Harry Smith: American Media Artist

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Harry Smith is probably one of 20th Century America's greatest hidden treasures, and the Harry Smith Archive – Remixed! project is a place where you can really see that the idea of collage, archival materials, and found film footage came together in one of the more dynamic minds of the artworld.

Below is my piece from the exhibit. It was printed on a large poster and is reproduced as an interpretation of a song from the Harry Smith Archive by Blind Lemon Jefferson called "Prison Cell Blues" – it's a haiku for the people the American Dream has left in a deeply uncertain limbo. Kind of like Hurricane Katrina's impact on African American life in the Deep South. Blind Lemon Jefferson influenced artists as diverse as Lead Belly (another blues legend) and the Beatles who recorded a cover version of his song "Matchbox Blues." "Haiku" of course, is an old Japanese minimalist form of poetry, but hey, every part of the world has blues. This is the remix!

The Harry Smith Archive – Remixed! project was curated by Rebecca Shatwell for the, NewCastle Upon Tyne, UK and was open May 9- June 30, 2007.



The following essay was written in conjunction with the exhibition.


I first got into Harry Smith in the mid 90’s. It was a different time: The U.S. wasn’t an occupying power in the Middle East, the price of gas was reasonable, and people all thought vinyl was going to be obsolete. How different things are today!

I tend to think that Harry Smith was a walking remixologist – his memory, as I’m told was legendary: he’d be able to hear a record that he hadn't heard in decades and would be able to tell you who made it and when, plus what edition the recording came out of. I like stuff like that.

Many people know Harry for his films – I know him for his record collection. If you look at the way he edited film, you can see that he was really into visual rhythm – everything he did was about sequencing and pacing out a series of edits and imagery. I tend to think that he´s probably one of the first multi-media artists, and in one way or another, the thread that connects him to the 21st century is his fascniation with information of every kind. Clips of newspapers, short films made from the shards of his everyday life, pages culled from his favorite esoteric tomes on magic and illusionism – all were grist for his collage centered vision of how music and film could transform the world. Smith’s idea was to apply dj technique to film – he wanted to show that collage could be edited in a way that would speak about myths and the way people can understand the rapidly changing world around themselves from the information they record.

If you look at other people who were using film in the same way, whether it was Andy Warhol with his “Exploding Plastic Inevitable” or even people like the early cinematographers the Melies brothers – all can be traced as inspirations for the allegorical connections that Smith used to create masterpieces like “Heaven and Earth Magic.” Even more so, one can look to Joseph Cornell as a precedent. Cornell is well known for the oneiric quality of his art and films. I like to think that Smith took the “dream logic” of free association to another level. Connect the dots and you realize that his drawings were always meant to be animated to music – you can easily see the linkage between the animations he created and the sounds he used to drive the drawing process. Many have tried, often in vain, to put into words the strange power of Cornell’s boxes – toy-like constructions in which playfulness and humour are anchored in profound melancholy. Update the scenario, and you realize that the art form that connects Smith and Cornell is the process of selection – something that Duchamp could have recognized in both of their works. When you see Smith’s films, you realize that you’ve combed through the voluminous diaries that he kept throughout his life in search of his own dreams. What you find are brief flashes of images and short, enigmatic narratives of illumination – the drawn equivalent of Cornell boxes, or the anthology of folk music that was Smith’s gift to American civilization.

Antonin Artaud, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Picasso’s bricollage works, Duchamp’s anemic cinema, Oskar Fischinger’s musical animations – the connections between Smith’s work and art history are voluminous. I’m just presenting them as musical slot machine, something that, like William S. Burrough’s chance-process writing, creates a different way of seeing the world. Once you’ve seen Smith’s work, you never look at the world the same way again. Think of his 1952 Anthology of American Folk Music as the starting point for his film concepts, and the connection becomes even more clear.

The Anthology was a watershed moment in America precisely because it echoed the invisible museum of modern culture through the voices of the people we always think of as at the edge of the American dream. The process of the Anthology was parallel to the way Harry edited his films – it was a personal vision filtered through a collection of media. Check the flow: Selections were culled by from his amassed personal collection of 78 rpm records, picked for their commercial and artistic appeal within a set period of time, 1927 to 1932. Smith chose those particular years as boundaries since, as he stated himself, "1927, when electronic recording made possible accurate music reproduction, and 1932, when the Depression halted folk music sales."

Smith was an Omni-American: he was an archivist, ethnomusicologist, student of anthropology, record collector, experimental filmmaker, artist, bohemian and Kabbalist. People who know him as a filmmaker often do not know of his Anthology of American Folk Music; folk enthusiasts often do not know he was "the greatest living magician," according to Kenneth Anger.

I just hope that we can remember from every aspect of his varied and dynamic life, and his films are just as much a portal into the realms of his imagination as his record collection was. I like to think of him as America’s original underground DJ. He’s been an inspiration for me for many years, and I hope that his work will bring more people into the world that he dreamed about: an America as dynamic and diverse as the records he loved to share with everyone when his films played. With his films, as with his Anthology, Smith’s spirit of generosity was unrelenting – he wanted people to know about the rare dreams he felt waited at the edge of the American imagination.


Image from the film "Heaven and Earth Magic" by Harry Smith.

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