The Everything is a Remix theory of creativity

Kirby Ferguson, creator of the absolutely outstanding Everything is a Remix series, explains his theory of creative inspiration, remix, and cultural commons, citing some of history's best-loved "individual" creators and explaining how what they did was a remix, an extension and a part of the work that came before them.

2011/08 Kirby Ferguson (Thanks, Avi!)


  1. While I appreciate his point, I’d like to think there is a bit of a difference between today’s cut-and-paste culture and, say, Cervantes penning Don Quixote in the sixteenth century. Sure, text existed before him, but it’s severely undervaluing what he did to insist that it is merely a remix. Maybe he is cutting up and pasting together some prexisting pieces, but if so his work is mostly in the glue.

      1. In the modern remix, the art lies in a clever juxtaposition or repurposing (if it’s not merely lazy reuse) – new shoes for an old horse. It’s the difference between LHOOQ and the Mona Lisa – the former is successful only because we know the latter, but what the latter relies on us knowing is harder to pin down. Perhaps – the difference between sliced fruit and a cobbler.

        To say that we can trace the inspiration for the genesis of ideas is not to say that they are only composed of the joining of old ideas. Similarly for genetics – all genes are derivative copies of some other genetic material, transformed, edited, remade; but birds can fly while their ancestors could not. Somewhere in there something new emerges.

        What I take from Kirby is that the creative act is contingent – it is impossible without the pieces that came before it, and it is never done in a vacuum. Before you make something you must cast about for ingredients. Once we’ve established that nothing proceeds ex nihilo, though, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that there IS creation happening.

        Kirby says creativity begins with mere copying, but we can tell the two apart. If creation is understood as taking A and B and putting them together in a way that never had been done before, there are degrees to which the marriage differs from the originals in the work that it does.

    1. “Merely” is the wrong way to describe the process. The point is that there’s no merely about it. Creativity is remixing, and the result is worthy of appreciation.

      Don Quixote itself is a wonderful creative achievement, especially in its retelling of so many traditional folk tales and reattribution of the deeds to the main characters.

    2. Agreed, that there is a difference.

      “To the creative writer, the world’s his oyster, which he with his pen will open. [Matthew] Arnold may have deplored Tennyson’s ‘dawdling with its [the Universe’s] painted shell’; yet it is one thing to claim that the painted shell of the universe is your oyster, it is another to claim that Botticelli’s painted shells are your oyster.” — literary critic Christopher Ricks, in his essay “Walter Pater, Matthew Arnold and Misquotation”, in the collection “The Force of Poetry”

    1. It’s another way of saying that.
      Unfortunately, unless something IS somehow created in a vacuum today, there’s going to be a lawsuit.

  2. These guys didn’t do their homework. The Invisibles from DC Vertigo has panels that are exactly copied as scenes in the Matrix. The part where Jack Frost jumps off a building to let go of reality particularly reminds me of the movie. The fetish chic clothes as well. 

  3. I didn’t watch the entire video, but… calling this “his theory” is rather short-sighted. David Cope has been saying this since the early 1990s, and he has proven it with his EMI software and its children. He has published numerous books explaining how creativity is, more or less, recombination (oversimplification).

  4. Strangely inspiring.  Just watched the four parts on Kirby’s website. The fourth installment is brilliant.

  5. Apropos of nothing in particular, other than reading this thread brought it to mind, has anyone else noticed the astounding similarities between these 3 scenes? Jennifer Connelly, standing at the end of a long pier looking out to sea, with the camera coming up behind her.

  6. Dear Everyone in the comments mentioning how this isn’t a new idea,

    That’s kinda the point. 



  7. i’m 7mins in, and this is missing a huge distinction.

    its one thing to be working in field X, use the same set of currently accepted skills as others working in field X, and using what kirby calls ‘domain knowledge leading to creating new things’. this is what is happening when musicians wrote/played music, writers wrote, artists made art, sculptors created sculptures etc.

    but the term “remix” comes from an entirely different idea: to more or less entirely skip any requirement for skill acquisition in the domain(s) in question, and to use an entirely separate set of skills (and/or equipment) to process existing creative output into a new form.

    the early DJs, and most DJs to this date, do not have the skills to play the musical instruments that they reworked in the form of vinyl recordings. this is very different from what, say, Miles Davis and Gil Evans did with Concerto de Aranjuez or what Dylan did with existing folk traditions. they were not “remixing” in anything like the sense that DJs or VJs remix.

    i’m not sitting in judgement of DJ/VJ remixing. what i’m trying to say is that no matter how cool or wonderful the results of DJ/VJ style-remixing, they are not produced by anything remotely like the same process that led to Dylan’s music, or back-referencing movies, or literature. In these cases, the “creator” needs to be able to something very similar to what was done by the “creators” of the ideas and manifestations that they reformulate, extend and rework. DJ/VJ remixing requires an entirely different skill set from those required to make music/video in the first place.

    put differently, “drawing from many influences” is completely different than “cutting up and rearranging existing material”. the latter can still be creative, but its glossing over something important to talk about as if its the same thing.

    1.  There’s also a difference between writing the original music and performing the original music. Two entirely different skill sets. Three, if you consider rearranging music.

      I work in the field of electronics, producing unique items that combine existing circuits in novel ways. I don’t consider myself a designer of original analog circuits, but I am able to combine circuits that I find to produce end products the original designers never considered.

      Look at my Nixie watch – the high-voltage power supply was cribbed wholesale from the chip’s data sheet, but I put it next to some Nixie tubes, which no modern chip designer in their right mind would contemplate. Presto! original product.

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