When One Man's Video Art Is Another's Copyright Crime -- 05.06.04
Published:May 6, 2004
JonRoutson's exhibition of videos at the Team Gallery in Chelseais a kind of last hurrah, a farewell performance. It is also a small eddy in the increasingly roiled waters where art meets the United States' rapidly expanding copyright laws.
A 34-year-old video artist living in Baltimore, Mr.Routsonhas a very particular method of art-making, which will soon be illegal in Maryland, as it already is in the District of Columbia and five other states, including New York and California. Like the appropriation artists of the early 1980's, who rephotographed existing photographs as a way of commenting on society, Mr.Routsonmakes movies of other people's movies.
Since 1999 he has been going to Baltimore-area movie theaters, often on a feature film's opening day, and recording what happens on and around the screen with a small, hand-held camcorder. He shows the grainy, oddly distorted results, which he calls recordings, as DVD installations in art galleries.
Shot without consulting the view-finder, these diaristic works are replete with the mysterious rustlings, irritating interruptions, darkness and partial views endemic in movie theaters. The shadowy images wobble, especially when Mr.Routsonshifts in his seat. You hear breathing and throat-clearing.
On a recent Saturday at Team, for example, three highly unstable recordings of Mel Gibson's "Passion of the Christ," each made in a different Baltimore theater, were being projected simultaneously (but not in sync) on walls in the gallery's three small rooms. One, shot from the front row of a full house, was steeply angled, with fragmented subtitles.
Mr.Routson's work, which is not for sale, is the latest to find itself in the murky zone between copyright infringement and artistic license, between cultural property rights and cultural commentary. On Oct. 1 a new Maryland law will make the unauthorized use of an audiovisual recording device in a movie theater illegal. Last week two people were arrested in California for operating camcorders in movie theaters. One was apprehended by an attendant wearing night-vision goggles.
The Senate Judiciary Committee also recently approved a bill to make the unauthorized copying and distribution of movies a federal offense. The film industry has lobbied fiercely for this law, arguing that up to 80 percent of all illegal copies of films are made in theaters. (An AT&T Labs Research report, published last year, found that most illegal copies were either duplicates of stolen copies or were shot from tripods in projection booths.) Mr.Routson, who described himself in a telephone interview as increasingly nervous on his visits to theaters, said he had heard rumors that the management of one chain was offering $100 to any employee who apprehended someone with a camcorder.
It does not matter whether you think that Mr.Routson's work is good or bad art; it is quite good enough, in my view. It does matter that the no-camcorder laws may not do much to stem pirating while making it increasingly difficult for artists to do one of the things they do best: comment on the world around them.
Our surroundings are so thoroughly saturated with images and logos, both still and moving, that forbidding artists to use them in their work is like barring 19th-century landscape painters from depicting trees on their canvases. Pop culture is our landscape. It is at times wonderful. Most of us would not want to live without it. But it is also insidious and aggressive. The stuff is all around us, and society benefits from multiple means of staving it off. We are entitled to have artists, as well as political cartoonists, composers and writers, portray, parody and dissect it.
Mr.Routson's portrayals are actually rather tender. There is subversive intent in the individual titles of the recordings: "Bootleg (Dogville)" and "Bootleg (The Fog of War)," for example. But Mr.Routsonalso rightly described them as "less than copies." Rather than duplicates, his works are films of film showings. They reduce pristine, overpowering big-screen images to fuzzy, low-tech human-scale images that we can walk up to, almost like home movies. They recreate and in a sense celebrate the private-in-public space of the average moviegoer. You could even say that they encourage moviegoing over watching DVD's or videocassettes.
At once stolen and given away, Mr. Routson's works operate somewhere between the manipulated magazine advertising images of the 1980's artist Richard Prince and the keep-the-gift-in-motion aesthetic of 90's artists like Felix Gonzalez-Torres, whose sculptures included large piles of wrapped candy, free for the taking, and Rirkrit Tiravanija, whose first exhibitions consisted of cooking curry and serving it to gallery visitors.
Mr.Routson said that after the Team show closed on Saturday, he would be leaving his camcorder at home on movie nights. He said he had always viewed the recording series as finite, a phase in his development that would come to an end. He also admitted that financial considerations were an issue: he needs to earn a living from his art. Declining to be photographed for this article, he added that the tensions of recording movies wasdestroying the pleasure of watching them. "I'm not a super film buff," he said, "but I try to remain a fan."