5/3 update: variant version of this post (an older version of the post but marked-up with hyperlinks) + other blog commentary from Joy Garnett @ newsgrist … liveblogging the meeting and this session
@ iptablog —
The Comedies of Fair Use meeting wrapped up a few hours ago. Among the best presentations were the art panel Saturday morning, in which Joy Garnett and Susan Meiselas each discussed their side of the incident that became known as JoyWar. (There were other panelists in this session too; for instance, Art Spiegelman, who was hilarious.)
“JoyWar” began when Joy Garnett appropriated a photograph she found on the Internet, and repainted it. Shortly after exhibiting it, she got a cease-and-desist letter from the photographer, Susan Meiselas. Joy’s art rapidly became a cause celebre among Internet artists and activists, who reposted Joy’s art and remixed it with many new works.
Susan and Joy had never met before the conference, but they both agreed to come and tell their story in a joint session.
Joy explained that she sought images on the Internet of people exhibiting strong emotions; she found the images, and then set them aside for a time, specifically seeking to decontextualize the images so she could later focus solely on their aesthetics. She then repainted the photo, and exhibited it as part of an exhibition called “Riot”. Mieselas’ photograph was perfect for Joy’s intended project: it showed a young man about to throw a molotov cocktail, an expression of intensity on his face.
Susan introduced herself by explaining that her goals as a photographer were precisely the opposite of Joy’s: That it was critical to her to contextualize the photograph, to embed the image in the subject, the historical and political moment in time. The photo, she explained, was of a young man on July 16, 1979, the night that Somoza was finally driven out of Nicaragua, and the Sandinistan revolution triumphed. The photograph of this young man in fact became emblematic of the entire movement, of the revolution itself, and was stenciled and appropriated by all kinds of people, with no objections (or permission) by Susan. Susan felt a strong social contract with the subjects of her photographs, and went back years later to contact them. This young man, it turned out, was still deeply committed to the movement.
The striking thing was the obvious pain that both women felt at the conflict. Though their artistic goals and methods clashed, both Susan and Joy were thoughtful and sincere. Susan, for instance, really seemed to feel that she was possibly “old-fashioned”; that she just didn’t get the new methods of appropriation. Joy, for her part, seemed to really appreciate Susan’s goals and interests; but stood firmly on her own principles. It really seemed in some respects a tragic conflict of interests, because, yes, Susan had real interests at stake. You couldn’t but respect Susan’s interests and the respect that she herself had for the subject of her work. I’m certain it took tremendous courage for Joy and Susan to come together in a public forum, after such a well-publicized conflict. And it’s a testament in particular to Susan’s courage and honesty that she presented her beliefs and reasons so articulately and passionately in the face of a potentially hostile audience.
The problem is that the interests Susan was seeking to uphold, through the tool of copyright, are not traditional copyright interests. Susan wasn’t particularly interested solely (or possibly at all) in trying to protect her licensing revenue. She was interested, rather, in protecting her right to be custodian of the image: an interest that isn’t even captured in moral rights as defined in Europe.
At the end of the day, Hank Shocklee, of Public Enemy, gave a “times they are a’changing” / “to the barricades, comrades” speech: He basically said that the old models of control are dead. It was a great moment, and I hope it’s true. There’s no question that we are paying too high a cost right now from excessive control over information. We are losing works, we are losing consumer rights, we are losing new forms of artistic expression.
But with every change, there are costs. Those who control information sometimes do it for a good reason. The hypertrophic growth of copyright law (as Jamie Boyle put it) has harmed the essential purpose of copyright law, the encouragement of creativity. But that same hypertrophic, harmful growth, nevertheless allowed Susan to pursue other interests not well protected in any other way: privacy, dignity, trust, political context and memory. I hope we find other ways — human, person-to-person ways — to protect those interests; they were never well served by copyright anyway. But it’s important to count the costs as well as the benefits for every change. I’m incredibly grateful I had the opportunity to see Susan and Joy speaking together so that I could see and hear the messy human values and reasons behind the legal conflict.