Illegal Expression

When One Man’s Video Art Is Another’s Copyright Crime

A 34-year-old video artist living in Baltimore, Mr. Routson has 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. Routson makes 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. Routson shifts in his seat. You hear breathing and throat-clearing.

[…] 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.

LawMeme’s thoughts: When Art Violates Copyright Law

Update: Wendy Seltzer’s posting over at Copyfight garners some comments rejecting the whole premise.