House of Mirrors

A few days ago I was in the Ramada Inn off Interstate 4 in Altamonte Springs, somewhere in central Florida. My son sat on the bed surfing the web and my daughter, her back against the headboard, legs stretched out under the sheets, balanced a Mac on her lap. From out of my son’s computer came a little boy’s shrill cry, “Charlie bit me.” And again, a high-pitched wail,  “Ouch, Charlie bit me.”

“What in the world?”

“Mom, it’s Youtube,” my son said, “Watch this.”

He clicked the play icon and a video of a little boy about three years old and his baby brother cuddle in a chair when suddenly the little boy stuck his finger in his baby brother’s mouth. The baby bit it. The brother screamed. “Charlie bit me,” and continued to wail, looking to see if the parent behind the camera had witnessed how the baby had abused his older brother. Baby Charlie grinned, had no idea what was happening. My son ran the video a second and third time on his laptop and each time we laughed just as hard.

“It’s gotten five hundred and thirteen million hits,” my son said. He quoted how much money the father of these two little boys had made with his less than one minute video of his kids.

Then my son pulled up another link “Charlie Bit Me Auto-Tune Song! and played  a “Charlie Bit Me” music video.

Here was a synthesizer arrangement inspired by the “Charlie bit me” video and coming on top of the video, almost as funny.  “But how can they do that? Take somebody else’s video? And make money?”

“Oh, mom,” my daughter sighed, “it’s what everyone’s doing. It’s called appropriation.”

Wikipedia defines appropriation in the arts (literary, visual, and musical) as “the use of pre-existing objects or images with little or no transformation applied to them. Appropriation can be understood as “the use of borrowed elements in the creation of a new work…Inherent in our understanding of appropriation is the concept that the new work recontextualises whatever it borrows to create the new work. In most cases the original ‘thing’ remains accessible as the original, without change.”

The “original thing” in the “Charlie bit me” video seems to consist of re-mixing the original video, but appropriations often consist simply of the dialog,“charlie bit me!” or the sequence of a little boy intentionally sticking his finger in a baby’s mouth. Of the many appropriations—and I assure you I did not watch them all—my least favorite was a dreadful and unfunny cartoon in which an ugly baby chomps off his big brother’s head. Lots of blood spurts. Yuk.

“Other strategies,” Wikipedia states, “include re-vision, re-evaluation, variation, version, interpretation, imitation, proximation, supplement, increment, improvisation, prequel… pastiche, paraphrase, parody, homage, mimicry, shan-zhai, echo, allusion, intertextuality and karaoke.”  Karakoe!  I suppose none of this is lost on Youtube participants as proved by the “Charlie bit me” appropriations that continue to somersault over each other: music videos, cartoons, t-shirts and toys.

Appropriation art and copyright law, court decisions and the like will be interesting to watch unfold, and yet I can’t help feeling that somehow this appropriation phenomenon on Youtube may be a wilder kind of genre. It feels like the whole world has wandered into a giant fun house, lost in a web-like hall of mirrors—not such a bad thing if one is stranded in a Ramada Inn  once upon a time in central Florida.

 

Trudy Hale, co-editor-in-chief

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