Our panel: Marcus Boon moderating, Alexis Muirhead, Michael Maranda, Kenneth Goldsmith, M. NourbeSe Philip, and Sonja Ahlers talking. The topic: Appropriation, a.k.a. "stealing shit".
Marcus lays out a history of originality. It is not an original history but it will do. Originality didn't use to be so important. You know, medieval times. But then the Romantics. Also emerging at that time: copyright law and globalization! Also, the reaction against this isn't new: Dada appropriated, and appropriating African art. [I wonder: Nationalism? Dvořák? Messiaen, even?] Also: Communism took issue! But now, ach, DNA is being copyrighted. Anyway, Marcus wants to know what you do.
Alexis writes fanfic. She writes Due South fanfic. Some writers (Anne Rice) hate when their work is used for fanfic, some (J.K. Rowling) seem cool with it. Fanfic is female and queer and thus can fly under the radar -- some people just don't want to think about it! [I think about Todd Haynes finding out about fanfic after Velvet Goldmine came out and being surprised and delighted by the whole thing.]
Michael offers an artist's statement, but it's appropriated from someone else, which is to say it's a quote. From Italo Calvino. Then he talks about turmeric, as a traditional medicine that in 1995 was patented by a pharmaceutical company, but people complained, and it got overturned. He mentions many other legal cases. He has done his homework. It is interesting. He is soft-spoken. He wends from turmeric to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act and beyond.
Kenny says the internet writes better than writers. He makes an analogy: internet:writing::photography:painting. He says, some people are writing as if the internet never happened. He says this as if it is not a good thing, as if those writers are doing something wrong. He asks what writers are to do, now that the internet. He says, writers don't write, they organize.
NourbeSe ties appropriation in with academic practices and with the footnote. She ties appropriation with the 80s sense of inappropriate appropriation of voice, which was a bad thing. [Later I think: That was the most interesting connection anyone made, and no one went with it.] She has been writing from a text of a legal case involving an incident in which a ship's crew dumped slaves because they could make insurance money. She makes a metaphor involving the desiccated legal language of the original document and her attempt to replenish it with water, but water is where those people drowned.
Sonja also provides quotations as a sort of artist's statement, but she has several quotes, and presents them somewhat randomly. Her work, like Michael's, is also visual, though his is more fine art, and hers is more zine art, but now zine art is fine art. She makes, you might say, visual poetry collages. Also she lives in Whitehorse, which is in the Yukon. [I think: I thought that the Yukon, like the Ukraine, now prefers to be "the"-less, but perhaps not.] She likes to appropriate "gently". She likes to preserve the ephemeral, what would be forgotten anyways.
Is that everyone? Yes, but wait Kenny is reminded of when Warhol displayed his Brillo paintings and they were a huge success and he made lots of money and then the guy who designed the Brillo packaging came in and was pissed cause he was a frustrated abstract expressionist. Oh and also he is reminded of how a bunch of people came up with a silent music piece at around the same time but Cage got the credit and at some point he was asked about this and he said "I was the first to bring silence to the market" and isn't that ironic because Cage is a Zen Buddhist but here he is using market speak! [And I think: Oh, Kenny, you know Cage well enough to not actually find that ironic.]
OK, well, Marcus wants to know what signing your name is all about. How does that work, when you steal shit?
Sonja thinks that, now that her zine work is art work, signing her name means something different.
Kenny talks about economies. Some are functional (and make people money). Some are broken (and make people poetry). Ubu stuff doesn't make any money; it's part of the broken economy. There is a John Lennon piece on Ubu, but it is nothing anyone would pay for, so the Lennon estate don't seem to care. And what makes more money than Lennonania? But only in the legitimate economy. He says, once you leave the legitimate economy you learn that copyright law is an illusion.
OK, says Marcus, but that doesn't really get to my question about signing your name. You signed your name to Day, the book where you copied an entire issue of the New York Times. What was that about?
Kenny thinks that Day was the "greatest book ever written". More specifically, it was a newspaper, and Marshall McLuhan (or someone) thinks that any copy of a daily newspaper is the "greatest book ever written", so Kenny will appropriate that comment.
No one breaks out into fisticuffs.
NourbeSe didn't want to use her name on her book, the one about the drowned slaves. But there were economic issues involved, because the publisher could use her name to make more money, and she could use the money too. Kenny pops in with an O RLY?, surprised that she makes any money at all at poetry. Anyhoo, she and her publishers decided that they could say the book is "as told to the author by..." which nicely ties it in with slave narratives.
Michael signed his Kant-based book with his name, and his Melville-based book with Melville's name, and these days signs his name when someone else is publishing it, and doesn't if he's publishing it.
Kenny sent a copy of Day to the New York Times and believes they threw it out. Marcus brings up how Brian Kim Stefans did something with the New York Times, and Kenny tells about how Brian took the nytimes.com design and replaced all the content with anti-war texts, and he got a cease-and-desist. But it was more for stealing the look-and-feel rather than the content.
Alexis points out that she, like most fanfic authors, writes anonymously. There is, she says, a culture of fear in fanfic, because they could get ceases-and-desists or other legal action should CTV decide that they don't care for Due South fanfic. So they stay anonymous and write elaborate intros about how they don't own the characters, won't make any money off this, and are just in it for kicks. [But does Kenny "own" that edition of the New York Times? He might not have made any money off the book, but surely The Scream paid for his trip to Toronto, and probably gave him an honorarium as well, due in no small part to Day. How broken is Kenny's economy?]
Kenny asks Alexis if she is an amateur. She says she is. He asks if she considers it a hobby or does she think she has made a body of work. She thinks it's a body of work. She thinks it's literature, but she thinks most fanfic writers probably don't think that about their work. I think somewhere in here NourbeSe made a comment suggesting that anything you do that doesn't earn money could be called a hobby, sure, why not.
No one breaks out into fisticuffs.
Marcus wants to know whether all this leads to a "gift economy".
Michael thinks it's more of a "service economy". More like McDonald's than Starbucks, because of the lack of benefits. But Revenue Canada will let you write all sorts of things off if you're a writer, and "the promise of income doesn't need to be one's lifetime". So, yeah, keep writing things off. Thanks, Canada! [Not that I can earn revenue here, except through my school.]
Kenny thinks Ubu is a gift economy. Ubu doesn't ask permission, so they get things done. MoMA asks permission, so they don't have much on their site. Go Ubu! Michael wants to know if that's a gift or a theft economy (he means no disrespect). Kenny says that no one is stopping them, so that makes it a gift.
No one breaks out into fisticuffs.
Marcus wants to know what everyone's attitude is towards appropriation, or the materials appropriated?
Sonja collects and organizes and falls in love with things, with images. [I think: collecting and organizing everything you fall in love with -- is this the story of my life?]
Alexis wants to get back to the gift economy thing, because that term comes up a lot in fanficland. For instance, she will write a fanfic for someone specifically for their birthday. Or to trade for someone who will make an image for her.
No one breaks out into fisticuffs, not even when question from the audience is solicited.
Someone in the audience [update: apparently, Paul Dutton] wants to know about legal retribution and John Oswald. Kenny points out that the Plunderphonics stuff has been reproduced everywhere online and so it seems that the legal injunction was useless. Marcus finds legal decisions to be but a moment in an ongoing history about an issue, and that the relationship between the law and lived experience is in no way a one-to-one correspondence [and how often have I brought that point up in history classes?]. Michael sees copyright violation as an excuse to bring down the law, or so my note says, although I can't remember what that meant.
OK, audience, you've said enough! Thank you for not fisticuffsing! Marcus would like to end with a zinger: Does anything belong to anyone?
Alexis: Yes. Fanfic is a fear-based community, and they are constantly aware of ownership issues and limits and the ethics of claiming the characters are "their" characters. [I think: Well, I think a set of things that are not easy to write out in a parenthetical -- and also I am no expert, and feel like I'm stepping on toes here -- on about the nature of fanfic authorship and ownership, how they can't own their characters for it to properly be fanfic, how admitting this Due South mountie was not the Due South mountie would fuck everything up.]
Michael: "It's complicated."
Kenny: Legitimate economies are fine, but they're not the only economies.
NourbeSe: Yes but [inaudible -- it's changing?].
Sonja: Yes and no. Use common sense if you appropriate.
Then it was over, and there was a brief and fisticuffs-free intermission before a reading, which was thoroughly great and which I probably won't really go into here, but big ups to derek beaulieu for writing poems that I no longer have to write, and for Rob Read and his budgie poem, the first time I've seen a sound poet pull off polyphonic sound poetry on his lonesome without electronics or anything but plenty of lip and tongue action.
But yes: The panel did not go terribly deep, nor was it terribly energetic, but it was surprisingly broad. Kenny and Michael are the obvious go-to people for this sort of topic, but bringing in fanfic and zine art were great ways of going with this topic, and NourbeSe had interesting things to say on the topic that were very different from what Kenny and Michael were saying, but unfortunately she got a bit lost in the shuffle. Alas.