By Zedeck Siew
Zedeck Siew the Kakiseni Scatterbot trawls the internet to find interesting art and culture beyond our shores, virtual or otherwise.
In 2002, the publisher of the Harlequin and Mills & Boon romance novels threatened to sue Ukranian-Canadian artist Natalka Husar, whose Blond With Dark Roots series morphed 1950s and 60s Harlequin romance novel covers into commentaries on the Ukranian immigrant condition. These Husar Romances retained, however, the novels’ original titles (Meet Me in Istanbul; The Wide Fields of Home) and their distinctive diamond-shaped insignias. Harlequin Enterprises Ltd claims that Husar was “violating the moral rights of its authors, artists and editors.”
Blond With Dark Roots currently travels with the Illegal Art: Freedom of Expression in the Corporate Age exhibition, which features a wide range of video, visual and audio work from various artists: “the ‘degenerate art’ of a corporate age: art and ideas on the legal fringes of intellectual property.” Curated by Brooklyn-based anti-corpocracy media literacy magazine Stay Free!, the exhibition selects work from the last two decades, most of them having previously been points of litigation.
Illegal Art records the unfortunate history of experimental music and sound collage band Negativland’s 1991 single “U2” (which was “sued out of existence” by Island Records) and subsequent efforts to document their experiences in court – including The Letter U and the Numeral 2 (1992; “also sued out of existence”) and Fair Use: The Story of the Letter U and the Numeral 2 (1995; not sued out of existence), both book-plus-CD releases, and 10th anniversary retrospective bootleg These Guys Are from England and Who gives a Shit (“not (yet) sued out of existence”).
Illegal Art also celebrates Chicago artist Michael Hernandez de Luna, whose Viagra and Prozac postage stamps score a double-bingo: not only do they reproduce trademarked designs for those drugs without permission, they have fooled the US Postal Service: de Luna and partner-in-crime Michael Thompson exhibit their stamps (that portray everything from bare breasts to the sinking of Titanic) on envelopes complete with cancellation marks, indicating successful transactions through more than a few countries.
Not intending to address copyright law and its stifling effect on creativity directly, de Luna says his postage stamp art is purely for humorous fun, but “there’s all degrees of humor, you’ve got proper humor and there’s really tasteless humor. And I do it all. Sept 11 brought a lot of real ugly stuff to the surface, and it seems like they’re just making a lot of policy to just tap into their ego.”
de Luna’s last sentence is an indication that not everyone is laughing – in 2001 he came under investigation by the Illinois State Police for allegedly posting a letter with a 34-cent stamp depicting a black skull and crossbones design, and the word ‘Anthrax’.
Natalka Husar’s Blond With Dark Roots sits in a rather amorphous genre known as altered books – “any book, old or new that has been recycled by creative means into a work of art,” as defined by the International Society of Altered Book Artists website. “They can be … rebound, painted, cut, burned, folded, added to, collaged in, gold-leafed, rubber stamped, drilled or otherwise adorned … and yes! it is legal!”
Matters of law aside, altered books enjoy growing appeal among would-be hobbyists due to its non-threatening arts-and-crafts nature: there are peppy how-to introductions, internet community groups with “positive, supportive environments” and “members of all ages,” and round-robin events where hapless, eviscerated books are shuffled between community schools.
Trawling through any one of the photo albums online yield treats – stuff like this, relaxed and esoteric as it is, is difficult to dislike. Book alteration has spawned a subcategory, where pages are altered so that bits of text are recombined to create verse. Found poetry and other such bibliophilic serendipities should be familiar to anyone who has stared at paragraphs in a boring textbook and seen an outline of a face appear from a pattern of spaces.
Perhaps the best example of an altered book is A Humument, “eternally a work in progress,” by British artist Tom Phillips. Begun in the 1960s, Philips took Victorian author William Hurrell Mallock’s A Human Document, painted, collaged or drew over its pages, and by way of original text bits left peeking out of speech bubbles, ‘found’ a completely different story: that of unrequited love and the struggle to appreciate art. Since it was published in 1970, every new edition of A Humument contains new variations of the source novel in the spirit of post-modern revisionism.
More peripherally is Caryl Burtner’s The Exorcism of Page Thirteen, created by cutting out the page number and surrounding text of every 13th page in Burtner’s library, and arranging the pieces into grids; and Jim Rosenau’s bookshelves, made from actual books.
Altered books, the ISABA claim, are a direct descendent of the medieval practice where monks appropriate old manuscripts, scrape the words off, and use them for new texts – palimpsests, a famous example of which is the Archimedes Palimpsest, a 10th century codex of the mathematician’s work that was unbound, washed, folded, rebound and reused for a 12th century liturgical text.
*Preen* is a fashion label by designer Aimee Weber. Her designs are standard urban fare, samplings, predominantly goth, from the New York City alternative subculture. In this October 2004 feature on weblog New World Notes, Weber describes her process:
“Well, it normally starts with me seeing stuff I like in the streets. I also keep a digital camera in my purse, in case I see something cool, like a building front, or a dumpster, or cloth pattern I like. And I just collect all these textures. I have them all over my computer. Then when I see a fashion I like, maybe a chickie with a cool skirt on the subway, something urban chic, I go home, I try to find textures that come close … So then I put the pieces together, do a bunch of shading, coloring, transforming. Each clothing item takes maybe four to five uploads before I am happy with it.”
As you already suspect, clothes of the Preen label are not items you can actually wear in Real Life; they exist exclusively in Second Life, an opened-ended virtual playground / community, created by San Francisco-based Linden Lab. Weber not only designs virtual clothing – she has also created an exact replica of the Empire State Building; and Bellevue, a facsimile of a pub of the same name in Hell’s Kitchen, complete with textures of used syringes.
Encouraged by Linden’s relatively easy-to-use script and their policy of allowing users to retain intellectual property rights for the objects that they create, Second Life residents (population: 60 000+) appear to have this unbridled urge to recreate elements of material existence in cyberspace. It helps that Linden dollars (in-game currency) is exchangeable for hard USD (and vice-versa) through brokers such as IGE; it now generates up to USD 500 000 worth of economic activity per week. But buying and selling aren’t the only things that happen in Second Life’s landscape: there have been full-blown weddings: even a war (only resolved, like most real-life wars, because of attrition).
The above entries are taken from the weblog New World Notes, maintained by freelance writer and embedded journalist Wagner James Au. Other biogs exist: there’s Second Language, a community blog recording events and concerns; Huns Valen’s blog. focusing on the virtual world and its relation to technological singularity: and Hiro Pendragon’s Second Tense, a continuous meditation on the technology of that burgeoning metaverse (notably, Second Life has already attracted comparison to visionary author and geek favourite Neal Stephenson’s Metaverse – Metaverse itself having spawned a directly inspired 3D-avatar application for browsing the internet, Active Worlds).
Wikipedia’s entry wryly comments that these blogs are seeing “users detail their Second Lives, sometimes more extensively than their first.” The phenomenon has, however, attracted significant academic interest: for his work on Second Life, James Au has been interviewed by the BBC and Associated Press, among others, and has lectured at events such as The Education Arcade (sponsored by MIT) and State of Play (sponsored by Yale and New York Law School). Possessing Barbie, a significant piece in the New Gaming Journalism movement, details the author’s ethical meditations on cyber-foreplay in virtual-chatroom There (Therebucks also exchange for US currency).
Second Life’s more gamerly cousins, massive multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs), have communities that rival the populations of some real-world nations – the most popular, World of Warcraft (4 million) is almost equal in size to Singapore (4.4 million) and certainly growing faster.
The genre is certainly not without its own occurrences: this PvP cartoon describes a WoW glitch that may be the first instance of virtual infectious disease; China has legislated internet regulation that will prevent gamers from playing online games for more than three hours – Slashdot.org speculates that the move is in reaction to this South Korean tragedy: The Sims Online has been subject to numerous newspaper features about its darker sides, which include prostitution: and then, there’s the very fact that this exists.
First Published: 07.10.2005 on Kakiseni