‘I believe that ideas, once expressed, become the common property of all’, said Sol LeWitt in 1973. These words open the exhibition catalogue for ‘Common Property’, a new group show at Jerwood Visual Arts curated by Hannah Pierce. Like walking through a Tumblr homepage – heaving with fan-art, glitch-gifs and pop – the show triggers questions about the ownership of culture and copyright in the age of CTRL + C.
While the replication of culture once meant hours of labour-time and expensive equipment, today’s technology enables the copying and dissemination of copyrighted materials like never before. Such infringements have been met with increasing retaliation. Algorithmic policing by online bots – what blogger and journalist Cory Doctorow calls ‘fully automated enforcement systems’ – can trace digital replicas almost instantly. Upload a 15-second Disney clip to YouTube and it will inevitably be found, removed and your account will be suspended. Copyright justice is both self-executing and swift.
The implications of copyright law for artists – the bricoleurs, the remixers – are huge. No more can an artist build a career from copying Campbell’s soup cans. In 2015, painter Luc Tuymans was successfully sued for plagiarism, after basing one of his paintings on an image taken by photographer Katrijn van Giel. The judge’s verdict was made on the grounds that the work was ‘too humourless to be parody’.
While it is technically possible to stay on the right side of copyright law if an image’s reuse amounts to ‘caricature, parody or pastiche’, these are largely subjective categories: what constitutes humour? irony? These are concerns explored by Common Property, as the featured artists respond, in different ways, to the parameters that copyright law sets in place. The show itself is a parody of the idea of parody – it is often absurd, sometimes vulgar, and nearly always playful.
The arbitrary nature of what does and doesn’t constitute a copyright infringement is superbly demonstrated in Danish artists’ group SUPERFLEX’s ‘Copy Right’. The work uses a replica of Arne Jacobsen’s Ant Chair as its base material, the commercial manufacture of which is widespread. A quick Google of the term ‘ant chair replica’ – just far removed enough from the original’s height and shape to avoid litigation – yields 53,000 results. Tongue firmly in cheek, SUPERFLEX has chipped away at one of these ‘replicas’, aiming to return the chair to its ‘original’ shape and height. By taking material away from its sides and legs, this newly emergent chair challenges the notion of authenticity. While theoretically closer to the original, this bootleg will always be exactly that. A nearly-but-not-quite.
Artist and hacker Rob Myers brings the logic of appropriation into the digital present. His ‘Sharable Readymades’ series uses 3D print to create miniature versions of appropriated works from art history, including Marcel Duchamp’s ‘Fountain’ and Jeff Koons’ ‘Puppy’. Small, and presumably cheap to make, these copies can be replicated any number of times. There’s no original here, no single high-value artwork – only cheap, abundant facsimiles.
One of the more wry works on display, Owen G. Parry’s ‘Larry!Monument’ explores the surprising tolerance to copyright infringement in the image-filled world of online fandom. ‘Larry!Monument’ is an homage to an imagined relationship between One Direction’s Harry Styles and Louis Tomlinson. This amalgam of scaffolding poles, found objects, doodle-drawings and a latex pregnancy belly has been carefully constructed with the same zeal one would expect from a committed Directioner. This is the obsessive bricolage of the superfan. While seemingly silly, it also feels a little sacred: a holy shrine to fan-tasy.
Hannah Knox’s site-specific installation also uses found objects, put together to create a large-scale ‘autostereogram’, or ‘magic-eye’ image. This clash of knitted patterns, wallpapers and cartoon eyeballs is visually striking, both in terms of its colour and scale. The duplicity of a ‘magic eye’ image – one moment one thing, and then later another – reflects the slipperiness of copyright more generally. Knox invites us to keep looking, to perhaps see things another way. What appears to protect an artist from the theft of their ‘intellectual property’ on closer inspection reveals something more troubling. The framing of an idea as ‘property’ changes the relationship we have with those ideas. An idea may belong to you, or to me, but never to all of us. It is this fallacy that ‘Common Property’ seeks to challenge. The show teeters along the line between parody and sincerity, and the results are often messy, or partial. But this incompleteness beckons others to pick up where they left off: to appropriate, propagate and disseminate.