Abinadi Meza's installation, "The Burning Question" (Katherine Nash Gallery, Minneapolis, Minnesota, May 11 - June 4, 2004) explored Intellectual Property, Copyright, and the impact of property on culture. Visitors were provided with computers, blank CD's, and over 24 hours of copyleft audio works contributed by composers, musicians, and sound artists from around the world. As visitors generated playlists to burn themselves CD's, they also generated an Internet radio broadcast streamed from the gallery. The gallery becomes a studio/radio station and users become DJ's. The following text is Meza's essay for the show's catalog (download catalog pdf).
You do not really leave a library; if you do what it wants you to do, then you are taking it with you. – Elie Wiesel
How is culture linked to property? Every day we face the growing problem of exclusive control over art, music, computer technology, agriculture, medicine, and numerous other creative works. For artists, this question is quickly complicated by the need to protect one’s own work from exploitation and the desire to reach or affect a wide audience. As cultural participants our daily activities and creative gestures prove to be socio-political acts with global significance. As Joseph Beuys said, we make Social Sculpture as our ideas shape the world in which we live.
It is clear that those who profit the most from private control over creativity are deeply threatened by recent changes in our technological abilities. If we are able to communicate with others over vast geographic distances, we might also share artifacts and information freely, thereby undermining the primary motivation for commercial creativity—profit. Sadly, these profits are often paid by those without a voice in the dominant system of ownership and access.
A recent study by an Indian expert group examined 762 randomly selected U.S. patents, and found that out of these, 374 patents were based on traditional Indian medicine. This knowledge, accumulated over generations, is now claimed as exclusive Intellectual Property to be re-sold to the world by highly controlled (and foreign) systems of distribution.
Researchers at the University of Mississippi Medical Center tried to patent the use of turmeric in wound healing as their own novel discovery. An Indian challenge to this patent quickly provided 32 references (some more than one hundred years old and in Sanskrit, Urdu and Hindi), which showed that this use was well known in India prior to the filing of this patent. The patent claim was denied, and India created a Traditional Knowledge Digital Library to aid in future battles against the “biopiracy” of traditional knowledge by supra-national entities.
It is not shocking that the agenda of Intellectual Property is a hotly demanded (yet low profile) component of so-called “free” trade deals. American companies will gain an additional $61 billion a year from the Third World if copyright and patent payment demands are satisfied by agreements such as GATT and NAFTA. For Noam Chomsky, “Such measures are designed to insure that U.S.based corporations control the technology of the future, including biotechnology, which, it is hoped, will allow protected private enterprise to control health, agriculture and the means of life generally, locking the poor majority into dependence and hopelessness.”
The Nigerian author Chinua Achebe has said “Art is our constant effort to create for ourselves a different order of reality from that which is given to us.” Similarly, Beuys’ idea that the “concept of sculpting can be extended to the invisible materials used by everyone” proposes a hopeful and organic process by which culture can be made and understood. These ideas have been embraced, debated, altered, and improved upon by numerous creative thinkers responding to his statement. Here we have a wonderful demonstration of the copyleft model—that ideas or works are stimulated and improved upon through social circulation.
If appeals to openness and freedom sound utopian, consider that we Americans come from a tradition of free culture. Not “free” as in “free beer” (to quote Lawrence Lessig, quoting the founder of the free software movement), but “free” in the tradition of “free speech,” “free enterprise,” “free will,” and “free elections.” At one time these were all radical concepts. Lessig again—“free culture supports and protects creators and innovators. It does this directly by granting intellectual property rights. But it does so indirectly by limiting the reach of those rights...A free culture is not a culture without property, just as a free market is not a market in which everything is free. The opposite of a free culture is a “permission culture”—a culture in which creators get to create only with the permission of the powerful, or of creators from the past.”
I am happy to share with you an alternative model in this installation. Like Social Sculpture, you don’t literally have to be a visual artist to contribute. Simply by listening to music (an invisible, every-day material), you participate in an experiment with great potential.
These works are given by their authors under a copyleft license. In general, this license permits unrestricted redistribution and use of these works so long as all copies are attributed to the original author and the same permissions are granted to all derivative works. That means you can copy, share, broadcast, and in many cases even re-make these works into new creations. Some of this music has been retrieved from the past, avoiding exclusive control by entities who bear no valid claim to profit from these works or limit their social availability.
It is important to note that copyleft isn’t an either/or condition; the authors have not given up their own rights by sharing with you. They have simply added a degree of openness in the hope of generating more freedom and more creative works. Your thoughts on these issues are needed to explore and develop an even better model. Though these artists haven’t dismissed the economic value of their work, it is through these gestures of radical generosity that extreme corporate greed is countered. As Felix Gonzalez-Torres said, “I need a public to complete the work.” Here too, your participation brings the full poeisis of this work to light. As you use the materials of this installation they are not used up—the songs remain available to others, and the playlists you leave will be broadcast over the Internet as radio streams. As you burn these works you make them real.
click any of the above for printable 11" x 11" posters from the installation
listen to music from the installation
Abinadi Meza is a multimedia artist based in the Twin Cities, MN.