Appropriation Not So Clear Cut in ‘Fair Use’

Exhibit at Altman Siegel in Dogpatch raises questions about the nature of intellectual property.

Appropriation is a hot topic in contemporary cultural discourse, with arguments for and against the practice on both sides of the aisle. Part of the issue’s complexity has to do with the fact that appropriation means something different based on the perpetrator: dehumanization when whites borrow the vogues of minority communities and oppressed cultures without enduring any of the hardship or taking responsibility for historical wrongdoing; empowerment when artists and activists repurpose the rhetoric of oppressive powers in order to critique them. 

In Fair Use: What’s Mine is Yours, on view at Altman Siegel in Dogpatch through Friday, seven artists interrogate the complexities of authorship, ownership, and originality, in a post-internet social landscape.

The exhibition’s title references the law of permissible appropriation of intellectual property. In the context of visual art, two figures spring to mind: Andy Warhol, whose redesigns of pop-culture memes such as the faces of Monroe or the singer Prince have become synonymous with the icons themselves; and Richard Prince, much of whose work consists of photographs liberally borrowed from popular advertisements. These appropriations were considered revolutionary postmodern maneuvers, coming under fire only in recent years. 

In 2019, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the 1981 ruling that Warhol had made fair use of Lynn Goldsmith’s original photo of the singer Prince. Richard Prince’s re-photography has caused him legal trouble, too. Most recently, his 2015 series of enlarged reproductions of posts from the Suicide Girls Instagram account, which showcases indie pin-up girls, spurred controversy.

In Fair Use, photographer Trevor Paglen enters boldly into the debate with Lenna: Empress of Invisible Images, Queen of the Internet, 2017, a 6’x2’ enlargement of model Lena Forsén’s November 1972 Playboy centerfold. The original photograph — itself referential of Johannes Vermeer’s Girl with the Pearl Earring — was one of the most widely used standard test images in computer processing from the 1970s onward. 

Paglen’s link in the chain of appropriation features his own touch: a pattern of circles and lines reminiscent of the Golden Ratio often used by Renaissance painters, suggesting that all art is in conversation, in both the immediate vernacular and the historical context. In 2019, Forsén stated that, while proud of her unexpected legacy in the field of computer engineering, she wished to have been better compensated for the picture’s use. In Forsén’s case, Playboy owned the image and licensed it; in the Richard Prince scandal, it quickly became clear that neither Prince nor Suicide Girls possessed the image rights they presumed: Facebook (Instagram’s parent company) claimed ownership.

Social media platforms offer users the ability to curate their self-image, with the caveat that they relinquish ownership over their authorship. ImageNet Roulette, a collaboration between Paglen and researcher Kate Crawford, is an interactive installation which invites viewers to take a picture of themselves via the webcam of a computer; the software then returns descriptors of the viewer based on Google image results. The installation warns viewers that the software often returns racist and insulting results because it relies on an uncensored database. This begs the question: At a time when we have absolute control over our digital presentation, how much control do we have over the way we are perceived? And who owns the rights to the me I present online?

Fair Use makes apparent the inseparability of appropriation from technology. Darren Bader’s photograph The 7th (and final) time I’m exhibiting this work is credited as a “Digital file; scalable wall vinyl/film.” The image itself is a minimal digital rendering of an urban landscape, perhaps an alleyway — a photograph filtered to near-abstraction. The title and materials list get at something essential about appropriated images: Their origins are abstract; their re-presentations take on many forms. 

Sara Van DerBeek’s Ancient Woman 2022x, 2021, shows how even traditional artforms relied on reference. The digital print shows a Classical sculpture repeated three times in Warhol-esque fashion, which Van DerBeek has remixed with the addition of blue watercolor. It is a reminder that Classical imagery has long constituted the basis of the art historical canon and points to technology as the driving factor of the dissemination of forms since ancient times: The appropriation of Greek sculptures by Roman artisans — perhaps one of the earliest cases of artistic copying — was fueled by technological revolutions in bronze casting.

While questions of originality have been a long-standing academic conversation in art, the current debate is marked by an emphasis on compensation or lack thereof — from Warhol refusing to credit Goldsmith, to IBM and Playboy refusing Forsén rights to her own image, to Facebook and Twitter mining and monetizing user data. In Blockchain Future State Fintech Gamer Case Mod Deal Toy: Backfeed x Ethereum, 2016, Simon Denny illustrates the issue and proposes reparations. The top half of the sculpture is a plexiglass computer case cocooning a futuristic, plastic butterfly; the lower half is another plexiglass box containing a wooden tombstone in a bed of lava rocks. 

The tombstone has been screen-printed with the word “Government” and two graphs, which illustrate the link between governing models and forms of commerce. Under global capitalism, Denny argues, tech is the dominant governing group. A list of utopic demands is printed on the computer case above: “Facebook owned by its users; A social operating system for decentralized organizations; Organizations decoupled from hierarchical structures.”By implicating viewers and their relationship to technology and appropriation, Fair Use forces us to consider our own roles in an all-encompassing economic model that has become inseparable from our modes of socialization. It is an insidious interpretation of a World Wide Web through which we are not connected for the greater good but rather tangled in corporate profit margins at the expense of our individual self possession. If Fair Use offers any solutions in addendum to its critique, they lie in showcasing the power of accepting one’s position within the apparatus so as to dismantle it from the inside. The revolution won’t be televised, but it might be reposted.

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