DJ AFIFA: So here we are at ROKTOWA a contemporary art project in Downtown Kingston, Jamaica! Can you tell me about your experience growing up in DC with your family…pre” information age”..what were your influences then? Was music a part of your life? It was such a transitory period in the American history of politics, economics and culture, were you aware of the politics/changes surrounding you?
PAUL MILLER: Growing up in DC you had all of the paradoxes of American life put into one small place. My family is middle class. I traveled a lot because my Mother had an intense interest in the history of design. We went to places like Senegal, Ivory Coast, Greece, France etc to look at history. One of my Mom’s favorite ways to look at anything was to say it didn’t have to turn out that way. Washington in the 1980’s when I was growing up had so many paradoxes – Jimmy Carter had put solar panels on the White House and the first thing Reagan did when he took office was to take them down and make the White House more oil dependent… we all thought it was a joke. It wasn’t.
After stuff like that, plus Mayor Marion Barry getting caught with hookers and smoking crack, it just made you feel like America was so wild, you really didn’t know what to expect next. DC’s music scene from stuff like Bad Brains to Chuck Brown, from Fugazi to Thievery Corporation reflect that. My style of DJ’ing inherits the same fragmentation.
DJ AFIFA: You come from an interesting vantage point of DJ culture… Being in it before it really hit the mainstream as a lifestyle, and bringing a classical influence with you..What are your thoughts on DJ/tech composition/ Music as we move further into the 21st century?
PAUL MILLER: What amazes me these days is that music is so widely available and easy to make. For the truly creative mind a good idea is just the beginning. Software can only take you so far. The rest is creativity and innovation. Most people just follow formulas. The good news is that an artist who understands that, can really thrive in this era. An artist who doesn’t understand that… might as well move to Antarctica. The rest, is collage.
DJ AFIFA: You’re still touring with Terra Nova: Sinfonia Antarctica, right?
PAUL MILLER: Yeah, it’s been a while. We’ve had a really solid run of everything from book events, to large scale shows with Earth Day (200,000+ people went to Earth Day), plus a lot of other situations like my Artist Residency at The Met Museum that has a show called “Of Water and Ice.” So it’s been a couple of years. The Antarctic album is in development, but there’s a couple of limited edition pieces out there as well. Considering that we are at your space in Kingston, it’s kinda wild to talk about climate change, contemporary art and how weird weather is getting these days. But hey!
DJ AFIFA: How did you end up in Antarctica?
PAUL MILLER: I have been thinking about climate change for a while, and wanted to see it first hand. After Antarctica I went to the Arctic Circle with Cape Farewell as well – the North Pole is radically different – it’s melting at a much higher rate and has a much high population density. I guess you could say the North and South are two records playing at different speeds. The world is so much more connected than anyone would conceive. But yeah, I guess I turned left in NY off of Broadway, found myself walking in one of the world’s southernmost cities, Uishia, and we left from there for a 6 week odyssey.
DJ AFIFA: There’s so much at stake. One of the criticisms of climate action broadly has been that the focus is on melting ice caps and polar bears – things that are well beyond the reality for most folks. But you’ve embraced them – the ice caps, at least. Why not pick a topic that’s closer to home for people who need to hear this? From the point of view of Jamaica and other Southern Hemisphere countries the impact is being felt in so many ways.
PAUL MILLER: I think that the arts can always reframe the debate. If you look at how much people responded to something as simple as Clint Eastwood having a chat with an empty chair during the Republican convention. It probably will make Romney lose the election. But hey… it was performance art. I’d like that empty chair to transform into the Arctic Circle, and ask these politicians to talk to it. Ditto for the South Pole. I spent a lot of time in Jamaica when I was a kid. The DIY approach, the hustle, and the intensity of the island all left an indelible impression.
DJ AFIFA: What message do you want people to walk away from Terra Nova with? What do you want people to think about when you do your Artist in Residence at the Metropolitan Museum?
PAUL MILLER: Climate change – folks, it’s really, really, really real. And art that speaks to reality, people is what the world needs now. So much of the art world just does lame, annoying and false “Left Wing” art that does nothing. I want to really explore the way a museum with a deep archive like The Met can show you, me, and everyone that we need a more robust dialog. My Residency project at The Met isn’t just about Antarctica. It’s about Nauru, wireless networks, the rise of post colonial aesthetics from places like Korea, and it ends at Olana, the estate of Friedrich Edwin Church, the first artist on the board of The Met. It’s just as much about science and economics as it is about “art.” Let’s call it “remixing the museum.”
DJ AFIFA: Sounds like you’ve baffled some of the more scientific set. (See Wynne Parry’s review of your performance at the New York Academy of Sciences.)
PAUL MILLER: Science and art are a kind of delicate dance of intuition and perception. I like to push that kind of paradox, and Brian Greene wrote the introduction to my most recent book “The Book of Ice” with this in mind. He’s a major physicist, and the idea that you’d have someone like that engage with DJ culture is really a good thing. We need more scientists to break the mold, and see what happens. I like to push the envelope on that kind of thing. I will have dialogs with Scientists and Artists throughout my Residency.
DJ AFIFA: What goes into the art generated by the Residency? Are you taking inscrutable data and turning it into inscrutable music?
PAUL MILLER: It speaks to many people, so no, it’s not inscrutable. It’s inevitable.
DJ AFIFA: How does the process of making art and music derive from data? What has the reaction been as you’ve presented the project around the world?
PAUL MILLER: I like the way you use the term “dérive” – that’s resonant with the French concept that the Situationists used to create a new map of terrains made from collaged geographies. As for my music,some people really like it, some don’t. I’m cool with that. One of my favorite composers, Debussy once wrote: “There is nothing more musical than a sunset.” He advised young composers to “listen to the wind,” and he even found the piping of a shepherd to have more complex harmonies than any musical text. What happens if we think of music facing the haunting ice and landscapes of Antarctica. I’m down with thinking outside the envelope, and yeah, that will enrage people. But so be it.
DJ AFIFA: Can you speak a little about the relevance of mix culture to the climate conundrum? The last election barely engaged the issue.
PAUL MILLER: Remix culture is all about pulling the unexpected together to make something out of nothing.
Think: there are so many layers to the term “in media res” – it’s a non-linear way of looking at how we organize experiences. It simply refers to a literary and artistic technique where the narrative starts in the middle of the story instead of from its beginning. The characters, setting, and conflict are often introduced through a series of flashbacks or through characters relating past events to each other. Reverse engineer the concept, and you’re led directly to DJ culture’s fondness of sampling, collage, and above all, “the mix.” That’s the mirror I hold up to this crazy world right now. There’s an old phrase I like to think about when this kind of thing comes up: “a smooth sea never made an experienced sailor.”
DJ AFIFA: Who else in your musical/artistic circles makes climate change a cause like you do?
PAUL MILLER: I like to call the Antarctica project a kind of “acoustic portrait.” The way I see it, sound is one of the most beautiful, and ambiguous places in our culture. I wanted to make a statement about climate change from the view point of DJ culture and graphic design. I’m a big fan of younger artist collectives like 350.org and Bill Mckibben, I’m a big fan of Solar One, they have cool Dj sound systems! There’s also Moby who has been really active in human rights. And last but not least Sean Lennon and Yoko Ono have been really active against fracking, so hopefully this will all pick up more. And there’s a great art collective out of the UK called Cape Farewell. Lots going on!
DJ AFIFA: The way we think about art is radically changing these days. Who, in your mind, is doing the most interesting or effective work on the climate issue right now?
PAUL MILLER: Hands down, Bill Mckibben.
DJ AFIFA: What do you think of President Obama’s action, or lack thereof, on climate change?
PAUL MILLER: He’s grid locked, and he has a lot of work to do now. But basically, I think his heart is in the right place. The Republicans have hammered him for 4 years, and blocked everything that could have happened. Let’s give him a moment to breathe.
DJ AFIFA: How do you think any of this can be made more relevant to an art fair addled art world? Any thoughts on making this issue relevant to kids growing up in the city – kids who only see ice caps and polar bears in books or on computer screens?
PAUL MILLER: A lot of American kids don’t travel. It’s the reason we have a really parochial situation. Ditto for Jamaica.
I took a studio and went to several of the main ice fields, and made a batch of graphic design works, and then made a group of music compositions to respond to the same phenomena. I am interested in Antarctica because I have a deep interest in environmental issues and human rights. Climate change affects us all. I guess when you really look at how rapidly the world is changing, you really have to face the fact that the “Anthropocene” era is simply a massive remix of the planet. When I was a kid, I went to museums for my information.
DJ AFIFA: Jaron Lanier made this statement recently in the Smithsonian , Do you agree?
..”file-sharing services and a hedge funds are essentially the same things. In both cases, there’s this idea that whoever has the biggest computer can analyze everyone else to their advantage and concentrate wealth and power. [Meanwhile], it’s shrinking the overall economy. I think it’s the mistake of our age.” “I think it’s the reason why the rise of networking has coincided with the loss of the middle class, instead of an expansion in general wealth, which is what should happen. But if you say we’re creating the information economy, except that we’re making information free, then what we’re saying is we’re destroying the economy.”
PAUL MILLER: The whole idea that files correspond to physical media just doesn’t compute. I love Jaron Lanier. He wrote the afterwards to my last book, Sound Unbound. Great guy. But the interesting thing about digital media is that it can have so many permutations that its had to make it all fit into one system. Ubuntu or Linux? Android, iOS, Microsoft… These are all just tools. But as we move further and further into a digital media culture and economy, these tools reshape the way we experience life. Edward Said wrote in his essay “Performance as An Extreme Occasion” that ‘performance is an exercise in power.’ I love the idea that we are a lot more than the sum of our parts. I think the idea is that human beings will always innovate around the things that limit them. No one can deny that history has been a march of transformations that won’t stop.
The future is a lot bigger than the past. I sometimes think that the way people view history is that they are trapped and have no options. I like to think that people have agency. If the way we are living doesn’t work, people will find a way. I believe in people, not technology. Tech is just an extension of culture. That’s it. The two are inseparable.
The way the world works these days is that “scarcity” whether of resources or of ideas, creates more value. For me, the more remote a place there is, the better. I look at everything as being interconnected. So “remoteness” as a concept is more psychological than anything else. There isn’t really a place on this Earth you can’t go to. It’s just the feel of difficulty that the voyage entails. Antarctica is much harder to get to than Nauru. There are only 2 flights a week to Nauru from Brisbane, for example. But Antarctica – you have to go through military, or science channels to get there. Or charter your own boat, which is really expensive. My book “The Book of Ice” explores some of the uneasy tensions between remoteness and how a composer would respond to “landscape” – it’s just that the whole landscape has shifted way past anything physical. It’s all about a certain kind of data aesthetics, and that’s what makes this book project fun: the hybridity. I worked with Brian Greene to get the idea of physics in the project – ice is a natural formation of “recursion” and every snowflake is pure geometry, so I wanted to figure out how to condense that into my book and music. The rest is flow!