Rebecca Cannon: Detritus – Copyleft In Action

24 September 2002

ecc.jpgFor five years Steev Hise has been collecting cultural fall out which certain detrivores would have us call art. Passionately cataloguing, nurturing and studying these oft discarded remnants of society, Hise runs the web site, a minefield for corporate lawyers in need of a suit. Host to the web sites of persecuted cultural saboteurs like Tom (Barbie-will-never-be-innocent-again) Forsythe, and archive to banned audio releases by Negativland, John Oswald and the KLF, Detritus acclaims the fraught position of Patron Saint of the Recombinant.

Our disposable civilization is not only polluting the earth with garbage, toxins, and poisons, but it is polluting our infosphere, our mental landscape, with datasmog. By re-using media to create new works of art, We can help to keep our world beautiful just as you can by recycling soda bottles.

[extract from Detritus Manifesto]

Issues surrounding the use of appropriated materials for creative expression have been rife since Duchamp's Urinal deflowered the sanctified authority of the artist. Increasing access to reproductive technologies have only encouraged the cutting and pasting of authored material. Despite the legitimacy of intuitive responses to editing tools and software, and regardless of the art world's commitment to the compositional prerogative of sampling, corporate law maintains a stranglehold on creative expression. According to Hise, 'things are only getting worse, from a legislative, judicial perspective'.

Hise perceives three core reasons why artists recycle culture, the first being the Pleasure of the Intertext. 'Messing with pre-existing culture is natural, and easy, except for possible legal problems of recent times'. Secondly is the Glamour of Theft. 'Once one becomes aware of the legal, and sometimes (misperceived) moral problems with this kind of work, one often is encouraged further, because of the perceived transgressive nature of the work'. Not easily mystified by corporate dogma, Hise is quick to note that 'like all art based on the transgressive, this mode is largely no longer relevant in the modern situation, when transgression is bought and sold by ad agencies and other segments of the Culture Industry'. Citing the Situationists' concept of Detournement, Hise outlines a third motive of critical, political commentary. 'This is a self-conscious mode which uses the power of recontextualization to make important statements – Cultural Recycling has the unique ability of turning the power and (often hidden) meaning of an original text and its author(s) back upon itself… A bit like a martial art when you use the force of your attacker against him'.

Artworks employing these techniques rouse legal attacks because of an interpreted abuse against the original author or text. Anger over blatant plagiarism is understandable, however Hise and other recyclers fervently criticize the wholesale bootlegging of another artist's work. Still, some projects tread a fine line. A good example is the Napster Nugget. The source of continual abuse, Napster Nuggets were discovered by the Evolution Control Committee (ECC), their site hosted on Detritus. Napster Nuggets are obtained by searching for MP3s called 'Line In Track' on file sharing servers like Gnutella and the now-defunct Napster. What you find are home recordings made with the MP3 recording application Music Match, which gives line-in tracks a default song title. Some of the names the ECC have given their favourite Nuggets (soon to be released as a compilation called Default's Greatest Hits) give you an idea of the quality of music you might find: 'Jon R. Butts has animals in his butt', 'Conner like to have sex with animals' and 'This CD will unfortunately not destruct'.

The ECC views their work as a strategy for illustrating how effectively tools like Napster are for 'leveling the playing field'. In their view, Napster Nuggets 'provide a unique peek into the unfiltered world of – well – the real. The normal. The banal. And sometimes thats a lot more interesting than what were supposed to be watching.' Their C.D. aims not to steal the work of these unnamed artists, but rather to pay homage to their creative expression, and for artists working in this manner appropriation is a far cry from abuse.

Reverence, however, is not always the aim of Cultural Recyclers. Critical commentary is an integral aspect of the plunderphonics of another Detrivore, British performer Vikki Bennett, aka People Like Us. For Bennett, taking the extreme or stereotypical aspects of different cultures is necessary to her examination of the effect that cultural content has on society. Bennett's creative strengths lay in the isolation of surreal and disturbing qualities in the seemingly innocuous babble of, for example, talk radio, and her use of realistic samples are necessary to the subsequent amplification of these quirks into dense montages. Self described as 'demented urban folk music', Bennett's music is partially motivated by a resistance to what her listeners would like it to be. Erstwhile, she finds avoiding the influence of preceding culture as impossible as it is not to affect that which follows. 'Art dictates culture, always has. We must accept that no man is an island and we are all quoting each other.'

Radical opposition to recombinant art achieves its online epitome each October 1st when designers, for one day, turn their web sites into the Dantesque hell that a copyfree world make of the internet. is a permanent example of the extreme caution designers and artists would hypothetically be forced to resort to if laws no longer protected their intellectual property.

NO graphics to bring your web site to life… No art to dazzle your eyes… NO cartoons or jokes to make you laugh…NO colors to open your mind… NO music to lift your spirits… NO poetry to make you think and feel…(etc) There would only be lackluster grey pages with humdrum black text… no variety… no diversity… no individuality.

In retaliation Detritus designed a simple and effective parody;, where we can contemplate a world in which:

All the people who gave away what they made for the web suddenly took it back. There would be… NO world wide web… NO web browsers… NO web servers… NO e-mail… NO domain names… NO networking protocols… NO web jobs for graphic designers… NO Internet companies… Imagine it! There would only be military mainframes… separate and isolated local area networks…

Next October 1st, I know which dystopia I'll fear more.

A prominent example of the ill-thought retaliation which cultural industries wield against artists is the attack against the Deconstructing Beck album. This compilation of tracks made entirely from altrocker Beck's songs, was released by a label hosted on Detritus: Illegal Art. Beck was not asked permission, and it was presumed that none would be required since his own work is laden with unquoted samples. However Geffen records still threatened to sue. Although no one knows for sure, it is rumoured that Beck himself put pressure on Geffen to have the litigation dropped. When talking about the ethics which she employs while sampling other artists, Bennett raised the concept of 'Bank Balance Politics'. One quotes other artists who have less than oneself, and exploits those who have more. To Hise, each artist draws their own line. 'What I've always said is that if the new work bears the mark of its creator then it's ok – whether through juxtaposition, processing of some kind, or recontextualization … Of course there are other kinds of distinctions to be made as well. For me and a few other more political appropriators, it's understood that the word “appropriation” is, in some circles, a bad word, like in cultural studies and anthropology. What it usually means in those contexts is co-opting culture from indigenous peoples. Which I consider not ethical. If you are recycling, you should be taking from those on an equal or higher socioeconomic power level. Like Robin Hood. “Steal from the Rich, give to the Poor.” but other artists aren't as concerned with those distinctions and that's their prerogative.'


By far the most embarrassing corporate attempt to thwart an artist was the 2 year, million dollar suit launched by Mattel against erotic lampoonist Tom Forsythe. Forsythes images depict nude Barbie in various domestic contexts; contexts that gender conservatives would like to see stifle ludic girls when grown up to be housewives. Barbie on her back with an eggbeater against her crotch, Barbie heads impaled on fondue forks inside a boiling pot, Barbie Enchiladas wrapped in a tortilla, slathered in hot sauce. Although Mattel claimed Forsythe's work is 'crudely sexual and violently misogynistic', Forsythe's satirical criticism of the shallow, consumeristic values fostered and perpetuated by Barbie won over Judge Ronald Lew, who scolded Mattel for lacking a sense of humour. For Forsythe, 'The judge's decision is a powerful victory for all feminists who criticize Barbie's stereotype of women and the unquestioning acceptance that allows Mattel to sell these hyper-sexualized hunks of plastic into millions of American homes'. Most embarrassing for the corporate giant was the uncovering of Barbie's origin. Mattel didn't actually invent Barbie, she was based on a German model called Lilli that Mattel's founder saw whilst on holiday in Europe. So much for intellectual property.

But the tightening of copyright laws renders freedom of expression successes increasingly rare. The Electronic Frontier Foundation has launched a Campaign for Audiovisual Free Expression, and foremost on its agenda is an attack against America's Digital Millenium Copyright Act. The DMCA was passed in 1998 to prohibit the circumvention of copy protection and the distribution of devices that can be used to circumvent copyrights; even if users don't do anything illegal once they've broken the security. The act has effectively bitten the hand that feeds security software companies. Already two systems analysts have been arrested for research they conducted which revealed flaws in copy protection systems. Research of this ilk usually strengthens security systems, revealing vulnerabilities in current configurations. Since the arrests, many important researchers have refused to publicize their findings in fear of prosecution, consequently preventing security companies from perfecting their 'copy safe' products. This law highlights the extent to which America is prepared to support financial concerns of corporate giants. The DMCA effectively banned software made to play DVDs on Linux systems. Whilst the average American sentence for committing rape is 5 years, the maximum penalty for having a 'pirate' copy of Planet of the Apes is 10 years jail, or a $2M fine.

According to Hise, complacency could one day leave us stranded.

Pressure from the big names in Cultural Production have already pushed ISPs to disconnect users accessing file sharing servers like Gnutella. The WIPO (World Intellectual Property Organization), exploiting U.S. free trade treaties, is mandating all member nations to move to U.S.-style intellectual copyright laws. To Hise, 'this is a scary thing indeed, especially for many non-western peoples whose culture and traditions dont usually include the European-Enlightenment style of romantic notions of authorship that are the moral/philosophic support for these kinds of laws'. Hise cites the ideas of Lawrence Lessig, author of “Code, and other Laws of Cyberspace, 'who pinpoints some environmental reasons for maintaining caution on the net.

'Lessig was in Eastern Europe in the early 90s watching and helping new states create constitutions, and in the late 90s he's been watching the internet, and the main compelling point he makes is that the internet is a constructed space without an inherent nature. The physical world has certain physical laws that we can't get around: gravity, thermodynamics, etc. But in “cyberspace” we get to make the rules. A lot of “hacker rhetoric” centers around a sort of outlaw chic where people say that “netizens” can't be stopped, all the old powers can't control them … Lessig argues that this HAS been true, but it is becoming less and less true and there's no guarantee that it will not get worse, because of that lack of inherent nature. There are forces out there working to create rules that won't be kind to some of us. It's up to all of us to decide what kind of society we want online, and then work to get it. Complacent belief that “the man can't keep us down” will not work.'


Artists represented by Detritus exploit net-specific strategies to foster the survival of their work. The first of these is publicity. ' The web gives victims of unfair legal action, or victims of anything, unprecedented opportunity to get the word out about what is being done to them.' Additionally, mirroring sites can be used to 'easily spread the supposedly infringing works to so many different places that the owners of the copyrighted source material couldn't possibly prosecute them all.' An example of this is the seminal appropriative release by John Oswald. Banned in 1989, Plunderphonic was easily targetted because Oswald chose not to sell the cd, instead giving radio listeners permission to record his music at home. Authorities claimed this resulted in an abuse of technology amounting to theft. Tracks from Plunderphonic are now available on a plethora of sites, including Detritus.

The ECC's planting of Napster Bombs illustrates a third powerful tool for survival of repressed artworks on the net, that of distribution most effective when aided by disguise. When ECC's 'Rocked by Rape' single was threatened by CBS, they vengefully altered their distribution techniques. ECC retitled their downloadable works with popular artists' names, and made them available on Napster. Testing the effectiveness of their strategy, they discovered that 'Rocked by Rape: ECC' was downloaded five times, whilst 'Rocked by Rape: Nirvana' was downloaded 200 times.

Although able to survive and distribute work through subversive avenues, copyright laws must be monitored too if we wish to preserve what is left of our freedom of expression. When asked whether there might one day exist an ideal form of copyright, Steev Hise had this to say:

'An ideal of no copyrights would only be fair and practical in an ideal world. The problem is that other aspects of our situation in this point in history makes it impossible to completely throw out intellectual property law. It's very complicated, but I think it's worth it to be aware of the complexities. Which is why I stopped, a few years ago, using the phrase “anti-copyright” or “NO©” or that sort of thing. It's grey, not black and white, and to deny the complex and use easy polar oppositions is misleading and damaging.'

Note: This article was originally commissioned by experimenta media arts. Images, courtesy of Detritus Multimedia. Top: “Evolution Control Committee”; middle: Tom Forsyth's “Every Barbie for Herself”; bottom: Tom Forsyth's “Fondue for Three”.

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