Art Without Humans

Gavin Mueller
8 min readNov 15, 2016

This was published in Cluster Magazine in 2013. I recently noticed the magazine’s site is gone, but I still like this piece so I’m reposting it here. — G 2016.

When movie houses bought phonographs, they were bombed by the orchestra. Now that software is making the DJ obsolete we download Serato and screw the world.

DJ Screw has been dead for over a decade, but the art form he pioneered — slowed-down hip-hop mixes, with jarring repetitions created by cutting between two copies of the same record, slightly out of phase — lives on. For what was first known as his “screwed and chopped” (and is now known as “chopped and screwed”) mixing style, Texas governor Rick Perry named the late Houston native a Texas Music Pioneer. After his death, Screw’s associates continued his practice until it burst into mainstream hip-hop in 2005. It’s now ensconced as a widely practiced form of remixing, and even song writing.

So there’s DJ Screw’s music, and then there’s chopped and screwed. Although they’re related they aren’t quite the same. They come from the same place, even the same circle of people. But the difference is in the technique, the work process carried out to create the finished mix. Screw used a more-or-less traditional setup: analog turntables connected to an eight-track mixer. His disciples use digital software to slow down and chop up tracks. The difference is palpable. The ghostly warble of the vocals on Screw tapes, the hypnagogic layers of hiss and crackle, the sounds of the turntable belt powering down — these are crucial elements of Screw’s aesthetic as much as the trademark tempo and chopping technique (both of which are rather subtle elements of Screw mixes, they are sometimes completely absent).

Screw was an inveterate devotee of the underground, eschewing major labels and technological upgrades. His disciples, however, weren’t as rooted in tradition. DJs like Michael “5000″ Watts and OG Ron C embraced the mainstream even as they honed in on the signature elements of Screw’s style. But they didn’t replicate the artistic process. Chopped and screwed is now a digital affair, allowing for harder and more frequent chopping. While Screw navigated the narrow channel between flow and rupture while maintaining a continuous groove, chopped and screwed mixes have a hiccuping loopiness to them. The digital treatments sound slicker because the audio quality hasn’t degraded the way it would in a Screw mix. They are more heavily affected, with words and sentences broken down into macerated phonemes.

“Postproduction” is what French curator Nicolas Bourriaud has called a body of contemporary art heavily influenced by the logic of the remix. For artists, he says, meaning is no longer created through the alteration of raw materials, but by “finding a means of insertion into the innumerable flows of production.” This is tied to a transformation in artistic technique: “Artists today program forms more than they compose them: rather than transfigure a raw element (blank canvas, clay, etc.), they remix available forms and make use of data.” Digitalization levels cultural products into informational commodities of ones and zero. Anything can go with anything.

Postmodernists have been talking about this stuff for at least a generation, but now the digital realm has begun to subsume the entire cultural field. DJ culture sensed the potentialities of the post-produced world early, before technology caught up to fully realize it. It’s certainly present in Screw’s music, as it is in innumerable hip-hop productions. But for all the use and reuse of prerecorded music, the creative rearrangement of existing works, the artist’s hand is still involved. We haven’t arrived at what Marx called the “general intellect” — a level of automation where the machine becomes the virtuoso. Or have we?

After all, even someone as clueless as me can make a passable chopped and screwed remix in a few hours. Or, even better, I can check to see if someone’s already done it for me. There’s no shortage of them online, spanning all sorts of artists. Led Zeppelin. Tears for Fears. Vybz Kartel. Adele. The DuckTales theme song. “Gangnam Style” has been slopped, chopped, slowed, throwed. A corner of the internet seems devoted to chopping and screwing everything possible — to remixing and mashing up every possible iteration, in an exhaustive experiment to see what bears fruit. And it has only reached this level because ability is located in the machine.

When the machine becomes the virtuoso of industrial production, as with robots taking over the manufacture of cars, we call it “automation.” When automation reaches cultural processes, it meets with no small amount of resistance, from Theodor Adorno’s condescending remarks on repetition in jazz to Steve Albini’s judgment of sampling (“lazy”). We, of course, have discovered new pleasures from integrating repetition and quotation into popular music, but Adorno and Albini’s anxieties speak to real transformations in the production of art and culture.

When a program called Scratch Live, created by audio-software developer Serato, was released in 2004, there was tremendous ambivalence among DJs. Scratch Live — known to DJs simply as Serato — automates DJ techniques such as cueing, beat matching, and even storing and handling recordings. The DJs who had spent countless hours honing their skills worried that they’d become obsolete overnight. What does a meticulously curated vinyl collection mean in the face of a boundless file-sharing network?Who cares about your trained ear when tracks can be mixed visually, just by looking at their waveforms? DJing, born itself out of the mechanization of the live-music experience, had been automatized even further.

In 1974, New York-born writer Harry Braverman published one of the best accounts of automation in Labor and Monopoly Capital: The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century. As a former factory worker, he knew very well what it meant to introduce machines into the workplace. It crushed human workers’ power. Before automation, skilled laborers wielded capital in their workplaces: their abilities made them difficult to replace, so they could control the pace of their work. They were in a better position than most to demand higher wages and shorter hours. If those skilled jobs could be automated, the bosses could get rid of skilled laborers and replace them with more precarious low-skill workers, who would only have to operate the machines. There would be productivity gains, of course, but the main impetus was to gain the upper hand over rebellious workers. Marx noted this in Capital: “It would be possible to write a whole history of the inventions made since 1830 for the sole purpose of providing capital with weapons against working-class revolt.” Marx had in mind the Luddites, early-19th century textile workers who rose up against the new power-loom technology by destroying the machines. Ever since, “Luddite” has been a pejorative for anyone who stands in the way of new technology — including DJs who opposed Serato.

Those DJs lost. Serato is everywhere, and it happened with less resistance than one might have expected. Maybe it’s because many DJs are interested in exploring new technology; maybe it’s because they aren’t organized as a labor force.

It’s hard to imagine musicians and artists forming labor unions, but that hasn’t always been the case. Musicians had strong unions at the beginning of the 20th century, and one of their major battles was against their generation’s great automated threat: the sound recording. The first skirmishes erupted over movie theaters which, until recorded music came along, had regularly hired small orchestras to provide film scores. With the onset of the Depression, out-of-work musicians became desperate. Theaters employing phonograph technology were picketed, boycotted, and even bombed with dynamite. In the 1940s, when “canned” music started replacing the live bands who had performed on the radio, musicians went on strike again. But rather than meet unions’ demands, record companies started relying on vocalists, who weren’t considered musicians and were thus ineligible for union membership. The struggle over automated music led to the rise of singers such as Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby, who recorded their first solo records a capella.

Struggles over the work of making music, and how that work should be compensated, govern the kind of music being made and influence what technologies are developed. Tastes emerge in the wake of these struggles. And now the struggle, as one-sided as it is, occurs at the level of DJing itself. This is what DJ /rupture pointed toward when he said, “Economics favor the DJ.”

DJs were once the avatar of automation in the music industry, replacing live music with the dead labor of recordings. For a long time, playing records in clubs was expressly banned by those same “Luddite” musician unions. But now the work of DJs themselves is being restructured. Automation has meant that DJs are no longer necessarily skilled workers. The ballooning number of people DJing means that venues can pay lower rates, often offering nothing more than free drinks.That isn’t to say there aren’t differences in skill between DJs, but those differences now have much less effect on who gets gigs and how much they are paid than they would have in the past. Meanwhile, the specter of total automation still haunts the craft, as the minor controversy over prerecorded sets can attest. Digital radio algorithms — such as those used by Pandora — have automated the radio DJ’s curatorial function. It won’t be long until beat-matching technology removes any necessity for human input there, as well. Everyone will truly be a DJ then, as long they can get their hands on the software.

I probably sound like a Luddite too, nostalgic for the days of big bands or “real” DJing or analog screwed and chopped mixes. But I’m not, really. Artists will come along and experiment with the new state of affairs, just like the ones Nicolas Bourriaud described in 2001′s Postproduction. But there are costs, and we shouldn’t overlook them.

When Harry Braverman was called a Luddite, he denied romanticizing the past. Instead, he said, “my views about work are governed by nostalgia for an age that has not yet come into being, in which, for the worker, the craft satisfaction that arises from conscious and purposeful mastery of the labor process will be combined with the marvels of science and the ingenuity of engineering.” Braverman felt that technology could be liberating, but not in a world where innovation was deeply imbricated with the purpose of undermining workers’ power.

This “nostalgia for an age that has not yet come into being” could also describe Walter Benjamin’s thoughts on art and technology. Writing in 1936, Benjamin saw technology collapsing the privileged position of creators. The proliferation of printing technology meant that “an increasing number of readers became writers” — in publications’ letters-to-the-editor sections and in pamphlets (and, much later, in zines and blogs). Benjamin concluded that “the distinction between author and public is about to lose its basic character.” He made similar predictions about film and music.

Although he made his living as a writer, Benjamin embraced this increasing participation of the masses in art-making (and his hopes for film may be realized in our lifetimes). He thought that active engagement by as many people as possible was good for society, and made for better art. Time and again, he disparaged artists who sought to protect their privileged social spaces, whose politics never went beyond sympathy to an actual practice of engagement with the public.

But Benjamin was optimistic about automated cultural production because he connected it to particular types of social transformation. He believed the massification of artistic production would mean the proletarianization of artists. As more people made art, artists would find themselves a part of the masses, without a specialized “position between the classes.” Artistic production, steeped in a radical mass movement, would more authentically represent the aims of the working class and integrate with political praxis instead of just political ideology. To borrow Bourriaud’s distinction, art would exist for use rather than contemplation. Benjamin, who wanted to “supersede the opposition between musicians and listeners,” would have loved a world where everyone screws and chops.

When the magic is in the machine, there may be fewer geniuses. But we may be much closer to DJ Screw’s oft-stated dream to “screw the world.” In an interview he gave a year before he died, he articulated his vision of the future. “The sun will shine on everybody. Everybody will get their time to shine.” And as art-making is proletarianized, and as the proletariat is radicalized again, maybe someday soon everybody will.