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Art, copyright and the beauty of inaccessibility

Cory Doctorow, BoingBoinger, copyfighter and writer (who has taken the admirable step of making his works available under Creative Commons), has offered two recent posts on Walter De Maria’s installation “Lightning Field”. Cory points out that de Maria’s work isn’t just copyrighted – your agreement in visiting the work includes a promise that you won’t take photos.

In his first post on the topic, Cory reads this as a ploy to increase postcard sales and an unfair expansion of copyright law:

This appears to be entirely about slide/postcard sales, and it’s shameful that the Lightning Field people feel the need to misrepresent the legality of taking pictures of their bit of dirt. There is no such thing as a field that is “protected by copyright.” Copyright protects an original creative expression, not geography.

In a more recent post, he quotes a BoingBoing reader who suggests that the restrictions on Lightning Field weren’t entirely about copyright, but about the intent of the work:

It doesn’t refute any of the annoying copyright abuses you point out–Control and Money are front and center–but it does add some cranky, suspicious artist perspective to the discussion.

I’d like to add a bit more “cranky, suspicious artist perspective” to the discussion. I visited Lightning Field in the summer of 1999. I’d left my job at Tripod, was trying to decide whether I was brave enough to leave the dot.com world and start Geekcorps, and figured I’d work out the issue while going for a long driving trip. The organizing principle? Big pieces of art I’d read about and wanted to see in person. This included Lightning Field, several installations at Donald Judd’s Fundacion Chinati in Marfa, Texas, and an unsuccesful attempt to visit James Turrell’s Roden Crater.

Lightning Field isn’t a piece you see casually – Cory’s speculation that this is about postcard sales misses the point that there’s no one to sell postcards to. The only way to visit the piece is to commit a full day – you arrive in Quemado, NM at 2pm, leave your vehicle behind and are driven for 40 minutes across rutted dirt roads to the cabin that adjoins the piece. You and fellow guests are shown how to work the pellet stove (useful in northern New Mexico even in June…), given a cold dinner that you can reheat (mmm… veggie enchiladas) and left until 11am the next day. I was reluctant to leave my truck and camping supplies behind and asked to follow behind the Suburban to the site… but my request was denied, as it would have enabled me to leave without staying overnight, and de Maria explicitly wanted to ensure that visitors to the piece experienced it over a full day, seeing it in bright light, sunrise, sunset and night.

Even if you happen to be driving through Quemado, NM – conveniently located three hour’s drive west of Albequerque on a road between Socorro, NM and Springerville, AZ, right near the bustling metropolis of Pie Town, NM – you can’t just visit the piece. You need to make a reservation some days in advance. Since there are only 3 bedrooms in the cabin, and since you can’t camp at the site, there’s a good chance you might need to wait for a reservation. And it’s not cheap – I believe I paid $110 for my night in the cabin, my enchiladas, and for the breakfast I cooked for myself and the two German painters sharing the cabin the night I was there.

I remember being decidedly pissed off about the inaccessibility and expense of visiting the piece until, oh, roughly three hours into my visit. By that point, I’d wandered the site in the heat of the day and again during sunset. I’d spent the time between my walks reading about the piece and trying to get my head around what de Maria was trying to do.

The piece is incredibly simple. It’s 400 aluminum poles, arranged in a grid one mile by one kilometer. The poles are about 20 feet tall, and terminate in javelin-like points. The poles extend quite far underground and are attached to copper grounding strips – basically, they’re designed to be as attractive as possible to passing lightning storms. For a few moments, the piece seems deeply threatening – you’re walking in a machine explicitly designed to bring the wrath of God as close to you as possible. And then you realize that it’s a cloudless New Mexico day, there’s no chance that lightning is going to strike, and you’re looking at a grid overlaid on a flat landscape, some sort of statement about size, space, distance, emptiness and land. You’ve come to see lightning, and you spend the day looking at flat, brown earth and an enormous sky.

Northern New Mexico is a pretty good place to see lightning… or, if you’re De Maria, to attempt to attract it to your artwork. The critical piece of information I got reading about the piece in the cabin: there’s far more lightning in Florida than in New Mexico. De Maria rejected putting the piece in Florida because there was no way to purchase enough land so the piece could be isolated and hidden. The inaccessibility of Lightning Field – the experience of making a pilgrimage, walking alone through the field, seeing something that very few people will ever see – was more important to De Maria than lightning.

And yes, I took pictures. So did the couple visiting the same time I was there. I suspect everyone does. No one searches your bags for cameras, and you’re left unsupervised with the piece for 20 hours – preventing photography is a practical impossibility. But I’ve never posted them, not because of fear of being sued by the Dia Foundation, but because they sucked. While the piece is astounding in person, photographs of it from a conventional camera only capture a small part of the work… which looks like a couple of aluminum poles standing in a field. John Cliett, interviewed in Cabinet Magazine, spent months living at the site, taking long exposures of the site at night. But his story centers on a photo he didn’t get, of a woman wandering the field, lit by a sudden opening in the heavens… (The best part of the Cabinet article, in my opinion, is the sketches of the piece made by artists who’ve visited it…)

In some ways, I can’t think of artists I admire who could be more different than Cory Doctorow and Walter De Maria. Cory has built his literary career around the radical idea that by sharing his work as freely as possible, independent of commercial concerns, it will find an audience and support his labors… and he’s proven the thesis correct. De Maria has built pieces of art that are hard to see, hard to understand and that very few people will ever encounter… and he’s proven that there’s something wonderful about that working method as well. Cory’s recently announced that he’s relocating to LA – I have an unlikely, but fond, hope that he’ll consider taking a road trip to New Mexico to encounter his artistic opposite and see whether his feelings about the idea of Lightning Field change.

6 thoughts on “Art, copyright and the beauty of inaccessibility”

  1. Hi,

    I’m just wondering what motivated you to write this now? I’m curious because I’m feeling increasingly ambivalent about my role as a proponent of access, and of digitizing things to increase access.

  2. Basically I hadn’t thought about Lightning Field for months – years, perhaps – until Cory brought it up. I was initially frustrated with his reaction, then realized that it wasn’t all that different from my reaction when I’d simply heard about the piece. So I really wrote it to try to engage him in a conversation, not so much to say anything sweeping about digitization and access… though you’ve now got me thinking about that topic as well… :-)

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  5. Seems to be some similarity between restrictions on photographing this art piece and restriction on photographs of performances of plays and musicals.

    Clearly lots of culture benefits tremondously from widespread sharing. Maybe some benefits from not being mixed (single malt?).

    More important than the legal issues, IMO, is the personal integrity issue: if someone offers you access to their work, with certain restrictions, then you have some choices. 1) honor the restriction, 2) decide to not participate, 3) participate and then break your word.

    — Jim

  6. Interesting work. I think the restrictions on photography is two fold. I mean, you can’t photograph work in a gallery, how is this any different? Asides from the obvious of course?

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