Portland Playhouse A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens Portland Oregon

Copy/Transform/Combine

Portland filmmaker Kirby Ferguson’s new documentary ‘Everything is a Remix — Remixed’ shows how artistic creativity really happens — again.

|

Even as a kid, Kirby Ferguson liked to create. He enjoyed design and visual art, and then, when digital video arrived on home computers during his teen years, making movies. But he seldom did more than dabble, because like a lot of creators — a lot of humans — he struggled with self doubt. How could he ever be an Artist? After all, in his decade or two on the planet, he’d never come up with any mind-rattlingly original ideas. He just enjoyed making art.

“I struggled with originality as a young person,” remembers the now 50-year old Portland-based filmmaker. “I didn’t understand creativity — how it really happened. The mythology we had then was the genius myth — that creativity is something you’ve either got or you don’t. I thought I had some talent but didn’t think I was a genius. That prevented me from moving forward. I could have gotten rolling with creative work earlier, if I’d started by copying things.”

Kirby Ferguson, with wife Nora Ryan and son Kirby Ferguson Ryan, has new creative plans in store for the future. Photo credit, Douglas Detrick.

As he later learned, copying is the first step in the three-part process that researchers now believe generally describes how creativity emerges. “That’s totally fine and that’s the way you begin,” he says. “That story wasn’t out there when I was a teenager.”

It took years, but Ferguson eventually learned about recent theories of creativity. And he decided to make a movie about them. Deploying a blistering fusillade of video and music clips interwoven with Ferguson’s concise, easily assimilated narration, Everything is a Remix offered a fast-paced, internet-friendly intro to how creativity really works. Launched in 2010 and released in its completed form in 2014 and offered free on YouTube, the electrifying video went viral, garnering millions of page views, escalating the unknown filmmaker’s profile into the stratosphere, leading to TED Talks, speaking tours, and a contributor gig with The New York Times.

Now he’s doing it again: remixing Everything is a Remix to create a new version that both retraces and reimagines the original. Stuffed with new, up-to-the moment material, the two parts available so far comprise his most accomplished and delightful production to date — more assured, tighter, sharper, and funnier than its successful predecessors. The basic idea remains, but the wealth of new material and Ferguson’s polished presentation make this remix much more than just a refresh.

And ironically — or maybe appropriately — Ferguson’s own dazzling work, which both celebrates and builds upon insights and techniques from other artists and thinkers, turns out to be some of the most original you’ll find online.

You might expect an artist so plugged into cutting edge contemporary culture to hail from a cosmopolitan cultural capital. In fact, Ferguson grew up on Canada’s relatively isolated Prince Edward Island and went to college at the provincial university. 

But his creative horizons stretched beyond. “I was really influenced by hip hop as a teenager,” he recalls. “That first generation of rap artists was bringing together vastly different sounds. That concept left a big impression and stayed lodged in my brain.” 

His main muse, though, was visual, leading to a college focus on design, which also paid actual salaries. He moved to New York City and started working in advertising. But on the side Ferguson remained a “media nut wanting to play around with music and movies and ads, whatever I could find to patch together,” he remembers. “The combining of media, bringing together writing and designing, was always the most exciting thing.”

Still, it wasn’t enough to overcome the biggest barrier.

Debunking the Genius Myth

Ever since Modernism’s advent, or possibly Beethoven, many arts mavens have worshiped a kind of cult of originality. The implication: creativity is reserved exclusively for those elite few who can somehow generate totally original ideas, out of thin air. If you can’t come up with one, well, you just must not be one of the privileged creative elite. Go be an accountant or something. 

Nope. Sure, plenty of great artists spawn original ideas, and we justly celebrate them. But here’s a little secret about art. Most of it grows out of other art. “Mature artists steal,” said Igor Stravinsky, probably the most innovative canonical composer of his time. Even classical music’s greatest original couldn’t have gotten there without a boost from earlier ideas and composers. Beethoven’s early music sounds a lot like his teacher Joseph Haydn’s — but not nearly as good. Of course, he learned, copied, added his own special sauce, and got better.

Sponsor
Cascadia Composers Music Concert Portland State University Lincoln Hall Portland Oregon

In the 21st century, scholars and writers increasingly recognized how actual creativity differs from the romantic myth of the divinely inspired genius. Ferguson studied that history and boiled the traditional creative process down to a three-part mantra: copy, transform, combine. The modernist notion of “ownership of ideas is a more recent idea,” he says. 

That discovery began to unlock his previously stifled creative impulses. He didn’t need to be struck from out of the blue with a world-changing idea. He could develop his own originality by copying, transforming, and combining existing ideas.

Those revised notions about creativity started to infiltrate mainstream American culture right around the same time as consumer-friendly digital video tools that anyone could use to edit on a home computer became available. 

“A whole new breed of filmmaker was emerging,” Ferguson says. The new tech gave him a “new thing I could try out and play around with.” Copying and remixing, he realized, were a wellspring of originality. And digital video made both of those easy. While keeping his day job in ad design, Ferguson began making comedy videos direct to camera and posting them online to a vlog. 

New Visions

Ferguson realized that if the idea of creativity as remix inspired him, it might also resonate with others. And he could reach a younger, non-scholarly audience by melding his own experience with pop culture remixing — from hip hop, dance music, video etc. — with the theoretical foundation he discovered in books by Lawrence Lessig, Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Comes From, and others. While still keeping his day job in video production, he began putting together his passion project, which became Everything is a Remix

“Remix was this thing that was sort of in the air at the time, but I didn’t feel like anyone had really zeroed in on it” in the then-nascent medium of sophisticated internet video, he explains. “A lot of the best ideas are that way. You know it’s true, but it hasn’t been structured, synthesized, framed, and coherently argued. I wanted to take this floating abstract thing and give it some shape and form. That’s the sweet spot of an idea for a story — it’s new and old at the same time.” 

Which is, not coincidentally, analogous to the idea of creativity as remix itself. It’s not that Ferguson came up with a brand new insight or explanation for creativity. Instead, he put together insights gleaned from various scholars and writers, phenomena he saw and heard himself, and, along with his own conclusions, crafted them all into a form appealing to viewers in today’s media saturated screenscape. 

He also added his own secret sauce: a contemporary internet sensibility. Unlike, say, your standard Ken Burns video tome, Everything is a Remix (EiaR) emerged on Vimeo in bite-sized episodes, presented in a fast-paced visual style that unspooled rapid-fire, like hip hop lyrics. Yet it flows smoothly, thanks to Ferguson’s meticulous craft and sensitivity to audience experience.

 “It has an insane amount of edits,” he admits. “I have no clue how many. I try not to think about how much time I put into editing. I’ve seen things where people cut a lot faster than I do, but I’m a believer that it’s the internet and I definitely go fast.” He almost always hits that sweet spot between keeping viewers hooked and making sure they understand. 

His timing was prescient — both EiaR and, later, his second major project, This is Not a Conspiracy Theory, arrived just at the cultural moment when many of us were feeling something significant in the air, but didn’t know how to explain it.

Not long after its 2010 launch, EiaR went viral. “It attracted a lot of attention,” Ferguson remembers, “but I didn’t know until later how popular it was. When you’re in it, it’s hard to know what’s going on. I knew it got seen millions of times in my world of tech and media nerds. It took me a while to realize how many had seen it.”

How many? He’s actually not sure. “At least 5 million views across the multiple parts.” But the channel has since been removed because it was using too much bandwidth, and with it went the original viewership counts. He’s stopped trying to figure out how many people have seen it in its various incarnations. 

But unlike, say, a music video, EiTR took so many hours to create — actually, two years, not counting all the research — that it was risky as a money-making proposition.  

“I was swimming upstream culturally, because it was halfway between a film and an internet video, but not really one or the other,” Ferguson explains. “It had the level of craft of a film, but I was putting it out on the internet for free. It was kind of a funny spot to be in. Not many people do it that way. But people really got it.”

Fortunately, its sheer quality produced a proportionally robust response. “I started getting donations, asked to do speaking gigs,” which (unlike the free-to-watch, ad-free Vimeo release itself) actually produced some income from the project. “Different things started to come my way more than comedy. I was getting recognized on the street, and the reception was overwhelmingly positive,” he recalls. “Now, the internet is just a meaner place. There’s a lot more negativity. You’ll get people taking offense at anything. But back then, the response was largely positive. The biggest thing for me was going to TED,” which was a lot rarer a decade ago than now. That felt like such an achievement at the time, such an esteemed thing.” 

Thanks to EiaR’s unexpected virality and the revenue it generated from donations, speaking income etc., making his own videos soon zipped from side hustle to Ferguson’s main occupation. (He still takes on freelance gigs in video production when needed to pay the bills.) “I never imagined I’d be an independent creator,” he marvels. “I thought I’d be a role player at a company, not someone coming up with ideas and expressing them.” 

EiaR made another big change possible. No longer tied to a company, he was ready to end his long tenure in New York City. And so was his new wife, Nora Ryan, an Ashland native ready to return to Oregon. 

Their 2015 move to Portland was followed by other changes. The online world is ever-morphing, and so is Ferguson’s business model. He’s a master at leveraging social media, including crowdsourcing like Patreon. And, of course, you can find his work on Tik Tok, Instagram, and YouTube. And he’s created a merchandise shop boasting t-shirts and blu-ray discs. Like so many other internet entrepreneurs, he keeps his audience engaged during the long stretches between major videos with intermediate releases, a newsletter, and more.  

The New York Times also picked up Ferguson’s work and contracted him to make videos for its website. The latest one, “Grieving Our Old Normal,” dropped in December 2021.

Conspiratorial Thinking

The model shifted for Ferguson’s next documentary, but the inspiration again arose from ideas that preoccupied his younger self. Like many teens (and adults whose minds never attain adult wisdom), he’d been drawn to conspiracy theories. “I got the appeal,” he acknowledges. “I found them very alluring. In the end, I just couldn’t cross that bridge and actually believe they were real.” 

In 2014, those thoughts returned when he began to notice the proliferation of conspiracy fantasies via their contemporary enabler — social media. Why were so many Americans bamboozled by BS? 

“I thought understanding conspiracy thinking might be a way of understanding the United States better,” he explains. “I’d come here from Canada, a much more unified place,” despite its own linguistic and geographic differences. “America is a much more diverse country in terms of people’s politics. Coming to grips with that took some work.” He launched a Kickstarter project for his next video idea. 

Ferguson expected This is Not a Conspiracy Theory (TiNaCT) to take about two years to create, as EiaR had. It wound up consuming eight. Not only did the research require a lot more time, but non-film issues also impeded progress. In Sometimes You Gotta Get Lost, a touchingly vulnerable video that includes his reflections on and lessons derived from the process, Ferguson describes it as a dark period, plagued by financial stress, family illness, his own slip-ups, including an extended period in figuring out what form the film should take, and the sheer scale of the project, whose scope he’d underestimated.

The delay actually made the story hotter. By the time he finished research, compilation, and editing, “things had gone crazy, very strange” in the world of conspiratorial thinking, stoked by the likes of Q-Anon, Russia, Trump, anti-vaxxers, and other denizens of the internet’s dark side. He’d hit the ideal historical moment for a fact-based, historical appraisal of the origins of and explanations for conspiracy fantasies that seemed to be erupting everywhere.

Completed and released in its entirety in 2020, This is Not a Conspiracy Theory reached a smaller audience because instead of posting it free (as he did with Remix, like many artists striving to make that initial breakthrough), Ferguson offered TiNaCT to paying subscribers only. 

“You had to pay to watch it, so it reached a much smaller group [than EiaR],” he says. “But I got all kinds of comments and emails from people whose perspective had really been changed by it. It definitely transformed a lot of people. So it was a much smaller thing, but super impactful.” Ferguson summarized much of his conspiracy-debunking research in a shorter, freely available documentary, Constantly Wrong, one of several spinoff videos from TinaCT.

In the end, though, TiNaCT also proved a far more fraught endeavor for its creator. Like its shorter followup, an assessment of two especially invidious enablers of destructive disinformation, Joe Rogan and Alex Jones, the subject matter was a tough one to tackle for a filmmaker who treasures truth. Toward the end, after he’s tried hard to give the conspiratorial notions a fair hearing, you can feel his frustration at the refusal (for reasons possibly pecuniary, possibly deeply rooted in human frailty like confirmation bias) of conspiratorialists to listen to reason.

“It’s just a very grim world,” he says. “Not only is the material hard and disturbing, but I found that getting people to change their minds is a hopeless task. It’s a bummer. It made me realize what an oddball I was, because I’d change my mind if you show me evidence that what I think is wrong.” 

Still, he was proud of what the project ultimately accomplished. Making it changed him, giving him a more modest, less angry and judgmental view of the world. It raised his filmmaking and storytelling game, showing him what he could achieve when he pushed himself beyond his comfort zone. 

“Being lost is the place where we make our biggest discoveries, where we learn the most profound lessons and where we grow the most,” he concludes. “The experience renewed me. I feel like I reinvented myself.” 

Remix Remixed

And now he’s reinventing his first major project. Ferguson had updated the original EiaR a bit in 2015, and “it’s still an idea that I love, but I thought I had said everything I wanted to say about it,” he recalls. “But after leaving it for a while, I can see the material in a fresh way, through a new lens, and approach it with a sense of joy and discovery. And I thought I could tell it better.” 

Judging by the first two episodes, even fans familiar with EiaR’s first incarnation will find plenty of entirely new material. “This is a major reboot, loaded with new stuff, mostly a new thing,” he says.

It also looks a lot sharper, with new and better videos and production standards enhanced by more advanced tech — not only Ferguson’s, but also the source material. “The means of capturing images has gotten so much better,” he notes. “Even my iPhone shoots great video. There’s unreal production power in their phones. Anybody can shoot [high resolution] 4K, slo mo now.”

Ferguson also admits that, after the travails of his deep dive into disinformation and conspiracy fantasies, “it’s a lot of fun to be going back and doing something positive.” 

Ferguson’s refreshed enthusiasm permeates the remix. As always, he makes an engaging host, his meticulously crafted cuts briskly, but carefully, guiding viewers through complex ideas at the speed of thought, but also with enough time to consider their implications. Rather than just telling us how remix creativity works, Ferguson shows it in action, a much more approachable idiom than a weighty academic tome, and tuned to 21st century culture without dumbing the ideas down.

That positive energy radiates through EIAR-R’s most recent spinoff, The Rise and Fall of Cultural Appropriation, which dropped earlier this month. It’s probably the single best introduction to Ferguson’s style. Laced with sly humor — much of it visual, drawn from familiar movie references — it boldly takes on ideas about what artists from dominant cultures have a “right” to draw on. Ferguson knows that he’s cheerfully wading into controversial territory (though more among academic theorists than actual working artists), and he’s unafraid to make the case for artistic freedom to draw on a wide range of sources, though with appropriate caveats and prerequisites. His position against the idea that any art is pure or innocent of influence from other art echoes that of American composer and scholar Henry Cowell. “Enjoy hybrid music,” Cowell famously said, “because that’s all there is.”

Some of Remix Remixed’s other new notions also respond to the ever-evolving arts world since 2012. “The conversation has really changed since then,” he explains. “The idea of remix culture has gone totally mainstream, and I was part of that movement that made it that way, but there’s still quite a few people who don’t know the whole story. I hope to reach young people with the new version [of EiaR].”

Subsequent developments in both art and his own thinking nudged Ferguson in other new directions. “The first [version of EiaR] said, ‘Here’s a cool premise and some examples of how it works,’ but it didn’t give you a new and exciting idea. This one does.” Some of those ideas emerged from recently published books like David Eagleman and Anthony Brandt’s The Runaway Species, W. Brian Arthur’s The Nature of Technology, Douglas R. Hofstadter’s Surfaces and Essences, and more.

Nevertheless, the basics remain. “I don’t think my position is really different, just more nuanced and contradictory,” Ferguson explains. “It’s not so theory-driven. I include lots of exceptions to the stories and my position. I’m older, so I have a more mature perspective. I have more sympathy.” For example, the original video can be pretty tough on Led Zeppelin’s appropriation of older blues. “Now I realize they were just a young band, they had no idea” where borrowing turns into stealing.

Of course, Ferguson recognizes that originality still matters. “You still have to change things, not just duplicate,” he acknowledges. He praises recent developments such as YouTube’s Content ID technology that spot pure plagiarism. But he urges a liberal attitude, especially toward young artists, and sees the distinction between new and recopied as “this highly amorphous thing. I don’t have easy straightforward answers to distinguish between who owns something and who’s copying from somebody else.”

A major takeaway from the remix is that the latter is a crucial step on the way to the former. You come away with not just an understanding of how creativity works, but also feeling empowered to dive in yourself. 

That would please Ferguson, who still remembers just how intimidated he felt decades ago when he contemplated a creative career. The old Modernist notions (abetted by corporate interests that can make fortunes by monetizing ideas) die hard, as we’ve seen recently with today’s breakthrough pop singer Olivia Rodrigo. While it’s never been easier to learn from and copy older artists (importing a song into a music production app, chopping it up, adding beats, rapping or singing over it, etc.), it’s also easier for naysayers to throw shade, as in the recent overblown blowback against Rodrigo’s channeling of riffs (including the electrifying progression that propels her big 2021 hit “Brutal”) from a generation or two back. As Elvis Costello, one of her supposed victims, noted in rushing to the precocious teen’s defense, that’s what most songwriters do. 

“Of course she’s going to sound like other artists,” Ferguson says. “You learn to write songs by copying other songs. Thirty or 40 years ago, she could have done it” without so many accusations. In the 1950s or ’60s, artists could imitate music available mostly to connoisseurs, like the Rolling Stones’ takes on out-of-print American blues discs. The Beatles were astonished that many American audiences didn’t even recognize their own R&B groups to which the British band explicitly paid homage. In the years before Disney lobbied to extend copyright protection, more well-known source material was in the public domain, available for free recycling. 

“Now, we’re in a hyper-mediated age with instant access to everything,” Ferguson says, “so you can compare everything to every other thing that has ever existed quite easily. That can be daunting to young creators.” 

That’s the value of the creativity-as-remix paradigm. “If you’re familiar with that idea, it’ll make you less afraid of creating,” Ferguson explains. “It makes creativity less of an elite activity only for the chosen ones that have gifts, and more like a talent available to everybody. It lowers expectations about what it takes to do creative work.”

It’s a lesson he wishes he’d learned as a self-doubting nascent teenage artist.

“In a way,” he says, “Everything is a Remix is a message to my previous self.” 

But even though the original Remix’s surprise success enabled Ferguson to achieve what his younger self never dared dream — make creating video his livelihood — just as its update arrives, he’s decided to change course. The main impetus: this year’s birth of his first child, Kirby Ferguson Ryan.

“For years now, this work has been a hobby masquerading as a career,” Ferguson wrote his email subscribers this week. The extremely high-velocity, meticulously edited style that made him internet-famous also makes creating it unsupportably time-intensive. “I’m now a father and spending the majority of my time on work that generates very little income is unsustainable. Up next I’ll be concentrating on commercial video editing and production, perhaps with some original content for established platforms. I’ll be continuing my intellectual and creative pursuits as a hobby but any content I create will likely be writing, not video,” at least not in the exciting — and expensive — style that won him renown.

Before that, though, starting shortly, he’ll re-release the first episode of This is Not a Conspiracy Theory free on YouTube, with subsequent episodes to follow every two weeks. Then he’ll finish parts 3 and 4 of Everything is a Remix, which will complete the new version of the series.

It may seem ironic that just as he revisits his greatest success, Ferguson is bringing his filmmaking career to a close. But actually, it makes a lot of sense. While creativity starts with copying, it culminates in originality. And it resists repetition. Artists who fail to reinvent themselves grow static, stale. Based on what we’ve seen so far, it’s likely that the end of Ferguson’s filmmaking journey just signals the beginning of a new creative voyage.

Brett Campbell is a frequent contributor to The Oregonian, San Francisco Classical Voice, Oregon Quarterly, and Oregon Humanities. He has been classical music editor at Willamette Week, music columnist for Eugene Weekly, and West Coast performing arts contributing writer for the Wall Street Journal, and has also written for Portland Monthly, West: The Los Angeles Times Magazine, Salon, Musical America and many other publications. He is a former editor of Oregon Quarterly and The Texas Observer, a recipient of arts journalism fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts (Columbia University), the Getty/Annenberg Foundation (University of Southern California) and the Eugene O’Neill Center (Connecticut). He is co-author of the biography Lou Harrison: American Musical Maverick (Indiana University Press, 2017) and several plays, and has taught news and feature writing, editing and magazine publishing at the University of Oregon School of Journalism & Communication and Portland State University.

SHARE:
Chamber Music Northwest Lincoln Recital Hall Portland State University Portland Oregon
Dianne Jean Erickson Donald Dahlke Gallery 114 Portland Oregon
Cascadia Composers Music Concert Portland State University Lincoln Hall Portland Oregon
Imago Theatre ZooZoo Portland Oregon
Open Space Dance Royal Durst Theatre Vancouver Washington
Enlightened Theatrics Seussical the Musical Salem Oregon
Bag & Baggage Danny and the Deep Blue Sea The Vault Theatre Hillsboro Oregon
Portland Playhouse A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens Portland Oregon
Corrib Contemporary Irish Theatre Portland Oregon Metaverse
Portland Revels Midwinter Revels Andalusian Night Portland Oregon
Hallie Ford Museum of Art Willamette University Salem Oregon
Eugene Ballet The Nutcracker with Orchestra Next Hult Center Eugene Oregon
Oregon Repertory Singers Glory of Christmas Portland Oregon
Triangle Productions Erma Bombeck At Wit's End Helen Raptis Portland Oregon
Northwest Dance Project Portland Oregon
Portland State University College of the Arts
Future Prairie Artist Collective Portland Oregon
Oregon Cultural Trust tax credit donate
Oregon ArtsWatch grow fund donate