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Sing along with C-SPAN

The Web is a natural hunting ground for the scavenging surrealist. And artist Barbara Lattanzi salvages the Net's cultural detritus to strange effect with her "C-SPAN Karaoke."

Barbara Lattanzi

Bizarre juxtapositions have long been the stuff of art, and with its mishmash of multiform human artifacts--from tap shoes and tin men to prison gear and Pelt-O-Matics--the Web provides abundant opportunity for the surrealist magpie.

Media artist Barbara Lattanzi seems well aware of this. Her experimental "C-SPAN Karaoke" software pulls streaming video clips from C-SPAN's public archives and combines them with free karaoke songs scavenged from various Web sites.

"While you are navigating the flows of institutional political process, faithfully and invaluably documented by C-SPAN, you can always break out in song...and the louder the better," reads a description by Lattanzi, whose work has been featured by the Whitney Museum of American Art, among others.

Jaded art wannabes that we are, we were afraid the piece might turn out to be nothing more than a clubby snicker and smirk. But the effect is fascinating, and, at least in some instances, eerie.

The clip we chose showed a political figure and his host at a photo op with reporters. As the cheesy and carnivalesque organ music kicked in, leaving the sound from the C-SPAN clip still audible, the lyrics of our chosen song began flashing on the screen:

"Oh the shark has pretty teeth dear..."

The politico grinned.

"...and he shows them pearly white."

A reporter began asking an uncomfortable question, the lyrics continuing to flash: "Just a jackknife has Macheath, dear..." The host interrupted, telling the politico, "You don't have to take any questions here, if you don't want to." The politico's lips tightened, his eyes still gleaming, and the lyrics ran on: "...and he keeps it out of sight."

Further on, the politico sidestepped a question about a life-and-death issue while the song spoke of a body "oozing life." Then he made his exit to the words "someone's sneaking 'round the corner."

We imagine viewers don't always have the good fortune to witness such Pink Floyd-Wizard of Oz synchronicities, but we think C-SPAN Karaoke would be effective nonetheless. Just the combination of the familiar media images and the canned, empty music creates a strangeness that brings to mind the all-too-familiar disconnects, desensitizations and denials of contemporary life. Take your pick: Computerized bombs rain down on a foreign capital as the citizens back home sing and snap their fingers. Or, alternatively, someone glances up from his newspaper and sees a bus, and its passengers, disintegrate before his eyes.

Of course, we chose a song about a killer. If we'd picked, instead, "Blueberry Hill," the tone would've been different. But we suspect it would've been just as strange and resonant. You'll have to put together your own combination and see for yourself.

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