3.13 / The Sound Issue

Collation & Synthesis: Unifying Fields of Cultural Production

By Aaron Harbour April 18, 2012
Lathe for cutting a dubplate, a small, ephemeral edition of a song.


I have a vested interest in allowing forms of creative production to coalesce, in forgoing specialization of creative roles or using those terms as exclusionary tools. I advocate for the relaxation of the titles artist and curator to include anyone who claims the authorization these titles imply. In trying to define curation, especially in terms of its distinction—or lack thereof—from art production, I find analogical constructions helpful in dissolving boundaries and opening new potentialities. By finding connections between seemingly disparate practices, we see the borderlands between these modes of production blur and enmesh. How does our concept of a curator’s or artist’s role change when compared to that of a DJ? Any sample-based music practice is relevant for this comparison; as Kevin Foakes, a DJ and musician working under the moniker DJ Food, describes, a DJ mix is “really only an expanded version of a song made from samples, only that each sample is a whole song.”1


DJ Food. "Raiding the 20th Century." Words & Music Expansion, starring Paul Morley and A Cast of Thousands.


Curator Maria Lind describes a notion of the curatorial as something unconfined to the conventional role of a curator, “encompassing ways of thinking in terms of interconnections; linking objects, images, processes, people, locations, histories, and discourses in physical space like an active catalyst, generating twists, turns, and tensions.”2 Similarly, if we start with the axiom, “All artistic praxes are collative and synthetic,” the artist’s work can be reconfigured to collude with the curatorial as a series of discursive acts. This merging of definitions by no means decries judgment; by sidestepping distracting is-or-isn’t arguments, we draw the focus to issues of quality. Exploring modes of experience and critique in relation to art remains the vital activity of audience and producer.

Jon Leidecker, or Wobbly, who often works in a “plunderphonic,” sample-heavy mode, suggests the influence of collage on the blurring of these roles. He states:

The instinctive creative response to the emerging documentary mediums of photography and sound recording was collage, which ended up being the hallmark aesthetic of the twentieth century. It shouldn’t be a surprise that, as that aesthetic developed, we saw overlap and outright confusion between the previously defined disciplines of art production and art curation.

Similarly, Foakes notes, “The one thing that connects them all is collecting and putting their collections into a new context.” As a curator, DJ, and occasional artist myself, I approach each practice as a process of assembling a selection of ideas and elements and then organizing them for presentation. Clearly, this is simplistic, accommodating only the loosest definitions of these three practices.3 In order to make use of this baseline comparison, I will take a few case studies of DJ tropes and draw parallels with art and exhibition production. I will attempt to address some of the fissures resulting from this exercise, but this essay is intended to suggest these rather than to fully examine them.


Holywarbles, formerly an excellent music blog specializing in obscure, often but not exclusively, world musics, removed as part of the constant battle between the music industry and music sharing, despite the site's focus being music out of print and/or generally unavailable.


1.The real time of the dance floor

For the most part, DJ-ing happens in real time, whether in person or via radio, with a live, reacting audience.4 But this performative aspect is only part of the picture. DJ-ing is a research-heavy practice; a DJ chooses a selection of works for a given show or mix and preps them thematically, testing their speed and compositional potential for arrangement. Similarities can be found between this and the process of curating. While it may seem that curation depends upon presenting finished products, exhibitions often include interactive content or even ephemeral work produced over the course of an exhibition’s duration, thereby derailing this notion. The artist Dora Garcia doubles this effect in Instant Narrative, recently on view as part of the exhibition Descriptive Acts, Part One at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA). She transforms a viewer’s presence into a performance, complete with documentation, by installing an individual in the gallery to type a running dialogue, which is projected onto the gallery wall, where the visitor, the subject of the commentary, might read it. There are dueling performances at play, including that of spectators and of a spectator of the spectators, and the text forms an unpredictable, strange narrative.


2.Crates, blogs, dub plates/white labels, V.I.P. mix: material acquisition

A DJ’s materials—songs and sounds—come from a variety of sources. DJs may use crowd-pleasing, commercially produced records, but the desire to be unique also drives the search for more obscure materials, both new and lost. The classic image of the DJ digging through crates of records in a shop or flea market, hunting for this or that track, with the occasional mystery purchase on the off chance of finding a gem, still applies. The realm of audio blogs has further created a digital environment for a sort of meta-digging. This hunting and gathering method is quite similar to the classic view of the curator as selector; one can imagine the judging of an open call for entries as a crate dig, of sorts.

DJs are not limited to sourcing materials from the past, and by extension the contemporary curator is tied to neither canonized art productions nor completed items from an artist’s studio. DJs often work closely with music producers in a mutually beneficial relationship; producers may want to test-drive their work, to gauge listener responses or create hype for a commercial release.5 For his part, a DJ can help integrate new productions into an accepted genre cannon. Likewise, a curator works with artists to present new work, offering institutional support or conceptual guidance during the production of unrealized pieces. However, tensions can arise around the question of authorship. Artworks can be substantiated and brought to life by sensitive juxtaposition or subsumed beneath a master project. As curators work with artists towards the realization of an exhibition, overly prescriptive projects or broadly stroked themes can stymie collaboration.

When handled sensitively, a curator-driven project can synthesize individual artworks into a new whole, which adds understanding and context to their various elements. Julio César Morales—artist, adjunct curator at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA), and DJ—has noted that he curated much in the manner in which he DJ-ed.6 This is evident in a 2009 project at YBCA, in which Morales brought together two artists, George Kuchar and Miguel Calderón, Kuchar’s former student, to collaborate on the exhibition and film, Tropical Vulture, after Calderón mentioned to Morales that working with Kuchar was one of his dreams. Morales saw commonality between the two artists’ disparate practices and pursued this possibility, creating an exhibition featuring some of their solo works and a film directed by Calderón and starring Kuchar, which created both a quality work and a bridge between the two, a result that would suit a DJ.

In music culture, relationships such as these function best when there is mutual appreciation and slippage across the maker/presenter divide. There is no equivalent in the music industry to the aversion sometimes felt in the art world towards the curator-as-art-producer; in many sub-genres, such as the various strains of U.K. bass music, this is the norm. It is common for artists to mix a set of their own tracks with little or no distinct separation into those of others, essentially erasing the artist/curator divide.


DJ Food. Raiding the 20th Century; originally for XFM's "The Remix" show in London about the history of the "cut-up."


3. Mix, remix/re-edit, mash-up: intervention and revision

Joshua Kit Clayton, an artist, DJ, and musician who avoids identifying himself according to these classifications, sees a parallel between the “tremendous blurring between the acts of composition and DJ-ing in the audio world” as between art production and curating.7 A DJ synthesizes multiple songs into a unified mix, complicating it further with the remix or re-edit. The remix was developed in dub music, as an augmented instrumental version of reggae, and in disco, where loops and tape edits were used to expand the duration of a song for the dance floor. These two cultures collided in hip hop, where a DJ would take the break—a brief instrumental segment—and extend it seamlessly in real time into a new composition, allowing DJs to create tracks using both vinyl-record samples and drum machines.8 Such hybrid products come in various iterations: remixes, edits, re-edits—a relatively new term denoting a remix which is more subtle and focused on making the original track more danceable while leaving the sonic palette largely unchanged—and the mash-up, in which a DJ uses two or more songs as samples, stretching them to a similar tempo and overlaying them into a new whole.

Each of these processes has its analogy in artistic practice. The post-productive tendencies of collage and the use of archival materials—which extends to include incidental references to both conceptual and aesthetic cultural forbearers—make remix culture in art making a reality and arguably unavoidable. The successful remix, whether artwork or exhibition, has at its core a notion of essentiality and intentionality. A working knowledge of materials and methods—their potency both aesthetically and as carriers of historic memory—is key.


Aaron Harbour. "Practically Winter and the Other Ones," 2012; mixtape.


Conclusion (soft fade-out)

The preceding examples are a small set that presents an alternative to the narrative of practitioners as having distinct concerns.9, 10 Curators, artists, DJs, and other cultural producers perceive their fields to have central points of focus and margins that blur almost seamlessly with each other. Alternatively, there is a direct topographic correlation underlying these conceptual analogies; with a little jostling, what appear to be widely variant creative activities are revealed to be commensurate at a root level.

It is one thing to set out to prove (in the loosest sense) this idea; it is another to fully take advantage of this homeomorphism and to transfer things previously assumed to be characteristic of one sphere into another. How can curators and artists assume a DJ’s normative role? How can eschewing any and all of these titles lead individual practitioners into more productive realms than those previously accessible? What is called for is a new amateur, rooted in an avant-garde project that grants the underlying concepts driving cultural productions the broadest possible toolkit. The modern curatorial methodology, the DJ’s collaborative relationship to music creation and with music makers, and the artist’s relation to the archive of cultural production—decoupling each of these traditional relationships to the live experience and the audience from the authority linked to their titles can create access to new terrain. 

Returning to the idea that all artistic praxes are collative and synthetic, the artist and occasional curator Adam McEwen stated that the two practices are, for him, separate but not unconnected: “[Curating] is similar to making work, in that you are putting one idea next to another idea. It can be exploitative in the sense that you are using other people’s work to make an argument that is yours. It’s also egotistical: ‘Hey, shut up, you idiot, talking about that. Look at this.’ You know what I mean? Sometimes it’s about wanting to right things.”11


  1. For this essay, I contacted via email several artists, DJs, and curators. All quotes are from these conversations unless stated otherwise. I received input from Kevln Foakes, Brandon Drew Holmes, Jon Leidecker, Jacqueline Gordon, John Friend, Joshua Kit Clayton, Jackie Im, and Julio César Morales, all of whom I thank. Without their input on my initial thoughts on this subject, this final version would never coalesced.
  2. Maria Lind, “The Curatorial,” in Maria Lind: Writing, ed. Brian Kua Wood, 57—66 (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2011).
  3. The tendency to declare something not art or not DJ-ing or not curation by practitioners and viewers is a common feature of dialogue on these subjects. For example, in recent lecture at the Kadist Foundation, curator Nato Thompson expressed disinterest in whether the contents of his Living as Form exhibition were all categorized as art and more interest in the questions: “What does it do? Who does it benefit?”
  4. This is a useful but incomplete description of DJ practice. Not included is the creation of a mixtape or a podcast, in which the audience is not live and the DJ is in a position to minimize error and heighten intentionality.
  5. Originally this was accomplished via limited quantities of rare vinyl test pressings called dub plates or white labels; it should go without saying that today this interaction is as easy as attaching a song to an email, though the use of the physical version persists. This is, like most of this essay, a sufficient but incomplete description of the use of this process. Some exceptions to this are music too copyright-sensitive to ever be commercially released and music tailored for a specific club or night.
  6. Morales, via an email dated February 29, 2012.
  7. Via an email, Clayton also noted: “Our minds endlessly alternate between cutting the world into separate little pieces or collapsing things into ever larger and more abstract blobs. With every part glued, we’ve also made a cut and vice versa.
  8. This is a serviceable but shallow history. Electronic dance music is at its core, even in its most artificial and post-sample form, a highly referential medium. Both club-specific sonic needs (for example, sub-bass, which is non-reproducible on common headphones) and a canonical set of sounds and structures (such as time signatures, beat patterns, and drum machine sounds) are continually recycled and subverted.
  9. For example, all three work within an institutional framework (a venue) and outside of it (for a DJ: a mixtape or podcast; curator: independent projects; artist: independent projects and immaterial practices). Two things peculiar to DJs are not addressed here: first, both the audience and the DJ are simultaneously experiencing the music concurrent with its production; second, the rewind, in which the DJ, having played some or all of a particular track and responding to either popular demand or the DJs own desire, backs up the song to the beginning to be heard again, dramatically halting the seamless flow of the mix. I’m curious about art and exhibition analogies to these two things.
  10. The consistently poignant Marshal McLuhan: “Our time is a time for crossing barriers, for erasing old categories—for probing around. When two seemingly disparate elements are imaginatively poised, put in apposition in new and unique ways, startling discoveries often result.” Marshal McLuhan and Quentin Fiore, The Medium is the Massage (New York: Bantam, 1967), 7.
  11. From an interview between Raina Lampkins-Fielder and Adam McEwen, in Uovo, no. 17 (2008): 79.

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