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The Arts
05.21.08

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Phaedra

Photograph by Dixie Sheridan
ICE, ICE BABY: DJ Spooky goes to the ends of the Earth for his newest multimedia piece.

Melting Zone

For upcoming 01SJ tech-arts festival, DJ Spooky creates art out of climate change

By Paul Davis


THERE are few artists working today who are as driven both by experimental curiosity and intellectual rigor as Paul D. Miller, a.k.a. DJ Spooky. Mixing hip-hop flair and postmodernist praxis, Miller has bridged the gap between unlikely bedfellows such as Grandmaster Flash and John Cage, rare-cut dub and musique concrète. He has also been criticized by those who find his theoretical approach to hip-hop and composition far too intellectual.

And while Miller has perhaps earned his reputation as an egghead—by, for instance, including deep exegeses of post-structural theory in the foldout sleeves of his vinyl releases—a discussion with him dispels the stereotype. In fact, Miller is as affable and straightforward in conversation as his work is often oblique and discursive. Miller's current project, Terra Nova: The Antarctic Suite, which he will present on June 7 as part of the 01SJ tech-arts festival, is couched in both conceptual and personal terms.

Miller escaped from his New York home and spent months in Antarctica working on Terra Nova. "My nickname for the situation was urban deprogramming, getting out of how the city makes you see and feel, and reflect on a different environment to make music," he explains. "The sun didn't set while I was down there—it was eerie. Your body cycle is timed to darkness and light."

Miller refined a way to remix the sounds and visuals of nature, using-state-of-the-art multimedia editing software and hardware. Miller was drawn to the great audio and footage he could wring from the profound change occurring on the continent.

There's little doubt that this project embraces an environmental component, as the massive change in landmass Miller has documented is the result of climate change. Miller acknowledges the environmental underpinnings but emphasizes that this isn't solely an environmental treatise. "I'm not looking to make the next Inconvenient Truth," he says. "I'm inspired by pieces like Philip Glass' Koyaanisqatsi, films that were inspired by urban environments."

Indeed, Miller finds both an analog and a contrast between Antarctica and his usual environs, and he strives to document the experience in a way similar to how his forbears documented the sounds of the city. "Change is a really big sound—while I was down there, 40 miles of ice broke, the Weddell ice sea shelf. Antarctica contains nine-tenths of the world's ice. A 40-mile chunk of ice breaking creates this incredible roar."

As Miller hits the road to San Jose to present Terra Nova, he plans on remixing and composing the sound and video in real time, cross-fading glacial sounds and stunning video the way he typically mixes rare cuts of vinyl. "The whole motto is [to] direct as a DJ. I have all the high-def footage, so I can call it up live and make my own sequences of the images."

What audience members will witness as Miller mixes and shuffles footage captured in Antarctica live is only the first phase of the project. Speaking for this interview from Dartmouth University, Miller was in the process of planning with Arctic scientists parts two and three of The Antarctic Suite. "Dartmouth has the top arctic scientists," he says. "I'm working with the scientists to found how to make sound out of ice. The next phase is going to be more scientific. This first one is more impressionistic—me getting familiar with this world without a city. The second is more scientific. I'm working with scientists who are helping me transform these changes into sound—acoustic portraits."

Not surprisingly, it's heady stuff, but Miller's strength is that he never lets his conceptual trappings overshadow his work's emotional resonance—in this case, the contrast between his city life and Antarctica's glacial desolation. Miller notes, "What interests me is how people respond to the beauty of this sort of ice. It looks high-tech, but it's completely natural."


DJ SPOOKY performs TERRA NOVA: THE ANTARCTIC SUITE on June 7 at 6 and 8pm at the IMAX Theater at the Tech Museum, 201 S. Market St., San Jose. The 01SJ GLOBAL FESTIVAL OF ART ON THE EDGE runs June 4–8. See www.01sj.org for details on the festival.


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