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. 


  1. I often think about quotations, and inspirations. remix culture - interesting!


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