Animal Charm: Channel Surfing from the Plunderground

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Massive corporate mergers like the one between Time Warner and AOL are changing the genetic code of mass media and the world we are living in. Information is as important a commodity as gold was in the pioneer days of the American West. Today, electronic borders take social and political precedence over geographic boundaries as e-commerce builds international empires virtually free from public and private laws as witnessed by Microsoft's current monopolization of the digital age and their near legal immunity in executing such frightening dominance.

Global intellectual property laws are perpetually changing daily to keep up with the speed of digital technologies in order to insure as few mutations occur without the excessive transaction of capital that supercedes most individuals' personal means. Hybrid service industry monsters are popping up everywhere in strip malls across America. Fast food restaurants are morphing according to whether they are in proprietary alliance with Coca Cola or Pepsi. Taco Bell/Pizza Huts, KFC/Burger Kings, and Dunkin Donut/ Baskin Robbins are big business examples of this recombinant corporate process. As individuals rights and choices get lost in the smoke and mirrors of "free enterprise," new sounds and images must be created at a mind numbing rate to uphold the illusion of late capitalism's operatic notion of survival of the fittest.

The legality of who can use what information where, combined with hyper-trade marking, patenting and copyrighting has led to digging a paradoxical cemetery of living dead icons and ideas that can only be brought back to life and accessed freely if one is willing and able to pay the exorbitant price. In our western society, where the firewall of our Tower of Alexandria is money, it is hard not to clearly see the relationship between class and cultural production. Without getting academic or theoretical, one can imagine the legal inverse of what currently surrounds intellectual property as commodity. What if it was illegal, no matter how much money one had, to create any new sounds or images, or for that matter, any new ideas or information? How would this redefine political, social, cultural and economic progress? This hypothetical situation was the breeding ground for Animal Charm, a collaborative project of Rich Bott and Jim Fetterley, that has been asking these questions by pushing the boundaries of collage aesthetics, politics, and performances since 1996.

Initially born out of an economic necessity to create and distribute oppositional media free from the restraints of the marketplace, Animal Charm has grown into a nomadic autonomous off-broadcast channel of absurdist deconstruction and video remix anarchy. Recombinant single channel videotapes are prepared from the cemetery of the mass media machine in the midnight shifts of edit suites wherever they can get access to equipment. These tapes are then presented live in front of an audience in a four-channel performance reanimating the dead. Animal Charm takes this Frankenstenian Home Entertainment system on the road inviting audiences to bring their own experiences and videotapes to contribute to the mix and participate in the spell casting.

With a mission to create a critical dialog and cultural exchange surrounding these timely issues with a variety of audiences, Animal Charm have been channel surfing from the plunderground into international private and public spaces. Single channel videotapes, performances and workshops have gone from VHS self-distribution through videotape trading networks to museums and galleries, media art centers and micro cinemas, film and video festivals, public libraries and private parties, high schools and universities, bars and clubs, to just about any place that will host them. Assuming a de-constructive take on propriety,

Animal Charm began creating videos as an act of Electronic Civil Disobedience as discussed in the Critical Art Ensemble's "Electronic Disturbance." Drawing upon situationist strategies of detournement, these videotapes were then self-distributed on VHS and inserted into a variety of social and cultural contexts under the old addage, "If you throw enough punches you're bound to land one!"

Responding to Craig Baldwin's, "Sonic Outlaws," whose problematic subjects raised a number of questions, Animal Charm sought to proactively enter a dialog with communities surrounding cultural production from recycled media. Proving that necessity is the mother of invention, this self-dissemination led to exchanges with other D.I.Y. video tape producers and distributors ranging from the prolific VHS label, Peripheral Produce to the more well-established, yet equally political, Video Data Bank and their European counterpart, The Lux Centre for the Digital Arts.

As the audiences for these tapes grew, Animal Charm found that they had no accountability to all the various ways the videos were programmed. They wanted to provide a site-specific context and take responsibility for their programming, so in the fall of 1998, with Peripheral Produce, they booked their own screening tour from Vancouver to Los Angeles. Dubbed, Capricorn 1000 (or CAP1K) as a play on Y2K and the conspiracy film "Capricorn 1" hyperbolized times one thousand, this tour provided a presentation that increased the cultural exchanges they had built upon with their videos self-distributed on VHS.

Being present and discussing the videos which are not expository collage essays allowed for personal and performative contexts to meld the presentations with the cultural products they were exchanging. For this tour, a consumer grade 4 channel audio and video switcher was purchased to seamlessly play one video after another in a different order each night depending on the venue. In each town, Animal Charm would scour local thrift stores, garage sales and late night television broadcasts in search of sounds and images to add local flavor in between the precompiled videos they were screening. This wet their appetite for variety and always brought the house down when a local cable commercial would pop up in the middle of their presentation.

Hungry for more spontaneity, they found themselves playing the images of their remixes with the audio from the newly found videos based upon the mixing capabilities of the 4 channel switcher. Soon after, Animal Charm was switching between the sounds AND images from their 4 VCRs, essentially channel surfing prepared materials in front of the audience. Editing live for their performances was analogous to the type of improvisation they would do in the studio to discover unpredictable incongruities in the materials they had scavenged, plus brought about new elements of random chance operations they would never have imagined without the anxiety of re-assembling the materials on the spot. By the end of CAP1K, Animal Charm branded a unique style of multi-channel video mixing just as DJs would produce vinyl to perform with on turntables.

Unlike DJs, who covet their source materials and techniques in a highly competitive battle of egos and commerce, Animal Charm chose to incorporate a how-to approach to their cabaret style shows, increasing awareness and providing a forum for politicizing the challenging form and content of a variety of media collage practices. This technique has been honed by Animal Charm and now their performances include workshops sharing and demystifying the process and equipment, encouraging audience participation in operating the gear, and bringing their own source audio and video materials to rip apart and trade with other like-minded individuals. As a hybrid of alternative media literacy, these performances mimic corporate strategies of leveling the playing field to engage, entertain, and promote cultural exchanges that blur the lines between the audience and the performers, always asserting that creating autonomous media is as easy as using your remote control and VCR to record and recombine television as personal expression.