On Access

November 08, 2010

Earlier this year I was invited by SAW Video to do research into their Public Domain project, in which seven artists were given access to copyright-free material (not limited to, but including film footage) from the collection of Library and Archives Canada in order to make new single-channel videos. The resulting videos premiered in June; some can be found on the Web and all will be released on a DVD with Creative Commons licenses later this year.

Ryan Stec, one artist involved in the project, uses open-source VJ software to make his works. His “remix” of Jaron Albertin’s video for the song “The Lake” by the Canadian band Muscles was conceived for the music track’s remix by Jokers of the Scene. His work points out a lacuna in our consideration of online video: DJs have long been at the forefront of remix-software development, yet we don’t hear as much about video artists developing similar tools.

Different artists have different approaches to a remix practice: some technical, some musical, others more aesthetic. In my opinion, contemporary art which remixes found footage doesn’t always have an intrinsic reason for appropriation beyond the fact that is it technically possible and perhaps just a condition of the age we live in. Yet it is a practice for which there are a myriad of avant-garde precedents.

So how do we learn—as viewers, curators, artists, critics—to distinguish between these different kinds of appropriated-content videos all available online? To tell those that have some underlying philosophical reason for remixing other people’s content (such as Thomson & Craighead’s Flat Earth desktop documentary) from those that advance the practice technically (such as Ryan Stec’s work), from those that are just fun after-school activities (such as the Million Ways video challenge by the pop band OK Go)?

The larger question is how to support new artistic practices emerging out of file-sharing as it takes place on the Web. The process of accessing raw footage from very bureaucratically and carefully kept physical archives is a reminder that it is impossible to talk about remixing material from the public domain without talking about what is and isn’t restricted by copyright and donor conditions (and how future use of the material might or might not be covered under a fair use clause). And yet copyright is a geographical and time-based concept while online artistic practice, and remixing as a strategy for making work, is mostly neither. For the Public Domain commissions—videos which variously encompass software coding, historical montage and personal documentary—the notion of the public domain remained individual, even murky, but the artists’ own visions of the footage they wanted to remix was often shared and crystal clear.

The Public Domain project suggests that one support strategy is to ensure access to the growing pile of material that is available for remixing, and to permit artists to continue to create new works and give them back to the pile. Ryan Stec, together with his collaborator Veronique Couillard, has taken all of the footage he received from the Library and Archives of Canada and released it for others to use at artengine.ca/publicdomain. It would seem that it is through use, and encouraging rather than limiting remixing, that we can best ensure the survival of the public domain, and thereby extend creative practice.

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