Postcolonial Piracy Conference, Berlin, Dec. 2 – 4, 2011

I’ll be giving a paper at a very interesting looking conference on postcolonial piracy, hosted by the University of Potsdam in Berlin, this coming weekend.  My paper is on depropriation, and looks at a variety of examples of depropriation including ayahuasca shamanism in Colombia, mp3 piracy in the Sahel and the Occupy movements.  The conference is connected to the Worldtronics music festival, which will focus on Ghana and Colombia, and we are promised hiplife concerts curated by Awesome Tapes from Africa’s Brian Shimkovitz. Sounds great.

I imagine that there will be plenty of discussion of the fascinating new book/report Media Piracy in Emerging Economies, definitely the most in depth look at this topic that I’ve seen.  You can download a copy here.  The report makes the sensible observation that most of what is called piracy in emerging countries has to do with prohibitively high pricing of media by corporate producers, in a situation where there are cheap and available technologies for the production of copies of media items.  Aggressive law enforcement, according to the report, has little effect on the black/gray market economies that flourish in this void.  Appropriately low pricing does however allow for possible integration of such markets.

Collateral Damage

The Wire has been running an interesting series of columns called Collateral Damage in recent months — mostly in response to a provocative piece written by Kenneth Goldsmith celebrating the apparent triumph of quantity over quality in downloading cultures of the musical variety.  My own response to the issue is published in the latest issue of the magazine — you can read the column here.

The most important points I wanted to make in the column are: that copying in music didn’t begin with Napster, it’s essential to any musical culture or practice; that there’s something utopian about the current situation in which anyone with a computer has access to almost any sound recording made; that the resulting erosion of revenues from the sales of musical recordings isn’t in itself a valid reason to insist on more stringent intellectual property laws, which might in theory reduce the amount of copying of music, even if they (debatably) support indie music scenes.  Music scenes, indie or not are part of a broader economy and an economic crisis that affects most workers today. Music and sound are part of a global commons — they belong, or should belong, to everyone, and the challenge is to ensure that our economy and political systems support that commons.

Last paragraph: “One of the most intriguing compilations I’ve heard recently is called Music From Saharan Cellphones. It’s a collection of tracks discovered by Oregon based Christopher Kirkley while travelling in the Sahara, where nomads and urban youth now exchange music using Bluetooth and the memory cards on their cellphones. First available as a limited edition cassette, then ripped as downloadable MP3s, Kirkley is now using the micro-investment website Kickstarter to try to fund a vinyl release that also identifies and pays some of the artists involved. It’s a remarkable recording for many reasons, exposing us to new styles of music (Auto-Tuned desert blues, West African hiphop, tranced-out digital reggae and much more), and to the way people elsewhere in the world listen and distribute music. Is anything really resolved by declaring such exchanges unauthorised? That neither the Oregon hipster nor the Bedouin biker in Timbuktu pay artists for their work? That these tracks are distributed through computer and digital networks rather than physical sites across the city? That the recording quality is sometimes poor, and we can’t name the artists or songs, or work out whether the musicians, Bluetooth recording vendors or even Kirkley, with his microfinancing scheme, are all in it for the money? Sound itself remains indifferent to such questions. Something opens up here, a way of inhabiting the world together, a counter-globalisation, and that’s something we need to hear.”

UPDATE: Kirkley has written a beautiful piece on his blog Sahel Sounds describing the details of a Saharan mp3 market.

Cutting Across Media: Appropriation Art, Interventionist Collage and Copyright Law

I have an essay in a new book from Duke UP, Cutting Across Media: Appropriation Art, Interventionist Collage and Copyright Law, edited by intellectual property theorist and prankster Kembrew McLeod and dada scholar Rudi Kuenzli.  The essay, “Digital Mana: On the Infinite Proliferation of Mutant Copies in Contemporary Culture” is a pretty freewheeling spin through the work of Philip K. Dick and the late great graffiti sage Rammellzee, amongst others … taking the position that countercultures in the late twentieth century are very much concerned with the concept of infinity and how human beings can access it through various practices and counter-mathematics.  I apply some of Alain Badiou’s work on the politics of how we think about infinity to some examples that probably Badiou would not be interested in … but generally, I think Badiou is right that our ability to imagine and enact social transformation is related to our understanding of number, and that which is beyond number.  “Version like rain!”   Generally speaking, it’s a great collection, with work by Siva Vaidhyanathan, Joshua Clover, Douglas Kahn, Craig Baldwin, Jeff Chang, Jonathan Lethem and many others ….

On the Copies in Kiarostami’s Certified Copy

A number of people have asked me what I thought of Abbas Kiarostami’s new film Certified Copy, which is about an English writer, James Miller, who’s just published a book arguing that the distinction between original and copy is meaningless, and his meeting with a charming art dealer, identified only as “Elle”, who may or may not be his wife, in Tuscany during a book tour.  The movie is set up so didactically – it more or less begins with a ten minute lecture setting out the thesis of the writer’s book – that one is forced to assume that what follows – a more or less standard European art movie scene of romantic hijinx played out in a picturesque location – is also about copying.  I felt fairly indifferent to the movie while watching it, but it’s growing on me as I think about it.  I’m not sure whether that’s a good thing.

If the movie is indeed a copy of a generic European art house movie narrative, then it’s such a correct copy that it’s hard to see where the intervention, or the creativity in the act of making the copy is.  True, Duchamp’s “Fontaine” is also just another urinal, but it achieved it’s power through the shock of being relocated from the bathroom to the art  gallery.  But isn’t this kind of film and role exactly what we expect of Juliet Binoche (playing “Elle”), if not Kiarostami himself?

Perhaps something is lost in translation.   Certainly the film abounds with translation problems: the shifts from English to Italian to French; between lovers and genders; between generations; between those with traditional commitments and those who believe themselves without them.  In every case, something like a copy appears when there’s an expectation as to how things are supposed to be, an expectation which is let down.  Which incidentally describes prevalent critical reaction to the film.

Is anything gained in translation too?  An “Iranian” director making a “European” art house film?  Certainly it’d be worth looking at the way in which non European film-makers are invited to participate in art house cinema only through adopting and reiterating certain kinds of cinematic discourse. But that’s old news at this point, isn’t it? A dysfunctional couple forced to roleplay traditional gender and marital parts in order to revive their relationship? Ditto.  Perhaps translation is the wrong word for what’s happening.

Most reviewers of the film feel compelled to make a decision about who the two main characters in the film are, while the film itself goes to great lengths to resist this.  In fact, the weakness of the film, if it is one, consists in the apparently artificial lengths that Kiarostami is compelled to go to in order to maintain the ambiguity about whether or not Elle and Miller are a long time married couple now meeting up again and acting as if they don’t know each other, or a couple meeting for the first time who find themselves playing the roles of people in a long term relationship.  In other words, a drama of original and copy.

Is the point then that the same claim that Miller makes in his book turns out to be true in real life, that the distinction between original and copy is not so important and that sometimes the copy may be more relevant or powerful than the original?  Just in terms of the narrative arc of the movie this doesn’t sound entirely right.  The movie ends with Elle remembering a moment of happiness and satisfaction on her wedding night, while Miller looks at himself in the bathroom mirror and has a moment presumably of self recognition, marked by the somewhat crude device of the church bells outside ringing.  Is the point then conversely that behind the superficial play of original and copy there is the mark of an original trauma which somehow is revealed by the tracking and repeating of symptoms, which are in a sense copies that disavow the original that is in fact their source.  That would explain the unpleasantly uptight and reactive character of Miller, and equally clueless sentimentality of Elle.

But that also sounds too crude.  After all, there’s no clear explanation or resolution given at the end of the movie.  Even the mirror that one assumes Miller is looking into is not actually seen on screen.  It’s a camera that the actor faces onto, imitating the expression he might have in front of a mirror.  A camera is not exactly a mirror.  So the movie floats in a strange way towards recent films such as Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche New York, or Lars von Trier’s Dogville, where the scaffolding of the film set is itself visible and constitutive of what goes on in the film.  Kiarostami goes a step further than Kaufman or von Trier by exposing the “Real” of the Tuscan town in the movie as a kind of mimetic installation as much as the warehouses and stages of those other films.  The point is driven home by the presentation of the Tuscan towns as tourist destinations, frozen in some image of their own past and cultural heritage, yet still full of people finally just trying to live their lives.

What is disturbing or confusing or even disappointing in the film is the lack of clear directions as to what we are to do with this mimetic impasse.  Is it an invitation to the unleashing of drives as in von Trier’s movies? Or to the multiple personalities or aphasiacs that populate Kaufman’s films?  Perhaps there’s a simpler response: that one of the core principles animating mimetic phenomena is erotic.  Put crudely, the film tracks an amorous encounter through various stages of deflection and displacement to the very moment where the two lovers are finally in a hotel room, about to make love.  Or not.  In other words, copying in the movie is mostly an expression of erotic ambivalence.  The young couples who are getting married in the church are disavowed by Miller because of their supposed naivete about what the future actually holds in store for them, but what’s provocative mimetically of course is that the religious and state rituals around marriage structure the obscenity of sexual reproduction.  The couples are not so much naïve as committed to the mimetic rites that they are going through.  Miller is incapable of this commitment.  As my colleague Ian Carr-Harris said to me in a recent discussion, he’s “afraid of originals”!  And therefore obfuscates the difference between original and copy in his work.

Am I guilty of the same kind of obfuscation?  For me, an original is a kind of copy, since there is no original without an act of labeling or designation that says “this is an original” (at the same time obscuring the processes of imitation and appropriation that make up an object).  But both originals and copies can expose one to the nonconceptual Real, and it’s this exposure to the Real that we are afraid of.  Certified Copy is a film about this fear, about the ways in which cinema can or can’t address it, and in particular about the way Kiarostami thinks it can be addressed, in 2011, in a film funded by European backers.

A Few More Reviews of In Praise of Copying

A busy time of the year for me, but I have a backlog of posts re. copying that I’m working on. In the meantime, here are few interesting recent reviews of In Praise of Copying.  First off Amy Ione in Leonardo Digital.  Then David Banash in Postmodern Culture.  Finally Mark Fisher in The Wire.  All well worth a look …

Buddhism and Copying talk at Center of Gravity, Toronto

I’ll be giving a talk about Buddhism and copying this coming Thursday, March 17th at the downtown Toronto yoga/meditation space Center of Gravity, run by author and teacher Michael Stone.  The talk starts with a half hour of no-talk at 6:30 pm, after which I’ll explore some of the ways in which Buddhist philosophy and practice can illuminate contemporary issues around copying and vice versa.   Center of Gravity is at 123 Bellwoods.

Ice Fishing in Gimli

I recently interviewed Winnipeg based writer/artist/architect Rob Kovitz about his epic 8 volume 4500 page novel Ice Fishing in Gimli, for a chapbook published in conjunction with the exhibition of the book currently on show at The Department in Toronto, and curated by Michael Maranda of  the Art Gallery of York University.  The book is almost entirely appropriated from other people’s writings (some of the photos are by Kovitz) and Kovitz says that, amongst other things, he was inspired by Walter Benjamin’s similarly vast Arcades Project, which also consists largely of quotes taken from other people’s writings.

Kovitz’s book is a heroic Melvillean exercise, ice fishing instead of whale fishing, digital text archives instead of pen on paper, a similar sense of extensive intimacy with territories way off most people’s maps (although Guy Maddin and others have also made works focusing on Gimli, a town 75 km north of Winnipeg, originally populated by people of Icelandic descent).  I like the sense of Ice Fishing as an impossible book, far too long to actually read, but what’s strange is that Ice Fishing is a very compelling read, with a powerful narrative drive.  This produces a strong sense of pathos: the book seems to anticipate its own rejection or being ignored, even in the act of you exploring it.

I’ve been meaning to write an essay about the history of copying in Canada for a while, and Rob and I touched on this in conversation: Glenn Gould’s spliced sound recordings; John Oswald’s Plunderphonics; Christian Bök’s dictionary channelling Eunoia; Guy Maddin’s pastiche films; Gail Scott’s appropriated texts like My Paris and The Obituary; Nourbese Philip’s cut up slave narrative, Zong! Not to mention visual artists such as Michael Snow (the Walking Woman pieces for sure, but also the movie Wavelength which over forty five minutes focuses in on a photo of a lake or sea) or Shary Boyle’s perverse porcelains.  And McLuhan. And … there’s a lot of appropriation going on up here!  One might ask: why?

A2K Symposium and Book

I just wrote a short contribution to an online symposium held by legal blog Concurring Opinions to celebrate the publication of Gaëlle Krikorian and Amy Kapczynski’s book, Access to Knowledge in the Age of Intellectual Property.  A2K is an interesting rallying point for folks working globally on a variety of issues related to intellectual property and/or the politics of copying today and the collection gives a broad and generous overview of the topic.  I particularly recommend Amy Kapczynksi’s introduction, Yochai Benkler’s overview of A2K and information commons, and the essays by Lawrence Liang, which were a revelation to me.  A2K resonates in a very clear way with recent events such as the shut down of the Internet during the Egyptian unrest, and WikiLeaks’ appropriation and dissemination of national archives and databases.  It’s part of a shift in IP research towards thinking about IP as a human rights issue.   You can download the whole book chapter by chapter for free from the MIT website.

On WFMU with DJ /rupture, Monday Dec. 27th

I’ll be talking with DJ /rupture a.k.a. Jace Clayton next Monday, December 27th on his WFMU show, from 6-8 p.m.  Jace is one of the finest DJs on this planet or any other, and one of the deepest thinkers about dancehall sounds in the age of globalization.  I’ve learnt a lot from him over the years. In particular, his blog, Mudd Up! is a must read for anyone interested in understanding new global dance sounds. He has some interesting things to say about In Praise of Copying.  Aside from talking about World Music 2.0, the global rise of Autotune, and how to live in a world of copies without originals, I’m going to play some music: expect Kuduro, Logobi, Saharan psychedelia, Ramadanman as well as some clips from other folks’ mixes and some archival hauntings.

Listen to the podcast, in two parts, here.

Where We Live: Copying and Creativity

I had a very interesting hour long conversation yesterday on Connecticut NPR’s Where We Live show, hosted by John Dankosky, exploring the relationship between copying and creativity. You can download the podcast here.

Joining me were musician/theorist remix guru DJ Spooky and law professor Susan Scafidi.  Spooky was one of the first to point out in his book Rhythm Science (2004) that sampling is not just something that hip-hop artists do with old records, but that processes of cutting and pasting, appropriation and montage are fundamental to the way that all human cultures work, whether they recognize it or not.  Spooky’s comments in the interview yesterday about the way a good copy is situational, responding to the environment in a meaningful way help me to rethink an ethics of copying.  A bad copy by extension would be one that is insensitive to or ignorant of environment and relationships.  But that raises the question of what is appropriate, and for whom, which is a difficult question.  Cheap knock-off bags may be bad because they show a lack of attention to the qualities that go into making a high end bag, and because they perhaps intend to deceive. But from the point of view of poor people who can’t afford expensive branded bags and who enjoy the styling, they may be good.

I’m a great fan of Susan Scafidi’s blog Counterfeit Chic, which taught me a lot about brands and their various doubles. Scafidi is the director of the Fashion Law Institute at Fordham U. (the first institute of its kind)  and the author of Who Owns Culture? Appropriation and Authenticity in American Law (2003).  What struck me the most in our conversation yesterday was Scafidi’s cautionary note about there being a taboo on copying because copying comes too easily to us.  I accept the importance of the taboo, and the way it is managed through laws and traditions, while wanting to be very conscious of the particular political and economic histories that our own responses to the taboo have been shaped by.  In other words, contemporary IP law is only one of a number of possible ways of responding to a need to control the proliferation of copies, and much of our fear of copying today is actually a fear of a different, possibly more fair society.