Sunday, November 29, 2015

On recontextualization, repurposing, appropriation, and theft

Roy Lichtenstein, "Image Duplicator"; Jack Kirby, originator
In the literary world, it's called plagiarism, and ends careers - even if the work you plagiarized is your own; in the hip hop world, it's called biting, and gets you called out. Comedians who use other people's material are smeared as "joke thieves", and the label has been attached to stars as big as Robin Williams and Dennis Leary. But if you're a visual artist or a musician, it might make you a millionaire (with enough scratch to settle out of court once the aggrieved party finds out you've taken their work).

Seeing one of my blog posts in someone else's zine, used without my knowledge or permission, got me thinking a lot about when it's okay to use someone else's work without their consent; specifically, using existing work as source material in creating your own art or music.

I can understand why kids doing a punk zine might think taking someone else's work and sticking it in their little thing would be okay; punk has been appropriating others' work since its earliest days (and I don't just mean all the British bands that ripped off the Ramones). Crass artist-in-residence Gee Vaucher and Dead Kennedys' art accomplice Winston Smith both relied heavily on found images for their collage art. But creating collage art, pre-Photoshop, was actually as arduous a task as creating an original illustration - and I say this from experience. Like actors, the elements in a collage come together to play a role separate from their origins.

I come from the art world, where appropriation and repurposing are rampant.  Not that this approach is always applauded - Shepard Fairey became entangled in a legal imbroglio over his iconic HOPE poster, which was based on an image owned by the Associated Press. The issue was over copyright and the definition of "Fair Use", and not necessarily the originality of the work. Seemingly besides the point were the feelings of Mannie Garcia, the photographer who took the original image, on his work being used without his permission; but according to the Wall Street Journal, he was not pleased. "When I found out, I was disappointed in the fact that someone was able to go onto the Internet and take something that doesn't belong to them and then use it. That part of this whole story is crucial for people to understand: that simply because it's on the Internet doesn't mean it's free for the taking, and just because you can take it doesn't mean it belongs to you."

But Shepard Fairey's entire career his based on using other people's images. The authoritarian slogan "OBEY" was lifted from John Carpenter's They Live, and the image itself was taken from a newspaper, more or less at random. When he was an anonymous street artist, copyright law was probably a less pressing concern than getting caught by the cops and thrown in jail. But as his acclaim grew, to the point where he was part of one of the highest profile electoral campaigns in the world, the appropriation of copyrighted work became an issue.

I have to admit, I have similar issues in this regard: The title cards for interviews on this blog lean heavily on screen grabs from movies. My first Pretty Mouth interview used a frame from Deliverance (the movie which inspired the band's name), and my interview with Danny Kreutzfeldt of drone label Drowning used a still from Apocalypse Now. These are copyrighted works; and I definitely didn't get permission from John Boorman and Warner Bros or Francis Coppola and United Artists, respectively, for either one of those title cards.

Both title cards use recognizable images from popular works; and yet both are recognizably altered from their original sources. So what is it I've actually done - Recontextualizing? Repurposing? Appropriation? Outright theft? Are they all the same thing, or does a couple hours with Adobe software make a difference?

A quarter century before Fairey and OBEY, Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol made their careers (and, it has to be said, beaucoup bucks) taking existing work and putting them in new contexts. The comics world, as a whole, does not look favourably on Lichtenstein's blown up panels of comic art. In college I wrote a paper arguing that Lichtenstein's appropriation of comic art actually gave that under-appreciated medium legitimacy in the fine art world, and a renewed appreciation among snobby elites. It's not an opinion many share; comic artist Art Spiegelman is on record opining "Lichtenstein did no more or less for comics than Andy Warhol did for soup." Comic artists and their fans are notably hard on people who take the work of others. Crusades have been waged against artists like Rob Liefeld and Greg Land for their alleged "swipes" - that is, copying directly from photos, movies stills, and other comic artists.

Again, I have to admit I'm not blameless in this. When I was a working illustrator I'd take the time to shoot reference photos and create work from scratch, but these days I often find myself tracing things, often from recognizable sources.

So what does that make me - a swipe artist, like Greg Land, or a pop-culture savvy blogger drawing from zine culture's long tradition of appropriation? Does the appreciation of my audience matter if George Romero thinks I'm a no good dirty crook?

The only hip hop I listen to is 80's hip hop, when DJs would cut together samples from other people's records to use as the backbone of their songs. There was a practical reason to this: Based in urban areas like New York and Los Angeles, early hip hop pioneers rarely had the luxury of hiring musicians to play on their songs, or the space to rehearse with them. So, much like collage artists, the DJ would sample beats in other songs; usually no more than a few seconds. Even as a teenager, the recording industry's war on samples seemed less to do with creator's rights (something record labels pay lip service to but frequently trample themselves) and more about their own perceived loss of revenue. As hip hop became mainstream, it became de rigueur for rappers to hire studio musicians and sound-a-likes to re-record an entire song, replacing the original verses with their own but keeping the song structure and the choruses - which are frequently the most recognizable part of the song. Which is more creative, more original, and more recognizable as an original work - Public Enemy's "She Watch Channel Zero", which samples and loops a few seconds of a Slayer song (the catchy midsection of "Angel of Death", natch) or Eminem's "Sing for the Moment", which is basically just a re-recording of "Dream On" with different verses? The former is a collage; the latter, a swipe.

Likewise, early industrial music was sample-heavy; and even after Ministry and KMFDM made having a guitarist standard for industrial bands (and thereby kick-started the industrial/metal crossover), industrial bands would still build songs based on guitar samples. My favourite such album is Front Line Assembly's Millennium album, which took advantage of the band's signing to Roadrunner records to utilize Sepultura's Arise (and Hellraiser III) for samples. As a teenager, at a time when Sepultura was the greatest band in the world to me, this was possibly the best endorsement of industrial music (and sampling) I could get. Sepultura's thoughts on this unauthorized collaboration are sadly unreported; but Max Cavalera was involved in his own sample-heavy industrial(ish) project Nailbomb around the same time, so maybe he understood where FLA were coming from.

"Pilfering another artist’s work is how anyone making art begins. You start by shamelessly aping a style you admire, and then, after doing that for a long time, it might start to look or sound like yours," the AV Club wrote in a reasonable but troubling defense of plagiarism. "Artistic appropriation is not only part and parcel of the process of making art, it’s 99 percent of the process—and that never changes." Having been on both sides of the divide, I can see the arguments for and against. I have to admit that I've been cavalier in using existing images. But like the AP photographer whose work and talent became the basis for someone else's, I feel that simply because it's on the Internet doesn't mean it's free for the taking, and just because you can take it doesn't mean it belongs to you.

[I'm talking to you, Malaysia.]