One Piece at a Time: Cash, Rombes, Adorno

In his Detroit-inspired blues romp “One Piece at a Time,” Johnny Cash tells the tale of an assembly-line worker who plans to sneak a Cadillac out of the factory piece by piece. Better to reference the source:

Well, I left Kentucky back in ’49
An’ went to Detroit workin’ on a ‘sembly line
The first year they had me puttin’ wheels on cadillacs

Every day I’d watch them beauties roll by
And sometimes I’d hang my head and cry
‘Cause I always wanted me one that was long and black.

One day I devised myself a plan
That should be the envy of most any man
I’d sneak it out of there in a lunchbox in my hand

This Do-It-Yourself (DIY) strategy was designed as a form of resistance: the beaten-down factory worker can’t afford to own the vehicle he’s building, so he’s going to pull the wool over the eyes of his bourgeois bosses and build one himself — on their dime. Of course, we all know that the logic of this cunning tale no longer holds water. GM learned how to quell this sort of resistance by making it possible for assembly line workers to own a Cadillac — or two. This was Fordism at its best, pumped up by access to union-enforced overtime hours.

Today, Cadillacs have become icons of a gas-dependent consumer culture blind to global politics and global climate change. Detroit and other cities invested in the automotive economy are hangin’ their heads and cryin’ while the “new economy” pumps out data, not V8 oilpans. And so, we need to revisit Johnny Cash’s “One Piece at a Time” for a digital culture. Enter “The Johnny Cash Project,” directed by Chris Milk. Touting itself as a “global collective art project,” the JCP asked contributors to draw individual frames that would be assembled into a music video for Johnny Cash’s latest posthumous release, “Ain’t No Grave.”

"Ain't no grave can hold my body down."

"Ain't no grave can hold my body down."

Thousands of frames later, and one frame at a time, we have a mesmerising animated video. I won’t get into whether or not the frames were actually “drawn” or photoshopped, whether or not this is an “art project,” and whether or not this video permits JC to escape the grave (perfect fodder for a necromedia essay). What I will suggest is that this is an example of an “economy of contribution” (a term I borrow from Bernard Stiegler) at its best. But is it a rip-off of Nick Rombes?

That’s right. Nick Rombes. You’ll read more about him here in the coming weeks. But for now, allow me to introduce his project, “15 Seconds of Frame,” which he is completing as a run-up to a talk to be given here at the Critical Media Lab in November. Here is Rombes’ description of the project:

Each day between now and November 16, when I present at the Critical Media Lab at THEMUSEUM in Kitchener  I’ll post consecutive frames from two films: Kiss Me Deadly (directed by Robert Aldrich, 1955) and Inland Empire (directed by David Lynch, 2006). At approximately 24 frames per second, this equals roughly two seconds of each film.

Every day, Rombes dissects the minute changes in the frames and blows them up into theoretical musings about the collision of serial and digital media. Rombes is reaching deep into the technics of analog media to generate a digital media theory. One frame at a time.

Frame from Inland Empire.

Frame from Inland Empire.

In The Culture Industry, Theodor Adorno takes a brutal stab at the Do-It-Yourself movement, which manifests itself today in the Make movement that has inspired projects in the CML. According to Adorno, the DIY aesthetic is merely a way of passing time while imagining that we are not subject to universal mechanization and media-enabled, spoon-fed mass-consumption:

Generally speaking, pseudo-activity is the attempt to preserve enclaves of immediacy in the midst of a thorougly mediated and obdurate society. This process is rationalized through the acceptance of any small change as one step on the long way toward total change. The unfortnate model for pseudo-actity is the ‘do-it-yourself’ syndrome–activities that do that which has long been done better through teams of industrial production and which arouse in unfree individuals, hampered in their spontaneity, the confident feeling that they are of central concern.

Ah, Adorno, why did you have to drag down the DIY spirit? Of course, Rombes’ project is not exactly an off-the-shelf hobbyist project such as those targeted by Adorno. In fact, Rombes’ DIY re-enframing of cinema treats mass media (in this case, film) as a reservoir of objects-to-think-with, available for careful repurposing by any individual with the adequate spontaneity and critical capacity to challenge the spoon-feeders. I just have to thumb my nose at Adorno here, and applaud Nick’s ability to generate an “enclave of immediacy” in a culture of photoshopping. In a couple more weeks, Rombes will have himself a Cadillac.