Afrofuturism Unbound: tobias c. van Veen in conversation with Paul D. Miller

tobias c. van Veen

McGill University (Canada)

DOI: 10.12801/1947-5403.2013.05.02.13

In this extended discussion, Paul D. Miller, a.k.a. DJ Spooky That Subliminal Kid—the multimedia artist and eclectic turntablist, trip-hop and experimental beat producer, academic speaker and crafty writer who first burst onto New York’s Downtown DJ and art scene in the early 1990s—reflects upon the meaning of Afrofuturism past, present, and future, as well as discussing his involvement with the listserv, which he and scholar Alondra Nelson founded in 1999. The listserv drew together artists, scholars, writers, musicians and assorted creatives intrigued by the then-nascent study of Afrofuturism—a term the listserve “broadly defined” as Afrodiasporic voices with “other stories to tell about culture, technology and things to come”, encompassing “sci-fi imagery, futurist themes, and technological innovation in the African diaspora” (Nelson 2002: 9). As the interlocutor to Paul’s flow, I have also at times dipped into his world, first meeting him in 1997 during an album tour and lecture at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada—where he blew my mind as an undergraduate student by illustrating his points with turntablist mixes, opening my eyes to thinking through rave culture and turntablism in the context of deconstruction and academia in general. Since then I have bopped heads with him on various panels, and most pleasurably, had the difficult challenge of following his rocksteady performances at turntablist gigs.

For two decades, Paul D. Miller has embodied something of the sci-fi Afrofuturist, mixing arts, styles and discourses, and like his name suggests, adopting intangible personae that flit between the real and surreal. As his alter-ego DJ Spooky—or vice-versa—Paul D. Miller (and his many collaborators) has advanced the aesthetics of remix culture by exploring a wide-range of media, from his genre-bending illbient albums of the 1990s, in which he combined hip-hop with dub rhythms and ambient atmospheres while sampling the 20th century musical and poetic avant-garde, to his later work in multimedia film and sound installation, including a critical audiovisual remix and performance piece of D.W. Griffith’s 1915 film, The Birth of a Nation (entitled Rebirth of a Nation (2005 performance; 2008 film)).

Though Spooky has undertaken numerous multimedia projects (including, most recently, a series of audiovisual performances at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York), Rebirth in particular stands out for his strategic deployment of the remix aesthetic. As an opener to our discussion, I’d like to point out a few of its salient aspects that make it a piece worth engaging with on aesthetic and critical levels. To wit, Spooky’s Rebirth stages a critical Afrofuturist operation: it intervenes in a canonical work of racialist nationalism that notoriously attempted to depict Antebellum slavery as a benevolent institution, just as it sought to lament the loss of Confederacy and glorify the Klu Klux Klan. The first film to be screened at the White House—by President Woodrow Wilson—Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation depicts a celebratory racist vision of the American deep south in the Civil War era, in which the Klu Klux Klan are the heroes, and southern black folk but caricatures expressing their love and devotion to kindly plantation masters. By contrast, Spooky’s remix expresses the critical spirit of the 21st century Afrofuturist project: it takes on a problematic narrative of the past and undermines it with futurist remix aesthetics, utilising a kind of “cinematic graffiti” that plays off a trip-hop and classical avant-garde soundtrack to destabilize the film’s systemic racism.

Spooky’s Rebirth of a Nation is effectively Afrofuturist not only for its use of remix strategies, but because it undertakes a chronopolitical intervention: it remixes a monumental representation of the past so as to challenge the coordinates of the present (and thus alter the unfolding of the future). By questioning the ways in which the past has been represented, and challenging the hold such representations have on the present, the unfolding of the future is subject to a new set of possibilities hitherto denied or occluded (and previously thought of as impossibilities). The general strategy at work here—of messing with temporal representations so as to upend received narratives that insidiously program the future—echoes what Kodwo Eshun calls Afrofuturism’s “chronopolitics”:

By creating temporal complications and anachronistic episodes that disturb the linear time of progress, these [Afro]futurisms adjust the temporal logics that condemned black subjects to prehistory. Chronopolitically speaking, these revisionist historicities may be understood as a series of powerful competing futures that infiltrate the present at different rates (Eshun 2003: 297).

For Spooky, D.W. Griffith’s Birth constitutes a founding moment of 20th century media manipulation: a revisionist representation of the past that sought to romanticize Antebellum slavery so as to justify contemporary discrimination. Spooky’s remix isn’t a cut-up—it maintains the film’s integrity in its 3 hour plus length. By allowing the film to play-out more-or-less as intended, the film’s racist elements are not lost to reordering or to a repurposing of the film into other media. Spooky takes a rather different strategy, creating a running audiovisual commentary that re-frames the film stock, annotating it visually with ghostly shapes such as circles and arrows that diagram the film’s optical means of audience manipulation. The film’s annotated optics play out against a modern and unsettling soundtrack that further unbalances the film’s attempt to naturalize racism. By way of the listserv’s definition of Afrofuturism, Spooky’s strategy is such an “other story”—through cinematic graffiti, the “other” intervenes in the film’s optics; an-other hand marks-up the film’s screenic space. Past representations of the enslaved and black other, the Clansman, and the Civil War are annotated upon otherwise. Or to put it in other words, Spooky tags The Birth of a Nation with a cinematic form of graffiti—creating a resilient, abstract, and at times geometric counter-language to the film’s racist typologies.

By exploring a form of cinematic graffiti, Spooky references (at least) three pioneers of street art, including Futura (for his arrows), RAMM:∑LL:Z∑∑ (for his diagrammatics and arming of the letter-form), and Jean-Michel Basquiat (whose paintings combined abstraction with graffiti symbolism). By subjecting the film’s visual register to cinematic graffiti—a variety of visual effects, superfluous frames and Photoshop-like treatments—Spooky reveals the optical and representational mechanics at work in the film’s romanticized representation of plantation slavery and the Klan militia. The mechanics of representation that maintain the illusion of any sort of historical normalcy to slavery are shattered.

Thus by applying graffiti to the film’s visual register, Spooky attempts to shortcircuit the film’s representational techniques through a chronopolitical intervention. These latter techniques were designed to skew the viewer’s emotions in favour of its racist characterizations. Spooky visually “calls out” the film, drawing the viewer to the edges and unseen areas of the frame that subtly reinforce its depictions. Just like how street art pops from the walls into daily existence, capturing the attention of the city-dweller and making her suddenly aware of the urban landscape’s hidden aesthetic potential, Spooky’s visual interventions provoke an unsettling double-take—not only during the film, but in its aftermath. If the film is to impact the futurity of “race” and “nation”, then their all-too-digestible representations in the contemporary mediascape should become as unsettling and irreal as that of Rebirth.

As Spooky’s design elements tag and redraw the screen, scenes that attempt to normalize racist narrative and characterization appear as but constructed visions hinging upon contingent optics. Spooky’s soundtrack, featuring a performance by the Kronos Quartet, but also hip-hop rhythms and dark ambient interludes, undermines the visual register with resonances in the aural. As the white-hero narrative escalates, the audio begins to undo its romanticized masculinity with a murky and unsettling illbient score. The hallucinatory design elements overtake the silent-film era epic in concert with its Afrofuturist soundtrack of hip-hop, downtempo, and illbient styles, leading to a meltdown of the “original” film’s premises.

In his more recent work, Spooky has travelled to Antarctica to investigate the intersection of global flows of finance, territorial claims and climate change. The following cut is an extended (and better contextualized) version of our discussion, conducted in 2009, that originally appeared in Spooky’s text documenting his Antarctica project, the conceptual print publication The Book of Ice (Brooklyn: Mark Batty, 2011). Of note, the exchange below did not develop turn by turn, but consisted of a series of fragmented questions that Spooky responded to all at once. The questions, which have been sliced-and-diced by Spooky, follow from his essay “Tactical Plagiarism: Robot, Robots, Robota!” which weaves out of the dialogue’s finale. The below remix returns some of the atmosphere to the initial discussion, which followed from a text that Spooky had written for an anthology on Afrofuturism entitled Other Planes of There—Afrofuturism Collected (and which I promise is still forthcoming).

— tobias c. van Veen

Osmotic Strategy Machine: The (Flawed) Unfolding of Afrofuturism (v2)

tobias c. van Veen: In our email exchange, you speak of Afrofuturism in the past tense. Is Afrofuturism a historical moment, temporally limited? Or can Afrofuturism be put to use, like one would utilise a descriptor of a body of knowledge—which does not die and outlives its progenitors (like jazz, hip-hop, deconstruction, or philosophy itself)?

Paul D. Miller: Every movement has its sell-by date. I think that there were a lot of flaws in the way that Afro-Futurism unfolded, and I think it missed certain pressure points in the flow of how culture evolves in this day and age. It wasn’t digital enough, it didn’t have a core group of people with any kind of coherent message. It was conceptually open ended without any kind of narrative. People tend to like that kind of thing. I speak of Afro-Futurism in the past tense because I think that the culture at large caught up to and bypassed many of the issues it was dealing with. Forget the idea of the “permanent underclass” that people like Greg Tate (no disrespect) kept pushing. Forget the idea that blacks are outside of any system—we are the system. I guess that many people outside of the arts have awakened to the day and age and moved on. It seemed like Afrofuturism just didn’t have a cohesive situation to have music, art and literature evolve from. Sure, Afrofuturism can be used, as you put it to be a “descriptor of a body of knowledge, which does not die and outlives its progenitors (like jazz, hip-hop, deconstruction, or philosophy itself)”—but only by sleight of hand (which is sampling, anyway). It’s basically a hall of mirrors, a smoke and fog routine in a middle brow cheap magic show. But hey... even that can be interesting sometimes.

I like to think of mix tapes and collage aesthetics as being two sides of the same devalued coin. In this scenario, an album isn’t really an album: it’s a manifesto about the place of history in our modern collaged, scrambled, sampla-delic to the core, mega info overloaded digital culture. With references stretching from Thorstein Veblen’s “Theory of the Leisure Class” and John Maynard Keynes classic in the field of economics “The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money” over to hip-hop’s relationship to psychoanalysis and à la Edward Bernay’s concept of the “manufacture of consent”—the concept of the “mix” album is a groundbreaking meditation on hip-hop and electronic music’s relationship to philosophy, economics, and the science of sound in a world where the steady drumbeat of the financial meltdown has made music the last refuge of young people with less and less time and money. My peer group of artists—like Rob Swift, Dj Krush, Dj Shadow, Cut Chemist, RJD2, Dj Logic, Amon Tobin, and Coldcut—have all played with the idea of concept albums. I love the way that artists like Saul Williams, Nine Inch Nails, and Radiohead have played with that idea of open source dialectics. They’re just catching up to DJ culture. Ditto for the artworld, literary world. Science was there ahead of everyone though ... is that Afrofuturist?

Afrofuturism is usually read through its artists, its musicians, performers, and writers—from Sun Ra and George Clinton to Dr. Octagon, Grace Jones, and Underground Resistance, Octavia Butler and Samuel R. Delany to Anthony Joseph and Nalo Hopkinson. Is Afrofuturism primarily an arts movement? Conversely, what does “art” mean here in the 21C remix world? What is at stake when Afrofuturism is thought in terms of art? What happens to art when it meets Afrofuturism?

I never really thought of my self as belonging to an “arts movement”—I think of Afrofuturism as an osmotic strategy machine. It absorbs other strategies, replaces them, viral like, and re-introduces the genetic sequence back into the host. Arts movements, are usually way too European. My faves are stuff like the Tropicalismo movement out of Brazil, that questioned the very foundations of what it meant to be a person of color in a high racist society. Art should say “these dreams are possible”. To me, the major issue the 21st century faces is the basic fragmentation of almost every solid historical reference point. Why do people believe Rush Limbaugh? Would an art movement be able to inspire that kind of blind (and bland) devotion? Sure. But what makes Afrofuturism interesting, is that it simply defies categorization. I think of my artwork and music as panhumanist. If you look at Aimé Césaire’s “Négritude” in comparision to Yambo Ouologuem’s “Bound to Violence” (Le Devoir de Violence, 1968) and the ease with which Ouologuem’s work was dismissed because it used “plagiarism” (nobody would blink an eye in this day and age of cut and paste aesthetics), then yes, you can see the uneasy tension that a literary and arts movement based on any kind of ideology would have: the tools in our era continuously change, and so do the categories of judgement, and the criteria of “quality”. It’s all super ambiguous. I kind of dig that.

Commentators have often assumed that “Afrofuturism” bears some connection to Italian Futurism of the early 20th century—or even that it follows from it. From your perspective, is the “Futurism” of Afrofuturism connected to the Italian Futurists? If so, is this connection representative of a historical moment that connects Afrodiasporic artists working in a certain time and mode with early 20th century Futurism? Or is it a connection that has been made in retrospect, on a theoretical plane, as a way of connecting the signifier of “futurism” to Luigi Russolo’s “Art of Noises”, or Filippo Marinetti’s embrace of industrial and warfare technologies?

There’s an African American pianist named “Blind Tom Bethune” who was one of America’s premier pianists after the Civil War. I guess you could say he was black America’s first rock star jazz musician. He knew how to simulate the sound of cyclones, storms, and even large battles. His composition “The Battle of Manasas” was meant to evoke the large scale of the Civil War, and the way machines churned out automatic death... I look to earlier things like the origins of robotics in the idea of the “automaton” and the development of an algorithmic way of looking at the city. In fact, I always enjoy bringing this up, the term “algorithm” is derived from Al-Khawarizimi, an Arab mathematician and astronomer from the 9th century. His books were also a relation to the term “algebra” (also Arabic), so... the idea of a mathematics of the city, goes a lot deeper than the Futurists. They just got the media hype. Afrofuturism, in my mind, is a kind of inverse mirror where Europe and Africa collide, and the rest of the world watches in awe. But yeah, musically, Luigi Russolo’s 1915 manifesto “The Art of Noise” is probably the basic DNA connection, and there’s Valentine de St. Point’s feminist “Manifesto of Lust” that was written against Marinetti’s fascination with machines. She celebrated the human body. Things like that inspire me. The connection between Afrofuturism and the Futurist Movement is there, if you’re looking for stuff like Professor Griff from Public Enemy being called a Fascist, or stuff like that, too...

If Russolo’s “The Art of Noise” is the basic DNA connection of Italian Futurism to Afrofuturism, is this a similar moment to Afrika Bambaataa sampling Kraftwerk, where the black origin myths are reversed, and an Afrofuturist sound is born in the mix of things?

Reverse, inverse—the algorithms show us everything comes from pattern recognition. I don’t really think of these issues in black and white anymore, I pretty much never thought that everything was so divided. So... next question?

With respect to Professor Griff, how do the politics of Italian Futurism play into the Afrofuturist inheritance? I am curious, in this respect, if we can read something of this complex inheritance in your remix of D.W. Griffith’s Rebirth of a Nation...

Rebirth of a Nation is a dj mix applied to cinema. Don’t forget that the root word of cinema is “kinetic.” It’s been 100 years since Filippo Marinetti wrote his infamous “Manifesto of Futurism” and even more since Ferruccio Busoni made his essay “Sketch of a New Aesthetic of Music”. What has changed in the world since these two seminal essays were written? For one thing—we’ve finally come to terms with seeking some kind of balance between noise, rhythm, and repetition. We’ve opened our ears to the sound of the world around us in a way that composers and artists of the last century would have found extremely difficult to come to terms with. Think of the Italian Futurist, Luigi Russolo’s 1915 manifesto “The Art of Noises” and extract: “Let us cross a great modern capital with our ears more alert than our eyes and we will delight in distinguishing the eddying of water, air and gas in metal pipes, the muttering of motors that breathe and pulse with an indisputable animality, the throbbing of valves, the bustle of pistons, the shrieks of mechanical saws, the jolting of trams on the tracks, the cracking of whips, the flapping of awnings and flags. We will amuse ourselves by orchestrating together in our imagination the din of rolling shop shutters, slamming doors, the varied hubbub of train stations, iron works, thread mills, printing presses, electrical plants and subways”.

Try doing that on a plantation...

The practice of remixing—what you call cut-and-paste aesthetics above—suggest a pragmatic breaking down of the theory/praxis divide: yesterday’s philosophical deconstruction is today’s download. For example, with widespread piracy, the theoretical elements of the “remix” become the normalized experience of computerized youth: you take what you need to remake what you want. But this poses certain kinds of problems for content creators, in particular artists, even artists who utilise remix aesthetics. How do you approach artists who embrace cut-and-paste aesthetics but nonetheless copyright their works?

My favorite artists are people like David Hammons, Duke Ellington, Julie Mehretu, Liebniz, Blind Tom Bethune, Mos Def, Anti-Pop Consortium, everything that the Afropunk scene is up to, Santagold, etc. One of the main issues I always, always, always see in arts movements like Afro-Futurism is a kind of informal Apartheid between use-practice in the everyday world—gasp, multiculturalism!!!—and the basic sense of theory and ideas that drive the agenda of an art movement. The theoretical constructs that many of the participants use to en-frame the discourse around how digital media and politics intersect, is very rarely tied to the “real” world. Think of Paul Virilio (dromology and claustrophobia, yeah!), and Charles Sanders Peirce’s “logic of pragmatism”—I would bet they didn’t listen to Duke Ellington. Just a guess. Etc etc.

You’ve often spoken about the relationship between slavery and robots, forced labour and automation. The science fictional figure of the robot (even as it becomes reality) suggests an Afrofuturist paradigm for rethinking slavery. In this respect, what kind of response is Afrofuturism to the history of slavery? Likewise, how do Afrofuturist tropes of automation and robota address slavery? I am thinking here of Afrofuturist practices that challenge the concept and praxis of property—given that “slaves” were constructed as such—with robot mythologies and the creative misuse of automated technologies (turntables, synthesizers, recording archives). (These are just starter questions on a massive debt of thinking here.)

For me, in the hip-hop era, we need to look back at some precedents in the “avant garde”—George Antheil’s “Ballet Mécanique,” Erik Satie’s music of modal repetition, the serialist movements of Arthur Shoenberg, Anton Webern, and Pierre Boulez, the electronic tape manipulations of the Arab composer Halim El Dabh, the studied, delicate balance between Eastern and Western tonal structures of Debussy’s “La Mer,” the density of India’s traditions of formal compositions in Ravi Shankar, the paradoxical innovations of Olivier Messiaen and Edgard Varèse ... all of these find a home in repetition. Hip-hop, house, techno—they all demand a kind of “participation mystique”—ditto for essays like Emerson’s infamous essay “Of Quotation and Originality”—he uses the term “massive debt...” to talk about the credit owed to history for any new innovation. My mixes say this:

Tactical Plagiarism: Robot, Robots, Robota![1]

Plagiarism is necessary. Progress implies it.

—Isidore Ducasse aka Comte de Lautréamont

The Future is already here. We have borrowed again and again from the edge of reality, and payment is now due. Press rewind if we haven’t blown your mind.

This mini essay is a brief, non-linear foray into what Humpty Dumpty felt like when he got broken up, and realized he could never be put back together again. It’s an exercise in multiple frame formats, digital glitches, and above all, the sound of skipping records.

I like to think of some of the issues I've seen develop in what was called “Afro-Futurism” about play and labor [develop] as a strange dialectic between known forms of labor and their evolution into other “unknown” forms like the social accumulation of knowledge, the discursive space of dj mixes, the fragmented codes people use to foster “temporary autonomous zones” made of real time interaction. Above all, Afrofuturism, for me—was a sense of irreverence for almost any standard form of representing ethnicity, class, originality and any kind of limitation on what it means to be a human on this messed up planet we all call home. We’re all Afrofuturists, because, put simply, we all participate in a post colonial, neo-Darwinian/Lamarckian paradox of evolution—some traits and characteristics simply aren’t inherited: they have to be force marched into something dynamic that absorbs all the old forms of thinking and creates a space in culture where something new can happen—that’s the paradox. There really isn’t anything new. If we go back to the original Futurist movement, you can see the seeds of our current moment: it was a movement widely seen as being based on music. From Ferruccio Busoni’s 1907 essay “Sketch of a New Aesthetic in Music” to Luigi Russolo’s manifesto of 1915 “The Art of Noise”—we’ve been seeing how the various art movements of the beginning of the 20th century appropriated African, Asian, and African American motifs—America has been trying to catch up ever since. That is our inheritance.

It's very rare to see the kind of hybrid discourse many art movements talk about in praxis, so I've taken the liberty to create a fiction based on a record by a fictional character: DJ Spooky. It’s an idea put to work, with an agenda about what “play” means in the era of abstract labor—i.e. we live in an info economy, let’s play with an idea. Seriously.

In terms of the idea of “labor”—I'm always drawn to Karel Capek, the Czech writer who popularized the term “robot” (a good theme for summer 2009’s blockbuster era of Terminator and Transformers). The word which is derived from the Czech noun “robota” meaning “labor.” To celebrate the idea of labor and automated daemons that, for example, inhabit my favorite book of last summer, Daniel Suarez's Daemon. Labor and slavery have defined the African American experience of the last several centuries, but not locked it into a fixed format situation. The idea of the “other” is always at the heart of America’s relationship to the “Enlightenment”.

To make this concrete, I thought I'd pass this along. It's the story of the origin of Rossum's Universal Robots (R.U.R.), by the Czech author, Karel Capek. It ties into some of the science fiction themes, and overall “otherness” of the concept of African Americans as an internal “Other” in the U.S. and the way that novelists like Mary Shelley with Frankenstein, or Eugene Ionesco with his “Rhinoceros” or Yevgeny Zamyatin with his story “We” have all explored: what happens when automation, ideology, and the flawed ways we create meaning as human beings emerge from the paradox of the basic fact that we’re all making this up as we go along.

So I present a parable of labor—or, the way slavery can be transmuted into automation. From A to B and back again, says the cyborg Andy Warhol:

About the Word “Robot”

Translated by Norma Comrada.

A reference by Professor Chudoba, to the Oxford Dictionary account of the word “robot” and its origin and entry into the English language, reminds me of an old debt. The author of the play R.U.R. did not, in fact, invent that word; he merely ushered it into existence. It was like this:

The idea for the play came to said author in a single, unguarded moment. And while it was still warm he rushed immediately to his brother Josef, the painter, who was standing before an easel and painting away at a canvas till it rustled.

“Listen, Josef”, the author began, “I think I have an idea for a play”.

“What kind”, the painter mumbled (he really did mumble, because at the moment he was holding a brush in his mouth).

The author told him as briefly as he could.

“Then write it”, the painter remarked, without taking the brush from his mouth or halting work on the canvas. The indifference was quite insulting.

“But”, the author said, “I don't know what to call these artificial workers. I could call them Labori, but that strikes me as a bit bookish”.

“Then call them Robots”, the painter muttered, brush in mouth, and went on painting. And that's how it was. Thus was the word Robot born; let this acknowledge its true creator.


Eshun, Kodwo. 2003. “Further Considerations of Afrofuturism”. CR: The New Centennial Review 3 (2): 287–302.

Nelson, Alondra. 2002. “Introduction: Future Texts”. Social Text (71 Summer): 1–15.


[1] The following text—including quotations and the whole citation of “About the Word ‘Robot’”—is writ/remixed by Paul D. Miller.