I encountered this very engaging piece of street art while roaming around the Logan Circle neighborhood in Washington DC. (I can't spend every minute networking at INTA, can I?)
Those of you who keep up with this rather sporadic blog might recognize that I am a bit preoccupied with street art. I see tremendous value in receiving individual voices (and unexpected surprises) within the urban landscape--a place generally reserved for the bombardment of advertising and carefully selected commissioned works. This piece was particularly interesting because it encouraged viewer participation in a highly accessible way--asking a question every single one of us can answer. It is a giant chalk board where anyone can write something she wants to do before she dies. (Chalk was provided). I also find this piece interesting because it serves the purpose of preventing vandalism at a local bus stop in front of a walled-off property by inviting people to write on the wall. Virtually everyone who passed either wrote on the wall, or stopped to read things written by others. It was quite fascinating to read and to watch.
Another one of my favorites, a yarn-bombing in Seattle, where clever knitters put sweaters on the trees in a park next to the county courthouse. Aside from being wonderfully colorful on a dark winter day in Seattle, this work also showcases the fact that street art can be impermanent and non-damaging. I believe we benefit from this kind of visual diversity in our landscape and such artworks should be encouraged.
Today the Seattle Times reported that Colton Harris-Moore, aka the Barefoot Bandit, signed a movie deal with 20th Century Fox worth up to $1.3 million. It seems an unusual sum of money to pay for the rights to anyone's life story, especially someone who is only twenty years old. However, the contract is notable for another reason--in May 2011 federal prosecutors attempted to prevent Harris-Moore from profiting on the story of his two year cross-country crime spree. Learn more in my May 29, 2011 blog entry. Even with the large sum from this movie deal, Harris-Moore owes at least $1.4 million in restitution for the crimes, and intends that all compensation pay back those whose property was stolen or destroyed during the crime spree. A statement from Harris-Moore provides, in part, "It may not be obvious but the reason I signed the movie agreement is simple. I said that I would cooperate with the movie company only if an agreement would assure full recovery for the victims whose property I invaded and stole. It took months of negotiations but they were successful. I am humbled to know I can now help the people I hurt, at least for the financial damage I caused them. I have absolutely zero interest in profiting from any of this and won't make a dime off it. It all goes to restitution. That's what I insisted on from the beginning and the contract I signed guarantees it."
While I am glad to know that the crime victims will receive compensation, I also believe that Harris-Moore's story is important and should be told.
Kyle McDonald created an art project in which he secretly installed code on Apple computers inside an Apple Store in New York City. The code operated by taking a photograph every minute and uploading the photos to a Tumblr blog if a face appeared in the photo. The individuals looking at the computers were completely unaware that they were being photographed. McDonald intended the work as a conceptual art piece, exploring the human interaction with computers, as well, perhaps, their resultant failure to interact with each other. The piece, for the time being, is here.
Apple discovered the code on its computers, and an investigation by the Secret Service Electronic Crimes Task Force (ECTF) ensued. The investigation is taking place under 18 U.S.C. § 1030, part of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. Government officials have seized McDonald's computers and other electronic devices.
Public reaction to the piece is notable, as commentary refers to the code McDonald used as "spyware." Many individuals seem to believe that McDonald's work is not art and that McDonald belongs in jail for his conduct. Others note the possible harm to Apple, such that users and shoppers may lose trust in the brand, especially in visiting Apple stores themselves. News stories appear to want to put a sinister spin on the work--that in my mind, simply is not present.
Not being terribly familiar with this legislation involved, I took a look at § 1030, and initially had a difficult time understanding exactly how it was that McDonald's art piece fit within the purview of this law. But there it sits, in subsection (e)(2)(B) which defines "protected computer" as any computer "which is used in or affecting interstate or foreign commerce or communication, including a computer located outside the United States . . . ." Readers trained in the law will understand this as the broadest kind of shorthand in federal legislation. Such a definition instantly turns the private computer I write this blog on to a "protected computer" because I have used this computer to "affect interstate commerce or communicate," that is, I have used this computer to send emails and buy items from online retailers. It also, surely, brings the Apple Store's showroom computers, and likely any computer ever connected to the internet, into a "protected computer." Even given the far-reaching definitions, I have a hard time believing McDonald should be charged with violating the statute--I believe it would be an overly broad reading which is beyond the intent of the statute, especially considering that McDonald's art piece is not intended to be sold, but to simply exist. Other lawyers and federal prosecutors, may, of course, have a different view.
When I first heard of the piece, I instantly understood why people would be upset by it. The piece invades the privacy of those using the computers. Well, that is, if standing inside an Apple Store one can have an expectation of privacy between her face and a computer when countless individuals and devices with photographic abilities are all around her. I recoiled at the idea a machine would unwittingly photograph me and then that the image would be published on a website. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that it did not matter, at least not to me. Technology, and the internet, may have given us greater control over our lives, but simultaneously far less control over the publishing of our names and images. That my name and image appear on the internet countless times in ways both known and unknown to me, is simply reality. That McDonald has created a work of art that instills such strong reactions in commentators should be seen as a triumph. We, as viewers, have been challenged, and we are lucky for that.
It is conceivable that McDonald committed torts against those individuals photographed, and perhaps McDonald committed trespass by exceeding the scope of permission within the Apple Store by installing the code. In my view, to the extent Apple, as a brand, may feel that it was harmed by the art piece, this is Apple's cause to pursue. A visit to the Secret Service ECTF website furthers this assertion: "The concept of the ECTF network is to bring together not only federal, state and local law enforcement, but also prosecutors, private industry and academia. The common purpose is the prevention, detection, mitigation and aggressive investigation of attacks on the nation's financial and critical infrastructures." Until the United States is a far safer place than it is today, I hope that federal investigators will find more worthy causes to pursue.
Finally, it bears noting that very little of the commentary has bothered to mention McDonald's First Amendment rights as an artist. In as much as this piece has upset people (and Apple) and may or may not have skirted the law, freedom of expression remains an important consideration as well.
This week, federal prosecutors made attempts to prevent the Barefoot Bandit from profiting on his story. Probably most of you have heard of Colton Harris-Moore, better known as the Barefoot Bandit, if not here is a very good write up about his crime spree. The short version is that Harris-Moore, born in 1991, had a difficult childhood, which led to brushes with the law and juvenile detention facilities, and ultimately he walked out of a halfway house in 2008. Between 2008 and 2010 he went on an international crime spree, evading law enforcement at every turn, finding extremely clever ways to sustain himself and gained an enormous "fan" following through his own notoriety. In July 2010, he was finally caught in the Bahamas in a stolen speed boat. He was deported and has been in custody ever since. Harris-Moore is charged with federal crimes including interstate transportation of a stolen aircraft, interstate and foreign transportation of a stolen firearm, interstate transportation of a stolen vessel, bank burglary as well as dozens of state crimes.
Harris-Moore's attorney indicates that a plea agreement is in the works for about fifty crimes in over twenty-five jurisdictions. However, as the Seattle Times reports, this week federal prosecutors added a new charge, for a 2009 bank burglary and seeking forfeiture of "any profits or proceeds received in connection with any publication of dissemination of information" related to his alleged crimes. Harris-Moore's attorney indicates that Harris-Moore never intended to profit from his story (although book deals and the like have already been discussed), he likely will need to use that money to pay $1.3 million in restitution, and the rest, he intends to give to charity.
I can't help but feel a little uneasy about the attempted reach of these prosecutors. The type of intellectual property forfeiture at issue here is not new. In the 1970's many states, following New York's lead, began passing what is colloquially known as Son of Sam laws, named after the grizzly murder spree in New York City. Such laws attempt to prevent financial gain for criminals by selling the rights to their stories for books and movies. While I do not feel criminals should receive phenomenal wealth on account of retelling their stories, I like many commentators, am concerned about the way these statutes impact the First Amendment. Further, by gutting any financial incentive to retell a criminal's story, the public is deprived of a valuable opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of these crimes and the individuals behind them. Especially here, where the accused is not a depraved serial murderer, but rather a troubled, and obviously highly intelligent young man. In my mind it's not a matter of voyeurism, or of glamorizing a criminal, but rather an issue of social responsibility to better understand what led to Harris-Moore's conduct.
After watching Exit Through the Gift Shop this week, I have been thinking a lot how this particular form of expression intersects with the law. The term "street art" encompasses many different media and styles, including painting (with brushes or spray cans), stenciling, mosaic, posters, stickers, and even knitting. As I watched the film, I could not help wondering why it is that societies around the world seek to punish street artists so readily. Humans have always possessed a desire not only to create, but to impact the environments in which we live. Of course some kinds of graffiti have ties to gang activity or hate speech, and street art exists on a spectrum ranging from elegant works of art to tagging. While street art to some represents a troubling blight on neighborhoods, it also represents our inherent desire to beautify our environment or to make meaningful statements about the societies in which we live. We exist in a constant barrage of imagery, however that imagery is chosen for us either through advertising or commissioned public works of art. In the end, only a tiny handful of people are actually making the decisions about the images the rest of society will encounter on a daily basis.
So, some artists take things into their own hands. Take, for instance, Shepard Fairey's Obey Giant, which has become a fixture in urban settings around the world. I saw the image probably hundreds of times before I ever knew about the artist behind it. Despite the popularity of street art as a form of expression, if caught, street artists will face criminal charges which vary by jurisdiction and circumstance. The only rational theory of punishment for street art is deterrence. Broken window theory suggests that evidence of petty crime promotes further crime. Criminal law thus seeks to dissuade the making of street art by punishing those that create it, making examples of them. Yet other options exist, such as fighting art, or vandalism as the case may be, with art--cities and property owners may instead commission murals or other art works to cover areas which have been heavily targeted. The presence of that artwork discourages street artists and taggers alike from working over it.
Of course I can not condone breaking the law or damaging the property of another. But I would like to challenge the perception that street art necessarily constitutes property "damage." Perhaps it may also be viewed as a part of the natural aging process of structures in urban environments--just as buildings collect ivy. Further, street art created a vehicle for some artists to provide our society with truly iconic works of art, and for that we are fortunate.