Neurodiversity, Technology and Southern History: D.J. Spooky’s Rebirth of a Nation

D.J. Spooky’s Wednesday night performance at the legendary Texas Theatre was more than a re-rendering of a controversial film. It was a moment for the recently announced Stanford Artist-in-Residence’s audience to live down ghosts of Klansmen past.

“Trip-Hop” Musician D.J. Spooky, Paul D. Miller — a.k.a. “That Subliminal Kid” delivers his performance art piece titled “Rebirth of a Nation,” reworking the historical, but controversial D.W. Griffith film. SMU Meadows’ SYZYGY ensemble performs the live original score, composed of cyclic pentatonic scales, blending blues, jazz and gospel.

The Texas Theatre is no Acropolis, even if it has its own connection to the ghosts of a nation’s sordid colonial history, even if it is a fine venue. But as VideoFest badgeholders and interested viewers watched on, all were immersed in the world Paul D. Miller created to deconstruct our notions of racial tension past, present, and future.

Despite smaller screens and a “living room” scale performance, Miller’s work, which was for this performance, accompanied by SMU’s Meadows SYZYGY ensemble, deconstructed one of the most notorious films in American canon moment by moment in a fashion that can best be described as methodically technical, but nonetheless possessing a beautiful sense of mystery in its approach.

When the world-renowned artist, who has released 13 albums, opened this jaw-dropping set, he reminded audiences that early disc jockeys called themselves names like “Grandmaster” and “Wizard.”

Miller describes his work as being highly technical and mathematical when questioned about it. As he spins original compositions on an app he created, each character in D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation takes on an assigned shape derived from the field of Euclidean geometry and navigates a remixed visual terrain of circuit boards, trains, and other diagrams and plans derived from technologies of the modern era.

Miller identifies publicly as being neurodiverse. Diversity in neurotypes, by some definitions, includes the prolific polymath who composes just as much as it includes others.

Because of the nature of his remix, each scene Miller presented was equally appalling and liberating. The original subtitles of Griffith's film are especially jarring to anyone with empathy in any context, at least to this reviewer. But in the context of sustained blues progressions, as images become framed by and meld into the technologies that define our past and current landscape, they are washed in a beautiful filter of impermanence.

Miller’s work rests upon variations of the pentatonic scales found in jazz, gospel, and blues as he creates music that he describes as having an ability to “point to different realities,” something he calls a “music of permutation.”

Some might say the ghosts of racism past and present in the U.S. still require heavy deconstruction. We still have a long way to go, in this enterprise, especially in the region we call the American South.

Miller’s work, as a link in the chain that is the canon of liberation, certainly makes an excellent attempt at unpacking the visual rhetoric Birth of a Nation presents, when it comes to its place in American Film history — and until recently was inherent to its ideology. May these images pass into the history of atrocity that is never repeated.

Listeners can purchase a prior recording of “Rebirth of a Nation” on iTunes, that features the Kronos quartet.