Authorship is a messy subject. Attempting to articulate a clear and concise position on it can be difficult because the matter is so utterly personal. Every creative person embarks on their own journey towards understanding it. For some, it comes almost inherently, while for others the road can take a lifetime to travail.
An already tricky issue becomes even more complicated when you consider that fact that interpretations of authorship differ from individual to individual. For some, it could be a byline, a credit, or a your name on a white wall. To me, authorship is a culmination of past experiences, influences, and inspirations, and how they manifest in my own creative output. It’s like Gilbert and George once said: “People don’t draw with a pencil. It’s done by their heads, their souls and their sex.”
Back in April, Kanye West lobbed a 140-character grenade into the timeline. He informed his 27 million followers that we should “be less concerned with ownership of ideas,” as “it’s more important that ideas see the light of day even if you don’t get credit for them.” Regardless what you think of the rapper-cum-multimedia mogul, his stance has raised some interesting questions about the relevance of authorship and ownership in the defiantly digital age we find ourselves inhabiting.
There are lots of reasons to love the Internet. It’s opened up endless possibilities for creativity through collaboration and community, and it’s democratised distribution by giving visual artists a direct connection to their audience. In a recent talk for Adobe, fashion photographer Nick Knight stated “the Internet felt to me just like the arrival of punk in the 70’s, you just get up and do it yourself. You don’t have to ask anyone else for permission.”
Likewise, social media has become a never-ending cabinet of curiosities, a space to discover new artists, share ideas and invite people into your process. Curator Hans Ulrich Obrist stated he “can’t live without Instagram.” The shout out from the upper echelons of the art world might seem like an unexpected one, but there’s comfort to be taken in the knowledge that all of us can get subsumed in the endless deep scroll.
It isn’t all good out there online. For one thing, the pond’s expanding as we’re shrinking. Competition is increasingly tough and the challenge of standing out as an individual while still contributing to the cultural conversation can give creatives sleepless nights. I know this because they tell me all the time. The portfolio review has become a secular confession. We bare ourselves with the hope of renewed faith in what we are doing.
As a commissioner and creative, the hunt for authorship has always been important to me, and in the supersaturated digital space, it feels more vital than ever. In contrast contemporary copyright law is making it increasingly difficult for creative to have any ownership of their ideas. However, in a culture of sampling, collaboration and exchange, is the concept redundant? Is it even possible to own a creative style or has mass decimation rendered ownership obsolete? I discussed these questions with a mix of artists and commissioners to explore how they see authorship in the digital age.
Best known for his project Foreigner, which aimed to contribute an alternative type of image to the visual landscape of humanitarian crises, Sicily-based photographer and filmmaker Daniel Castro Garcia told me that very early on his relationship with photography he remembered making a decision that “if I was going to copy or emulate someone then I would be wasting my time. What’s the point?”
For Daniel, authorship is a fundamental part of his practice. “My focus is on producing imagery in collaboration with individuals that are living the situation first hand. I’m interested in creating work that reveals a different layer of information for the subject, based on intimacy and deeper human relationships.”
From a collaborative approach to one that centres on the astute observation of human behaviour, street photographer artist Alexander Coggin says “If authorship is important to you, you’ll find a way to stand in your uniqueness, to hone in and find the viewpoint that you couldn’t possibly share with another.”
Refinery 29’s creative director Lydia Pang has built her career on discovering and then collaborating with brave and disruptive creatives. “I think it’s important for an artist to have a distinct point of view, but I see authorship as something different these days,” she tells me. “We’re in an open, forever shifting, sharing economy right now. Creativity is not something you own or are crowned for birthing. Gone are the days of venerated godlike artists, singular and isolated, we’re in a new time where the leaders in this space are crucially leaders of a pack, of a movement, a collective. The author is now a body of people, not an individual.”
In the last few years, collaboration has been the subject of endless blog posts, reports and conferences and there’s an argument to be made that embracing collaboration’s messy chaos leads to exiting newness. Raven Smith, previously Commissioning Director at NOWNESS, now freelance creative director, believes that “ideas in a vacuum suck, and they always get better with conversation and exploration with other creatives. Raven insists that there’s a “sweet spot” to be found when you work together to make a creative “sing in new ways.”
Discovering your own voice can be challenging and uncomfortable process. It requires a commitment to trial and error, research and reflection; made increasingly overwhelming by the enormous volumes of content we expose our eyeballs to every day. Lydia shares “I’m a believer that people should be inspired by each other, stretch that muscle, go there, test ideas out, see which parts fit you. Wear all the beauty you see and find your own creativity inside that exploration.” As we evolve it’s our continued responsibility to stand back and reflect on what we consume.
When looking at inspiration, Alexander believes that “it’s important to understand why do I love this? What is the viewpoint of the creator? What are the choices they’ve made? From there, I can pivot and be inspired by someone’s work while applying the same train of thought to my own subject.” He adds, “I mean, I feel like you know in your heart when something is a rip-off.”
The casualty of our sharing economy is a rise in plagiarism and copyright infringement. The free exchange of visual culture has blurred the lines of ownership, leaving creatives open and vulnerable. Digital spaces are so vast that once released, content has a life of its own and it’s almost impossible to control. The struggle has been well documented with artists like New York-based graphic designer Adam Kurtz and Los Angeles–based artist Tuesday Bassen both burnt by global brands who created replicas of their designs without credit or compensation.
Previously creatives would have largely kept their grievances private, but social media has enabled a new conversation around these issues. Still life photographer and director Catherine Losing takes to Instagram to call people out. She explains, “Visual ideas are how I make my living and the direct replication of work is theft. I feel like there is a moral situation here that isn’t wholly backed up by copyright law. I’m often asked by commissioners to reproduce something similar to a single reference. If it’s mine, it seems pointless to do the same shot again, even more so if it’s someone else’s work. Copying is not in anyone’s best interest.”
Conversations around originality in the creative industries are nothing new. I meet so many young creative weighed down by the insurmountable expectation of the word. For me, originality is rooted in your authorship, original ideas are arguably born from the creative ability to use influence and imagination to create work that reveals their unique point of view. Like Raven says, “I’m only interested in developing creative work that continues a current conversation, not repeats it. Originality is about connecting different dots. It’s as much about Jurassic Park as it is La Boheme. It’s constantly absorbing and then connecting percolating ideas in a fresh way.”
The Internet has created an abundance of opportunity, inspiration and vulnerability. It’s clear artists and commissioners have very different views on authorship and it’s relevance, but we can all agree that while artists are mirrors of their experiences, influences and peers, honing your individual point of view is still crucial and, its possible to retain individual authorship while being part of a wider cultural movement.
I’ll leave the final word to Lydia. “People who push back against the digital mediums available to us confuse me, why hate the beast that’s carrying you on it’s back – lean into its power.”