language which is also a morally charged language (try calling a writer
"derivative" and see if they don't take it as a personal affront) is a routine part of
our literary discourse.

The notion that by writing we incur debts appears to be routine today: metaphors of

debt are the norm in the prefaces or acknowledgments pages in almost all book

genres. This established system in literature distinguishes debt from theft or

plagiarism (which literally means kidnapping). Burrow (2008) continues to explain

how literary debt functions:

Open borrowing of a phrase from a well-known source is a two-way process: the

debtor acknowledges that the text of which he is making use remains the property
of the lender. He also asserts that the text he borrows is valuable by the fact that
he bothers to borrow it. And when he borrows from a classic work, everyone can
be expected to recognise the allusion. In this way the debt might contribute to the
credit of the source text, rather than simply robbing it blind, since the act of
borrowing confirms the source as a classic.

The fashion industry is similarly based on accepted referencing and reworking.

Burgoyne (2009) states “almost every photograph Guy Bourdin ever took has

resurfaced at some point over the past 20 years in another photographer’s shot”,

before putting this statement in context:

When a fashion photographer or art director references a previous image, he or

she is doing so within the confines of that very specific culture. Furthermore, they
will be presenting their images to a highly visually literate audience who will be
expected to ‘get’ the reference, which will usually be to a well-known aspect of
the canon. It is not exploitative of the image’s originator but about paying tribute
to those who have gone before, just as the clothes themselves endlessly recycle
and reinterpret styles from previous eras.

Some designers assume the same level of sophistication in the consumers of visual

communications and advertising. Peter Saville, who was in-house designer for

Factory Records, essentially made his most significant contributions to graphic design

through the wholesale appropriation and repackaging of modernist art and design.

Saville’s packaging designs for New Order’s LP Movement (Ill. 5) and single

Procession (Ill. 3) each use designs by the Futurist designer Forunato Deporo (Ill. 4;

Ill. 6). Saville explains: “To me, it was better to quote Futurism verbatim, for

example, then to parody it ineptly – it was a more honest, more intellectual and in a

way more artistic approach. It was so literal and so obvious that it never crossed my

mind that people would think that I invented this work.’ (from Poyner 2003 p.78).

I would argue that Saville’s explanation is only acceptable if you regard this issue

from a designers perspective; it is unlikely the majority outside of a design related

profession would be aware of such a debt, as designers are generally not producing

the work for other designers. The purpose of the design may be a press advert, an

identity, or in Saville’s case packaging for popular music. Saville’s assumption that

his appropriations are “obvious” is only true for artists and designers. The consumer

is unlikely to be familiar with obscure modernist design. Saville’s approach here is

uncomfortably close to plagiarism.

Nevertheless, the design, image and packaging of Saville’s output for Factory

Records’ early phase did contribute to the label’s identity and mystique. Poyner

(2003) suggests that the power of these designs also came from the precise choice of

works used, and the way these selections functioned as ideas in relation to the music

and bands they expressed. If true, this might be argued to authenticate the

appropriation, but it is notable that later issues of these works on compact disc

credited the original artists work, similar to the way a piece of literature might

acknowledge a debt, or a musical recording might include a sample 1. The zeitgeist of

the post-punk or new-wave era coincides with the popularity of the appropriation art

of Sherrie Levine and Richard Prince, and also has parallels in postmodern


1  We may note here that “Saville also plundered works from Giorgio de Cherico and Henri Fantin-Latour (Poyner (2003))  

Again writing in defence, Poyner (2003 p.36), describes Saville as instinctive rather than theoretical postmodernist who understood the new
cultural mood from his first sight, in 1978, of Philip Johnson’s proposals for the
AT&T building, a postmodern New York skyscraper with a broken classical
pediment for a crown. ‘Within 12 months, neo-classicism and the influence of
architectural postmodernism were everywhere’ Saville recalls. “People in New
York were buying columns to put into their apartments. My contribution was the
graphic design equivalent. It was always an emotive feeling, and after a year or so
I began to trust in my senses.”2

Taking Poyner’s arguments into consideration, I would still argue that Saville is guilty

of plagiarism, given that the end-users of the design are popular music consumers.

There is no playfulness in this work, no clearly defined combination of ideas, no

evidence of transformation or any real allusion to Deporo. This is what a remix is not,

or should not be.

2  Saville’s quote originally appeared in Eye, Volume 5 Number 17, summer 1995, p. 14  

Illustration 3: New Order “procession”
by Peter Saville (1981)

Illustration 4: Forunato Deporo

“Dinamo Futurista” (1932)

Illustration 5: New Order “Movement”
designed by Peter Saville

Illustration 6: Forunato Deporo “Futurismo”

1932 poster

Alan Fletcher, a highly respected British designer, built an extensive portfolio during

his lifetime. Fletcher extensively documented his approach and philosophy to

creativity (1963, 1996, 2001, 2006), and on occasion reworked existing ideas or

images, opining that ‘it is acceptable to steal, providing you don’t pass the idea off as

your own – that’s plagiarism’ (Fletcher and Myerson 1996 p.200). Fletcher borrowed

A.M. Cassandre’s character drawing from his famous series of 1930’s Dubonnet

advertisements (Ill. 7), recmodelling the character for the Design and Art Directors

Association’s (D&AD) 21st anniversary dinner (Ill. 8). In this case, permission was

sought to reproduce the character, which Dubonnet, despite having no recollection of

the image, withheld. Myerson describes how an undeterred Fletcher

...went ahead and redressed him in a blue suit and bowler hat, so he was
appropriately turned out for the occasion, and inserted the line ‘Homage to
Cassandre’ running down the trouser leg. (p. 200)

The context of this remix is very different from Saville’s; graphic design is not

usually fashioned and aimed at other designers, but in this example, it is. The client,

D&AD, is described by McAlhone & Stuart as “the organization that gave designers

and admen more muscle” (1996 p.52). This event is to be marketed to the design and

advertising industries, who ought to understand the allusion, yet Fletcher still makes it

clear that this is a “Homage to Cassandre”. This example is the opposite of Saville’s

cynical approach. This is a true remix, and a very good one. It is an acknowledged

homage, but Fletcher adds an extra layer of perfectly appropriate meaning: the target

audience will also identify themselves in the character, celebrating with drinks.

The two contrasting examples from Saville and Fletcher shown above illustrate that

context is a major factor in determining whether appropriation is justifiable, and

indeed, whether it has artistic merit.

Illustration 7: A.M. Cassandre “Dubonnet Advertisement”


Illustration 8: Alan Fletcher

“Poster for D&AD 21st Anniversary Dinner” 1983

How the remix affected my work

I grew up in the ‘post-punk’ era described in the texts by Broughton and Brewster

(2009), Reynolds (2006) and McKnight-Trontz (2005). At that time I had no

awareness of postmodernism. I simply enjoyed the music and culture for what it was,

in the innocent way one would expect of a boy under the age of ten. I have distinct

memories of some pop music from early in the 1970’s that simply didn’t excite me,

including the Bay City Rollers, Suzi Quatro and Smokie.3 The kind of music I was

excited by was largely 2-tone, which was not unusual at the time, as the brief disco

and initial Punk eras that preceded the post-punk boom had effectively killed off

much of what I considered to the be safe, bland pop of the earlier 70’s, spawning a

scene that was hugely popular4. Post-punk or New Wave included many styles, such

Synth-Pop, Neo-Psychedelia, Neo-Mod, Power Pop, New Romantic, 2-Tone (based

on Jamaican Ska and Bluebeat), Art-Rock, Neo-Rockabilly, and Goth (McKnight-

Trontz (2005)). Despite the seemingly disparate array of styles, New Wave was a

genre, and was arguably the first music genre, or indeed era, to revisit past genres so

thoroughly (ibid). This appropriation was often extended to the cover art, which used

vintage graphics, typography, fashion and images of the original era. These images

were utilised on record sleeves, at live performances and in the early days of the

music video, immediately preceding and including the debut years of MTV (ibid). I

clearly recall the 2-tone acts such as The Specials seeming fresher that a lot of the

earlier 70’s music, despite being heavily based on previous Ska and Bluebeat styles5.

3  This was the kind of music which was shown on popular children’s TV programmes of the late 1970’s such as BBC 1’s
“Cheggers Plays Pop”    
4 In my primary school, everyone could be either a ‘Mod’ or a ‘Rocker’.
A huge part of the appeal was the image, posters, and fashion; simple fresh black and white design i.e. “two tone”.

This effectively meant that I was unwittingly exposed to remix culture almost as soon

as I became interested in music and design. This had, and still has a huge impact on

my work, first in music, and now in design.

The later music culture genres, such as Hip-hop and Electro continued to adapt and

remix disparate musical styles, which often interested me; to me, remix culture was

culture, by and large. In my case, the transformation and reworking of older musical

styles broadened and informed my taste, often leading me to look at the original

material. This approach to creativity had a huge bearing on my music career, which

began in my late teens.

I spent fifteen years making, producing, writing and remixing music before my return

to education. I had been immersed in music (and incidentally, in related design), and

began DJing at the age of sixteen, first as an amateur, then as a professional. I had an

in-depth knowledge of house and techno music, which led to opportunities to create

and produce music. I did this with no training or technical knowledge to begin with.

All I brought to my initial productions sessions were a bag of records. I simply dived

into it, taking a rebellious ‘do-it-yourself’ approach, and learned on the job. I largely

taught myself from reworking, referencing, copying, combining and studying other

music. I continued to learn from this basis, producing around 30 original productions,

and over 100 remixes by the time I stopped making music in 2007. On reflection, I

can see how I learned the majority of my skills during the first decade, and was later

increasingly able to inconspicuously integrate the remix process into my work. I

would always be aware (and respectful) of borrowed elements that would feed into a

certain composition, but sought to create something fresh and new.

In my former career, I was an autodidact. I became more creative through remixing

other works: by studying existing material I was able to learn the required skills, and I

believe that was the best approach for what I wanted to do at the time. In my

experience, the remix can be a truly creative process, but one must put one’s own

energy, skill and originality into producing it. This is as true for art and design as it is

for music. There may be few completely new ideas under the sun, but there is always

room for fresh perspectives, executed and presented with skill and flair.


The notion of remixing has always existed. There is evidence that many of the

sacrosanct Christian holidays we celebrate are adapted from previous pagan eras.

Original ideas, compositions or works can evolve and have value for later cultures,

both in themselves, and as a ‘springboard’ for new ideas and creations. This is

certainly true in literature, music and design, as we have discussed, but it is also true

in every field of human endeavour and interest. In science, for example, Einstein

repudiated some of the theories of Newton, but he also built on them. Modern

medicine continues to evolve, but the knowledge that was handed down by Pasteur,

for example, is still as relevant, and has been built on and developed. We all stand on

the shoulders of giants, and some of us may become giants ourselves, but we need

somewhere to start from. Nothing comes of nothing. Remixing in the broad sense is

natural to humans. But does it have value?

The notion of value may be measured in various ways e.g. creative, humanitarian or

financial worth. One can argue that some ideas or works have high creative value

because they are often reused, built upon, or reinvented. However, we must remember

that opinions are subjective; in a bid to find clear examples of remixes that have little

creative value, for example “I’ll Be Missing You” by Puff Daddy, the author found

that the song was loved and loathed in equal measure (Guardian, 2002; Blender,

2009). Perhaps the only true test will be whether the song is remembered at all in 50

years time. I suspect not, but that the original it was built on might be remembered.

The mixing and transformation of ideas or works may add value to the original work,

or make its message accessible to a new audience. If the original has value, it will not

suffer from either good or bad remixes (there have been countless versions and

reworkings of Shakespeare’s plays, Mozart’s music, Michelangelo’s paintings and

Toulouse-Lautrec’s posters, but the originals are still valued)6. There is evidence that

a new version of a work can be transformed into something greater, as in the case of

Hendrix’s version of “All Along The Watchtower”. To do this takes great skill.

While the remix can innovate and transform, there are examples where plagiarism

seems evident, usually prompted by purely financial motives. There is some evidence

to suggest borrowing is the norm in some creative disciplines, accepted and

understood, but is questioned in others. I have argued that context is important here,

but perhaps it should always be made clear in any discipline when borrowing has

taken place. However borrowing, whether consciously or unconsciously, seems

inevitable in any human endeavour to some extent.

In my own experience, I have often found repurposed ideas in music and art to be the

most exciting. I have also found that, to a greater or lesser extent, the remix has an

essential role in the creative process. The examples given in this essay could arguably

indicate that the remix functions in a comparable way in every creative discipline.

Sometimes we may make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear; the trick is to avoid making

a pig’s ear of one’s creation, whether it or not it is a remix. Quality counts in a remix,

as it does in any creative form, and this is true whether the remix involves music, art,

design or any other discipline.

6   The source of the appropriation is important. As Burgoyne points out “...attitudes to borrowing in literature or the fashion
industry, and in design and advertising are arguably about power” (Burgoyne (2009)). Burgoyne expands his argument, stating:
“In advertising’s ceaseless search for the new, those whose ideas are being ‘borrowed’ are most likely to be young and
vulnerable, rather than old and venerated. If an agency takes their ideas and asks another to remake them, it may be denying them
the opportunity to benefit and advance their career. “


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