Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Cloudlike: The Morals of Appropriation of Contemporary Artworks

Disclaimer: I work for and with the Nuit Blanche Calgary organization, but they didn’t pay or ask me to post this. Similarly, these views are my own, and not necessarily theirs. It also doesn’t represent the views of the artists — I’m just a fan.

In 2012, a hard-working team made possible the very first Nuit Blanche festival to be held in Calgary. As Nuit Blanche is a nighttime event held outdoors, artists will approach creating works specifically for it in a different way than they would if the work were to be shown in a white cube gallery. It was with this in mind that Caitlind Brown and Wayne Garrett created Cloud.

Since its debut at Nuit Blanche Calgary 2012, this sculpture has gone on to tour the world, stopping in the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, and Russia. The artists were also asked to build a derivative work for the ceiling of Progress Bar in Chicago, though the pull strings were replaced with motion sensors.

With that in mind, it’s clearl that while Brown and Garrett don’t have Damien Hirst levels of art world fame, this work has been fairly successful for them. But with success comes those wishing to mimic it — in this case, Disney and IBM.

Top image from the Disney Institute; bottom image from an IBM e-card.

The top image is a screenshot from the Disney Institute homepage, a business strategy consultancy company which offers tips and advice based on the myriad companies Disney also owns. The bottom image is from a public greeting card which IBM released at the end of 2013. And I think it’s safe to say that both of these were inspired by Cloud.

Cloud is a distinctive sculpture. It’s comprised of a vast cluster of lightbulbs in a recognizable shape. Each bulb has an individual control string, and the sculpture is suspended above the viewers’ heads. The only remotely similar preceding work that I can find is the ceiling of the Terrace at Gramercy Park Hotel, but it lacks a recognizable shape and the individual controls of the drawstrings. It’s most similar to the Cloud Ceiling installation at Progress Bar.

These two ads imitate the critical qualities that make Cloud so distinctive: they’re clusters of lightbulbs in recognizable forms, suspended above the wondrous faces of observers with drawstrings for them to control the lights.

I’m fairly familiar with appropriating the works of others. It’s a core tenet of my practice, informed somewhat by my hesitance to contribute to the rapidly-multiplying mass of “stuff” we create. To appropriate ethically requires caution, discipline, and substantial research. It’s much more ethically robust to appropriate a work which is widely-known because it’s clearer who the original author is.

In my writings — as with the writings on many tech-centric weblogs in the past few years — I frequently touch on intellectual property issues. In the cases I usually cover, it’s between two giant companies fighting over what they perceive to be innovations which define their products. But this about two giant companies using the ideas of a distinctive artwork. And, while the original sculpture was fairly well-known and the artists well-renowned, it hasn’t approached the iconic, infamous nature of something like Damien Hirst’s “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living” — you know, the shark piece. Therefore, the ownership and authorship of the original artwork remains fragile in the public eye.

More worrying than that, though, is the impression that artists creating valuable, original concepts are susceptible to those concepts being ripped off by companies who should know better, and who have the means to license these works. It would be the moral thing to do.

Chris Turner also wrote about this for Hazlitt, and I highly recommend reading it. It’s a great piece which investigates similar issues, and which I only found while writing this one.