A Comparison of the Similarities Between the Artists Called Culture Jammers

Categories: Music

There is a strong correlation between Avant-Garde music and film.Especially in the late 20th century, these two mediums contributed to each other both stylistically and with the common message they share. One of the obvious common movements that occurred in both Avant-Garde film and music was using found footage/sound in aesthetic and political movements like Cinema of Appropriation and Plunderphonics, which the artists in both mediums not only contributed to each other’s work and philosophy, but also used both of these mediums to create their art.

This paper aims to analyze similarities behind artists considered as ‘the culture jammers’, what does it state to use found footage/sound and how these artists did not just use these works for the sake of using images/sounds that are produced by others, but to make bold, political statements in order to criticize the mainstream media and use it’s own work against itself.

‘Recycled film/sound’ is perhaps a better term to consider while talking about these movements, because once the artist uses a footage/sound, it no longer represents what it is meant to represent before it was recycled by ‘the culture jammers.

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’ As these artists use the art of appropriation as a resistance movement against the mainstream media, network-controlled news or the so-called norms that are injectedinto society with images that represent ‘reality’, they are recycled for the viewers, with a new-aim of making the audience re-imagine what they have been taught by the mainstream media. Multi-media artist and plunderphonics practitioner, John Oswald, who will later be discussed in this essay, explains the cycle of appropriation in music as: “Musical instruments produce sounds.

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Composers produce music. Musical instruments reproduce music. Tape recorders, radios, disc players, etc., reproduce sound. A device such as a wind-up music box produces sound and reproduces music…” [1]

“Everything that was directly lived has moved away into representation.”
– Guy Debord, Society of Spectacle (1967)

The philosophy and application of cinema of appropriation can lead back to 1950’s. Guy Debord, a French filmmaker and Marxist philosopher is the founder of the movement Situationalism and the group Situationist International, which was present from 1957 to 1972. The movement had several avant-garde artists, intellectuals and political theorists who actively produced works and ideas that pushed the boundaries of society and capitalism. The situationalism movement was directly in relation to political philosophy and had an anti-authoritarian Marxist ideology. Debord’s Marxist philosophical work, The Society of the Spectacle was published in 1967, which Debord presented the concept of the Spectacle. The manifesto was a critique of the contemporary consumer culture and rapidly growing capitalism. Debord’s situationalism was both aesthetic and political, which aimed to criticize the products of capitalism, including mass media, advertisements and social lives driven by capitalistic needs. Debord argues that the image of ‘reality’ replaced the traditional commodity for the sake of capitalism.[2] Debord says,  “The spectacle is not a collection of images; it is a social relation between people that is mediated by images.” (Society of Spectacle, 1967)  One of the main goals was to create detournement of the capitalist system, and using it against itself.[3]Later on, Debord created a feature length movie out of his manifesto, The Society of Spectacle (1973), which he used found footage that he collected from fiction and non-fiction films. Debord created a reaction to post-war capitalist economic expansion in the society. The ideology behind the situationalist movement finds expression in the form of ‘recycled work’, like re-used ads, improvised film performances and collage films.[4] Therefore, Debord’s work and philosophy have been influential on other filmmakers and audio artists and his ideology can be traced in 80’s and 90’s within the work of the ‘culture-jammers’ who use their media as a tool of anti-globalization. [5]

A similar radicalization and reaction to mainstream media and pop-culture also emerged in a parallel way in the avant-garde music field. Important technological advancements like the advent of the cassette tape allowed listeners, composers or audio artists to control their music or rearrange the existing songs according to one’s artistic choice. In 1985, Canadian musician, John Oswald used the term plunderphonics the first time in his essay, Plunderphonics, or Audio Piracy as a Compositional Prerogative. Plunderphonics for Oswald stands for any usage of samples or already existing work and remixing the borrowed samples/songs in order to create a new meaning or art. In a way, the term plunderphonics is rephrasing the term ‘the art of appropriation’ for a medium like avant-garde music.

While talking about the sound recordings Chris Cutler indicates, “ it declines to disappear, causing a great weight of dead music to press upon the living. What to do with it? An organic response has been to recycle, an answer strenuously resisted by the traditional music thinking.” [6]

John Oswald created the album, Plunderphonics (1988),in which he practiced the ideologies behind the movement of Plunderphonics. The albumincluded remixed songs by artists like Dolly Parton, Michael Jackson, Metallica and James Brown. The cover-photograph was Michael Jackson in a woman’s body. He criticized the norms on gender roles by the cover-photo and by pitch-shifting the pop-culture artist’s voices. Soon after, Oswald’s album got a different variety of reactions. The copyright law labeled this as ‘intellectual piracy’ and Michael Jackson sued Oswald for copyright infringement, even though Jackson thought Oswald’s songs were amusing. Eventually, Oswald never sold a copy of his album. And in the end, the lawsuits forced Oswald to destroy every copy of his album and the copyright laws prohibited him to create more copies. Oswald, however, was defensive of his work and highlighted the importance of re-creation and creativity.

Going back to the avant-garde filmmakers, a similar approach to Guy Debord’s films and ideology and Oswald’s plunderphonics is also seen in Avant-Garde filmmaker, Craig Baldwin’s works. Baldwin is perhaps one of the first names to think of when talking about found footage and collage work. Baldwin uses found footage from mass media, pop culture and educational films in order to create satirical, highly critical and un-traditional documentaries. When Baldwin was asked what inspired Tribulation 99: Alien Anomalies Under America, he said (1992):  “Look around at what is going on outside. That’s why I made this film.”[7]Tribulation 99: Alien Anomalies Under America, a satiric documentary, political fantasy, and black comedy is one of the most well known films by Baldwin. Baldwin uses found footage and industrial sound to re-create history by producing a documentary about alien intervention in Latin America. Tribulation 99 is about the representation of reality and society, which Baldwin is critical about. Jean Baudrillard’s description on Tribulation 99 suggests: it “has no relation to any reality whatsoever; it is its own pure simulacrum. It is no longer the order of appearances, but of simulation [e.g, Tribulation 99]”.[8]

While describing the rationale behind his found-footage documentaries, Baldwin says:“The narration of history is really what my films are about, because it’s all narrative; it all has to be told a certain way, and obviously there’s a lot of stuff that’s left out. I’m trying to open up a space where ideas about history can be generated, to create a sort of a theory in which we can kind of see this process, where you can see how certain kinds of meanings become attached to certain kinds of images, and how that can be undercut.”[9]

In addition to the stylistic similarities between Baldwin and the plunderphonics music, Baldwin’s 87 minute documentarySonic Outlaws (1995), which is based on the copy-right issues the band Negativland went through after creating Still Haven’t Find What I am Looking For(1991), a parody of U2 and American disc jockey Casey Kasem which got the band sued by Island records, U2’s label. Sonic Outlaws also included interview sections from the audio collage artists like John Oswald, Chris Grigg, Lloyd Dunn, Negativland and ECM. It is a strong criticism of the copyright laws and the barrier it brings to the re-mix/collage artists. In a way, Baldwin makes a bold statement against the copyright issues by using pirated and archived materials while making an argument for the hypocrisy behind ‘fair use’ of found sound and culture jamming.[10] The documentary can be read as a “dizzying, dense collage manifesto for anti-copyright and fair use.”[11]

“Home taping is killing the music industry (and it’s easy)”

– Sonic Outlaws, Craig Baldwin

Interestingly, there is a strong, symbolic empathy between Baldwin and Negativland, since Baldwin also practices collage through found footage and follows a similar approach both stylistically and ideologically. Baldwin approaches this incident from several directions in fictional terms in an anarchist way. Other Cinema[12], uses the word ‘Guerilla recording tactics’, because it suggests that the appropriation or plunderphonics artists see themselves in real warfare against the commercial airwaves, knowing and seeing the propaganda in the content and strike back in a way which rearrange or mix the context in order to play with the ‘norms’ that are created with the mainstream culture.[13]

The interview sections in Sonic Outlaws also points out the aim for a cultural criticism, as well as the subversive fun of making collage work.  ‘Culture Jamming’, as Negativland puts it, entails: “Re-organizing them to be a comment upon themselves and spitting them back in the barrage for cultural consideration.”[14] In 1995, as Negativland also started experimenting with found footage, A Special Opening, which is the first piece of the album Over the Edge: Sex Dirt(1995), the band uses a found footage that is taken from the public domain called Parent to Child About Sex. Negativland uses this footage taken from 50’s educational film on sex, in order to make a critical statement about the forced norms and traditions, by re-arranging the words to create ‘woman’s penis’ and a ‘man’s vagina’. While some may find it funny, some find the 54-second piece a satirical criticism to the mainstream ‘educational’ films at the time.

Like Negativland’s approach of using the mainstream against itself, Baldwin also points out a similar approach in his work in an interview with Kevin Atell in 2001. He says, “I like the idea of reinvesting and re-projecting new meanings onto old things that are available to us and that resonate…It generates a critique by using the material left behind by the enemy…I don’t want to just reiterate some sort of consensus. I want to strike a blow against consensus.”[15]This ideology is reflected into Baldwin’s found footage documentaries, especially to his film Tribulation 99. As artists like Baldwin and Negativland rearrange the found footages/sound samples, they not only make a whole new piece of work, but they also create a critique of the old existing piece that they found problematic.

Another band, which is mentioned in Baldwin’s Sonic Outlaws is Emergency Broadcast Newtork (EBN). Perhaps, EBN is a combination of both Craig Baldwin and Negativland in terms of using the two mediums that they have been working on in order to create their art. Even though EBN is under plunderphonics, they also blurred the line between Avant-Garde film and Music. Josh Pearson, who is EBN’s principle performance artist, who was both the music composer and the main video editor, said they are not musicians, however they use the sampling technology to create multimedia art. [16] With that in mind, EBN might not directly be considered as avant-garde filmmakers or musicians, but by re-imagining and using found footage and the audio attached to the footage, they created video-audio collage work throughout their active years. In 1990’s EBN used a specially designed stage, which deployed television monitors and lights in their live performances. Greg Deocampo, video-artist and a member of EBN, added several projects and video samples in order to improvise their image and sound mix during live performances. Therefore, EBN is considered to be under a VJ culture, which is a broad term to identify real-time audio-visual performance.   Even though the first digital audio-visual performances were seen during 1970’s with the New York Club Scene, EBN in the 1990’s became one of the important and influential representatives of the movement.

Most of EBN’s works were heavily political. In 1992, the band released a compilation video, Commercial Entertainment Project, which was a collage work of found footage with mixed sounds. One of the famous works that they’ve done which was considered the piece which they became famous for, was the mixing of former president George W. Bush’s speech and Queen’s We Will Rock You. In this video, the vocals of We Will Rock You(1992) were collected from the speech of the Gulf War. The work itself was a critique to the war-itself, making it both entertaining and critical of the politics that George H. W. Bush led.

Also, similar to both Baldwin and Negativland’s approach, their concern was less about the authorship of the sound and videos that they found, and much about performing a media-based critique and resistance to pop-culture and network-controlled news. [17] Their main goal was to re-create the reality that they thought the mainstream media failed to represent. Therefore, like Baldwin and Negativland, they are involved in an aesthetic political activism.

In conclusion, the avant-garde filmmakers, musicians and audio-visual artists are considered as culture-jammers, who actively use the mainstream media, network-owned news, the ideologies driven by capitalistic goals, and the norms that are injected into people without any further thinking process; in order to make a statement against them and to show society another layer of ‘reality’.  Besides the aesthetic concerns, the movement itself can be considered as political activism. This brings the question which, why found-art artists like Dada or Warhol were considered as artistic geniuses, artists like Negativland, Oswald and even Baldwin were criticized or sued for using works from the mainstream media? Even though ‘recycled’ art is not new and has been practiced for many years, the idea behind using found sound/visuals contradicts what the mainstream media wants society to think. In other words, the fact that these artists were sued under fair use and copyright laws by the mainstream media, which uses ownership as an excuse in order to fulfill their capitalistic aims, proves that the found footage/sound artists have been right about their reasoning behind the criticism in their works.

For culture-jammers, the message is more important than the ownership of the piece of work. Found footage/sound artists do not borrow work from others in order to fill the empty spots in their art pieces, but they do it in a way, which would criticize the mainstream. Therefore, the idea that drives these artists to ‘recycle’ is a highly political act.

Good media sample for use in jamming is one that lets us laugh, or in some other way gain an insight into the social relations of work in the broader unjust society as a whole.”[18] – David Cox


  1. Atell Kevin, Leftovers/ CA redemption Value: Craig Badlwin’s Found Footage Films, Cabinet Magazine (2001), Issue 3, Summer 2001
  2. Bell, Nicholas R. Nation Building: Craft and Contemporary American Culture. 2016. Print.
  3. Bessman, Jim . Interactivity Spurs Different Views, Billboard, 1993
  4. Cox, Christoph, and Daniel Warner. Audio Culture: Readings in Modern Music. New York: Continuum, 2004. Print.
  5. Cox David. Sign Wars: The Culture Jammers Strike Back! North Melbourne, Vic.: Pluto, 2005. Print.
  6. Debord, Guy. THE SOCIETY OF SPECTACLE. 1967. Print.
  7. Firat, Begüm Özden., and Aylin Kuryel. Cultural Activism: Practices, Dilemmas, and Possibilities. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2011. Print.
  8. MacKenzie, Scott. Film Manifestos and Global Cinema Cultures: A Critical Anthology. U of California, 2014. Print.
  9. Meikle, Graham. Future Active: Media Activism and the Internet. Annandale, N.S.W.: Pluto, 2002. Print.
  10. Miller, Cynthia J. Too Bold for the Box Office: The Mockumentary from Big Screen to Small. Lanham: Scarecrow, 2012. Print.
  11. Ramey, Kathryn. Experimental Filmmaking: Break the Machine. 2015. Print.
  12. Willis, Holly. New Digital Cinema: Reinventing the Moving Image. London: Wallflower, 2005. Print.


  1. John Oswald, Bettered by the Borrower: The Ethics of Musical Debt, , Audio Culture, Readings in Modern music, p.131
  2. Mackenzie, Scott Film manifestos and global cinema cultures: a critical anthology, The Avant-Garde(s) p. 13
  3. Ramey, Katrhyn Experimental Filmmaking: Break the Machine p.8
  4. Cox, David, Sign wars: The Culture Jammers Strike Back!, p. 126
  5. Id. 126
  6. Chris Cutler, Plunderphonia, Audio Culture, Readings in Modern music, p.134
  7. Sign Wars: The Culture Jammers Strike Back! P. 126
  8. Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation, p.6
  9. Atell Kevin, Leftovers/ CA redemption Value: Craig Badlwin’s Found Footage Films, Cabinet Magazine (2001), Issue 3, Summer 2001
  10. Bell, Nicholas, Nation Building: Craft and Contemporary American Culture, p. 387
  11. Id
  12. Organization that focuses on San Francisco District , Conceived and stewarded by Craig Baldwin
  13. Othercinema, Filmography section, Sonic Outlaws
  14. Fırat Ozden, Aylin Kuryel, Cultural Activism: Practices, Dilemmas and Possibilities, page 81
  15. Atell Kevin, Leftovers/ CA redemption Value: Craig Badlwin’s Found Footage Films, Cabinet Magazine (2001), Issue 3, Summer 2001
  16. Bessman, Jim . Interactivity Spurs Different Views, Billboard 105 (21): 76.)
  17. Willis, Holly, New Digital Cinema: Reinventing the Moving Image, p. 70
  18. Cox, David, Sign wars: The Culture Jammers Strike Back!, p. 151

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A Comparison of the Similarities Between the Artists Called Culture Jammers. (2021, Oct 11). Retrieved from https://studymoose.com/a-comparison-of-the-similarities-between-the-artists-called-culture-jammers-essay

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