To Cite or to Steal
May 22, 2017 10:52 AM   Subscribe

To Cite or to Steal? When a Scholarly Project Turns Up in a Gallery. Scholar Kevin Ferguson "use[s] public domain scientific image analysis software to create 'sums' of films, adding together the frames of a film to make one single abstract image." He was surprised when he learned about a gallery show of remarkably similar work by artist Jason Shulman. Includes a brief history of visual artists who have done similar work, and a tutorial on how to make your own.
posted by goatdog (20 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
What a shit gallery and what a very measured response from the author and original creator of these works.
posted by agregoli at 11:22 AM on May 22, 2017 [3 favorites]

Related Teju Cole essay.
posted by praemunire at 11:42 AM on May 22, 2017

Well, OK, but his work is a) kind of obvious, b) technically very simple. In computer vision people have been averaging lots of images together since at least eigenfaces (1987). This usually isn't very useful, so these types of visualizations (this one from 2005) tend to crop up as colorful filler images. This circa-2005 Matlab tutorial also features an averaged video. (It's hard to find examples because this is effectively common knowledge, deployed casually, and not a Big Important Named Technique, but if the Matlab documentation just offhand produces one of these, it's probably safe to assume that it's not some amazing innovation).

If the other artist is picking the same movies and presenting them in the same way, then that's one thing, but the idea that Kevin Ferguson invented the entire idea of averaging together videos in 2013 is nonsense.
posted by Pyry at 12:40 PM on May 22, 2017 [10 favorites]

That's Kevin's point though. He's not saying that he invented it - he explicitly links to people who've made similar things - he's saying that it's ridiculous to have a gallery show based on a simple processing move that's widely known and has already been used on movies, coming up with virtually identical results. He doesn't present his stuff as anything more than what it is.

It would be like if I took images of famous paintings, ran a gaussian blur on them, and then got a gallery to present it along with an artist statement about how my "technique" revealed the "DNA" of the paintings.

Maybe that will be Jason Shulman's next exhibit?
posted by Spacelegoman at 12:56 PM on May 22, 2017 [8 favorites]

Is there an expectation on digital artists to confirm the novelty of the idea they came up with? Averaging video frames is obvious, yes. So when your work relies on modifying an existing cultural artifact (totally legitimate), then I think in this case the problem is more the artist overestimating their own originality than them stealing anything.
posted by Jimbob at 1:31 PM on May 22, 2017 [1 favorite]

The act of doing this to a bunch of films and choosing which ones you think are worth looking at is an original work of art. Maybe not a worthwhile work of art, but definitely not something a gallery should reject on principle (rather than their judgement of artistic worth).
posted by straight at 1:50 PM on May 22, 2017 [2 favorites]

Yeah framing this as 'when a scholarly project turns up in an art gallery' doesn't seem to capture it. It's more like 'scholar and artist simultaneously come up with a pretty boring idea loads of other people have also come up with'.
posted by Jimbob at 1:59 PM on May 22, 2017 [1 favorite]

It would be like if I took images of famous paintings, ran a gaussian blur on them, and then got a gallery to present it along with an artist statement about how my "technique" revealed the "DNA" of the paintings.

MetaFilter's own waxpancake got into a legal kerfuffle over something like that and wrote a pretty good illustrated essay about the history of that sort of transformative art.
posted by straight at 2:00 PM on May 22, 2017

This is like complaining that someone who uses an Instagram filter is ripping you off, because you used it first. The author of the article didn't even write the software he's using. Both collections of work are equally boring, and the idea that averaging film frames was innovative in 2013 is ridiculous.
posted by oulipian at 2:17 PM on May 22, 2017 [1 favorite]

Well, no, the article is far more nuanced than that. And honestly, not that complainy or vindictive.
posted by agregoli at 2:34 PM on May 22, 2017 [12 favorites]

The Kind of Bloop cover art is a good reference point for this.

Shulman's work is as if Andy had dressed a chap up as Miles Davis and recreated the lighting of the scene, then put a panel of glass blocks in front of it to make it appear to a viewer as a nearly-abstract grid of colored squares, then photographed that, then posted the photo online in the form of an image nearly identical to the Kind of Bloop cover, with the caption "Louis Armstrong."
posted by beschizza at 2:55 PM on May 22, 2017

Coloring his presumed imitator as a plebe doesn't further the argument. I don't see how a galvanized sense of tradition, attribution and The Glory Of Film makes his colory blurs more full of meaning than Ferguson's and this seems to be a central argument: even if the pieces are convergently evolved and nonderived, Ferguson's are better because he is more pure and knowledgeable.

Which, like, this would be maybe true if we weren't talking about unmodified algorithms.
posted by Ogre Lawless at 3:29 PM on May 22, 2017 [2 favorites]

It's a bit vindictive to try to get someone else's exhibition cancelled, especially when your process amounts to applying a single existing operation from a software package you didn't write. The comparison to Gaussian blurs is apt: if someone manages to get an exhibition where all they've done is aggressively blur some movie posters, it would be remarkably petty to try to get that cancelled because you posted some different blurred movie posters to tumblr in 2013.
posted by Pyry at 3:35 PM on May 22, 2017 [3 favorites]

You know the phrase about being an art dealer? "Selling baked air"
posted by Pembquist at 4:47 PM on May 22, 2017

All these analogies aren't working for me at all. It's not like those things. I think the author of this article makes a strong argument on his own, and few here are bothering to engage with it.
posted by agregoli at 6:30 PM on May 22, 2017 [3 favorites]

The point that neither the idea nor the code implementing it are Ferguson's original work isn't an analogy.

Ferguson is the one making the dubious analogy by expecting an art exhibit to feature some sort of "works cited" list as if it were an academic paper.
posted by straight at 9:05 PM on May 22, 2017 [3 favorites]

I skimmed the article at lunch when there were just a few comments, scratched my head and read the thing a bit more carefully. I'm not an artist nor an academic and I was curious which way the discussion would break. Neither so far I guess.

My glib take would be an academic does something not super original or talented and thinks you prove its valuable by adding citations. An artist does the same thing and thinks you prove its valuable by hanging the stuff in a gallery. So of course the discussion starts with "You don't have enough footnotes!" and the response is essentially "Don't mess up my gallery showing!"

If Shulman got the idea directly (and primarily) from Ferguson a cite would be required for decency IMHO. But I didn't see anything that says that, which is why I was doing the head scratching. Ferguson repeatedly describes it as "his" work and has such a sense of ownership that he considered it self evident the gallery would immediately change the presentation to highlight his possibly non-existent contributions to the work. I didn't find it all that endearing.
posted by mark k at 9:07 PM on May 22, 2017 [3 favorites]

This way of visualizing the average colors in a film seems a lot more interesting.
posted by straight at 9:23 PM on May 22, 2017

I really don't find Ferguson's argument compelling. For a number of reasons:

1. I don't think visual artists ever cite their influences or prior-art, as Ferguson clains

2. the idea that "artists" do not try and keep their methods secret is simply not true. There is that artist who bought the patent for new extra-matt black colour to ensure no-one else could use it. and wasn't there a similar thing about "prussian blue"?

3. On the one hand Ferguson implicitly is suggesting that Shulman "stole" his idea, and on the other he cites precursors to his own work which means it wasn't stolen at all. Hence the reason for outrage seems a bit muddled. Why should I be angry exactly?

4. There are whole bunch of claims in the piece about what norms in digital arts and what "artists" should do that in my experience are simply utopian and up to debate.

I do agree that the works are boring and uninspired but I find 90% of all art shown in small London galleries to be boring and uninspired so its not really anything new..
posted by mary8nne at 5:29 AM on May 23, 2017 [1 favorite]

Shame the scholarly project did not cite Hiroshi Sugimotos work dating back to the 1970s
posted by subbasshead at 8:08 PM on June 1, 2017 [1 favorite]

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