Friday, January 27, 2012

Of Monsters, Copyright, and Control

Even as the semester gets off to a more hectic than usual start, I still find time to maintain a presence on Instagram.  The iPad has truly become my portable electronic "sketchbook," with photo editing and pixel pushing replacing my usual pen on paper practice.  Mourn that if you want, but I embrace anything that keeps my creative brain engaged and active...alive! 

Lately, I've found the horror fans on IG who like to edit with a darker sensibility (see especially the hashtags #appnormal and #horrorclub on IG).  I have a long-standing interest in horror as literary, theatrical and cinematic genre.  There is something enticing to me about a surreal aesthetic as visceral as it is playful, the gut-pull of gore and gross.  I subscribe to the notion that it is better to work these dark fantasies out on the page and stage, in words and images, than it is to do so on ourselves and each other.  Let us let off the fetid steam of our shadow-selves in art rather than actual violence.  Let us contemplate mortality as much with dark fantasy as with bright myths of redemption; let us not imagine these are mutually exclusive possibilities.

But there is something nibbling at my soul with my recent practice that yearns for some explanation as well as illustration.  Lately, I have been reworking a lot of images found at the open-source vintage photo archive, IndiCommons.  These images are in the public domain; they are expressly (though not primarily) made available for the aesthetic and ethic of Remix Culture. What I do here with these images is not illegal, in the strictest sense.

But is it defensible on other levels?  What does it mean to take the images of real people I have never known (but who are likely meaningful to their surviving descendents) and rework their visages in a grotesque aesthetic.  Is this a kind of "piracy," a visual violence and semiotic transgression that so much copyright or defamation legislation is meant to prevent?  How would I like it if my image were similarly distressed and presented as the proud accomplishment of someone else's twisted imagination?

Let me answer that last question first: I welcome it!  I would be flattered.  And even if I were disturbed by the tenor of the edit (say, mocking my sexuality with homophobic stereotypes), I still welcome that impulse played out with pixels rather than, say, a tire iron in a back alley.  (Caveat:  Here I would, however,  mark a murky but important distinction between disturbing imagery and visual defamation targeted at an individual or minority group.)  But I don't simply say this as evidence of a cavalier attitude about my own image or some narcissistic notion that any publicity is good publicity. I remind myself that, despite our best proprietary efforts, we always have so little control over what is done with our images, our words, and what we think they mean when we release them into the chaos of our shared interactions with others.  Anything that reminds us of that fundamental truth in a regular, deep-knowing way is important.  

This practice of using what we find, to me, is a central tenet of Remix Culture.  This practice is not necessarily a form of piracy or visual defamation; rather, it is the way human creativity has always worked.  The notion of authorship and artistic ownership is a relatively recent invention of humanity.  No, I am not advocating that one simply take someone else's work and slap one's name on it and claim (and therefor profit from) it as one's own.  However, reworking an idea or even the work of someone else into something new is what we do, have always done, as a species with a highly developed sense of social organization.  Call it memes, call it culture! We not only create, we recreate -- we recycle the dead, sometimes before they are even dead. 

If you are disturbed by these images not so much because of the tropes of the horror genre but because of the sources they are built from, take a lesson from the strangeness you feel.  Think about the images you have put out there on the Web -- images of your children, your loved ones, your vacations, your home, yourself.  Know that in sharing them you have released them to the myriad practices of humanity; know that you have no control over how others are not only viewing them, but using them.  In some dark dungeon, some monster may be drooling over your image, seeking ghastly and uspeakable pleasures in ways you don't want to think about.

So.  Stop posting?  Stop sharing?  Try to figure out ways to lock your works up so they can only be viewed and used the way you intended?  Yeah, good luck with that.  Do so, and you may very well limit your ability to share or even view in the ways you have become accustomed -- you may well find yourself endorsing draconian and ill-conceived legislation like SOPA and PIPA.  And the thing is, even if you do so, the monsters will still be out there, lurking -- feeding their (our?) dark desires in so many other ways.

Rather, let go.  Don't stop worrying about the monsters, necessarily, but be more vigilante about them when they actually come out of their dungeons, when they threaten real damage to you and/or your loved ones.  For sure, try not to give them your address!  Share online only that which you would share in a public space.  Don't be seduced by illusions and false assurances of control.  Stop worrying about what others do with images, with words, that stopped being "yours" (if they ever truly were) the moment they were released into the public.  In your efforts to protect yourself, don't confuse the monsters with the artists...and try always to be the latter.

As for the laws regarding rights (copy- or otherwise), respect them or suffer the consequences.  This is always the case, even with stupid laws.  But fight the stupid ones.  For they, too, create monsters. 

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Variations on a Starbucks Coffee Cup

I've been playing around on Instagram, where a new friend (@ashcroft54 who blogs at posted a picture of a Starbuck's coffee cup and invited edits of the image. We call these invitations "challenges" or sometimes "pimps." It's a social media game that has been nourishing my soul lately. Here are a few of my edits:

My first inclination was to transform the logo into something else. The first thing that came to mind was the biohazard symbol. Don't know why, exactly. I like coffee. But it sometimes seems like a "toxic brew" to me. What followed? Well, something mutant-like, of course. Tentacles made sense. And from there, it only seemed right to tweak the visual style toward comicbook.

The next day, I was still captivated with the idea of tweaking the logo and seeing where that took me. I also felt the need for a visual pun. I grabbed an open source image of Kara Thrace (a.k.a. "Starbuck") from Battlestar Galactica. I then tweaked it into a few shades of green and a coffee-chain-esque art nouveau style. A few Cylon light-effects later and I had my take on a Starbuck Starbucks. So say we all!

Next day and I felt the need to keep the logo but lose the cup. I spent a lot of time isolating the logo and looking at it. Finally, the idea of plankton came to me, and I knew I had an idea worth playing with. It was also fun adding some different colors and offset depth to the flat green Starbucks logo.

Today, I started an edit based on removing the cup entirely and working with the grid pattern on the table top. Once I had the empty plane, I was at a loss for what to put on it. Then I happened to turn the logo upside down, and I saw the pig face in it. The rest was simply a matter of pulling that image out and giving the overall composition some engaging texture.

I am finding as the semester winds up that digital graphics are a way to relax and get out of my school brain. I'm loving the edit communities on Instagram. It took a while to find them, but now I am addicted -- which may or may not be a metaphor. But I love the touch screen as a tool and toy for seeing and re-seeing with my fingers. And in the end, they take me to magical places where creepy is most definitely cool.

Monday, January 2, 2012

New Year, New Possibilities

No question, 2011 was a bear of a year!  It was a year of overcommitment for me, and I let too many things fall by the wayside as I struggled and failed to meet too many of those commitments.  It was a year of loss, a year of struggle.  It had its high points, and they were great. But it had its deep, deep lows -- as much in the broad strokes as in the specific moments.

The year began with forcing my mother to deal with deteriorating mental capacity that required putting her, against her will, into a home.  It was soon followed by the sudden death of a close and young colleague, who went from diagnosis to death from cancer in under a month.  My old friend, writers block, returned with its usual neurotic and hard-to-explain-to-others inability to write in certain contexts.  It brought an unwanted friend, an excruciating difficulty with responding to students' writing that made me not very good at my job. It was the year I had to go on strike to protect that job, and in the process engaged in a polarizing social drama on my campus.  And it was a year where economic downturn served as the cover for retrograde policy on all the things that matter most to me and should matter most to all of us. 

But pain and frustration were not the only qualities of this year.  After all, it began with an engaging and successful social media art project that earned me a few lines in an ARTNews article this summer.  It was the year I had a regular comic strip for a few months until the collaborative blog died a mysterious death.  It was the year I used my cartooning and other talents to great effect for that strike effort.  It was the year I figured out Instagram and found an amazing online community of similarly-minded net artists.  It was the year I published an art comic in a literary journal.  It was a great year for travel and performance: Maine, New Mexico, North Carolina, Louisiana, Alaska.  It was the year my mother got a little better and managed to move herself into an assisted living community more to her liking.

I came into the holiday break flying on fumes, exhausted by the good and the bad of it all.  I made a minimal effort at holiday celebrations with the ones I love most.  Mostly, I hid in the bed covers, watched movies, and made art for my Instagram feed (the images in this post are a result of that holiday "labor").  I avoided leaving the house and going onto Facebook.  I told myself this was all necessary, that I needed the time off, the serious down-time.  I told myself it can't be all bad if I'm making art, right? 

The New Year is here, and I hope it will be better than the last.  I have a sabbatical coming (hopefully) in the second half of it.  I have arts projects (performance, comics, digital graphics, etc.) planned that I think will be fulfilling.  I get to teach a graduate seminar this spring that I am very excited about.  And at the end of the year looms the next great global fantasy of the end of the world -- or its great awakening into new consciousness. 

I write this today on my lunch break in my office at school.  I am digging in to try to catch-up and get over the the damage done last semester and last year.  But I pause to breathe, to resuscitate this blog, to make it my companion again for what I think, I hope will be a truly good year.   We are, all of us, damaged a bit by this world.  We are all of us making the best of it.  I remind myself that, while my end-of-year time of rest was needed and welcome, little else is achieved from isolation.  If 2012 is going to be a good year, we are going to have to make it so together.  So, I am back, rolling up my sleeves, ready to get to work. 

Call this the art of living.

Consider that an oblique yet hopeful resolution.