On Thursday, Staff Writer Charlie Bonkowsky attended a performance of We Don’t Own The Rights To Any Of This by Noa Rui-Pinn Weiss and Miranda Brown at Barnard’s Movement Lab.
In the words of Carl Sagan: “They should have sent a pop culture reporter.” If you know the reference, you’ll know how I’ve remixed it to best fit this particular event; if you don’t, then you have a pretty good sense of how well I understood We Don’t Own The Rights To Any Of This.
Performed in Barnard’s Movement Lab on May 5 by dancers Noa Rui-Pinn Weiss, a post-baccalaureate fellow at the Movement Lab, and Miranda Brown, the piece was a “duet mash-up of stolen sound bites, moves, and lyrics,” extensively sampling from pop music and popular videos to create a “coherent world inspired by the chaos of meme culture.” And to get around copyright, given the piece’s title and the fact that most modern music remains under copyright for the next hundred-odd years, the piece was performed under Weiss’ research, where everything is available under the Fair Use category of ‘scholarship’.
Weiss’s and Brown’s dance itself was very well done—in white shirts and reflective silver pants, they pulled off a host of impressive, if often faintly ridiculous, bits of performance. At the start of We Don’t Own The Rights, the same song (“Dancing in the Moonlight”) played four different times, remixed or covered by four different artists—each time, they varied their moves slightly to reflect the specific artist’s style. After that came a section in which the music was much more varied, from “Phantom of the Opera” to “Jingle Bell Rock.”
During the latter half of the performance, Weiss and Brown also had videos projected onto the screen of the Movement Lab behind them, showing where they’d pulled their moves from. This included John Travolta’s dance scene from Pulp Fiction, Woody’s strange introduction from Toy Story 2, the Oompa-Loompa’s dance in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory after Augustus falls into the chocolate river, and this Spider-Man gif:
(An interesting side note: that particular gif is famed for being able to dance to any rhythm. Daniel McAuley, a neuroscientist at Michigan State University, says that this isn’t due to some magic on the part of Spider-Man’s animators, but rather that we the watchers will automatically pick up more on movements in sync with music than movements out of sync, and so be more likely to see the gif as ‘always’ in sync with whatever music is playing.)
The performance description says that Weiss and Brown aim to “exploit the nostalgia and genius of meme culture.” The danger of that, of course, is when there isn’t any nostalgia—when shared experiences and media aren’t shared by all. It’s why references are so often discouraged in creative media: if the joke or hint or performance relies upon the reference, it’ll fall flat to anyone who doesn’t know it. A full performance relying solely upon outside references, as We Don’t Own The Rights does, has a lot of potential—but also a lot of risk.
A list of the songs and videos used by Weiss and Brown can be found here.
Weiss and Brown performing via performance website
Dancing Spider-Man via Radiolab at WNYC