One of the classes I’m taking at ITP is “Video and Sound”.  For our second class, we were assigned three articles that dealt with issues of art “ownership” – who owns “art” and what does that mean for those who are inspired by it?

The first was a NY Times article entitled, “Record Industry Braces for Artists’ Battles Over Rights”.  Copyright law was revised in the 1970s to include clause that granted termination rights to artists, meaning that after a significant period of time had passed (in this case, 35 years), the artist, not the record company, would have the chance to regain ownership over their work.  As it becomes less and less relevant, the recording industry is struggling to maintain cashflow and significance in a world where their services are no longer needed.  Needless to say, they are fighting back against artists who wish to “take back” ownership of their money-making tracks.  The companies are doing whatever it takes to maintain that they are the rightful owners of such hit as “Bad Girls” by Donna Summer or Billy Joel’s “52nd Street”.  The RIAA has even claimed that these artists were “workers for hire”, reducing the task or songwriting and recording to an uninspired, simplistic task.

After watching at least a few mockumentaries, documentaries, and biopic about bands “making it big”, I definitely recall the necessary evil nature of all recording companies portrayed.  Record companies were at one point the only avenue to making it big and doing what you love for a career.  Of course artists were selling their souls and the rights to their beloved songs for at least the next 35 years!  What other choice did they have?  Honestly, I don’t completely blame Billy Joel and his ilk for trying to regain ownership.  In today’s world, Billy Joel could’ve made a sweet YouTube video and circumvented the Big Meanies!  Because distribution is such a cinch (much to the chagrin of the aforementioned record companies), everyday folk can simply upload their latest creations to the internet.  Of course, putting your content out so freely also leaves you at risks for pirates, copycats, and plagiarists, an artist’s worst nightmare, second only to the Evil Record Companies.

In “The Ecstasy of Influence”, Jonathan Lethem constructs an essay via plagarism – everything from the title onward is a slight modification, rewording, or even outright copy and paste job from a previous work.  His point?  He points out that being influenced is an inevitable reality.  Our culture often thinks of artists as “creative geniuses”.  These geniuses are thought to funnel creativity juice from the untarnished, uninfluenced vacuum in their soul and pour it out for others to admire and appreciate (within reason, and as long as they are not Copying).  They must be “original”, which usually translates to completely without external inspiration.  As Lethem points out, many well-known artists (such as Bob Dylan) borrow liberally from other cultural sources.  In doing so, they often invigorate archaic, lesser-known works and make them relevant in a modern context.  He feels that we should move towards a “gift economy” mindset, seeing artistic works as public presents that are intended to provoke response in the public, including through the medium of reworking.

After reading this article, I was very much reminded of our most recent talk in Red’s Applications class.  Margaret Gould Stewart, the head of the user experience team at YouTube, gave a wonderful talk about designing for the public.  Instead of seeing creativity as a one-person, individualistic experience, she encouraged the design of Lego-style objects and platforms that harness global creativity.  YouTube is of course a prime example of this kind of design, and promotes the unabashed borrowing that Lethem illustrates and promotes.  In her talk, Stewart discussed the many fan-made music videos that paid homage to artists while simultaneously infringing on copyright laws.  Some artists, instead of being offended that their “art” was being ripped off, were gracious that their work had touched so many people.  Consider Blink-182, who created a montage of fan-made videos for a recent Official Music Video for one of their singles.

I confess that I’m neither a musician nor a writer (at this point anyway), but nonetheless I too grab ideas from a patchwork of sources.  In my case, I feel that there is no ambiguity – I am encouraged to borrow from others.  Instructables.com is probably my favorite website, a place I visit to either directly copy ideas from others, or modify them to suit my purposes.  In this case, many items on Instructables.com are more “craft” than art piece, but some Instructables are surely beautiful enough to warrant a feeling of possessiveness from their creators.  Instructables is a wonderful, circular kind of inspiration.  People learn to create by reading detailed how-to guides, then improve and change original ideas and in turn post a modified instructable.  One simple example is the “LED throwie” – it was originally created as a magnet/LED/coin cell battery combo that could be thrown to create art.  One user modified the “throwie” idea to create the “floatie” – an LED/coin cell battery contained inside of a helium-filled balloon.

From throwies…

To floaties…

Another website that facilitates “borrowing” is for the language, Scratch.  Scratch is a visual programming language designed for kids.  It allows its young users to create games, stories, and whatever else they can think of.  The Scratch website serves as an online community and gallery for Scratchers, letting them show off their latest creations and view and explore the works of others.

The Scratch community encourages users to “remix” other Scratchers’ projects.  The code for every uploaded project is available for download, encouraging users to discover the method behind another’s madness.  On the Scratch main page, there is even a section for “Featured Remixes” which stands right along side featured original work.  Many original artists  even encourage others to remix, often to improve their original work or gain more popularity.

I suppose I agree with Lethem in that I view modification as a loving tribute to the original artist as well as “training wheels” for budding creators.  For me, modification and imitation is a natural step in the process of becoming an artist.  In the beginning, you borrow heavily from your inspirations.  As you grow, you have likely been exposed to a wider variety of inspiring sources – your art still borrows, but more subtly because the the borrowed fragments become more fine-grained with each new inspiration.  As someone who hopes to create art with technology, I can’t even attempt to pretend that my art does not build upon others.  Finding and building example circuits and modifying snippets of pre-written code are all tools of the trade!  My question is why are there websites like Instructables that encourage remixing of craft and technology, but not music?  Why is that different from anything else?

In the third article, “On the Rights of Molotov Man”, two artists explain the story of their artworks, both of which centered around a man holding a Molotov cocktail.  The first artist, Susan Meiselas, photographed the man in Nicaragua in July of 1979.  To her, he was a man throwing a bomb on the eve of the departure of the Somoza family which had been ruling Nicaragua since the second world war.  Her art was inseparable from its context; the context was the art.  For Joy Garnett, Molotov Man was an image that represented rage.  She found it on the internet, painted it, and featured it in her collection of other rage-inspired paintings.  In separating Molotov Man from his Nicaraguan beginnings, Garnett allowed him to be appropriated for every use and cause.  Now Molotov Man was the symbol of a feeling, not a specific cause.  The original intention behind Meisalas’ art was lost, or rather, transformed, as Molotov Man appeared on t-shirts, spray-painted on walls, and even Christian tracts.

Undoubtedly because of our unique backgrounds and experiences, not every “remix” will have the same sentiment as the original work.  If one has no knowledge that parts of a work were “borrowed”, then of course the original art can get lost in the process.  I’m not pretending to have a solution for this.  Mostly I think that the benefits outweigh the costs.  I think artists should put themselves out there and let there work be borrowed for non-commercial use.  Our world is rapidly changing, so should art!

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