Hypermedia: Critical Issues in Contemporary Media Art is a column written by artist Artie Vierkant for Hyperallergic. Each article discusses an existing or emerging theme in practices at the intersection of electronic media and the arts, drawing from the contemporary and the historic, the pervasive and the obscure.

One of the most important social, political, and artistic concerns facing us today is the question of access: our ability to share media, our ability to take ownership of or simply to view films, music, and other forms of art. In the past, non-digital and only finitely reproducible media created a certain type of economic exchange and ownership which has long been upended by file sharing. Every day millions of people download and stream films on the Internet in an alternative form of exchange more related to cultural capital than economic capital. This is a political action accomplished as easily as downloading the flat version of Avatar.

Sherrie Levine, “Fountain (After Marcel Duchamp)” (1991)

There is a storied history of artists, particularly those associated with their own contemporary avant garde, supporting liberal viewpoints about access to and use of media. This carries a range of meanings based in the history of the time, including support of public education or public libraries and openly appropriating copyrighted material (Guy Debord, Richard Prince, Sherrie Levine). The dialogue surrounding illegal downloading is no different: based on the principle that the free availability and use of material can only stand to benefit society, breakdown class division, and (hopefully) establish a practice that will become a norm for a late capitalist society. Currently we have many labels for these ubiquitous activities: piracy, filesharing, and copyright infringement.

As we have entered the age of ubiquitous digital information it is incredibly important that these issues and the active debates surrounding them are thoroughly understood. Over the next several years the ways that governments, corporations, and individuals chose to deal with intellectual property enforcement may radically shape the way we interface with our own culture in the future. Some of these decisions are happening right before our eyes — this past year a major court case ordered the closure of “The Pirate Bay” (though true to form the site soldiers on defiant), France adopted its HADOPI 2 three strikes bill into law (and recently unveiled an ironically copyright-infringing logo), and the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA), an international treaty between 36 major countries (including the entire European Union) has yet to be publicly unveiled but may require Internet service providers (ISPs) to sever an entire household’s Internet connection based on suspicion of piracy. Drafts of ACTA have also included clauses making the search of laptops and iPods at customs or border crossings a possibility.

As individuals it is important that we engage with these issues, but for artists it is imperative. Appropriation and source material have been important artistic tools throughout history but with new developments it is already becoming more and more difficult to defend basic rights like Fair Use — YouTube bots, for instance, have scanned and removed many pieces of video art which included snippets from songs copyrighted by major corporations, completely disregarding the songs’ context and the possibility that they may constitute Fair Use. One of my favorite examples is Obloy Syndrome’s “Sprince (Dog Divengrin),” which has been re-uploaded and removed from YouTube several times over the last two years (here). Thankfully the piece now has a home on Megavideo.

Artists have been dealing with the copyright debate admirably for many years, but there are a few whose recent projects stand out.


In December of 2008 two graduate students at the Piet Zwart Institute in Rotterdam, Timo Klok and Tobias Leingruber, caused a stir by releasing a Firefox extension called “Pirates of the Amazon” (2008). The extension was simple, it added a link to Amazon.com product pages that read “Download 4 Free” and would automatically redirect your web browser to “The Pirate Bay” and search for the item you were browsing.

Timo Klok and Tobias Leingruber, “Pirates of the Amazon” (2008)

The two free culture radicals were served a take-down notice by Amazon on December 3, 2008, just one day after they had uploaded the extension.

In a statement to the New York Times two days later, they wrote that [Amazon and “The Pirate Bay”] might look like opposites, but are actually quite similar in regards to the mainstream media content they provide … Our project demonstrated this practically. So it’s a parody of any kind of media consumerism, whether corporate or subcultural.” The project was lauded by many as a great example of social activism through art, though some weren’t so pleased, posting for instance: “Great, just make it apparent you are stealing stuff.” The statement (as well as the official documentation page) issued by the two artists is apt in its self-description as “parody,” actively inverting the types of ads that show up on torrent trackers for paid content sites.

“Pirates of the Amazon” is in no way alone in its approach to copyright issues by way of highlighting absurdity or revealing mystic truths. The work of Evan Roth is also engaged directly in this divide, somewhere between boyish prank, conceptual art, and anti-capitalist activism.

Evan Roth, “Available Online for Free” (2008)

A recent retrospective of Roth’s work at Advanced Minority gallery in Vienna dubbed Available Online for Free, in fact, made a profoundly similar statement about commercial distribution systems to that of “Pirates of the Amazon.” In conjunction with the exhibition, Roth printed rolls of red stickers with the words “Available Online for Free” and went around city stores placing them on software, movies, and music packaging.

More recently, Roth has begun a piece called “Intellectual Property Asshole Competition,” which pokes fun at the recent copyright controversy between the Associated Press and artist Shepard Fairey. Roth has taken the two images from the copyright dispute — an AP photograph of U.S. President Barack Obama and the iconic “HOPE” image created by Fairey after the photograph, respectively — and created out of each an edition of nine hand-crafted replica paintings, each of which are on sale on his website for $600. How does it become a competition? The first entity to sue Roth over the paintings wins. My money’s on Fairey.

While we wait for the results of Roth’s competition, you can help the cause by becoming an Intellectual Property Donor:

Evan Roth, “Public Domain Donor” (2008)

Artie Vierkant is an artist based in San Diego CA and Philadelphia PA. He is currently pursuing his MFA at UC San Diego following an undergraduate degree from the University of Pennysylvania where he studied...

8 replies on “Available Online for Free”

  1. Speaking of appropriation, I can’t stand the gratuitous mislabeling of every action that can possibly be taken by a human being as “political.” If I download Avatar, which I assure you I will not for reasons other than concern for IP, this is not because I’m sticking it to The Man. It’s because I want free shit.

    Where this discussion may turn political is in determining whether intellectual “property” is property at all, or simply a grab at other people’s property under color of respect for property rights.

  2. While I respect your concern that the term ‘political’ is easily misattributed or overused, the decision to download a film illegally is inherently a decision to support a distribution platform which clashes directly against the established norms of the current economic system. No matter what you download it doesn’t matter what your intent was in procuring it, it’s still an intrinsically political action which funnels into the debate about intellectual property policy.

    1. Nick covered most of what my response would have been, but my only remaining quibble — and here is where I would bring in politics — is that illegally downloading a film does not clash with the economic system, but the political system. The state designates a given transaction to be legal or illegal. That it may do so at the behest of a corporation is irrelevant.

      The point is that politics and economics are two different things.

  3. Artie,

    I share Jeremy’s view, so here’s a defense of it. I take it that Jeremy’s point is that no “political” concepts feature in his intention, which would seem to be necessary for his action to be “political” in any sense. That an action has political *consequences* doesn’t suffice to make the action “political”. Think how implausible the underlying principle is: If an action has x-consequences, then it is an x-action.

    This is to say that it’s wrong to think that his action is “inherently political,” whatever that means. It’s only political if he has a certain intent in doing it; that he lacks such intent is compatible with the action’s having political consequences. What’s the point in calling his action “political” no matter what he intends? If you just mean that the action has political consequences then it’s certainly misleading.

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