As the editors of Art Practical and Daily Serving get ready to take their end-of-summer vacations, we find ourselves swapping reading lists—the articles we’ll dive into once have some uninterrupted time to catch up on what our colleagues have been writing. We’ve gotten so excited about what’s on our lists that we want to share them with our readers. Between now and Labor Day, Daily Serving will feature the efforts of our fellow chroniclers of art and culture as part of our Summer Reading series. Today we are pleased to bring you an excerpt of Sean Joseph Patrick Carney’s in-depth case study on “the ethics of lateral appropriation.” This article was originally published in January 2013 on the Portland art site Justice League PDX, and we thank the editor and the author for making this series possible. Enjoy!
Every artist who is under the age of forty that I know of, or know personally, appropriates quite regularly in their practice. It’s a result of myriad factors, perhaps the most obvious of which is the ubiquity of the internet as a matter-of-fact aspect of our everyday lives. I, too, regularly appropriate images, video, and sound elements from popular culture into my own work and rarely think twice about the larger implications of these actions. When an idea or image reaches a certain level of public visibility or cultural presence, it is, in my opinion, open for fair use. Perhaps what gives me peace in regards to this is that I feel that the action of appropriation is evident in my second-usage; nobody is likely to assume that I’m claiming that I shot footage of dozens of infants learning to swim, or that I am the composer who created the ludicrous “duhn, duhn” sound from Law & Order.
Appropriation is generally deemed ethical when the original work is transformed in some capacity. There’s much debate about what constitutes transformation, exactly, but I’ve always considered that recontextualization itself is tantamount to transformation. At the heart of recontextualization is an understanding of the original context from which an image or idea comes, and an intentional change of context by the artist. It’s fair to say that even the smallest change can give something an entirely different meaning, and much of the history of contemporary art is hinged on artists doing just that. The digital realm is a seemingly limitless expanse of fodder for future appropriations, and many of us comb it regularly in the pursuit of things to sample, remix, rework, and ultimately recontextualize. The assumption though, that whatever is online is fair game, does, in some instances, create problematic situations.
One such situation arose recently when Estonian-born, Netherlands- and Berlin-based visual artist Katja Novitskova appropriated an image from Montenegrin-born, United States-based visual artist Darja Bajagic and exhibited the work in an exhibition, MACRO EXPANSION, at Kraupa-Tuskany in Berlin in November of 2012. The image used was not originally credited to Bajagic in the context of Novitskova’s exhibition, causing a tension between the two artists and raising some germane questions about the way that we as visual artists reemploy imagery and ideas. For context, it is relevant to note that Novitskova encountered the image in the feed of her Tumblr dashboard–the interface of the social networking micro-blogging site on which the aggregated content of a user’s followed blogs appears.