Or, what it was like to have a vid included in an art gallery exhibit
Two years ago, in February 2015, I got an email from Francesca Coppa saying the Vancouver Art Gallery was putting together a massive exhibition on the modern history of mashups and she had been invited to curate a section on fan vidding. My multifandom vid “Starships!” had made her shortlist along with six vids by five other vidders, and she wanted to know if it would be all right to include it.
This is the story of what followed: from deciding which name to choose and what to do about the possibility of being sued, to watching the exhibition transform from abstract concept to really-real event, to visiting the gallery on opening night and observing “Muggles” interact with these half-dozen vids mounted on the wall around the corner from works by Andy Warhol and Frank Gehry.
(Some parts will be familiar if you read my Dreamwidth recap of the visit, but other material is new.)
Feel free to navigate among sections in whatever order you like or follow the suggested path—and be sure to check out the contributions from some of the other exhibited vidders!
Links gathered in part from limvids on tumblr.
To Show, or Not to Show:
When the invitation came to participate in the exhibit, I wanted to jump up and down in my chair and say, “Yes! Of course!” My vid! In a museum! Somehow “Starships!” had made the cut alongside works by the person credited with starting the entire vidding tradition, Kandy Fong, and other big-name vidders whose vids are used as case studies in fighting for copyright exemption and the like.
But I had one hesitation: I didn’t want to get sued, and I didn’t know how to assess the risk or prepare for defense. Posting “Starships!” online was one thing; if a copyright holder started giving me grief, I could simply take it down. But giving permission to a museum to hang it on a wall felt like another thing entirely. I’d heard about other exhibits that featured vids before, like Cut Up at the Museum of the Moving Image in 2013, and nothing bad seemed to have happened around those, but I didn’t know the behind-the-scenes legal details.
My questions boiled down to:
- If someone visited the exhibit and had a copyright problem with the use of the song (or the clips, although those are easier to defend as transformative) in the vid, would the museum take a role in its defense? Would the OTW?
- Did I have the ability to grant rights to use the vid’s contents in advertising materials, as requested in the contract the museum had sent?
- Would accepting the artist’s fee the museum was offering negate future invocation of fair use, since profit was made?
I ended up consulting with three people: Francesca Coppa, one of the Vancouver Art Gallery exhibit curators, and the former Legal chair of the OTW. Here is what they said that gave me more context and ultimately made me feel comfortable enough to say yes. This is all paraphrased and obviously shouldn’t be taken as direct quotes or legal advice.
- In the U.S., fair use and profit aren’t mutually exclusive. The bar for proving transformativity is higher for commercial uses, but that’s more like if someone wanted to sell their own Harry Potter novel.
- The exhibit will take place in Canada, where noncommercial remixes are exempt from copyright law as part of the user-generated content (UGC) exception or “The YouTube exception.”
- It’s unclear whether accepting the museum’s honorarium takes the vid out of a noncommercial context. You could argue not, since the work was made noncommercially and the exhibit is for educational/artistic purposes; we’re not selling the vids.
- The risk approaches zero if you don’t take the honorarium, and is still minimal if you do—likely lower than the risk you’ve already taken of sharing the vid online, given its popularity. This is the first time I can remember a museum offering vidders a fee; why not take advantage?
- Every work in the exhibition will include appropriated content in one way or another, so it’s not like the vids will stand out in this regard. We have a lengthy history of exhibiting this type of work and have never had any problems.
- Could someone sue? Yes. Could they win? No.
- If you don’t have any assets in Canada, it’s hard for Canada to do anything to you.
- If this were in the U.S., it would be a question of fair use. You could make a good case for it.
- The OTW exists in part to help with cases like that in the U.S. That said, nothing has happened so far.
- Some institutions have blanket licenses to play music.
- Showing vids in museum exhibitions has actually helped bolster arguments that vids are clear fair use.
What I heard was that Canadian rules applied over U.S. rules, the risk was low, and if something were to happen, I would have some help. I decided to accept. As I said to Francesca: It’s about time I put my money where my mouth is in terms of standing up for the rights of fan creators.
So I decided which name to use, signed the contract, later cashed the check—which wasn’t a gigantic amount but basically covered my hotel stay when the exhibit opened; more on that in a minute-—and never faced a copyright challenge. In fact, the worst that happened is that now, one year later, I have to properly figure it into my taxes: “income from activities not engaged in for profit.”
Special Exhibit: lim
I always say yes, on principle, in that in my view I’ve already released the vid onto the internet - it’s out there, you know? I put it out there! On Youtube and so on - No sense in denying it! :P A lot of people don’t ask anyway - just go ahead and show the vid, which I approve of because it’s no hassle to me then. And sometimes I discover they have, and that’s a nice surprise.
[…] I don’t actively take on the agenda of whoever is showing a vid. The show is theirs and the vid is just material for it. I don’t feel like it flows upstream to me. I don’t really think any of it has much to do with me. I am really concerned with the making of vids, not the watching of them. (I’m not a good vid watcher!) And I don’t really spend much time thinking/imagining other people watching my vids, either. I know they do, from time to time, and when they write posts or recs (or anti-recs) I often read those with great interest. But I’m really interested, there, in how the vid bounces off that other person. What they bring to the table. That’s the part that’s interesting to me, not so much, hm, I’m not using the audience as a mirror, if that makes sense. It doesn’t work for me to do that.
The very first time a vid of mine was exhibited outside fandom - for Mediated at the California Museum of Photography in like 2008 - I had a very different response, I think. I found it quite brutal. I was much newer to vidding and I am quite shy anyway and found the attention uncomfortable - it was a vid I had made in only my first year of vidding and it was a bit overwhelming and complicated to navigate. But I am old now and don’t care, hahah. […]
Anyway, [Mediated] was uncomfortable in some ways but the discomfort was quite generative: at that time I thought a lot about how I would show vids, if I were to show them, and maybe I’ll do that someday actually - put on a show that’s ALL vids and sensible of the particular aesthetics of vidding. We should do that some day. It would be fun. It’s percolating.”
-Lim Jan. 16, 2017
Sh*t Gets Real
The rest of this write-up sounds nice and reasoned, doesn't it? Let me tell you what the months between accepting the invitation and the opening of the exhibit really felt like:
Months after signing the contracts, sort of waiting for the other shoe to drop—because how could something this cool really happen, or happen without complications—it finally felt real. Somehow I had created something that someone thought worth including in this exhibit. Somehow Francesca considered “Starships!” on a level with works by Kandy Fong and obsessive24 and here’s luck and Lim and Shadow Songs, at least in a collection themed around the progression of mashups. WTF, right?
(I wasn’t the only one excited, either, which helped me feel less silly!)
And then, even more good news: Even though the gallery itself was not able to provide travel funds to participants, between the artist’s fee and an unexpected holiday gift from my mom I was suddenly in a position to fly to Vancouver and see the exhibit in person.
There was some conferring amongst the vidders and Ces about arranging to meet there, on opening night or some other weekend before our part of the exhibit closed that June, but schedules and finances and logistics and other matters got in the way. I made an executive decision to RSVP for myself, at least, before fares rose too high, and I’m so glad I did, since no one else was able to make it, in the end.
Special Exhibit: Here's Luck
Special Exhibit: Here’s Luck (2017)
When Francesca first emailed us to ask us to contribute, I was thrilled and delighted and said yes immediately. I know at least one of the other vidders was more anxious, for legal reasons, but given the OTW’s recent work to secure DMCA exemptions for vidders and other fannish remixers, which has done a lot to establish vidding as a fair rather than infringing use of copyrighted material, I wasn’t at all concerned about that. And the fact that we were being approached about showing vids in an art exhibit felt really momentous to me. Over the last ten years, vidding has been getting increased attention in fan studies circles and even to some extent media studies more generally, but quite a bit of that attention has been focused more on vids as evidence of audience activity than on vids as art. So to be included in a major exhibit that puts vids not in a fannish context but in the context of 20th and 21st century art – and in a subcollection curated by Francesca, who’s done more than anyone to make the argument that vids are art and ought to be understood as art – was really, really exciting.
It was so exciting that in some ways it didn’t even feel real, at first! But then as we began to get details about the exhibit, it did start to feel real – and overwhelming! Having my name, our names, on the list of exhibitors along with names like Pablo Picasso, T.S. Eliot, Barbara Kruger, John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat, David Byrne, Danger Mouse, Girl Talk, DJ Spooky – it’s not just that these are big names, but that they’re artists whose work I know and admire! Actually, for me, the most head-spinning co-exhibitor was Negativland: I loved Negativland in college, saw them play live on campus, wore the concert t-shirt all the time, wore out my tapes of Escape From Noise and Helter Stupid… Their music was probably my first exposure to multimedia remix and certainly their legal wrangle with Island Records over the U2 EP (“I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” now with kazoos!) was my first encounter with debates over transformative re-use of copyrighted and trademarked material.
But in some ways the most amazing and overwhelming part was being included with these amazing vidders. I originally got into vidding in the early 2000s without any sense of its history; vidding was important to me personally and creatively – it became my main creative outlet, it’s how I met a lot of the people I was (and am) closest to in fandom. But as I learned more about the history of vidding and our fannish foremothers, and as I started to get a better sense of all the different vidding traditions and aesthetics and styles and approaches that are out there, I started to feel like I was connected to something much bigger than just my little group of vid-loving fannish friends. There are so many of us doing so many amazing different things! So to have my work tapped to help represent vids and vidders and vidding is an immense honor. And to be in company with people like Kandy Fong, who invented vidding, and Lim, whose work blows my mind, and Obsessive24, whom I admire so much and have learned so much from, and [bironic] and Shadow Songs, who’ve made these vids that I just adore… it’s mind-blowing, in the best possible way.”
-Here’s Luck Jan. 28, 2017
Describing the experience of walking through this giant multimedia exhibition on the history of 20th-21st century mashups felt daunting until I realized I don’t actually have to write an essay on that history and the place of vidding within it, nor an analysis of the objects the curators chose for inclusion and the way they organized the collection, because the gallery website and the 350-page exhibit guide already took care of that, as did various articles online.
(If you click on the tabs for each floor at that gallery link, there’s even more in-depth text.)
Suffice to say that it was satisfying to see the curators acknowledge fan vidding as a notable form of remixing with artistic merit worthy of being placed alongside household names like Pablo Picasso, Andy Warhol and Brian Eno. Fanfiction and especially the annual Remix Redux would have had a home as well.
Starting on the fourth floor and working down provided a more or less chronological tour through the many ways people have appropriated existing media materials and subverted, built on or otherwise transformed them into something new and wonderful. I nodded at familiar examples of fan practice’s cousins (e.g. Jamaican dub, William S. Burroughs’ cut-ups, T.S. Eliot’s dense intertextuality, Quentin Tarantino’s metacommentary on film history) and ancestors (e.g. Victorian photo collage, by women, fittingly*) and learned a lot about other fascinating members of the family tree both close and distant. I was particularly entranced by a sound poem written and recited by Kurt Schwitters presented alongside a song version composed by Brian Eno, Kurt’s Rejoinder.
Little change through time of the kinds of critique, censorship, copyright battles and celebration that their—our—works have engendered.
I’d been worried about how male-centric the exhibit would be, based on promo materials and early exhibit descriptions, so I was glad to see that it paid homage to the critical contributions of women from the very beginning. The introductory curator’s card on the top floor began with Georges Braque and Picasso, but then in the second paragraph, there were the women collage-makers. Cuttin’ up ur magazines, shakin’ up ur art.
These collages were often enclosed in personal albums, made more for the amusement of small social circles than for wider public exhibition and appreciation —sound familiar?
While gender wasn’t balanced overall, many women were nevertheless featured on each floor. More on that from straight.com.
Heavy on Western work, though.
Vids Onna Wall
The vidding subcollection was situated in a darkened corner on the third floor of the exhibit, past Warhol’s Marilyns and clips from Jean-Luc Godard films, and adjacent to a Jamaican dub sound studio, which I thought was perfect, thematically. Related sections on hip hop and on the Black and Latino LGBT community drag balls in NYC depicted in magazines and the movie Paris Is Burning were on the next floor down.
The layout of the vidding section was unfortunate in that four of the seven vid monitors were in a narrow hallway, so people had to either stand close to the screen if they wanted to put on the single pair of headphones mounted beneath each so others could pass through behind them, or else stand against the opposite wall and watch without sound. I saw visitors doing both.
The other three vids, though, which were the earliest, Kandy Fong’s and Shadow Songs’, were in the larger vestibule-type corner where it was easier to congregate and linger. That’s also where the curatorial text on vidding as a whole was located.
I’m not sure if this part of the exhibit was always so dim, allowing, I imagine, the vids themselves to look vibrant, or if it was lit that way only for the opening reception. A few people did lean forward to squint at the curators’ cards. Anyway, that’s why the pictures are kind of crappy.
I haunted the vidding area for probably 45-60 minutes on and off over the course of the evening to see how people behaved when they came over. Reactions seemed to run the gamut: Some kept walking, some glanced at a screen or two and continued on, some read the vidding description with interest, some watched whole or parts of vids without audio, some put on the headphones and did the same, some shared or tried to share the headphones with whomever they were with (some partners accepted and others refused), a few went from screen to screen and watched at least part of each in turn.
I wish we as a community could have stationed someone besides the docent in the room with a button that said “Ask me about vidding!” or something. For example, to explain how to do it “right.” But then, in the midst of an exhibit about remix, appropriation and subverting authorial intentions, who’s to say what “right” is?
Things I heard/saw while hanging around like a weirdo:
Numerous people of different demographics bobbing their heads to the music; they didn't seem to skew toward a particular gender or age.
That was great editing!” (one of Kandy’s)
singing “Sail away, sail away, sail away”
“Ooh, Star Trek!”
“It’s all of those crappy TV shows we don’t watch!” (random guy passing second set of screens, laughing)
This vid—shared prolifically through tens of thousands of online viewings—has benefited from the increased accessibility of the internet since the inception of vidding in the 1970s, and also draws on the history of the medium, establishing links to earlier vids such as “Data’s Dream” (1993), which also takes viewers on a journey through fantastical worlds. Both play to our emotions through strategic connections between imagery and aspects of the selected song.
The meticulous attention given to the details of the accompanying music—genre, song choice, tone, lyrics, musicality—is vital to the effectiveness of such popular vids in connecting with their viewers. The synchronicity of the recognizable and emotion-filled clips of starships paired with Nicki Minaj’s song “Starships” essentially produces an intense emotional response that directs the viewer not only to think about spaceships but to consider how we feel about spaceships and space travel.
A friend asked later what I thought about the text on the “Starships!” placard. (“Were you, for example, consciously referencing ‘Data’s Dream’?”) I found myself approaching the description from a dispassionate perspective—after flailing over seeing it right there on the wall like a Real Artist exhibiting a Notable Work, that is—interested in how Ces had decided to frame the vid within the theme and chronological progression she was working to establish for this mini collection. I hadn’t thought of “Data’s Dream” as a work “Starships!” was responding to, but “Starships!” wouldn’t exist without the tradition of multifandom vids that came before it, and “Data’s Dream” is at the root of that tradition. Ces did a good job of tracing lineages, demonstrating evolution and making other connections among the vids she chose to represent vidding as mashup technique, and I think this one was on point. The second half of the description I think was important for explaining to visitors some of the basics of what vidders try to do, because based on the behavior of some of the people I saw, it wasn’t always intuitive.
If I had had the opportunity to change anything about the text, besides swapping “synchronicity” for the oft-confused “synchrony,” I would have asked for it to say “hundreds of thousands of views” instead of “tens”—not even to brag, but to have had a slightly more impressive number to show to people unfamiliar with vidding who might have thought it’s a thing that, like, five people do. Not that “Starships!” is anywhere near the top of vid view counts.
It’s hard to see, but there are a lot of people on that sidewalk.
After about three hours, when I couldn’t stand up any longer and had to go, more than 500 people had attended the event—and the line to get in still went down the block. There were so many attendees still pouring in, in fact, that I couldn’t even see all the installations on the ground floor because it was too crowded for me. Well, I had “museum brain” by that point as well. There were so many interesting things to see and watch and listen to and interact with.
Special Exhibit: Kandy Fong
Kandy Fong (2013)
Back in 1974, I was part of the group that founded The United Federation of Phoenix, the longest running Star Trek club in the world. I met John Fong at the first meeting. He’d purchased some of the unused pieces of film left over after Gene Roddenberry edited the classic Star Trek episodes. I had the idea of using those unique pictures to create new ST stories. The first one used those pieces mounted as slides set to an audio-tape recording of a short story I’d written, plus a filk song, “What Do You Do With A Drunken Vulcan.” Due to the enthusiastic response of fans, and the active support of Gene Roddenberry, who not only gave me permission, but gave me more slides to use, I created hours of stories to show to fans.
Fast forward years to Vividcon, the vidders’ convention. They honored me as the mother of the fannish music video. I responded by contacting the earliest vidders, and with their help, created a two-part retrospective about the beginning of vidding. I thought that this would be of interest only to the fans who made videos. Then, I met Francesca Coppa, and found out about Fanlore and the fannish history project.
To my great surprise, other main-stream historians and academics became interested in our video history as part of popular culture. Universities started archiving our creations. Starting in 2013, Museums like the Museum of the Moving Image in New York City, and the Vancouver Artgallery in Canada started featuring shows about Cut Ups and Mash-ups and included some of my music videos.
When I talk about my inclusion in these exhibits, I can’t help smiling or even chuckling. It is almost unbelievable to me, that something that I started doing so long ago as entertainment for fans, is now considered important enough to be in a museum show with work from artists like Andy Warhol and Picasso. I am so tickled, and feel deeply honored. Wow!”
-kandy fong Jan. 29, 2017
…through the Gift Shop
So that is the story of how a vid that I rushed to put together in two weeks for Club Vivid in 2012 ended up in a museum show that I will half-disbelievingly boast about forever to… a small group of people who can know my fan identity and haven’t already heard the story. And also random strangers, such as Vancouver bus drivers and fellow hotel guests.
What hindsight now, to recall the sudden void after rushing to get the vid done, having to wait from April to August to see how it went over at Vividcon, being afraid that someone else would make the same vid in the intervening months because the song was all over the charts and the choice of clips was not exactly subtle. Then, this.
Although it would have been better to have had friends along, I’m glad I was able to see it in person and share some of what the experience was like.
It’s been a real boost in confidence and pride, both in my own vidding ability and in this corner of the external art world’s acknowledgement of the significance of our whole endeavor. I have also been deeply gratified to see little crumbs of evidence in the past year that our vids made an impression on a few visitors, at least some of whom were being introduced to vidding for the first time:
Whether or not something of mine is ever included again, I look forward to seeing how vids and other fanworks continue to evolve in the public consciousness through exhibits like this one. One day we’ll move beyond those irritating thinkpieces that laugh at what fans do and be able to share with more of the world the true joy and value of vids and fic and podfic and fanart and crafts etc. etc.: as labors of love, as critique, as celebration, as community-building, as art.
-Feb. 3, 2017