Truthful Translations of Political Speech: Remixing the Bush II Agenda
"For diplomacy to be effective, lies must be credible." ---George W. Bush in The Bots' "Fuzzy Math"
The Truthful Translations project began somewhat as a lark. Through my involvement in various microradio and independent media projects I stumbled upon a shadow world where art meets politics in a strangely beautiful and pointed way.
Before exploring this world, a quick-and-dirty primer: what we now call "media collage" was born from bona-fide artistes who, decades ago, pushed the boundaries of reel-to-reel recording technology using razor blades and splicing tape to create works then known as "plunderphonics." Today, the price of computers continues to decline while their processing power rises, and the addition of cheap or open-source (free) software has significantly democratized this art form. It is now possible to create collage with a skillset more akin to word processing: in the digital world, "cut-and-paste" is a moniker not just limited to text.
The impetus for Truthful Translations began with the work of the Department of Corrections, a loose collective of programmers involved with the California pirate radio station Free Radio Santa Cruz. FRSC has been on the air for nearly 10 years now; over this period the station's home has ranged from a squat-house to a bicycle cart, and many of its volunteers subscribe to anarchist ideology. With the help of donated computers (generations behind the newest models) and a mixture of free and copied software, the D.O.C. began cutting up speeches of George W. Bush and sending me the results.
Intrigued by their creations, I began sleuthing around online to see if anyone else had a penchant for "re-translating" our Moron-in-Chief. Lo and behold, others dissatisfied with his regime were mixing dissent and creativity in similar fashion. I collected a few of these works and assembled the foundation of the Truthful Translations gallery. Nearly two years later there are more than 200 cuts online, with new material added almost every week - most of it unsolicited. Of these, more than two-thirds feature GWB as the centerpiece of criticism.
I can't say for sure what motivates these artists. Perhaps it is disbelief at the widening gulf between Bush II's rhetoric and the reality of his administration's policies, which culminates in a desire to rectify the two (hence the moniker "Truthful Translations"). It certainly helps that George W. Bush's stilted speaking style lends itself to manipulation: of the several politicos who have been lampooned in similar style, those featuring GWB come off, on balance, as the most "believable."
What follows is a guided tour through some of the best works to be found in the Truthful Translations gallery. I've divided the review along lines that mirror the categories to be found in the George W. Bush section, in the interest of readers who will hopefully be inspired to explore further.
Translated States of the Union
Often considered the keynote policy address of any sitting President, in the case of George W. Bush each speech represents a motherlode of translational fodder. It should come as no surprise that his 2002 State of the Union has been the most popular target of re-translation: as the SOTU speech immediately following the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., the militaristic overtone focused the minds of dissenters to US policy in the post-9/11 era and gave many the impetus to dip their toes into the collage pool.
Interestingly, several of these translations also include insertions of applause from Congress at strategic rhetorical moments. This widens the critique beyond just the executive, but also to include the legislative branch of the federal government for its complicity in our most recent foreign debacles.
Of the translated States of the Union, "DSMO (Ronan & Friends vs. GWB)" is probably the most accessible and entertaining. Created by an artist going by the moniker Dubya's For War, this particular track uses music from the industrial band VNV Nation and juxtaposes manipulated clips of GWB with soundbites from The Simpsons television program. This makes for a great twisting of comedy into criticism. For example, after a constructed litany of American military deployments (some real, some fictional), which concludes with the manipulated quote, "And our war against the Iraqi people is only beginning," Lisa Simpson chimes in: "That is so 1991." Not only is this cleverly caustic, but you can dance to it!
Similarly, National Cynical Network's "Rape of the Union" comes in two flavors: a straight cut-up and a "dance mix." NCN are longtime collage artists who hosted a found-sound extravaganza for three years on a community radio station in California. Although "Rape of the Union" used GWB's 2002 State of the Union speech, the constructed quotes NCN developed are especially prescient given the outcome of U.S. incursions in to Afghanistan and Iraq:
"Thousands of dangerous killers, schooled in the methods of murder - thanks to the work of our law enforcement officials and coalition partners - are now spread throughout the world like ticking time bombs, set to go off without warning....America is a regime arming with missiles and weapons of mass destruction, while starving its citizens....It costs a lot to fight this war, with the world's most destructive weapons. And we need more of 'em."
Bush II's 2003 SOTU - which was more marketing hype for Gulf War II than a summary of domestic development - has also been the subject of extensive translation. The Department of Corrections' "State of Disunion 2003" is an excellent example. It manages to turn one of the speech's most gruesome examples of Saddam's despotism into an attack on the brutality of American imperialism: "The budget I send you will propose almost six billion dollars to quickly make available: electric shock; burning with hot irons; dripping acid on the skin; mutilation with electric drills; cutting out tongues; and rape. These good works deserve our praise, they deserve our personal support, and, when appropriate, they deserve the assistance of the federal government."
A web site called Fuckitall.com also produced a video collage work of the 2003 SOTU. "State of the Union...Not Good" features the clever use of cutaway shots to cover up the the audio splice-work (which would normally result in jump-cuts that would damage the "authenticity" of the constructed dialogue). After GWB confesses to having been "trained by Al-Qaida" and being "weak and materialistic," the next shot is that of National Security Advisor Condolezza Rice and Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge sitting side-by-side, nodding their heads. And in a scathing indictment of the puppy-dog style of lawmakers pressured to follow Bush's lead into endless war, Bush's constructed proclamation, "We will embrace tyranny and death as a cause and a creed," is immediately followed by video of Congress rising as one in a standing ovation.
Words on War and Fascism
This is by far the most popular section of the GWB translations, featuring more than a third of all the tracks collected to date.
One of the first pieces to make this gallery was a Department of Corrections cut, "Drums of War." It, too, spreads the blame around by referring to Bush's circle of advisers: "Every day I make decisions influenced by the world's most dangerous people." Using a speech originally designed to make the case for a massive increase in defense spending, the D.O.C. reinterprets this to paint the picture of a United States beefing up its armaments in preparation for the implementation of a police state, both at home and around the world.
Another notable D.O.C. moment is found in "Don't Tread on Bush," where GWB becomes a backup vocalist to Metallica's "Don't Tread on Me." Bush's infamous utterance, "Bring 'em on," is used as an alternate percussion track to the music itself. In this instance it is not so much Bush who carries the day, but Metallica - a clever use of the music as the message, regardless of whether or not that was Metallica's intent.
Poison Popcorn's "Presidential Address" samples audio from one of GWB's early speeches given immediately after the terrorist attacks of 2001. As a horror-movie synth line slinks around a breakbeat rhythm, Bush is made to admit to the use of 9/11 as a pretext to consolidate power in what this UK-based collage artist clearly sees as an illegitimate regime: "I have directed the full resources of our intelligence and law enforcement communities to frighten our nation into chaos and retreat." Also notable is V-Man's alternate reading of the "with us or against us" dichotomy Bush presented early on in the "war on terror" - "Who Attacked Us" flips the infamous quote into an alternate rallying cry which redirects this blatant attempt at the stoking nationalism back onto its source: "Either you are with us, or you are with people everywhere that hate the United States of America."
Several works in this section also feature Bush uttering phrases which are uncanny for their elucidation of what was on the minds of many as the nation geared up for its invasion of Iraq. Tone Def and the Bots' "Bushwack 2" is especially prescient in this regard, making Bush articulate the thoughts of many who opposed Gulf War II: "The only way to become less dependent on foreign sources of crude oil is to dominate the Middle East."
Ravers Against War put its criticism to a techno beat which, if you close your eyes while you listen to "Leave Iraq," conjures images of jackboots stomping on pavement: "The United States and other nations have defied [United Nations] Security Council resolutions demanding peaceful efforts to disarm the Iraqi regime, again and again." An anonymous artist submitted "GWB Doctored Speech," which highlights the seemingly incoherent aggression with which the White House executed the invasion: "We will fight progress. And freedom. And choice. And culture. And music. And laughter. And women. And Christians. And Jews. And all Muslims."
The fallout and blowback from these military follies has only increased the fodder available to collage critics. Value Village People's "BU**SHIp" was the first submission to recontextualize Bush's now-infamous "Mission Accomplished" speech given on the flight deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln in 2003. In this piece, Bush declares, "Any person, organization, or government that supports, protects, or harbors terrorists has a loyal friend in the United States of America." Again, strategically-placed applause is spliced in for punctuation and to spread the blame around. Then there is a soundbite that was especially prescient, given what we know know about the post-invasion workings of the Abu Ghraib prison: "The use of force has been and remains America's tradition. And this much is certain: your country is complicit in the murder of the innocent and equally guilty of terrorist crimes."
Even the belated damage control that the administration ham-handedly undertook following the occupation of Iraq has been turned against it. Polymixin's "The Civilized World" is the unbelievably believable first attempt at collage by an independent journalist in Madison, Wisconsin. It begins and ends with the sounds of someone idly flipping TV channels before settling on GWB's speech to the nation originally broadcast in September, 2003. This speech was initially designed to reassure the country that the U.S. had not stepped into a quagmire, but Polymixin flips the intent to expose an alternate reading, which may be closer to reality, especially in the minds of many Iraqi civilians: "There is more at work in these attacks than blind rage, which have shown America's character to the world. And the Iraqi people can know that our soldiers are hunting for them."
Closer to the present - and an excellent example of how the accessibility of editing technology gives rise to near-instant criticism - is National Corporate Radio's "Bush Convention Speech," which warped his oration at the Republican National Convention on September 1, 2004 in less than a week and spit it back out into the wild. It specifically voiced the critique of the GOP going to NYC to exploit the memory of 9/11: "My fellow Americans, for as long as our country stands, people will look to the resurrection of New York City and they will say: here buildings fell; here a radical ideology of hate rose."
George W. Bush and His Crew
International condemnation of the actions of the Bush II regime has also taken the form of creative collage. Australian Tom Compagnoni, a photographer-cum-collagist, created "A Day of Horror" and "W.M.D.: The Meaning of American Justice" to assail not only Bush but the Prime Ministers of the United Kingdom and Australia. He turned the three leaders' justifications for the "war on terror" into very slick rap songs, complete with wick-wack scratch action.
Norwegian artist Vidar Brennodden produced "Their Own Destruction" as part of a series of political collage pieces commissioned by NRK, the state-sponsored TV network. It follows a similar pattern to Compagnoni's work, making Bush the lead rapper in a crew that includes Pakistani "president" Pervez Musharraf and cries of Arab protest directed against the attacks on Afghanistan. One wonders, given Norway's officially-stated opposition to America's bomb-and-bully foreign policy, whether this is actually another instrument of that country's diplomacy toward the United States. Either way, it's a piece that definitely bumps the trunk.
Novelty and Nonsense
Not all collagists set out to explicitly attack the U.S. doctrine of preemptive interventionism. Several simply wanted to express disbelief that an internationally-recognized buffoon could end up leading the world's most powerful country. While these works tend to lampoon more than criticize, some are extremely powerful simply because they use absurdity to hammer home a message of dissent.
King of this turn-of-the-phrase is NYC-based collagist rx. His first submission, "Dick Is A Killer," could certainly rock any dance club scene. The title begins with an obvious double meaning: on its face it is a blunt condemnation of Vice President Dick Cheney and his past and present support for construction projects and despotic regimes that stand accused of a laundry list of human rights abuses. However, the tale GWB tells in this track gets progressively dirtier, ending with a startling confession: "I believe God made me a woman. I feel it in my heart - and this bitch's voice must be heard." rx's latest submission, "Sunday Bloody Sunday," remakes the classic U2 song with Bush II as the unlikely vocalist; the fact that Bush is singing a pro-peace song written by one of his strongest rockstar critics has an irony all its own.
Sometimes the best way to express dissent is to be creative about it: nobody likes to be screamed at or shouted down, and marching en masse often gives mainstream media and detractors of dissent alike a crutch by which to trot out old and tired criticisms of those who desire to effect social and political change. Media collage short-circuits these pitfalls by using the targets of protest themselves as conduits to express this dissent; the entertainment value certainly doesn't hurt, either. There is something doubly subversive in twisting the words of such targets to attack them - especially when the final products, in many respects, are closer to the truth than the original rhetoric.
To explore more Truthful Translations of Political Speech, follow this link: http://diymedia.net/collage/truth.htm
John Anderson is a first-year doctoral student at the University of Illinois Institute of Communications Research and creator of DIYmedia.net, an exploration into the worlds of microradio and media collage.