Arts Beat

From Hip-Hop's Paul D. Miller: New York City, Remixed

Paul D. Miller is perhaps best known for his musical work as DJ Spooky. This excerpt comes from "New York Is Now," his highly acclaimed video work. Video courtesy of Irvine Contemporary
By Rachel Beckman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 7, 2008

Many know Paul D. Miller, or "DJ Spooky That Subliminal Kid," as the brainy musician from Washington who hit the national scene in the mid-'90s with his brand of experimental hip-hop.

But now, Miller, 37, would rather be known as "an artist who DJs." Based in New York these days, Miller signed last year with Irvine Contemporary gallery on 14th Street where his video, "New York Is Now," plays continuously on a flat-screen monitor.

The 35-minute, black-and-white video shows archival footage of New York, such as commuters cramming onto a train and the electric lights on Coney Island. Miller splices in clips from early avant-garde films by Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp and scenes from the 1933 film "King Kong." Bold political statements pop on the screen, as does a Walt Whitman poem and the proclamation "Charles de Gaulle was wrong."

"I want people to look at the film as a series of fragments and they pick and choose whatever they want to focus on," he says on the phone from a Manhattan coffee shop, in between drinking a double espresso. "A video Rorschach blot. An archaeology of surrealist imagination."

Don't worry, even his mother doesn't understand.

Rosemary E. Reed Miller, longtime owner of the now-closed Dupont Circle boutique Toast and Strawberries, loved watching the historical images and trying to guess the date and location. As for a deeper meaning of her son's video, which played at the 2007 Venice Biennale, she defers to the artistic statement provided by Irvine Contemporary owner Martin Irvine.

"Whatever Martin says on the sheet, that's what it's about," she says with a laugh. (Globalization, basically.)

But Rosemary Miller is used to her son talking over her head. Once, she and a lawyer friend were reading the notes on the back of one of his CDs and they hit a word they didn't recognize. They grabbed a slim dictionary. It didn't contain the word, so they had to reach for a bigger one. She likes to say that her son is a "two-dictionary person."

Paul Miller started his first major video art project five years ago -- a "remix" of the explicitly racist 1915 film "The Birth of a Nation." His new project is a multimedia work about Antarctica, where he spent time in December and January aboard a Russian icebreaker.

"I kind of wanted to figure out how to make sound out of ice," he says.

Last week, Miller screened some footage of Antarctica at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston. The Boston Herald called the video "amateur" and slammed Miller for being pretentious. "If this is what the marriage of music and high culture looks like, then fans of either should pray for a divorce," the Herald's Chris Faraone said. Miller dismisses the article as "idiotic," and notes that Moby and 1980s artist Jean-Michel Basquiat used to get the same type of criticism.

Miller says Irvine's emphasis on the thinking behind art, rather than just the "super commercial boring stuff," persuaded him to sign with the gallery. Irvine is teaching a class at Georgetown University this spring called "Cultural Hybridity" that explores topics such as Japanese anime, street art and electronic music. Miller's 2004 book "Rhythm Science," about the aesthetics of hip-hop sampling, is required reading.

A Woodrow Wilson High School and Bowdoin College graduate, Miller is a frequent lecturer himself. Last weekend, he traveled to Bates College in Maine. On Saturday, he'll speak at Duke University. Trips to Italy and South Africa are also scheduled for this month.

"Standing next to him, you can almost feel a whiz of air going by," his mother says, because he's always in between two exotic locales.

He is looking forward to taking five weeks off this spring to recharge. But he won't be watching "American Idol" or reading mystery novels like a mere mortal. He plans to work on an art film, "an Asian underground kind of thing."

New York Is Now plays at Irvine Contemporary, 1412 14th St. NW, through Feb. 17. Open Tuesday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Free. 202-332-8767.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company