DJ Spooky: Multimedia Mixes to Save the Planet

Paul D. Miller synthesizes art, music, and data to spotlight environmental issues.


Editor's note: Paul D. Miller is one of National Geographic's 2014 Emerging Explorers, which honors tomorrow's visionaries—those making discoveries, making a difference, and inspiring people to care about the planet.

Paul D. Miller is a composer, performer, author, DJ, teacher, artist, film editor, activist, and software designer—often all at the same time.

His multimedia performances immerse audiences in a blend of genres, engaging them on topics ranging from climate change and sustainability to the role of technology in society.

"Music and art can be vehicles for provoking thought, overcoming inertia, and helping people engage with issues that are exponentially reshaping our information-driven world," he says. "My art uses electronic music and digital media to help people make sense of a world defined by an explosion of data and hyper-accelerated change."

Music Is Information

Miller believes that art should "grab people by the scruff of the neck" and make them think about difficult topics. And one subject he really wants people to think about is climate change.

In 2007, Miller traveled to Antarctica to "bring a studio to the ice field." With Sinfonia Antarctica, he created an acoustic portrait of a changing environment.

During performances, a string quartet plays music that Miller composed based on algorithms of Antarctica's weather and temperature patterns. Miller acts as DJ, layering data-driven electronic sounds and actual field recordings of ice from his journeys to the frozen continent.

An enormous screen pulses with his photographs from the expedition as well as historical and scientific visual material such as patterns from ice core samples.

"People often think data is cold and removed from everyday life," says Miller. "For me, it's the opposite. It's at the heart of things, the hidden poetry of modern life. By letting us see and hear data in new ways, I'm hoping to engage people in the climate change debate and show why we can't afford to be passive."

Miller's Antarctica project has morphed into a book called The Book of Ice as well as museum exhibits displaying the iconography of Miller's imagined People's Republic of Antarctica.

Miller's imagination ranges far beyond polar landscapes. His Nauru Elegies, another multimedia work, is inspired by the South Pacific island of Nauru.

The work synthesizes music, video, animation, and a live Internet feed of the island's GPS coordinates and economic data. Nauru, which has been extensively mined for phosphate, has attempted to become a center for offshore banking. Miller aimed to capture a remote culture that embodies both the global economy and environmental collapse.

On another distant archipelago, Miller founded the nonprofit Vanuatu Pacifica Foundation and is establishing a sustainable arts center. The carbon-negative retreat will draw artists from around the globe to Vanuatu, offering time and space to explore cultural connections through art.

Open to All

Perhaps the ultimate demonstration of Miller's mission to engage the public through art is the DJ Spooky DJ Mixer. The free, open-source app has been downloaded more than 15 million times and gives users the tools to mix tracks from their own digital music libraries.

Miller makes all of his own compositions open source, copyright free, and re-mixable. He wants listeners to learn about the issues he raises but also interact and reinterpret the topics for themselves.

"I don't see a piece of music as an end result; for me it's an ongoing process," says Miller. "If you make it freely available, people with deeply shared values can connect and create their own community."

Miller's work synthesizes multiple genres, disciplines, eras, and cultures. Opportunities to share his passion have been equally wide-ranging—taking him to concert venues, festivals, arts institutions, universities, and high-profile world events on every continent. He was the first artist in residence for a new program at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art.

"All through history, artists have sparked cultural change by empowering people to look at problems in new ways and imagine something different," Miller says. "Imagination is our ultimate renewable resource. That's why I'm so optimistic that the past doesn't have to define our future."

National Geographic will profile more of our 2014 Emerging Explorers in weeks to come.

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