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Art, Revolution & Ownership? Curatorial statement



In 2009 a young artist asks what copyright has to do with her after a screening at ECUAD of RiP: A Remix Manifesto. This exhibition is an attempt to answer her question. For New Forms I have brought together works that confront and challenge some of our basic ideas about the law, copyright, and its impact on art. The digital universe is a challenging one to navigate – everything is available, but is it free? So much on the net is public, however the public domain it is not. This exhibition is presented in direct response to the tendency to exclude many artists from the conversation about copyright. Each work and its story invite the viewer to see copyright differently. The artists in the exhibition are, for the most part, not deliberately taking or appropriating other work, but are in each case confronting the limits of the legal lens. Each has something to say about authorship, fixation, originality, and copying.  Each work operates within the law's boundaries, its limits.

The War Room contains 3 works: Hart Snider's Newshole, Diyan Achjadi's Camouflagehead, and Faith Moosang's Marching to May.  Each artist puts war footage into a different context. Looking on is Sonny Assu's iHamatsa Rising. Together they ask us to consider the impact of war and question our assumptions about representation.

Michael Nicoll Yahulganaas’s mural Red, based on his book of Haida Manga, hangs in Room 122.  Commanding the space, it asks us to look carefully at how we communicate our culture and our histor(ies) of colonialism. When juxtaposed with Ben Reeves’s Borges comic, in which he uses a short story by Jorge Luis Borgas, Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote, the two works confront some of the similarities that surround us. Whose truth do we adopt? Does it matter?  Both works blur the line between pop culture vs high art and what meaning we make from all that surrounds us.

The Group of Seven room is an homage to the Canadian landscape A painter who replicates the brushstrokes of Tom Thomson, Ben Reeves takes us on a journey through abstraction with Goose 5. Abstraction and law are uneasy bedfellows - we prefer the concrete.  How does one decide whether something is the same when context or mediums change?  In Group of Seven Awkward Moments: White Pine and the Group of Dwarfs, Diana Thorneycroft reflects on something Pierre Berton said: "A real Canadian can make love in a canoe". (dioramas) Snow White is having a lottery to see which of the elves is going to get lucky. Sonny Assu's Breakfast Series reminds us that not everyone is part of this conversation. He takes us in a different direction.

The question of the public domain concerns many of the other artists participating in the NFF festival:  what do we mean by the public domain?  Is it capable of being owned? Is our experience of art being affected by how the law works - or commercial claims to the "public domain" (Digital Natives, Ken Lum).  Is everything public - including CCTV footage? (ambient tv). What does attribution mean in a mediated culture? (Wikipedia Art) What happens when new technology reclaims works in the public domain?  What exactly are the limits of the public space? Join the conversations on Thursday at W2 and Saturday at the Waldorf where we explore these ideas with Laura Murray, Tina Piper, Kirsty Robertson, and Mark Hosler.

Why "Art, Revolution & Ownership?"  The title is taken from Lewis Hyde's latest book Common as Air: Art, Ownership and Revolution.  Lewis provides  "a spirited defense of our "cultural commons," that vast store of ideas, inventions, and works of art that we have inherited from the past and continue to enrich in the present." He traces the history of the term commons from the American Revolution through the lens of someone deeply enagaged in contemporary thinking on copyright.  It is an important contribution to anyone thinking about what we want from copyright.  Lewis points out how far from a vibrant public domain we have drifted. 

My work with students at ECUAD,and in the workshops I have given to artists across the country, have taught me a great deal about why copyright matters to art student, artists, and everyone who watches a video,a painting, or goes to a performance.  Asking ourselves why  begins a conversation that reminds all of us that the commons - the public domain - is an important part of the equation.  The commoncs are equally important to creators, asthey are to "users" , and to anyone who cares about democracy.  It is also a term that is sometimes used without thought in the digital world - so much on the net is public but the public domain it is not.

James Gnam and plastic orchid factory contribute  "art is a complaint or don't bother." (W2 on Thursday) This piece takes us from the world of the page, text, sound poetry and chance operations directly to the body.  It for me is a performance that mirrors the visual art we have in the living labs.   Dance as an artform is difficult to fix - all the more so when using text of one of John Cage.  I am excited to see what Josh Hite can make happen with the addition of cameras on the body.  This performance plays with all the elements that make so much of digital culture exciting while at the same time being based on a text of John Cage root us very directly in the analogue space.  We follow the performances with a conversation about improvisation, and the experience of art in the open.  Join us for a drink. 

For the New Forms Festival I have curated three living labs that explore some of these concerns - not by appropriation exactly but by asking the viewer to consider the questions the law poses perhaps a little more carefully. 

The War Room contains 3 works - Hart Snider's Newshole, Diyan Achjadi's Camoflougehead and Faith Moosang's Marching to May.  Each use Iraq war footage - each has it had its uses constrained in some way. By form or context.   Each pose questions about war in ways that are somewhat surprising (though some may seem commomplace).  Looking on is Sonny Assu's  iHamatsa. 

Michael Nicoll Yahulganaas Haida Red mural hangs in Room 122.  Commanding the space it asks us to look carefully at how we communicate our culture and our histor(ies) of colonialism.  Placed with 'Red" is Ben Reeves "Borges comic."  A reimagined story by Borges in which the narrator purports to analyze the same work as if one was written by a professional and another simply an amateur.   Here we confront the similarity that surrounds us.  Whose truth do we adopt?  What difference does it make? 

Lab three is an homage to the Canadian landscape and the Group of Seven.  Including a work by Diana Thorneycroft, in which White Pine by Casson is referenced.  The photograph is based on something Pierre Berton said; "A real Canadian can make love in a canoe". Snow White is having a lottery to see which of the elves is going to get lucky.    A painter who replicates the brushstrokes, Ben take us on a journey through abstraction with Goose 5 (a reference to Abstraction and law are uneasy bedfellows - we prefer the concrete.  How does one decide whether something is the same when context or medium change?  Placed with those two works is a comment on Canadian colonial history in Sonny Assu's Breakfast Series. 

The question of the public domian concerns Malcolm Levy and many of the other artists participating in the NFF festival:  what do we mean by the public domain?  Is it capable of being owned?    Is our experience of art being affected by how the law works - or commercial claims to the "public domain" (Digital Natives, Ken Lum, Sonny Assu).  Is everything public - including CCTV footage?  What does attribution mean in a mediated culture?  (Wikipedia Art) What happens when new technology reclaims works in the public domain?   What exactly are the limits of the public space?

The conversations  on Saturday ask some of the questions we have when the law is involved.  The artists in Art,Revolution & Ownership are for the most part not deliberately taking, or appropriating other work but they are in each case confronting the limits of the legal lens.  Each has something to say about authorship, fixation, originality, and copying.  Each work operates within its boundaries, its limits.  Artists routinely ignore limits so how do we move the conversation forward on their behalf.  Is there an ethical dimension to remix culture that we ignore?   Can we fairly compensate creators? Can we manifest new digital tools that could be as effective as bit torrent with a remunerative value add to the creators?   If not a levy then what?  Will market values enrich us or impoverish our commons further (as some of us suspect)?  Artists continue to do what they have always done - make art in a gray zone and concern themselves little with the law.  Laura Murray, Tina Piper and Kirsty Robertson will anchor our three conversations as they gather with the artists to talk about "putting intellectual property in its place."  They too are expecting o be challenged. 

I hope  media democracy activists and the open digital community  will accept my challenge to include creators in their consideration of telecommunications and technology policy more carefully. 

To James Moore and Christian Paradis (and all the members of the House)  Two years ago I asked you to come to Vancouver to meet artists, digital creators and create a real conversation about copyright.  You are all invited to the party.

Acknowledgements: 

I am grateful to Access Copyright's Cultural Foundation for its support from the outset.  They took a chance on a lawyer who loves art and respects technology when no one else would.  This experience has taught me very directly how deeply underfunded the arts are - at every level.  I am grateful to each of the artists who shared their ideas with me: Diyan, Ben, Sonny, Faith, James and Natalie, Josh, Diana.   As well as those who continue to inspire me: Mark Hosler most especially for lighting a fire.  Tina, Laura and Kirsty my gratitude for schedluing us in to their busy academic schedules.   Lewis Hyde and William Patry for writing about copyright.  Pat Aufderheide  and Kembrew McLeod who as communications scholars care deeply about artists and have done a lot to advance the discussions about how we use language and how   copyright,  can in fact, serve creators and users.  Stewart Butterfield,Caterina Fake,and Ben Cervenyi, for introducing me to the digital future when their time was occupied with FlickR (among other things).  Laura Trippi, Leanne Waldal and Moya Watson for bringing a somewhat different perspective to technology than I had heard before.  Breaking bread is a powerful tool of communication.  Derek Robinson for believing that interdependence is key to our networked future. A man of vision and a great friend.  Brian Lamb for introducing me to open education and answering my technical  questions with grace. Seeing the world through a child's eyes has been a great gift - for Ana Grace it will matter a great deal that we change how we think about the world around us - this is her mother's small contribution to that cause.

David MacWillian, Lorna Brown and Norman Armour enouraged me to soldier on notwithstanding the lack of funding.   (Not sure I should have listened to them some days but here we are).   Malcolm Levy for agreeing to partner with me.  Irwin Oostindie for stepping in at just the right moment and  providing a political sounding board for the community. 
 


Copyright,Cory Doctorow and me

Last week I was fortunate to find myself at SIGGRAPH and see Cory Doctorow's keynote.  It was inspiring.  To have him here in Vancouver as we make the final preparations for "Art, Revolution and Ownership" lit the fire under me to get writing again.   Here are some excerpts of what he said:

Here in the digital age, we copy like we breathe, and so the stakes for getting the rules right on copyright have never been higher
   

Art, Revolution, Ownership

Is creativity in the code or is the code creative?  Are you an artist, a revolutionary, an owner?  Questions of ownership permeate our culture - sample a sound, claim the East Van sign, remix a logo.  Whether you're an artist playing with images, a coder or an activist at some point you've probably asked yourself whether what you are doing is legal.  On September 8 please join us at the W2 Atrium (SFU Woodward's) when some dancers, artists, even a lawyer or a few,  Laura Murray (musician, creator, academic, mother and founder of faircopyright.ca and co-author of 

The Future of Art

Yesterday I heard Tony Clement, Minister of Industry on the CBC.  He was commenting on the CRTC decision to uphold usage based internet billing.  He claimed that his interest was in ensuring a menu of options for Canadians.  He also called upon Bell to share.  What is curious to me about these comments is that he seems deaf to the calls from artists to ensure some remunerative potential from digital access to their work in the form of some kind of levy.   Artists would also like a menu of options including support for their work, their spaces to create, and a royalty pool/or levy.

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