Creative expression focuses on access to common resources 

By Karen Herland

A year ago, Liz Miller released her documentary The Water Front exploring what happens when a public resource is exploited for private gain (see Journal, Oct. 25, 2007) Now she's using the film to approach the question from an entirely different angle.

When Miller launched the Water Front Remix project in October, the communications professor invited people to remix the elements of the film's theme song. (You can, too! Visit

Mr. Waterman was written by legendary bluesman Joe L. Carter, whom Miller tracked down after a three-year search. Initially, she wanted the rights to his song, Please, Mr. Foreman, which became the soundtrack for the black labour movement in the í60s. "[The song is] about the radical black labour movement and a reference to the past and to what the city had been through," she said. When she finally found him, Carter immediately saw the relationship between those labour struggles and the environmental justice movement and offered to record a new song for the film, one that nods to the past but is decidedly about the present situation.

Miller was closely watching debates about information in the public domain and conflicts about ownership of ideas for years. Further spinning the thread of her interest, at the heart of the remix movement is the freedom to build on cultural production of the past and creatively contribute to a dialogue, despite often being thwarted by attempts to control use of information or ideas.

As the remix movement grew, she saw parallels with the privatization of water, the subject at the heart of her film. She also felt the remixing was a way to attract younger people to the film, the subject matter and labour rights history. For Miller, the contest represents the opportunity for collaboration and the appreciation for continuity between the past and the future.

She also hoped it would provoke discussion around the potential for public resources to become privatized. "I wanted to raise awareness about what's at stake and alternatives to just selling things off to the highest bidder," she says.

Anyone can download the elements of the song, remix it any way they choose by adding their own sound tracks and upload the results with both Carter and Miller's blessing. The winning entry will be announced after the contest ends on Dec. 16. Youth groups in Montreal and the U.S. have been approached to participate.
Miller has been working with Jeff Traynor, an MA student in media studies, to develop the web site for the contest and the film. Traynor, who worked with youth groups in southern Alberta before coming to Concordia, was originally in-volved in policy research. Through Miller, he began to experiment with Drupal, an open source content management system which encourages collaboration.

He's now the architect of The Water Front website, and has been helping out with the Life Stories website for the Oral and Digital History lab. Crediting Miller for the opportunity to shift his direction, Traynor is building a consulting firm for community group web needs.

Meanwhile, communications professor Andra McCartney was so moved by the film, the people in it stayed with her long after she viewed it. While at her cottage last summer, she was thinking about water access during one of the downpours of the season. "I went outside and set out all sorts of containers, metal, plastic, wood, and then I recorded the rain as the storm ended."

That recording became the basis for MacCartney's own contribution to the remix project. The piece has earned her a place in the New Adventures in Sound Art (NAISA) program for 2009, which has Ecology: Water Air and Sound as its theme. McCartney intends to expand her piece and "make my own work more socially relevant, and sonically relevant."


Concordia University