Illegal Art

The archive becomes problematic when we deal with artwork which is by it’s very nature labelled as illegal. The legality can be for many reasons, but for the most part it boils down to too-restrictive copyright laws that prevent the re-visioning of culture. Happy Birthday is now in the public domain. That should be a cause for celebration – but for me it was a moment of depression – for it should have have been in the public domain for many, many years.

What happens to content that is labelled illegal? Where does it go? Todd Haynes “Superstar” – a brilliant docudrama of Karen Carpenter’s fight with anorexia told with carved up Barbie Dolls lives in a legal netherworld where it cannot be publicly shown due to music licensing issues, but lives on YouTube.

It is now a muddy low resolution version digitized from a VHS tape, which was most likely a dub from yet another dub. The idea of archive is challenged not just by legality, but by analog degradation and then further damaged by digitization in a highly compressed, low resolution format suitable for playback in a web browser, stripping the film of it’s original context. At this point it is a damaged document, the equivalent of scanned, low resolution digital copy of a smeared ink duplicate of the Gutenberg bible. It moves across medium to transmission through the duplicity of record/play to simply play. There is no more original, there are no more duplicates, there is now only the stream of data.

History is suitable to be subjugated in the move to digital space. The original is denied existence in transference. George Lucas tinkered endlessly with Star Wars – the original theatrical version (which is a necessary filmic historical artifact) was replaced with modified version on modified version. Releases touting that it is the “original version” on DVD actually are not- they are original in the sense of the auteur’s  “original vision”, not in the sense that it is a verbatim replication. A pirated release based on a pastiche of sources attempted to get as close to the original as possible, but it is ultimately a digital hybrid, itself “improved upon” due to “remastering”.  Media slips – to go back in time is to dig through ebay or amazon for the original release on VHS cassette, a mediated relic that is a duplicate made from a master tape, itself a duplicate. The original has been purposely eradicated, as with every duplication the noise to signal ratio increases, the artifact accrues new attributes. In a few years, it will be all that exists.

“…….. the media archaeologist Friedrich Kittler pointed out the differences rather than the continuities between memory media: he argued that analog broadcast media, which are linear-sequential and base their storage on the principle of thetape, should be afraid, for they would be swallowed by the Internet.” (Ernst, pg 116)

And this is what will inevitably happen with old media as it is digitized. It will be consumed, recontexualized, paraded down a hall of mirrors, self-reflexive, transgenerational and endlessly transmitted. The archive will be the unplayable VHS tape, the DVD doubly encrypted with a country code preventing playback, and the digital encapsulation of the media itself inside a proprietary container. Will it be possible to play back the movie downloaded from Apple’s online video store 20 years from now?

The historian will have to be a pirate. Digital Rights Management will preclude archiving, creating instant ephemera of digital media objects, locked down to a single platform, or through a digital delivery mechanism that may not exist in 10 years. Sites will come online, and evaporate in a barrage of legal threats, and with them the content will be lost, save for’s “Wayback Machine). Digital media will be buried due to loss of playback capability, loss of platform, or due to legal entanglement that prevents it from being seen, heard or experienced. The “old media” archives will continue to exist due to their non-digital nature, so it will be the “source”. Film projectors will cease to be made, as slide projectors are today. Unencrypted media will live in the “wild”, where it can escape capture, slipping from one torrent site to the other, with every takedown notice, a new one will pop up.


When I see Brancusi
His eyes searching out the infinite abstract spaces
In the radio rude hands of sculptor
Now gripped around the neck of a duosonic
I swear on your eyes no pretty words will sway me

Patti Smith “Radio Ethiopia”


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