Monday, July 25, 2016

How Much Control Do Artists Have over a Work after It’s Sold?

How Much Control Do Artists Have over a Work after It’s Sold?

One day in early November of 2011, artist Cady Noland walked into Sotheby’s New York, there to inspect three of her works slated to hit the auction block in a matter of days. Though among the art market’s most commercially coveted artists, she had long distanced herself from the art world. Noland isn’t represented by a gallery and her picture eludes even Google’s grasp. So the fact that she would set foot in an auction house may seem surprising. Yet while she evades personal attention (a cold shoulder some over-eagerly read as a dismissal of the art market in totum), she keeps a watchful eye on how her own work is sold and marketed.
A series of emails later revealed in court filings show a cordial exchange in the leadup to Noland’s visit between members of the Sotheby’s staff and her lawyer, Jonathan Halpern, who also surveyed the works. In the course of her inspection, Noland looked over Oozewald (1989)—a metallic sculpture of John F. Kennedy’s assassin riddled with holes, discovering that the stand needed to be replaced. One was provided to the eventual buyer who snapped up the piece for $6.6 million, setting a new record for the most expensive living woman artist at auction.
But if Noland’s pre-sale visit proved auspicious, it also proved costly. Another work she inspected, Cowboys Milking (1990), went on to make headlines—not for breaking records or missing estimates but because the work never saw the light of the Sotheby’s salesroom. During her visit, Noland reportedly noticed that all four of the work’s corners were damaged, likely permanently. Though a Sotheby’s intake report had deemed the piece “in very good condition overall,” Noland was of a different opinion.
Cady Noland, Cowboys Milking, 1990.
On November 9th, the day before the auction in which Cowboys Milking was to appear, Halpern sent Sotheby’s an email. In it, he reiterated information already conferred to the auction house: “To repeat and re-emphasize her position, Ms. Noland fully expects that, irrespective of the consignor’s wishes, Sotheby’s will withdraw ‘Cowboys Milking’ from auction. The current condition of the work materially differs from that at the time of its creation.” Though the catalogue was printed and the pre-sale estimates tabulated ($250,000 to $350,000), Sotheby’s yanked the piece from the sale. How could they not? With one simple diktat, Cady Noland had disavowed Cowboys Milking.
Following the Sotheby’s decision, lawsuits went flying. The consigner’s suit against Sotheby’s and Noland was dismissed; Noland’s countersuit was dropped and a Sotheby’s countersuit settled, though not before some tantalizing email exchanges hit the public record. Legally, it is established that the auction house has the right to revoke a work before an auction if doubts are raised about its authenticity.
What is less clear are answers to the whole host of questions raised by Noland’s disavowal of Cowboys Milking. Is authorship something that can be revoked at will? Under what authority can an artist disavow one of his or her works? How do artists exert control over their work long after it ceases to be their property?

Moral Rights

“This is not serious! Why does an auction house ask the advise [sic] of an artist that has no gallery representation and has a biased and radical approach to the art market?” an irate-sounding Marc Jancou wrote in an email to Sotheby’s after the house informed him they would pull his work, Cowboys Milking, from the sale. His feelings are understandable—Noland’s act had left him with an unauthored and likely unsellable 48-by-72-inch slab of aluminum. His wallet was lighter to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars. And given Noland’s behavior, it is tempting (albeit simplistic) to see her disavowal as a statement against commodification, though she never explicitly declared it as such.
A Law Meant to Protect American Artworks from Destruction Is Failing
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Her disavowal is empowered by the United States’s Visual Artists Rights Act (VARA). Passed by the House and then a reluctant Senate in 1990 (its sponsor, Ted Kennedy, tucked it into a larger bill), VARA provides visual artists control over the attribution and integrity of their work. One key provision states that an artist “shall have the right to prevent the use of his or her name as the author of the work of visual art in the event of a distortion, mutilation, or other modification of the work which would be prejudicial to his or her honor or reputation.” This section is what Noland’s lawyer invoked in his letter to Sotheby’s, citing the state of Cowboys Milking.
Though a tiny statute in the tome of U.S. copyright law, VARA stands out. In the United States, property rights generally reign supreme. Once you own an object, you can do almost anything you want to it. Buy a book, toss it into the fire—the author can’t stop you. “Our entire concept of private property precludes any sort of continued interest,” says Lauren van Haaften-Schick, who is studying the intersection of law and art for her Ph.D. at Cornell University. VARA, however, grants visual artists working in a select set of mediums a set of powers over the material work that can trump the economic interests of owner.
Similar statutes have existed on the state level. But if VARA doesn’t seem like a natural-born part of U.S. federal law, that’s because it’s something of a European immigrant. VARA stems from a foreign conception of ownership known as moral rights. “A moral right is premised on the idea that art transcends commerce,” says Amy Adler, a law professor at NYU. “It’s based on the European vision of art as connected to personhood, to dignity, to something that can’t be commodified.”

Law vs. Market

And yet it was art market conventions—not a court order—that prompted the withdrawal of Cowboys Milking from Sotheby’s. An artist disavowing a work makes the market jittery. And that Noland’s claims would meet the burden under VARA is far from certain. Is the damage to the four corners of Cowboys Milking a product of gross negligence? Another conservator, Christian Scheidemann, looked at the work in 2011 and deemed it in “very good” condition while also noting the deformed corners. What standard would be used to determine if something is prejudicial to an artist’s honor or reputation?
Without much case law teasing out the finer points of VARA, the answer to all these legally salient questions is uncertain. “What is certain is that the art market protects that right for her,” says Adler of Noland’s ability to disavow her work. “The legal niceties are in some ways besides the point,” she adds. “The market has been structured through contracts and through convention to defer to the wishes of the artist.”
With VARA’s scope not entirely defined, one begins to wonder if it doesn’t allow artists who are interested in resisting the commodification of art to enshrine conceptual artistic gestures in cold hard legalities (giving them “teeth,” as artist and lawyer Sergio Muñoz Sarmiento put it.) Does VARA provide room for an artist to declare that, conceptually, a work can never be auctioned because such an act would would amount to a mutilation? “What we should start out with is separating an artistic answer from a legal answer,” says Sarmiento. “Artistically, an artist can say anything. And whether or not the artistic establishment respects that utterance is one thing; whether the legal establishment respects it is another.”
Ultimately, the answer is uncertain if not unknowable, depending on numerous factors including the judge hearing the case. Sarmiento reads VARA strictly. So did the court in Phillips v. Pembroke Real Estate, Inc when it ruled that moving a site-specific work of art from its original location, invoking a “public presentation,” isn’t a distortion of the piece—a legal interpretation that if handed in as visual analysis would cause an art history professor to raise an eyebrow into the stratosphere. Adler sees more potential flexibility. “I think that the statute would protect us,” she says of this hypothetical un-auctionable work of art. “I think it would enforce our artwork’s terms,” adds Adler, quipping, “I think we should make it.”
An artist disavowing an artwork is an act riddled with complexities, from the legal foundation, to the broader conceptual ramifications, to the role of the art market. Though the three components impact each other, ultimately a work can be disavowed in the eyes of the law and the market but not in that of the beholder (or the reverse). If art is purely an investment, then a disavowal in the eyes of the market or the law is of primary concern. If a work of art gives satisfaction as an aesthetic object hanging on the wall, then it may not matter if the work has been disavowed, assuming it appears materially the same.
Sarmiento points out that previous efforts by conceptual artists widely read as an attempt to resist the commodification of the art object (by working with mass-produced objects that anyone could buy, for example) didn’t exactly succeed. The price of such art isn’t tumbling. You can’t buy a urinal, call it Fountain, and donate it to the MoMA. “Conceptual art tried to eviscerate the commodification of the art object,” he says. “In fact what it did was the opposite. It really heightened and incentivized speculation.” If history is any guide, it’s possible that a work of art legally barred from being sold at auction would become an expensive item on the private sale market.

The Siegelaub Agreement

Unintended consequences are but one reason artists looking to control how their work is sold and marketed should employ other options than overly creative readings of VARA. Instead, they can use a good old-fashioned contract: The Artist’s Reserved Rights Transfer And Sale Agreement (ARRTSA). Drafted in 1971 by Seth Siegelaub and lawyer Robert Projansky and utilized by artists like Hans Haacke and Sol LeWitt, the document is much more expansive than VARA. Among other powers, ARRTSA grants an artist control over where a work can be shown, information on who owns the piece, and provides them with 15% of the proceeds of any resale. “Now you have a contract—forget about VARA,” says Sarmiento.
Though the contract is a private document and not public law, in both ARRTSA and VARA one finds traces of moral rights. In fact, the contract “was discussed in every stage of pre-VARA versions of moral rights legislation that were brought to congress,” says Haaften-Schick. The goal of the document is not to end the commodification of art, but rather to tip the scales of art market in favor of the artists. As Siegelaub put it in an interview with Hans Ulrich Obrist: “In no way was it intended to be a radical act; it was intended to be a practical real-life, hands-on, easy to-use, no-bullshit solution to a series of problems concerning artists’ control over their work.”
The terms of the document deters buyers who see art solely as a financial commodity. The artist Hans Haacke began using the contract around the time of its creation, and today remains staunchly committed to the agreement though it has widely fallen out of use. “I still believe, the contract is reasonable and fair. But I do know, it does not promote sales. To a degree, it serves me as a litmus test of the person who is interested in buying my work. It is likely to weed out investors, ” Haacke told me. “If there is a sale and the new owner does not sign the contract, I have the legal means to say that this is not a work of mine.”
Five Legal Cases Changing the Art Market as We Know It
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ARRTSA is a product of a historical moment in the United States. The contentious political climate of the era and a focus on the links between corporations and museums made artists skeptical of institutions, both artistic and governmental. Though the contract remains useful (but untested in court), the art market has changed drastically since the 1970s. Just see the contract’s rosy estimates that 75% of people buying an artist’s work are friends. But though the way art is bought and sold is different, to a large extent the inequities felt by artists in the 1970s remain embedded in the art market of today.
The law, the market, and the work of art itself are all deeply and inextricably entwined—from Noland’s disavowal, to the Siegelaub contract, to the struggle over moral rights. Works of art—their formal qualities and their very authorship—cannot be separated from the systems that regulate and distribute them. That much is clear. Whether Cowboys Milking is by Cady Noland? Well, that depends on who you ask.

—Isaac Kaplan
Illustration by Jan Buchczik for Artsy.

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the Surprising Pitfalls of Collecting Video Art

New Measures Initiated to Remedy the Surprising Pitfalls of Collecting Video Art

Imagine you’re an art collector (for some of you who already are, that won’t be very hard). Not a big-time buyer with a slew of lawyers to review a purchase, but someone looking for a work that strikes your fancy. And as you walk through the aisles of an art fair, suddenly you see a dazzling video projected onto the wall of a booth. You reach for the proverbial wallet. But right before the purchase takes place, from the depths of your mind a strange question materializes, one you might never ask yourself if you were buying a sculpture or a painting or a drawing: What are you actually buying when you buy a work of video art?
The answer isn’t quite what the uninitiated might expect. The tricky nature of video art has proven to be an unpleasant surprise for collectors in the past. In all likelihood, if you’re even asking this question it means you’re savvy enough to know something about the particular pitfalls of video art. “The first problem was that people didn’t understand what they were buying when they were buying a video,” says Carlos Durán, founding co-director of LOOP, the Barcelona-based art fair dedicated to video art. “Buying a piece is not buying the rights.” Recently, LOOP has released a non-legally binding protocol that artists, galleries, and collectors can use to discuss and clarify what a purchaser is and is not receiving when they buy a work of video art.
When it comes to video, it is the rights to the work that confer the powers and privileges typically associated with actual ownership of a piece of art. These rights reside not with a physical object but with the artist, so buying a USB stick in a fancy box from a gallery doesn’t necessarily transfer these rights. Thanks to the way copyright laws are formulated, video pieces are governed like a movie downloaded from iTunes—specifically, the artist retains the rights to data migration, exhibition, and distribution long after the work is sold. Stories abound of collectors trying to lend videos to museums only to be told that they cannot without the permission of the artist. Trouble can also arise when collectors try to move a video work from one format to another—say VHS to DVD. Again, this is the artist’s prerogative, though Durán says that today collectors copying and moving work is much more widely accepted than it was a few years ago.
Much of the protocol introduced in LOOP’s new initiative echoes how physical art is treated while attempting to address the specific challenges that come with video work. The protocol asks the parties (collectors, gallery, and artist) to agree to, among other things, the edition number of the video, technical details for installation, and channels through which the work has and will be distributed (to avoid it unexpectedly popping up on YouTube). Among the rights discussed and agreed to are those of copying and exhibiting the work, while the purchaser agrees to inform the artist when the work is being loaned or sold.
Such agreements are not required for most transactions involving paintings or other physical mediums, as they are automatically governed by a different set of legal strictures. Purchasing a sculpture generally means it can be lent to a museum by the owner. It can be shown off at a party. The collector can rest easy that infinite copies of it will not be made. And it will never face technological obsolescence and cease to be viewable. The case is markedly different for intangible video works.
Though a lack of transparency certainly isn’t foreign to the art market at large, the complex legal status of video art brings special challenges. The edition number, museum lending rights, and format of the piece are among the key aspects the document requires to be laid out in black and white. The goal is for the parties involved in the transaction to go through document together step-by-step, in order to ensure clarity and confidence between parties. According to Durán, the protocol was used in several sales at the most recent edition of LOOP in Barcelona. Even if confusions around video art are large, LOOP is betting that a simple, straightforward document can be part of solution.
Alain Servais—a longtime collector who has written on issues inherent to the video art market—is more skeptical. “Recognizing that something must be done is one step,” said Servais. “But I am positive that this is not what needs to be done as it does not begin from a sound and objective understanding of what ‘legal item’ art video is.” Servais argues that, because of their digital intangibility, videos simply cannot be governed like physical works, and that there are other contracts out there which legally secure your rights to a video, unlike the LOOP protocol. “Either it’s a contract, or it’s not. A contract is something you can challenge and enforce in court. This is what it should be.” For his part, Durán says that the protocol can be useful to those looking for clarity rather than a contractual obligation (the two are also not mutually exclusive and the fair offers a 17-page accompanying legal document).
LOOP itself is using the document to purchase a video by Ângela Ferreira that was shown at the fair. “We’re getting the exact details of the film—how exactly she’s going to send it to us (on what device, in what file format)—on paper, which is always tricky, especially when you think about the obsolescence of the technology in 10 years’ time. She’s also agreeing on something that is really important to us as a purchaser, which is that we can lend this work to institutions,” LOOP fair manager Anna Penalva Halpin told me. She also noted that the work is to go on view at Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona, adding that “[the protocol] is a way to set the conversation about all these things.” Indeed, though some disagree over what conversation must be had and about how to ultimately solve the issues surrounding video art, there is general agreement that if the market is to grow the discussion cannot wait.

—Isaac Kaplan

How to Make EFFECTIVE Political Art

Art & Politics

How to Make EFFECTIVE Political Art: 6 Rules of Thumb

How to Make EFFECTIVE Political Art: 6 Rules of Thumb
Pussy Riot in Moscow
It’s one thing to move someone with a work of art. It’s another thing to mobilize them. For centuries, artists have used their canvases, sculptures, films, and other creative means to espouse deeply felt political opinion. But within the genre of political art, protest art (also commonly referred to as activist art, or in some cases, useful art) seeks not only to offer commentary, but to initiate real social or political change. The question is: how can political art best have an impact on the world outside of the white cube?
After looking at some truly productive political art projects from recent history, we’ve reverse-engineered five rules of thumb for creating—and disseminating—art as a form of social and political activism. This election season, with the stakes higher than any time in a generation, artists may want to take note of these tactics.

1. Forget About the Art World
Exhibiting political art in galleries, museums, and other art-world venues can be like preaching to the choir. Though we’re generalizing broadly here, it’s usually safe to assume that most artists share similar liberal aspirations for justice and equality with their audiences (curators, dealers, collectors, critics, fellow artists.) Positioning artwork in a setting that demands the attention of a broader audience is key—either as a means of getting the word out to new people who have different opinions (and may be persuaded to see your point of view), or engaging the very community you aim to serve.
A successful example of the latter comes from Swiss artist Thomas Hirschhorn, who is internationally known for two things: using lots and lots of brown packing tape, and producing cerebral, politically charged installations and public sculptures. For the fourth (and allegedly last) iteration of a series of civic art projects dedicated to various philosophers, Hirschhorn produced Gramsci Monument in 2013 at the Forest Houses in the Bronx. Hiring residents of the housing development to help him, the artist and a team of mostly African-American and low-income community members built a complex of structures made from materials typical of Hirschhorn’s oeuvre: plywood, blue tarps, two-by-fours, cardboard, and of course, brown packing tape.
The complex—which was visited by community members, art-world professionals, and media alike—included a library of books pertaining to political and social theory, a production house for a daily newspaper, a performance stage, a café, a computer room, and a radio station. In theory and in practice, Gramsci Monument provided a platform and dissemination strategy for voices largely unheard in the art world, and in mainstream media at large. Many who were involved in the project said afterwards they were grateful for the enriching conversations it unleashed in the community.

Thomas Hirschhorn's Gramsci Monument in the Bronx
2. Know Your Community
Tapping into personal experience can certainly inform an artist's studio practice, but leaving the studio altogether to spend time in the community might be more useful to others. Cuban artist Tania Bruguera has a great track record when it comes to making visible the social consequences of oppressive power and control, using what she describes as “behavior art.”
For example, when the artist began living with five undocumented immigrants in Corona, Queens, she became deeply concerned with the obstacles facing New York's immigrant communities. In response, the artist initiated a sociopolitical campaign called the Immigrant Movement (IM) International, which is partnered with the Queens Museum of Art and Creative Time. The ongoing project involves a storefront that provides free education and serves as a headquarters for activists and members of the immigrant community. Mobilizing politicians, academics, activists, and community members, IM International has organized panel discussions, led monthly action days, wrote a manifesto, created a holistic medical program for women, and tackled domestic violence, among many other useful endeavors. 
 Tania Bruguera's Immigrant Movement International headquarters in Queens

3. The Street Is Your Stage
In the early '80s, graffiti on the streets of New York gave voice to an underserviced urban community. But if you think spray cans and police evasion sum up a street artist's M.O., here are some innovative examples of artists making social issues visible in the public realm.
Conflict Kitchen by artists Dawn Weleski and Jon Rubin is a food cart in Pittsburgh that serves cuisine from countries that are in conflict with the United States. The kitchen currently serves Iranian food, which the artists package in wrappers that have printed information about the Iranian diaspora and interviews with Iranian people on them. The cuisine is augmented by performances, discussions, publications, and other events that engage the public to promote nuanced understandings of cultures too often misrepresented in the U.S. with prejudice.

Four iterations of Conflict Kitchen in Philadelphia

Employing guerilla-style tactics and sporting gorilla masks to conceal their identities, the Guerrilla Girls were formed in 1985 by a group of anonymous feminist artists who wanted to raise awareness for issues facing marginalized groups in the art world, namely women and people of color. Intervening in public space by way of posters and billboards, their graphic, text-heavy images combated sexism and racism with slogans like "Do women need to be naked to get into the Met Museum?" Printed on buses, bumper stickers, billboards, and t-shirts, this particular slogan brought attention to the fact that women were (and still are) largely left out of the art cannon.

Guerrilla Girls billboard

4. Social Media Is Your Soap Box
Throughout history, activists have used newspapers, radio, zines, and pamphlets to disseminate radical ideas and reach new audiences. During the Great Depression, leftist newspapers like the Daily Worker, New Masses, and Art Front printed activist artworks as a recurring feature, focusing on issues like labor strikes, poverty, and the lack of affordable housing. But today, social media offers free and immediate access to global audiences, and political messages have the potential to go viral. Use social media to share your projects, connect with allies, and get attention for your cause.
The virality of Pussy Riot, a feminist punk-rock protest group based in Moscow, has brought international attention to systemic homophobia, misogyny, and attacks on free speech in Russia. Branded by their brightly-colored ski masks that help protect their identities, the collective garnered global media coverage with their unauthorized performance in protest of Russian President Vladimir Putin, and in support of LGBTQ rights, in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior, which had supported Putin’s election campaign. They turned footage documenting the performance into a music video entitled "Punk Prayer - Mother of God, Chase Putin Away," which spread like wildfire over the Internet.
Three members of the group were later arrested and convicted of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred” and two were sentenced each to two years in prison. The widely reported trial helped raise support from the West, and Amnesty International adopted the case along with several other human-rights groups, eventually getting the women released after 21 months of jail time. 

Though breaking the law in the service of art is certainly not prudent and can lead to prison (as many artists, like Bruguera, have demonstrated), staging peaceful protests and performances in highly visible public spaces, documenting them, and sharing them online allows you to become your own media outlet, in the hopes that press will follow your lead.

5. It's Okay to Think Small
You don't have to change the world to create change. Two examples of relatively small-scale projects that prove this, incidentally (or maybe intentionally) both involve cats. (Yay! Cats!)
For a colony of kitties living in the basement of Saint Petersburg's Hermitage Museum, Swiss-born Eirk van Lieshout made all the difference. Though he may not be considered a political artist per se, van Lieshout's project for Manifesta '14 entitled The Basement improved the living conditions for a colony of cats who had inhabited the museum’s basement for many generations spanning over 200 years. The artist provided the cats with furniture and decorated their walls, and suggested (to humans) that below the visible surface of culture (i.e. the museum), we often find communities in need.

Erik van Lieshout's cat-colony makeover project, The Basement
In another attempt to improve the wellbeing of the feline species, artist Darren Bader created an installation at MoMA PS1 in which the artist filled a room with cats on loan from a local rescue shelter. The audience was invited to get to know the furry residents, who, if lucky, could be adopted and taken home at the end of the exhibition. 

Darren Bader's installation at MoMA P.S.1

6. Go Ahead, Try to Make the Next "Hope" Poster 
Sometimes, very rarely, and even then often through a confluence of events utterly outside of the artist's control, a powerful artwork can become the banner of a successful movement. This was the case of Shepard Fairey's appropriated image of a press photo of Barack Obama that has since become accepted as the ne plus ultra of political art for its role in stirring people across America to recognize the swelling wave of the campaign. It was also, arguably, the case with the famous ballerina-on-a-bull poster that Adbusters magazine created for Occupy Wall Street. Though the odds are slim that any one image (aside from a stirring photograph) will achieve a sustained place in the political conversation, social media means that a potent picture can light a thousand small fires—and may come to embody a zeitgeist.

In Honor of Melania Trump, Here Are 5 Works of Appropriation Art to Collect

In Brief

In Honor of Melania Trump, Here Are 5 Works of Appropriation Art to Collect

In Honor of Melania Trump, Here Are 5 Works of Appropriation Art to Collect
Melania Trump, appropriation artist
Melania Trump's speech at the Republican National Convention went viral Monday night for allegedly copying parts of a speech Michelle Obama made eight years earlier at the Democratic National Convention. Pundits will call it plagiarism. Artists might call it appropriation. In honor of the scandalous performance, we've put together five of our favorite works of appropriation art.

Gavin Turk’s Transit Disaster series is the ultimate appropriation of appropriation. Recycling Warhol’s car crash paintings from the Pop artist’s "Death and Disaster" series, which in turn were appropriated from photographs of fatal accidents in newspapers, Turk swaps Warhol's American car with a white van, a symbol of a certain British white working class, now dying its own kind of slow death as the demand for blue-collar labor begins to diminish.

From his journal-like ink-on-paper series Note to Self, Scottish Paul McDevitt pokes some fun at art history by treating a canonized painting style like the page of a notebook. McDevitt combines references to Piet Mondrian, the De Stijl movement, and graffiti, skillfully interweaving high and low art.

“There’s no comparable costume for a man that symbolizes this moment… we’ve only created this outfit for women,” once said Robert Gober of the wedding dress. In this recreation of a bridal advertisement for Saks Fith Avenue found in the New York Times, the artist has inserted himself into the gendered outfit. Positioned underneath a headline about homophobia, this work makes the political personal.

The emerging American artist Libby Schoettle's work centers around the fictional life of her alter ego, PhoebeNewYork. This collage appropriates the book cover for Nathaniel West's 1933 dark comedy set in New York during the Great Depression. 

The crude, generic figures in this suite of prints were originally rendered as illustrations for runaway slave posters. Artist Hank Willis Thomas reproduced the images, which he found in a book entitled Blind Memory: Visual Representations of Slavery in England and America 1780-1865.

Jonas Mekas’s Guide to Becoming an Avant-Garde Filmmaker

The Phaidon Folio

Underground Legend Jonas Mekas’s Guide to Becoming an Avant-Garde Filmmaker

Underground Legend Jonas Mekas’s Guide to Becoming an Avant-Garde Filmmaker
Filmmaker, poet and artist Jonas Mekas. Photo credit: ZKM | Center for Art and Media Karlsruhe
In this excerpt from Phaidon’s Akademie X—a collection of lessons, stories, and practical advice from a range of experienced international artists—the 93-year-old  avant-garde cinema pioneer Jonas Mekas lays out 13 simple steps to jumpstarting your budding career as a modern-day experimental filmmaker. For more information on Mekas’s storied life and colorful career, check out our in-depth two-part interview with him here and here.

Today there are at least half-a-billion tools and gadgets for making motion pictures: film cameras, video cameras, computers, mobile phones, even Google glasses. Which means that practically anybody can make movies; just as anybody can write, dance, or sing.
While most singing, dancing, writing and, now, moving picture-taking/sending is just a part of normal “social activity,” there are always some of us who want, or are inexplicably driven, to go a step further and pursue the tradition established by the so-called Seven Arts, to which the art of motion pictures has now been added.

If you’ve been bitten by the bug of cinema, I’d like to share with you the following thoughts that may be of some use upon embarking on that perilous journey that is your life.

Cinema, like literature or painting, or any other art, can be envisioned as a big tree with many branches. Some are large, and some are small, and some are very small. What’s important is not to forget that, large or small, they all have their function and together make up the tree. Thus we have a large narrative or story-telling branch, itself branching out into still smaller branches such as western, film noir, musical, comedy, slapstick, etc.; and several branches that split into varieties of “real life”: journalism, cinéma vérité, television documentaries, and reports, even real-life serials and docudramas. Then there are different varieties of autobiographical and diaristic cinema (which I practice myself), and a branch known as “home movies” and a branch of essayistic cinema (practiced, say, by Chris Marker, Marcel Hanoun, and Peter Greenaway). And then there’s a cluster of smaller branches that deal with the non-narrative; one could call them “poetic” forms of cinema that in more ways than one correspond to the various different forms of poetry in literature (for example, the lyrical films of Marie Menken, Stan Brakhage’s Songs (1964–69), the films of Bruce Baillie); and branches that could be compared to letters and postcards that make up most of the output on YouTube, Facebook, and personal sites.

I believe that the two best ways to begin the journey are: one, to work with another filmmaker whose work you admire, and learn the art and craft the way the old Renaissance artists did or two, by acquiring a camera, any camera, and beginning to film/tape as a daily practice. Only by filming or taping will you begin to discover what kind of movies you want to make, towards which branch of the cinema tree you’re being pulled.

Just as the reading of other poets is the best teacher for a young poet, in cinema the best school for a film-maker is to see films, both classic and contemporary, from all branches of the cinema tree. Find your closest venue screening the classics. And get to know the other young people who have the same dreams as you. Meet them at local film venues where they show their films/videos: don’t get lost in purely “commercial,” “public” cinema venues. It’s at the small independent venues that the excitement is generated, that new ideas are born.

Read! Don’t ignore the history of your art. Don’t waste time trying to reinvent the wheel. Although it’s true that cinema begins anew with every buzz of our cameras, it’s also true that we’ve inherited an exciting body of cinema, representing all branches of the cinema tree. In a way, we’re branches of it, and we can grow only forwards, not backwards. I wouldn’t read the film magazines; they’ve all become very pedestrian. I’d say the same about most of the contemporary books on cinema. Read the early books, such as Paul Rotha’s The Film Till Now, Lewis Jacob’s The Rise of the American Film, the writings of Hans Richter, Jean Epstein, Dulac, the early (1900–15) Prague writers (if you can find them), Pudovkin, Arnheim. From the contemporaries, read Stan Brakhage’s Metaphors on Vision, P. Adams Sitney’s Visionary Film, Steve Dwoskin’s Film Is, Dominique Noguez, and my own Movie Journal. I recommend the early writings on cinema above the contemporary books for the boundless enthusiasm that the early writers had for the art of motion pictures, their passion, their visions, dreams that have been lost in the contemporary writings on cinema.

Learn everything about the tools and technologies that go into the making and presentation of your art. Like musicians or painters, film/video makers have to have a thorough knowledge of what their chosen tool for making moving images can do, its capabilities, its limits, in order to use it to its maximum potential. (See Harmony Korine’s Trash Humpers (2009)—a movie “badly” made, “badly” edited, with “horrible” camera work, everything bad—but a masterpiece; and my own Notes on the Circus (1966)—for the vocabulary of what a Bolex camera can do.)

MOVEMENT: Movement in cinema can now go from complete immobility (Andy Warhol’s Empire, 1964) to a blurred swish (Michael Snow’s Back and Forth, 1969), to a million unpredictable speeds and ecstasies (Brakhage’s work, for example). The classic film vocabulary allows only respectably paced camera movements, the steadiness, the immobility that is called a “good,” “clear” image. But filmmakers have freed the camera motion. Camera movements can now go anywhere, from a clear, idyllic peacefulness to a frenetic ecstasy of motion. The full scale of our emotions can be registered and reflected—for ourselves, if for nobody else. The camera can be as feverish as our minds. There’s no such thing as “normal movement” or a “normal image”; there’s no “good” image or “bad” image. I don’t have to tell you that what I’m saying here goes radically against the accepted aesthetics of the classical and professional contemporary public cinema.

LIGHTING/EXPOSURE: You can go from the “properly” exposed and lit image (as measured by the light meter) to the complete destruction of the “proper”; from a total whiteness (wash-out) to a total blackness. Endless nuances are now open to us, the poetry of shades, or over- and under-exposures. (See Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, 2010.)

We now know that there’s no such thing as one way of exposing (seeing) things; that the steadiness or sharpness or clarity (and all their opposites) aren’t virtues or absolute properties in themselves; that the cinema language, like any other language or syntax, is in constant flux, as our tools for making moving images and our ways of seeing reality change in complex mysterious and unpredictable ways. (See Harmony Korine’s Trash Humpers, George Kuchar’s The Weather Diaries, 1986–90, Isidore Isou’s Traité de bave et d’éternité, 1951.)

And please, do not listen to those who say that analogue film is dead and long live the digital technologies! No, no, no! In Paris, London, New York, Tokyo, there are many, I repeat, many young people who still believe in what these days they call “analogue” cinema: the film, celluloid cinema, and they practice it. They know where to find 8-mm and 16-mm film stock, they create their own film-processing labs, they save old projection equipment, they encourage producers of film stocks to continue making 8-mm and 16-mm film. And they exchange their works through noncommercial film-makers’ cooperatives—Light Cone in Paris, Film-makers’ Cooperative in New York, Canyon Cinema in San Francisco, LUX in London, etc. You’ll find a lot of information on this subject by contacting Re:Voir in Paris. Film as film is here to stay!

And lastly: honor your image format and your camera as you honor your mother and your father. A film made on 8-mm or 16-mm should always be shown as 8-mm and 16-mm, never transferred to any other format. The same goes for 35-mm and all other formats. A video work should be shown as a video, not molested by transferring it to film. Just as watercolors and oils come with their own particular, untranslatable properties, or a saxophone cannot be translated into a violin, film and digital formats come with their own untranslatable unique properties of technique, style and content. What you can do with your mobile phone you’ll never be able to do with your 35-mm camera.

I’m writing these notes in Brooklyn, New York, and I think they’re perfectly sane and, if followed, would be profitable to anyone who wants to make movies. But I write them will full knowledge that in another place, known as Olympus, far away from Brooklyn, there are eight muses who have their own plans and one never knows who they’ll choose to enter you and drive you crazy: because once they enter you, you have no choice. Nor do you need any guidebooks. Journalists will ask you: how did you start and why? And you’ll have no answer.
I suggest that you keep away from theoretical books on cinema, at least for the first ten years of your work in film. They can mess you up and it will take long time to return back to yourself. My list includes books only where the authors, including myself, write about cinema like poets, with enthusiasm and excitement about the possibilities of cinema as an art and a discovery.
Grierson, John. Grierson on Documentary. London: Collins, 1946.
— I chose this book for its visionary dreams of real-life cinema—cinema as a record of the reality around us.
Mekas, Jonas. Movie Journal. New York: Macmillan, 1972.
— I am including this volume of my own selected columns from the Village Voice so that you can understand where my mind and heart are regarding the art of moving images. I’m not a historian, nor a critic of cinema: I’m a lover of cinema!
Richter, Hans. A History of the Avant Garde. San Francisco: Art in Cinema, 1947.
— I chose this book for Hans Richter’s unrestrained, contagious enthusiasm for the possibilities of non-narrative, poetic, and abstract forms of cinema.
Rotha, Paul. The Film Till Now. London: Spring Books, 1967.
— This book was written when writers of film histories still wrote with a dreamer’s innocence about the young art of moving images.
Brakhage, Stan, dir. Metaphors on Vision. Film Culture, 1963. Film.
— This book by the great film poet presents his visionary insight into the workings of the human eye, human vision, as it struggles to record what it sees through art.

6 Art-World Lessons From the Unorthodox Classroom of Akademie X
Chris Kraus on the Ambiguous Virtues of Art School
Words to Live By: Marina Abramović's Mystical Maxims for Artists
Venice Biennale Representative Joan Jonas's Workout Regimen for Artists
The Four-Hour Art Week? Read Carol Bove's Self-Help Guide for ArtistsSanford Biggers’s Tough-Love Guide to Surviving the Art WorldGo On a New York City Scavenger Hunt With Artist Mark DionÓlafur Elíasson’s 9 Foolproof Tips for Urban InspirationPainter Carrie Moyer on Her Polyamorous Relationship With ArtWangechi Mutu’s Words of Wisdom for Struggling Artists

How Relevant Is Raphael? See 5 Contemporary Echoes of the Renaissance Paragon's Art

The Phaidon Folio

How Relevant Is Raphael? See 5 Contemporary Echoes of the Renaissance Paragon's Art

How Relevant Is Raphael? See 5 Contemporary Echoes of the Renaissance Paragon's Art
Deposition of Christ, 1507 by Raphael
As one of the most lauded and recognizable painters of the High Renaissance, Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino (better known as simply Raphael) is credited with laying much of the groundwork for the centuries of artistic inspiration and innovation that followed in his wake. Works like his School of Athens in the Vatican or Portrait of Pope Julius II have been studied by millions of art lovers the world over, and his influence, perhaps unsurprisingly, is still evident in the work of today’s artists. These 10 pieces, excerpted from Phaidon’shistorical monograph Raphael and Artspace’s own inventory, show that the Old Master’s style and subject matter aren’t so different from his more modern followers.


Self Portrait with Friend
 Self-Portrait With a Friend, c.1518–19 by Raphael
Ma Griffe


Portrait of a Cardinal Portrait of a Cardinal, c.1510 by Raphael

Mrs Claus Cindy Sherman


Madonna and Child
The Virgin and Child (The Bridgewater Madonna” ), c.1507 by Raphael 

Melinda with Child


Three Graces Rapahel
 The Three Graces, c.1504 by Raphael

Three Graces Pearlstein


Guidobaldo Da Montefeltro
 Guidobaldo Da Montefeltro, c.1504 by Raphael 

John Grande Basquiat

10 Searing Political Artworks You Should Know

The Phaidon Folio

The Art of Sticking It to the Man: 10 Searing Political Artworks You Should Know

The Art of Sticking It to the Man: 10 Searing Political Artworks You Should Know
Banksy's Untitled (LA, 2011), 2011
Artists have long used their work as a site to express their politics. Though their historical, social, and geographic contexts differ widely, such political works can, at their best, challenge long-held beliefs and spark meaningful dialog amongst peers and viewers alike. In the current climate, this consciousness-raising effort seems as vital as ever, and artists are taking notice. In this excerpt from Phaidon’s The 21st Century Art Book, we look back at some of the most interesting and important examples of political art from the past decade and a half. For more information about making effective political art, check out our new guide here.


Grainy surveillance footage from a maximum-security prison captures the dramatic moment when an inmate is shot dead by guards. The shooting of William Martinez in 1989 was one of many similar incidents at California State Prison, which became notorious for its brutal conditions. Farocki’s film focuses on the investigation into the shootings, revealing that guards intentionally set up fights between prisoners, allowing them to escalate before interceding with live ammunition. The prison footage is juxtaposed with computer-generated graphics based on the movements of supermarket shoppers. In this way Farocki explores the power relationship between the observer and the observed, drawing parallels between the role of surveillance in the lives of prisoners and those of everyday citizens. The power of images has been a central concern for the German filmmaker since the late 1960s. His film essays and documentaries examine systems of control and manipulation, and the influence of technology on human behavior.


A group of black silhouetted figures are shown leaping and cavorting, and engaging in lewd sexual acts. Walker has used black paper cut-outs, which are usually fixed directly onto the gallery walls, since the early 1990s. Silhouette art peaked in popularity in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and Walker has reappropriated the style to create imagery that is often shocking and uncomfortable, addressing issues of race and gender, power and sexuality. This piece was originally commissioned by the Swiss museum Fondation Beyeler, and was created in response to its collection of African art. In it, Walker examines the influence of African tribal art on Modern artists, as well as looking at the wider appropriation of black creativity in Western art and culture. The piece includes Walker’s recreations of works from the museum’s collection, including Augustin Rodin’s Iris (1895), while the title references the Constantin Brancusi sculpture Endless Column (1918).

WHERE WE COME FROM (HANA)Emily Jacir2001–3

Jacir asked Palestinians who were prohibited from entering their homeland, or who experienced restricted movement within it, the question “If I could do anything for you, anywhere in Palestine, what would it be?” In 2002 using her US passport, which at the time entitled her greater mobility through Israeli borders and checkpoints, the artist carried out these request (due to increased restrictions in the region the piece would be impossible to make today). The installation Where We Come From is a photographic, text, and video documentation of these actions. The requests were mostly simple, often poignantly so. Many were related to family: a kiss for a mother, an up-to-date photograph of a brother’s children. Others were almost banal, with one person just asking that Jacir do something “normal” in Haifa. The installation explores questions of displacement and how conflict affects individuals on a personal and everyday level. Silenced historical narratives, resistance, and movement are recurring concerns in Jacir’s works.


The artist clutches a toy panda as he sits in a London street talking with a homeless man who asks: “May my situation be better if I am in China?” The question, printed on the photograph in English and Chinese, is left unanswered, though Bandi’s expression suggests an unfavorable response. The sardonic tone here is typical of the artist’s photographs, which depict him and his panda in everyday scenarios. In some works comic book speech bubbles give voice to the toy, who discusses topical issues such as war, terrorism, pollution, and public health. Drawing from the visual language of advertising and public information campaigns, Bandi’s witty and subversive works critique the absurd and often irrational aspects of government propaganda in his native China. While Bandi has exhibited in galleries internationally since the early 1990s, many of his works appear as public posters, allowing his political commentaries to reach a mass audience.

A textile wall hanging, this work uses an old pink woolen blanket cut and extended, with cotton as backing, onto which a series of statements are stitched. Emin has used quilting and appliqué in her work since her career-launching solo exhibition in 1993, and is one of a number of women artists to use traditionally feminine crafts to express complex emotions and sexuality. A central player in the loose group of artists commonly referred to as the Young British Artists (YBA), Emin’s work is often based on self-exposure, yet this piece is overtly political. Amongst the statements in block capitals, a small section of white fabric features a handwritten text: “1982, A year so many conscripts did not got home – Because you, you killed them all”. This, combined with the use of the British Royal Navy’s White Ensign flag, suggests a reference to the Falklands War and the ever-divisive then-Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher.


Five simultaneous slide projections document a performance-based artwork in which Hayes held up banners carrying anachronistic slogans relating to protest actions from previous eras. The original, collaborative performance took place in various public locations, the sites of historical actions, in New York in 2005. It was then adapted for similarly significant locations in Brussels, London, Warsaw, and Vienna. The intention was not to re-enact the protests but to commemorate those events and to assert the possibilities for future dissention. The artist was also exploring the idea of the protester as an agent of change, the protest sign as a method of communication and the political construction of public space and public speech. Hayes’s work combines performance art with direct engagement with the public and her principal concern is the way in which we participate, as both speakers and listeners, in the political discourse of our own time.

WORLD MAPAi Weiwei2006

Thousands of sheets of fine cotton cloth have been cut into the shape of a world map and layered precisely to create a three-dimensional sculpture. Actual geographical borders between countries are ignored in favor of the straight edges of the fabric, which divide the map. Using a familiar image, Ai has constructed a complex work that is by design very labor-intensive to install, thus evoking China’s status as a source of cheap workers for the garment industry. The difficulty of placing the elements accurately also introduces issues of international relations and global trade. The historical, socio-political, and economic conditions of contemporary China frequently serve as starting points for Ai’s art and he has become internationally known for his critical stance. He uses a diverse range of techniques and materials, often drawing on Chinese traditions, and although politically motivated,  he uses humor and metaphor, producing work that is poetic and subtle in its content, with formal aesthetic qualities.


This double-screen video projection weaves together filmed images of Berlin, Mumbai, and Warsaw to imagine a shared economic, social and urban history of the twentieth century. Its title is a reversal of Rosa Luxemburg’s The Accumulation of Capital (1913), which described the rapacious nature of capitalism: its tendency to commandeer resources and its intolerance of other economic models. The film reflects on Luxemburg’s theories and includes a parallel narrative exploring her violent death and the disappearance of her body. The double screen sets up a dialogue between images, narrative, and text, making a work that is hauntingly poetic and polemical. Raqs Media Collective, a group of three media practitioners, operates at the intersections of contemporary art, historical and philosophical enquiry, and activism. In 2000 they co-founded the Sarai Programme at Delhi’s Center for the Study of Developing Societies, which encourages creative collaboration between the visual arts and other disciplines concerned with urban spaces and cultures in South Asia.

UNTITLED (LA, 2011)Banksy2011

A young girl, pencil in hand, watches in annoyance as her simple drawing of a house is boarded up. Applied directly to a Los Angeles wall, this mural is one of several outdoor works by Banksy that appeared across the city in early 2011. While the figures have been rendered using the artist’s familiar stencil technique, the child’s house has been drawn freehand with colourful crayon. With characteristically acerbic wit, the work addresses the issue of foreclosure that plagued the U.S. housing market during the early 2010s, speaking bluntly of the callousness of those involved in repossessing people’s homes. Appearing on city streets throughout the world, Banksy’s satirical art combines subversive humor with social and political commentary. Starting out as part of the British graffiti subculture in Bristol in the early 1990s, he has since become one of the world’s most famous street artists. Preferring to remain anonymous, speculation is rife regarding his true identity.


A decommissioned fire hose is the unusual material used to make this work. The formal arrangement, made from long strips of the flattened hose, recalls American abstract art of the early 1960s, especially the famous stripe paintings by Frank Stella. Yet it is to another event from this period that Gates’s work points: the violent hosing of civil-rights demonstrators by police in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963. The enduring challenge of race and class inequality in American cities is a driving force for Gates, whose sculptures, installations, and performances are part of a larger vision that aims to effect genuine social change. Originally trained as an urban planner, the Chicago-based artist uses funds raised from the sale of his works to assist in the regeneration of deprived neighborhoods. Collaborating with architects, craftspeople, and unemployed laborers, Gates buys and renovates derelict properties. Salvaged materials from the buildings are then used to create new artworks, and so the cycle continues.