Wednesday, February 10, 2010


Parallel development: the process of creating multiple versions of the same object (or set of objects) concurrently. Typically, multiple users work independently on the same project, or a single user develops multiple, concurrent versions of a project. The parallel development cycle ends when you merge the work together.
Parallel evolution: the development of a similar trait in different not closely related species, but descending from the same ancestor.

A thought has been banging around in my head for a long time now. I've made notes about it so I could write a blog post though it never seemed to coalesce into a sentient form. But other writers seemed to be having similar thoughts, and reading them has pushed me to do some thinking aloud (or at least as "aloud" as a blog will allow). The thought has to do with originality. When is an idea original? What does plagiarism mean in an artistic context?  Where is the border between the collective unconscious and downright cribbing? This blog is certifiably NOT an original idea as I will show. Many others before me have ruminated, debated, and argued similar or identical points. Am I plagiarizing them? Well...

My first push to actually put this post online came from reading Jorg Colberg in his blog, Conscientious. Three years ago, he had written an essay called "When does similar become too similar?", which was followed by a recent update, "On Plagiarism and Similarities". He writes,

"And I think we might want to be a bit careful with the word plagiarism. Even though I realize that it has become very popular to throw around big words and accuse someone of this and that (stealing elections or files online are just obvious examples), proving plagiarism is actually a very tricky business, and given the severeness of the accusation, it does not hurt to be a bit careful. Also, if something is quite similar, that's not already plagiarism - especially if the methods are the same, but not the results. For example, compare the work of Idris Khan and Jason Salavon. Both have used digital superimpositions of images to create new work, with different subject matters. The methods are similar, the results and intentions aren't."

Idris Khan is a name that seems to come up often when I hear discussions about originality. His signature work involving multiple layers of superimposed images taken from a canon of visual information is neither a new idea nor newly presented. But he is by far the most celebrated and remunerated artist practicing the idea.  Doug Keyes work from the late 90s, Krzysztof Pruszkowski's work from the early 90s, and the previously mentioned Jason Salavon all easily predate Khan's work. 
Photography of Krzysztof Pruszkowski: Photosynthesis
Doug Keyes, Collective Memory
Idris Khan
I don't have an answer for the question of whether Khan's work is a rip-off of Keyes or whether Keyes work is a rip-off of Pruszkowski, and I certainly don't understand why Khan's work is valued at many multiples of the other two, but I do wonder whether it is even the right question. Art that bears more than a surface resemblance to other art is an old, old problem. If it weren't, we wouldn't need experts, authenticators, and appraisers in the way that we do. I remember the 1996 show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art called "Rembrandt/Not Rembrandt" which explored works by the master, his pupils, his imitators, and works previously thought to be by one or the other. The exhibit was posed as a question: who painted these works and why do we care? If a painting was thought for centuries to be a masterpiece, why would the attribution of the artist change our opinion? Of course, photography is a slightly different question. The mechanical nature of the medium blurs and even erases stylistic differences. Suddenly it is possible (not even on purpose!) to make a work startlingly similar to another without any knowledge of the previous work. In the past, imitators acknowledged a master or progenitor. Now, attribution is dubious, slippery, or arcane. And that doesn't even begin to ask the question of whether the "copyist" is aware of the work it's suggested he's copying. I call this Parallel development(PD).

My favorite example of PD is between Vik Muniz and French artist Phillipe Gronon. Mr. Muniz was working on his series "Verso" at exactly the same moment Mr. Gronon was working on his series "Versos". One was in Paris, the other was in New York and Brazil. Mr. Muniz' show opened on EXACTLY the same day in New York as Mr. Gronon's opened in Paris. There is no potential plagiarism here -- both artists were working at the same time in different places -- yet the works are strikingly similar. But despite the fact that they're remarkably alike seen as jpegs on a computer screen, in reality they are divergent works. One is a sculptural exploration and the other is a photographic exploration. But even if they were identical, we see that extremely similar work can be created independently of each other.

Vik Muniz, Verso
  Philippe Gronon, Versos

And many other PD examples exist. My second push to get going to write on this topic was in rereading "The Ongoing Moment" by Geoff Dyer. As Dyer brilliantly espouses in his book, photographers have always riffed on certain visual tropes: hats, beggars, signs, fences, blind people, benches, barbershops, hands, roads, and on and on (and this doesn't even begin to address the classic themes like landscape or nudes). Some of the pictures he references look alarmingly alike, others just share a common visual element. It strikes me as a continuing dialog more than replicated model. And yet another example from the PD idea: Tim Davis, Jorma Puranen, Yuji Ono, and Madeline Djerejian. All of these artists created a series that examined the effect of light on a painting when interpreted by a camera. None of these artists invented the idea. It goes back at least as far as Eliott Erwitt's famous photograph of a gallery in Venice from the 60s. Many of you will not have heard of Ms Djerejian. She told me she had worked on a series of photos of paintings in a museum. Just as she was about to show the work, Tim Davis' "Permanent Collection" series was unveiled at a major gallery. She shelved the completed project believing that she would never be able to counter the belief that she had "copied" the work of a more well-known artist. (I don't have reproductions of that series.) Are these works more similar or different? Would we interpret them identically were we to see them together? Does their context change by reading the artist statement?:

Jorma Puranen
Shadows, Reflections and All That Sort of Thing #40

Jorma Puranen
Shadows, Reflections and All That Sort of Thing #37

Tim Davis, Permanent Collection

Tim Davis, Permanent Collection

Yuji Ono, Tableaux from 1999

Yuji Ono, Tableaux from 1999

Or consider the architectural studies of Matthias Hoch, Frank van der Salm, Michael Wolf, and Ola Kolehmainen. I confess that, even though I know the work of each of these artists, I frequently confuse them when I see them in succession at art fairs. Does this negate or degrade each artist's work in any way? I used to think so, but now I'm not so sure. Does it matter which came first? Curators have told me that this is the primary question. So why do we see a museum choose Khan over Keyes? Lalla Essaydi is frequently chided for being "exactly like" Shirin Neshat. Aside from the fact that both artists use some form of Arabic text written across the photo, it seems to me that the art is fundamentally different; they only share a common visual trope. Or consider Silvio Wolf and ZHENG Nong. Mr. Wolf is clearly the more famous artist, and his work predates Mr. Zheng's. Does this automatically make the Chinese work a copy? 
© Silvio Wolf, 2006, HORIZON 14 - YELLOW, 2002
ZHENG Nong, Chemical Landscape 化学风景, (2006-07)

There are many factors to consider --process, meaning, context, intent -- but I'm beginning to think that the least of them is who came first. Which leads me to an essay a friend gave to me recently which really forced me to reconsider my thinking on the subject. Titled "The Ecstasy of Influence: a plagiarism" by Jonathan Lethem, first published in Harper's Magazine, February 2007. As I should have realized, the question is not confined to my little corner of the art world, but is a general, pervasive conversation in every creative universe. Mr. Lethem's text it is so cogent and on the money, I find it hard to excerpt, (please do click the hyperlink and read the whole thing), but in a nutshell, he shows how all of the arts have cribbed, borrowed, derived, and been influenced by previous work. Not only is it unavoidable, it's essential. Speaking of Bob Dylan:

Appropriation has always played a key role in Dylan's music. The songwriter has grabbed not only from a panoply of vintage Hollywood films but from Shakespeare and F. Scott Fitzgerald and Junichi Saga's Confessions of a Yakuza. He also nabbed the title of Eric Lott's study of minstrelsy for his 2001 album Love and Theft. One imagines Dylan liked the general resonance of the title, in which emotional misdemeanors stalk the sweetness of love, as they do so often in Dylan's songs. Lott's title is, of course, itself a riff on Leslie Fiedler's Love and Death in the American Novel, which famously identifies the literary motif of the interdependence of a white man and a dark man, like Huck and Jim or Ishmael and Queequeg—a series of nested references to Dylan's own appropriating, minstrel-boy self. Dylan's art offers a paradox: while it famously urges us not to look back, it also encodes a knowledge of past sources that might otherwise have little home in contemporary culture, like the Civil War poetry of the Confederate bard Henry Timrod, resuscitated in lyrics on Dylan's newest record, Modern Times. Dylan's originality and his appropriations are as one......The same might be said of all art.

Would any of us  wish to be without the contribution of Dylan based on a copyright dispute? From my own past, I think of all the classical music compositions that have been used to create popular songs. "Full Moon and Open Arms" was taken from Rachmaninoff's 2nd piano concerto, "Kismet" themes were cribbed from the works of Borodin, and "Never Gonna Fall in Love Again" was "inspired" by the 3rd movement of Rachmaninoff's 2nd symphony (Eric Carmen reached an agreement with the Rachmaninoff estate to share royalties on that one). There are hundreds of other examples. Whether you're afan of these songs or not, would you really argue they shouldn't exist? Again from Mr. Lethem:

Visual, sound, and text collage—which for many centuries were relatively fugitive traditions (a cento here, a folk pastiche there)—became explosively central to a series of movements in the twentieth century: futurism, cubism, Dada, musique concrète, situationism, pop art, and appropriationism. In fact, collage, the common denominator in that list, might be called the art form of the twentieth century, never mind the twenty-first. But forget, for the moment, chronologies, schools, or even centuries. As examples accumulate—Igor Stravinsky's music and Daniel Johnston's, Francis Bacon's paintings and Henry Darger's, the novels of the Oulipo group and of Hannah Crafts (the author who pillaged Dickens's Bleak House to write The Bondwoman's Narrative), as well as cherished texts that become troubling to their admirers after the discovery of their “plagiarized” elements, like Richard Condon's novels or Martin Luther King Jr.'s sermons—it becomes apparent that appropriation, mimicry, quotation, allusion, and sublimated collaboration consist of a kind of sine qua non of the creative act, cutting across all forms and genres in the realm of cultural production. 

Any text is woven entirely with citations, references, echoes, cultural languages, which cut across it through and through in a vast stereophony. The citations that go to make up a text are anonymous, untraceable, and yet already read; they are quotations without inverted commas. The kernel, the soul—let us go further and say the substance, the bulk, the actual and valuable material of all human utterances—is plagiarism. For substantially all ideas are secondhand, consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources, and daily used by the garnerer with a pride and satisfaction born of the superstition that he originated them; whereas there is not a rag of originality about them anywhere except the little discoloration they get from his mental and moral caliber and his temperament, and which is revealed in characteristics of phrasing. Old and new make the warp and woof of every moment. There is no thread that is not a twist of these two strands. By necessity, by proclivity, and by delight, we all quote. Neurological study has lately shown that memory, imagination, and consciousness itself is stitched, quilted, pastiched. If we cut-and-paste our selves, might we not forgive it of our artworks?  

There are, without doubt, cheaters and copiers in our midst. There are now and there have ever been. But absent a device that can glean the deepest intentions from every single creative act, I'm more comfortable with the concept of innocent until proven guilty.  As with capital punishment, better that a hundred copyists go free so that one Dylan can emerge. Inspiration and creativity are messy processes with no clear form or gestation. Though I've taken a much more hostile and militant stance in the past, I think Lethem's policy of forgiveness makes much more sense. I empathize with artists, not wealthy to begin with, who may feel that food has been taken out of their mouths by a rapacious copier. If it were studied, I suspect that is rarely the case in fact. Just as artists may have PD, collectors and curators, too are likely to be unaware of the parallel art. Is it possible that someone who wanted an Idris Khan but "settled" for a Doug Keyes? Sure, it could happen. Did someone who really wanted a Doug Keyes get seduced by an Idris Khan? Yeah, that could happen, too. But I bet in a vast majority of cases the market for one artist acted independently of the market for the other. 

I'm pretty sure this post won't end the discussion on this topic. Perhaps it will even stir up the hornet's nest (I encourage your comments). But I'm completely sure that I haven't said anything that hasn't been said before. Maybe I changed a few things here or a word or two there, but I can't plant a flag on the island of originality. My best hope is that it reaches some new ears or has a slight switch of perspective that makes it look a little new. Or at least, when seen in raking light, I can hope it's different enough to be mine.


    Tor Børresen, HANG ON METAL. USE NO WIRE, 2009
    from my last show @Fotogalleriet.

  2. If you're looking at who came first...I actually did this back in 1995. Shown with Bennett Roberts in LA, the work derived as large scale color abstractions of film ends. I was interested in appropriation of discarded non-imagery and raided the local professional color lab weekly for the film discards. The film was cleaned, slide mounted and titled "Untitled Painting #xxx". The idea being to appropriate another photographers discards (or garbage), recontexturalize and present as a painting, although technically a photograph.

    The paintings later gravitated by my piecing together 4 or 5 separate film ends to create more depth and the illusion of spacial reality.

    In 1995, the work did not catch on in LA and never made its way to NY, or Europe. I then opened a gallery and work ended, and moved on.

    Imagine my surprise when I saw Silvios work at an art fair and sent a photo to Bennett Roberts who laughed.

    It was both wonderful and maddening as when I asked the gallerist I was told that the idea was unique. I smiled, and laughed.

    Nothing is unique. I took my reference from Rothko, and color field paintings and took my materials from my photographic peers. Being first is only relevant if you are written about FIRST. Then, who came before whom is a cat fight and unless the "idea stealing" was so up front obvious, the first published generally wins.

    Another reference is Christopher Griffith who's Tire Photographs were published in a book, only to be copied by Horacio Salinas and shown (just before Griffith's book came out) at NYphoto Festival. It was highly talked about as being so original. However, his 8 images (that's all he shot) to Griffith's 100 exposures done a year before were atributed to Salinas. Salinas had not only seen the book, but knew Griffith and photographed the images in the exact way, format and printing. That's an obvious example..

    So we can turn our attention now to Pae White and the Whitney. Are we to think that Smoke Trails are a new idea? Not to blow my own horn, but I did that for my commercial agent 6 years ago and printed them Huge. Oh, and I took that idea from someone else who had done it and I am sure I was not the only person to have done this since.

    There are very few Original ideas and when they come round, they are elevated. The rest of the art world should cite references, be appreciative of the inspiration and strive to recontexturalize and make the work personal.

    randall scott

  3. Thank you for the comment, Randall. I agree with your last paragraph very much, though I suspect the reference is often only in the subconscious of the artist. As recent posts in the blogosphere have made plain, there is an endless supply of art that somehow looks like other art. You are right that the goal should be to re-contextualize and to make a personal statement which elevates the work above the similarity of the object.

    I'm expressly not looking for who's first. It seems clear to me that first has little value or meaning including who shows or publishes first. The vicissitudes of the gallery scene and art market have a non-linear logic of their own. Why one artist finds renown and another is obscure while showing similar work is a problem that will nor be solved with a chronology or logic, I believe.

    As a gallerist, I wonder if you would ever consider mounting a show which highlighted some of these questions. It might not make sales, but it would be an exciting exploration into the machinations of the art world.

  4. Oh, I am sure someone has thought of that curatorial and exhibited it. :o)


  5. Indeed Pae White has plagiarized many, in fact she's made a career of it. Very courageous of Randall Scott to say so publicly.