LivingArts: Public Art vs. The Internet

In our post-internet age (the latest phrase to catch on with artists), any artist who wants to have a serious career has a web presence that may include a webpage, an Instagram account, a YouTube channel, a Facebook page, and whatever new social media is the flavour of the month. There is no question that the internet is a tool for disseminating your work and provides quick access to your portfolio for art lovers and art professionals.

As an artist I have benefited from having a current webpage and an Instagram account – it has led to exhibitions and sales of artwork. Perhaps most importantly, my web presence is an opportunity to share my research and engage in a discourse with artists who I might not have otherwise met. However, the internet is not all sunshine and lollipops for artists; it can also have a negative impact when it comes to copyright and intellectual property. There can be cases of plagiarism of an artist’s work (as recently happened to me, but more on that in a future post), but more likely is the unauthorized use of an artist’s images.

In recent months I have had people send me links to images and posts featuring my work without crediting me as the artist. The public art I create does not immediately reveal itself as sculpture, but instead I seek to insert an anomaly into the viewer’s experience of the everyday. The context of the public setting and the lack of institutional signifiers such as pedestals or signage allows the viewer to experience the work in the same way they approach common objects. This is central to my approach as an artist, and I have always found it interesting that when a viewer first interacts with my work they often reach for their cellphone and snap a picture. Disregarding for the moment what this says about our culture of mediated experiences and not living in the present, this process of documentation launches the work into the virtual realm where I have no control over how the image is used, presented, manipulated.

Recently a colleague forwarded me the following image that she had sent to her via Facebook – the image is of a piece of my sculpture from 2011 titled Passenger, edited in someone’s attempt to create an internet ‘meme.’

Some fellow artists were concerned that someone had manipulated and approriated my artwork. To be honest, I am a little unclear as to what a ‘meme’ actually is (I hear it has something to do with grumpy cats) and I do not think it is worth my time to engage with this issue. As an artist who makes work for public consumption, I accept that when I present my work in a public setting I relinquish a degree of control over how that work is preceived and re-produced. In the case of this (failed) meme, I see it as the work taking on a life of its own, beyond me, and it would be futile to assume that, as the author, I can control how the image will be used. I have also seen my work pop up unattributed on Reddit under the discussion thread ‘that won’t buff out’ (see image below).

Of course the uses I am referring to here are non-commercial, and I draw the line when someone atempts to use reproductions of my works for commercial gain. I have had to issue legal threats to bands that use images of my work on their album covers without permission. Last summer I found out that an Australian documentry company used the following image in a TV show about space junk falling to earth. The image is in fact a sculpture titled Northern Satellite that I created in 2009. The TV producers found an  image of the sculpture online (presumeably through a Google image search) and assuming the crash was legitimate used the image. Needless to say when I contacted them and illuminated their error they were sufficently embarrassed. 

Perhaps the weirdiest example is a completely banal YouTube video of gamers talking about gaming that uses an image of my work Dead Astronaut ( https://youtu.be/sNNQYlp2Dkc?t=7m11s, see the 7minute 11 second mark). The truly weird aspect of this example is that unbeknownst to the video’s creators, the sculpture is reportedly now owned by one of the inventors of YouTube, who saw an image of the work online and bought it over the internet – in some ways like a lopsided circle completing itself.