A Chess Set in Homage to Marcel Duchamp, with Mustaches

 Scott Kildall and Bryan Cera, "Chess with Mustaches," (2015)
Scott Kildall and Bryan Cera, “Chess with Mustaches” (2015) (all images courtesy the artists)

Last year artists Scott Kildall and Bryan Cera collaborated on a project called “Readymake: Duchamp Chess Pieces,” which reconstructed a chess set designed by Marcel Duchamp with a 3D printer. The set was then uploaded to Thingiverse — a collection of object designs ready for 3D printing — and anyone could download, alter, or print it for free.

The Duchamp Estate was not thrilled with this project and issued a stern cease-and-desist letter citing copyright infringement. The artists could not retain a pro-bono lawyer to fight the more monied and law-savvy estate, so they scrubbed the project from the internet as best as they could.

Now, if we consider appropriation art “the use of pre-existing objects or images with little or no transformation applied to them,” that makes Duchamp the godfather of it, and the idea that this legal demand would come from his own estate is mind-boggling. Duchamp must have rolled over in his grave at the idea of his name being used to prohibit creative experimentation with and appropriation of his work.

Creation of Scott Kildall and Bryan Cera, "Chess with Mustaches," (2015)
Scott Kildall and Bryan Cera, “Chess with Mustaches” (2015) (click to enlarge)

That isn’t to say the estate didn’t have a case. In general, artists retain exclusive copyright of their work, and others are expected to get permission to use it. In this respect, the allure of the project — the very preciseness that Kildall and Cera strove for in their copy — weakened the argument for creative license. The fact that Duchamp is a staple of every modern art history book, has been dead for almost 47 years, and that the set is not for sale did nothing to affect the legal case.

Now, fortunately, the duo is back with “Chess with Mustaches” — the exact same set except with mustaches added to the pieces, a playful reference to Duchamp’s “L.H.O.O.Q.” (1919), for which he added a mustache and beard to a postcard of the Mona Lisa. The artists released the work today, along with the original cease-and-desist letter. They hope that by altering the original reference, framing the project as an artwork, and not releasing the digital files, they will avoid legal prosecution. We’ll see how Duchamp’s estate responds, but in the meantime I asked Kildall a few questions over email about the project.

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 Scott Kildall and Bryan Cera, "Readymade: Duchamp Chess Pieces," (2014)
Scott Kildall and Bryan Cera, “Readymake: Duchamp Chess Pieces” (2014)

Ben Valentine: What inspired you to make the original work?

Scott Kildall: This emerged from an artwork of mine called “Playing Duchamp,” where I reprogrammed an open-source chess engine to play chess as if it were Marcel Duchamp. I became fascinated with Duchamp’s fascination with chess. When I discovered photographs of these pieces, I wanted to see them in physical form. They looked like beautiful objects.

I approached Bryan Cera, who has deep ties to the maker community but is also an educator and artist and an expert 3D modeler. Together, we crafted the idea of how to frame the original piece as one that examined objecthood more generally, as a tribute to Marcel Duchamp.

BV: What did you think when you got the cease-and-desist letter?

SK: It was a shocker. When this happens — and this is the third time I’ve received a CnD for my artwork, the first being for Wikipedia Art — your heart always drops. Having a threatened lawsuit is never a good thing, even for someone with my personality, who revels in conversation and enjoys art as public discourse. The artwork then becomes about the legal conflict rather than the original gesture.

The view that my colleagues hold is that Duchamp would have approved of this resurrection of his chess pieces, and I agree with this interpretation. So, I felt both angry and sad about it — and more sad than angry. Our original project was intended to celebrate his work and help present Duchamp’s work to the maker community, which is often seen as separate from the art world, through the resurrection of his “lost” chess pieces.

In progress, Scott Kildall and Bryan Cera, "Chess with Mustaches," (2015)
Scott Kildall and Bryan Cera’s “Chess with Mustaches” (2015) in progress

BV: Why did you decide to continue this work ?Aren’t you afraid of legal action?

SK: Yes, we’re still uneasy about potential legal action. However, we have consulted with a well-established IP lawyer before going forward. It was their opinion that we are on much safer ground this time around for two reasons: 1) parody has broad protection, especially in France (where they were claiming jurisdiction), and 2) we are not distributing the 3D files themselves.

The reason why we are continuing is that we feel this is a powerful story that needs be told in some way. It took us many months of overcoming our own emotions, clearing the way from other projects and work and figuring out an appropriate gesture (the mustaches) to respond to the initial legal threat.

While we both want to avoid conflict, we do feel that this response is legally defensible and would be willing to appropriately defend the “Chess with Mustaches” artwork, if needed.

BV: Can you talk about the decision to not distribute the digital files of this work?

SK: We have chosen to make the new artwork just the sculptural objects (the 3D prints) themselves. The original artwork was about resurrecting Duchamp’s chess pieces such that anyone can 3D print them. But the reframed artwork is about our response to the Duchamp Estate. As such, we want to focus on objects themselves and the signature of the mustache as an appropriate alteration to the original form.

However, once these are made into 3D files, they can then be modified by anyone. The mustaches can be removed, altered, or otherwise remixed. “Chess with Mustaches” is our response, rather than one that we want to invite the general public to make. This is because we were the ones most affected by this legal matter.

Finally, the main concern of the Duchamp Estate was centered on the 3D files, and so by not distributing these, we are on more solid legal ground.

Creation of Scott Kildall and Bryan Cera, "Chess with Mustaches," (2015)
Scott Kildall and Bryan Cera, “Chess with Mustaches” (2015) (click to enlarge)

BV: Do you have anything you want to say to the Duchamp Estate and their lawyers?

SK: I should probably hold my tongue about this, to avoid any potential legal conflict. I will say I do understand where they are coming from — protecting a legacy is difficult, and I have personal experience with this. But I hope they will please understand that this story should be told and let “Chess with Mustaches” be part of the dialogue about intellectual property and artwork.

What I’m hoping is that people will generate a conversation around this artwork in light of the larger conversation around copyright. Some might see the Duchamp Estate as the villain in this case, but the middle road would be a conversation about how to protect and honor the legacy of Duchamp, while still embracing the remix culture of the internet. It is a conversation between two worlds: that of the more traditional, object-making art world and the semi-anonymous, chaotic world of internet culture. What is the fair way to handle this? These are the questions I’d like to see discussed.

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