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Daniel Sinker

Daniel Sinker

Posted March 11, 2009 | 11:30 PM (EST)

Where is Our Orchestra? What Journalism Can Learn From the Mind-Blowing Remixes of Kutiman


There are two ways to watch the works of Kutiman: in revelation or in revulsion. To the former, he's carving out a new form of expression, building majestic orchestras from modest parts. To the latter, he's a crook, misappropriating the works of others for his own gain. It's best, before moving forward, for you to make up your own mind:

If you're among those that thinks he's a crook (or a crock), I can't offer you anything. There's nothing to see here, move along.

For those that watch and feel giddy, let's dig deeper. It's mind-blowing: Kutiman, an Israeli musician, cuts his songs together using snippets of performances on hundreds of YouTube videos. This isn't Jay-Z mashed up with the Beatles (the infamous "Gray Album" of 2004), but something decidedly new: using amateur performances as the raw material to create works that are entirely different. Works that stand up as new songs and new entities, but which couldn't exist without the building blocks of other people's material.

It goes against most everything that people know about Intellectual Property, but, as Merlin Mann writes in the essay that introduced me to Kutiman, "If your reaction to this crate of magic is 'Hm. I wonder how we'd go about suing someone who 'did this' with our IP?' instead of, 'Holy crap, clearly, this is the freaking future of entertainment,' it's probably time to put some ramen on your Visa and start making stuff up for your LinkedIn page."

You can't argue the work of Kutiman along legal lines -- he treads over them so completely as to render them obsolete. Instead, you can only argue it along artistic lines. And in those lines, it's a win. A win for culture, a win for creation, a win for anyone who's thought about just what it is we can do exactly with this explosion of self-expression the internet has engendered.

What can we do with it? Kutiman gives a simple, elegant answer: anything. It's a river, just reach in.

Journalists need to not simply reach in, but dive in headfirst. We need to build our own orchestras out of the information being created all around us. Be like Kutiman: use the millions of blog entries, photos, tweets, and videos that find themselves on the web every day to build something new.

Right now, some journalists look at the wealth of material on the web as a threat -- they see all these amateur voices and worry that they will overpower their own (hence the many, many, many stories about how "bloggers can't replace reporters"). Others look at it and see what journalists always see: story ideas. Hence all the stories you've had to slog through about Twitter this last month. Both are wrong.

Journalists need to look at this stuff not as competition or story fodder, but instead see it through the eyes of Kutiman: it is an endless supply of raw goods, ready to be remixed, rebuilt, and recreated in ways that are wholly new and wholly unexpected. At the end of the day, that's what journalism has always been best at: taking the world around us and giving it back to us in new ways. Well, that world has suddenly become much easier to access -- it's telling us about itself all the time. But that doesn't mean that the stories it tells are enough (pick any random Twitter stream and follow it for a while to prove that theory true). In the same way that the original videos Kutiman used had varying levels of artistic merit (I'm probably being overly diplomatic there -- many of them sucked) but are transformed into something beautiful irregardless, so to can a journalist take this never-ending stream of information and transform it into something revelatory. And, when they do, it will start a domino chain that will lead to somewhere entirely new.