McDonald’s as the Marie Celeste, a perfect desertion. The low hum of attendant machinery in the background. Rubbish on the floor, a meal on a table, a crisp french fry dipped in still-glistening oleaginous ketchup. Everything placed as if in an experiment, the excrescence of human activity without active humans. The employee of the month smiles from the wall, as silent as the man-sized Ronald standing sentry by the counter. A pot of filter coffee waits to be poured, a droplet hangs in the spout of a soft drink dispenser.
Then water begins to well in from under a door a ripple flowing across the floor, as if a toilet has overflowed. It dusts the litter, moves it around a bit, knocks over a yellow ‘wet floor’ sign. Laps at the chairs’ legs. It doesn’t take much of a swell to float the big hollow Ronald. He rises and bobs around like a greeter, welcoming us to the restaurant. Eventually he overbalances and topples, lying helplessly on his back.
The machines shake. One by one glowing Ms go out as their electrics shortcircuit. Tiny Ronalds, in happy meals and on wall displays, topple into and drown in the rising waters. The chairs wobble away. The water rises inexorably, biblically. It reaches the tables and lifts the trays and their abandoned meals, works its way into the ketchup, emulsifies everything.
It all ends in gorgeous chaos, the chips and coffee and rubbish floating around in the increasingly opaque water, the way a burger, coke and fries must do once you’ve wolfed them all down. The connection between meat production, global warming and rising sea levels passes me by. I’m thinking that when the floods subside, it isn’t the water that’s dissolved the houses, it’s the shit left behind that makes them impossible to live in.
Earlier, in the same place, solicitor Daniel McClean (joint editor of the Ridinghouse/ICA 2002 Dear Images publication, a discursive handbook on art and intellectual property law) gives a slightly-overlong talk on copying and the law in art. He begins with a discussion of the history of art as copying: sketches and engravings taken from paintings, Ravenna after Raphael and Raimondi, Picasso’s Déjeuner after Manet’s, and so on. He posits the idea that all of art history is predicated on a tacit ‘creative commons’, the resources of other artists available to all other artists and goes over some of the copyright basics. He introduces the idea of copyright as an economic measure, enshrined in the US constitution (but doesn’t address the parallel European notion of moral rights).
The most interesting part of his talk is individual cases, the thought experiments of right and wrong, and in particular the cases of three contemporary art superstars caught red-handed incorporating other people’s work into their own products: Damien Hirst’s giant copy of his son’s Young Scientist Anatomy Set; Jeff Koons’ sculpture based on Art Rogers’ Puppies and Glenn Brown’s near-copy of Anthony Roberts’ Double Star.
Hirst and Brown settled out of court, and Koons, claiming parody, lost in court to Rogers. There’s something offensive about these cases, and it isn’t either that appropriation is wrong, or that the boot is often on the other foot (Fischli & Weiss had every reason to be outraged by the banality of Honda’s The Way Things Go rip-off). Rather, there’s something about the elevation of contemporary art that allows for an arrogant attitude towards the materials it makes use of. Humbrol’s science kit is ‘only’ a toy; Art Rogers’ photography is contemptible, and Anthony Roberts is ‘only’ a hack paperback cover painter.
There’s a simultaneous need and contempt for popular culture in the high art avant-garde going all the way back to Greenberg’s 1930s essay, Avant-Garde and Kitsch which counterposes the avant-garde’s “superior consciousness of history” with “ersatz culture, kitsch, destined for those … insensible to the values of genuine culture”. If you believe that your artistic acts are a transcendent category, then like the contemptible Shepard Fairey, you quickly become a hypocrite, defending only your own creation of (literal) value, even as you sell it from your own back pocket.
Superflex‘s Rasmus Nielsen at last takes the stage from McClean with his laptop. Superflex do ‘process art’, stuff that mostly takes place outside a gallery and doesn’t take the form of objects. Starting from their student biogas project, DIY cowshit-to-fuel generators, they first ran into IP trouble with their biogas PH5 lamp, a sustainable lightsource in the shape of a 1950s Scandinavian design classic by Poul Henningsen. The artistic intention seemed simple, to reinvest value in a modernist ‘universal object’ that had long-since become merely a symbol of bourgeois comfort. Henningsen’s lawyers disagreed and delivered a (‘what do you call these things?’ – Nielsen possesses that superb deadpan of the near-native English speaker) cease-and-desist, not the only one Superflex have ever received. Their subsequent projects have often worked around taking on IP as a tool to modify, rather than revolutionise, the economic terrain.
Copy Shop is a franchise to facilitate challenges to the intellectual property regime. They got a lot of press for Free Beer, an open-source brewing project (rather missing the point I think as you can’t physically copy a bottle of beer, more’s the shame). Another bottle project was Guaraná Power, when they worked with smallscale Brazilian guaraná growers to create and market an ethical alternative to InBev’s grower-crunching corporate version. It originally came in brand-satire bottles; following yet more cease-and-desist, it’s become more-or-less just another ‘ethical brand’, but following the publicity, one stocked in Danish 7-11s.
Their Supershow, in which rather than being charged an entry fee, entrants were given two francs to see the Superflex show in Kunsthalle Basel, which consisted of the audience itself, had overtones of a typically awful artworld surplus reflexivity. There was better street theatre in Free Shop in which ordinary grocery stores were funded to give everything away for free for a day, presenting customers with a zero receipt at the till. One quote from a pharmacy considered the disruption of daily routine a threat to the mental health of their psychiatric drug customers, reinforcing the idea that not paying for things is literally insane.
Neilsen reminds us that Mark Getty told The Economist: “Intellectual Property is the oil of the 21st century.” It’s no surprise to find the Getties at the top of the pile, but oil means war. If the Koonses and Faireys of this world are warlords, talking liberation only when it suits them, and Superflex are the guerrillas, always subject to the seduction of peace talks, then Lessig and the Creative Commons stand by like the UN, praying hard for peace but powerless to stop the chetniks descending on Srebrenica (actually, I think Lessig’s currently doing the tribunal). Is this a war in which only artists are combatants?
Later, in another place, a bar full of people collectively read aloud the Freee Manifesto for Guerilla Advertising (after the Revolution) in front of a new bar poster commissioned from the art collective. This is a manifesto in favour of manifestos, an invocation to self activity. Bracketed by a very self-conscious narrative about the social construction of manifestos (all of which we read out, it takes about thirty minutes), a fat ten points of rage, an invitation to abandon art for the tactics of art:
Down with art’s police! Down with the protectors of the common good! Down with the experts and officials who keep the artworld ship shape! There are no experts on happiness! There are no experts on liberation! There are no experts on art!
it goes. The crowd stumble along in classroom rhythm, enlivened by the occasional shouting of a key word (‘Andre Breton!‘ ‘Lenin!‘ ‘Wankers!‘). I actually get quite excited by this bit:
Abolish culture-led regeneration! The correct response to public art is anger! Smash all the town centre fountains, statues and heritage sculptures! Make your ideas public! Publish! Publish! Publish! But know this! Publishing is not an arm of town planning!
and start to imagine cruising the Isle of Dogs smashing up the dreadful corporate dogturds of public art that litter the peninsula. Oh yes, I want to go to places like Basingstoke and Bury, smash their crappy sculptures and piss all over their insulting ‘culture quarters‘. I reminisce about days when the police ran from demonstrators under a hail of bricks and bottles. Meanwhile, the manifesto rumbles on:
Look at us! We are not politicians….
Look at us! We are not administrators….
Look at us! We are not managers….
Look at us! We are not bureaucrats….
chant, in unison, a bar full of managers, administrators and bureaucrats (mostly ICA staff). Who’s taking the piss out of who here? Freee have a nice ear for propaganda, a nice pen for a slogan. But if they don’t mean it, then they’re just wankers like the rest of them.