Copyright doesn’t sound like the most gripping of subjects. But in the post-digital world of cut’n’paste art making, practitioners are increasingly having to engage with its terms and technicalities. And some of the work that’s emerging from that engagement is fascinating, as the latest Jerwood Visual Arts exhibition Common Property at the Jerwood Space in London demonstrates.
‘The plagiarism and copyright trials of the twenty-first century are what the obscenity trials were to the twentieth century. These are really the issues of our time.’ So says Kenneth Goldsmith, creator of UbuWeb.
And judging by the work on display in Common Property in Bankside, London, copyright is both something that artists working today need to know about for practical and legal reasons (stay out of jail, kids!) and—more cheerfully—something that may prove a spur to their creativity.
‘The exhibition looks at how contemporary artists are navigating and questioning copyright reservations, and also finding out how it impacts on how they’re making and disseminating their work,’ explains curator Hannah Pierce. ‘I’ve never received any formal training or education in copyright, and I think this reflects the experience of most artists and curators.’ Common Property seeks to fill in some of the blanks.
As Pierce’s essay in the show catalogue says: ‘The work… illustrates the ambiguity of copyright and challenges the binary notion of the “original work” and “the copy”.’ Among the exhibits are three-dimensional models of iconic artworks by Rob Myers (a Magrittean pipe, a Duchampian urinal), as well as SUPERFLEX’s modified replica of an Arne Jacobsen chair that ‘corrects’ a commercial knock-off to replicate more accurately Jacobsen’s original. The work is suggestively called Copy Right.
Pierce’s essay observes: ‘copyright has exponentially grown in importance over the past twenty years, in parallel with fundamental shifts in the way information is exchanged, and how artists circulate their work.’
Few artists better exemplify these shifts than Antonio Roberts, a 30-year-old artist based in Birmingham who has created a series of digital works from sampled sources to share online. He has a commissioned piece in the show tellingly titled Transformative Use. It consists of a mosaic of colourful bits of wall-mounted vinyl whose outlines hint at elements of well-known cartoon characters—including a distinctive mouse profile—overlaid with a digital projection of an animated Disney film. Not that you’ll necessarily be able to recognize the latter, as Roberts has made his own version of it by opening the original in a text file, where it presented itself as a series of 1s and 0s, and typing into it haphazardly to generate a new, randomized glitch-art variation which constitutes, as the title insists, a non-copyright-infringing ‘transformative use’ of the source. (Somewhat controversially, Mickey Mouse remains in copyright nearly 90 years after his first appearance on screen. The first copyright relating to artworks in the UK was for 14 years. Lobbying from powerful interest groups has since extended that to ‘life plus 70 years’ for individual artists and 95 years for works by corporate groups. Is that in the public interest?)
‘It’s a homage but also a protest,’ Roberts says. ‘Mickey Mouse should be in the public domain by now.’
He’s made a second work similarly positioned to probe the limits of current copyright legislation. This consists of four video monitors, each showing a different-coloured screen and, when you clamp the attached headphones on your (Mickey Mouse) ears, each carrying a different—though, again, not necessarily recognizable—soundtrack derived from songs involved in famous copyright challenges: ‘I Disappear’ by Metallica, ‘Blurred Lines’ by Robin Thicke, ‘My Sweet Lord’ by George Harrison and ‘Ice Ice Baby’ by Vanilla Ice. Each of the songs has featured in a high-profile copyright challenge: the latter three for borrowing without permission or acknowledgement from earlier works, the first for its part in a legal action mounted against the file-sharing site Napster. Roberts developed his own software programme to convert each copyright-infringing or –infringed track’s ‘essential DNA’, first into an image file, and then into a remixed audio file, to pose an awkward question: does this constitute an unauthorized, copyright-infringing performance?
Roberts mentions the ‘Amen Break’, a six-second drum loop taken from a 1960s recording by the funk and soul group The Winstons which, according to whosampled.com, has been sampled 1,862 times since—without a single royalty or clearance payment being made to the original musicians for its use. ‘It’s basically been in every hip-hop song since the Eighties,’ says Roberts, who is pleased that a recent crowdfunding campaign raised £24,000 for the Winstons’ frontman Richard Spencer. At the same time he’s clear that artists and musicians should be allowed to work more freely with copyright-protected sources where the uses are, to repeat the term mentioned above and employed in the courts (just in case you find yourself summoned), ‘transformative’. ‘It’s not plagiarism,’ he says. ‘It’s cutting and pasting. Culture is made in that way. People take it and morph it into something new. If you had to pay for everything, it would be impossible.’
Owen G. Parry meanwhile has contributed the Larry!Monument, which was inspired by fan fiction about the boy band One Direction, and specifically the relationship between band members Louis and Harry—aka ‘Larry’.
‘Fans produce a lot of material themselves; they are actually creators. The distinction between an artist and a fan is very blurry these days,’ Parry says. ‘I was looking at how my own practice, my own history of making work, has often been fan-related. Everything I’ve done has been completely inspired by other artists and been in a fan relationship to those people. Fans end up forgetting about One Direction and getting involved in this thing which is ultimately really creative. They produce something completely new out of something that’s marketed to them.
‘Fan fiction goes beyond parody,’ he continues. ‘It’s much more complex. Fandom happens within commercial culture. It’s not against it, it’s not in an antagonistic relationship with it. It goes right to the heart of that commercial thing; fans make it their own. They create their own fantasies out of what is marketed to them, and there’s no end to those fantasies and versions.’
‘Common Property’ continues until 21 February. There will be a curator-led exhibition tour and a performance by Antonio Roberts on 15 February at 6.30. Photo credit: Hydar Dewachi.