Soundwalk and Week 1 Readings

The Gaits: A High Line Soundwalk

A Soundwalk is a directed walk with a focus on listening to sounds instead of viewing sights. I went on The Gaits Soundwalk, a soundwalk commissioned by the High Line park in NYC. This is an above-ground park built on raised railway tracks abandoned years ago.

The Gaits Soundwalk is experienced with a phone app that only functions when the user's phone is actually on the High Line. I actually thought the app was broken when I arrived at the beginning of the High Line on Gansevoort St. It began making bell noises when I started to ascend the stairs.

For the first five minutes or so the Soundwalk consisted of only intermittent bell noises that would slow down or stop when I stopped walking. As I moved along, the walk got more interesting. The bells sped up, and then an organ was added. I heard water churning at several locations, and while at sections of the walk with seating for viewing parades or other city activity, I heard applause. There were also birds chirping in the section of the walk with a lot of trees. Unfortunately there was construction and scaffolding covering everything so there were no actual birds to be seen. Still, I do appreciate the synchronicity to the environment.

Towards the end of the walk the High Line passes over avenues leading in and out of Port Authority. There are a lot of buses there, and the app started making annoying bus brake noises. Shortly after that there were sounds of trains leaving the station as I walked past the train yard.

The sounds were recorded by the artists on the High Line or taken from

According to the Google Play store, I am the 101'th person to install the Android version of The Gaits. Since this was made almost 3 years ago, that means this app is woefully unappreciated. I think that at least a few of the myriad of tourists who were also on the High Line would have been interested in giving the app a try. I wrote a review and gave it five stars.

The Ecstasy of Influence

Jonathan Lethem’s essay The Ecstasy of Influence is an analysis of Plagiarism and originality in the world of artists and writers. He discusses the reality of artists and writers building on the works of others. He cites many examples of borrowed ideas, such as Fritz the Cat and Ren & Stimpy Show, or The Flintstones and The Simpsons. And yet Disney aggressively defends their own works from being borrowed by others, even though they themselves are the beneficiaries of other producers who came before them.

Lethem articulates a concept that I’ve been thinking about lately but was having difficulty giving a name for, and that name is "imperial plagiarism." He defines it as "the free use of Third World or 'primitive' artworks and styles by more privileged (and better-paid) artists." Something I’ve been noticing in these plagiarism readings is that it is a problem when weak people make works derived from the work of powerful entities, but the reverse seems to be less objectionable. It’s a dishonest application of the concept of plagiarism. Whether the reason is established creators oppressing competition or a willing public that wants to hold on to the idea that their creative idols are true creative visionaries, it isn’t right, and it needs to stop.

The author seems to be at peace with the reality of artists borrowing from the works of others. He concludes with this:

For the moment I’m grateful to be making a living, and so must ask that for a limited time (in the Thomas Jefferson sense) you please respect my small, treasured usemonopolies. Don’t pirate my editions; do plunder my visions. The name of the game is Give All. You, reader, are welcome to my stories. They were never mine in the first place, but I gave them to you. If you have the inclination to pick them up, take them with my blessing.

He wants to make a living, and asks that people respect what he has made that he is financially dependent on. But beyond that, and after he’s gone, he wants other artists and writers to know that his works are there for others to create derived works from.

On the Rights of the Molotov Man

The Harper’s Magazine article On the Rights of the Molotov Man is authored by two artists on different sides of a conflict involving art and the fair use of others’ creations. Susan Meiselas is a photographer who took a photograph of a Nicaraguan man throwing a Molotov cocktail. Joy Garnett is a painter who used part of the photograph as the inspiration for a painting.

The photo on question was taken in Nicaragua in July of 1979 by Meiselas. She was documenting the revolution taking place in that country at the time. In her work, she tries hard to preserve the context and narrative of the individuals being photographed. In this case, she did not want this man’s act of rebellion to be separated from the actual conflicts taking place in his country at that time.

In the years after that photograph was taken, she saw the picture reappearing again and again. It was being used by other organizations for purposes other than her original intent. The image was becoming disassociated from the man as it became more and more abstract.

Many years later, Joy Garnett found one of the reappearances of the original photograph and used it as a model for one of her paintings. In her work, she paints from photos, and specifically wants to decontextualize her subjects from the narratives behind their photos. She used the painting in a gallery show. As a result, Meiselas found out about the photo and had her lawyer contact Garnett.

As always, once lawyers get involved, everything gets ugly. In the end Meiselas did not sue Garnett, but she did want to make a point about the decontextualization of the man in the photograph. The two artists must have reconciled because they both agreed to write this article for Harper’s. And their cooperation made for an excellent article. Readers can view two different perspectives on a conflict to read about the thoughts and motivations of the artists and see why their views on their own art led to this conflict. And ultimately, there are actually 3 people in this story. The two artists, and Pablo Arauz, the man throwing the molotov cocktail. Meiselas felt that other artists were not respecting the rights of Arauz, and making a point about that was her goal in having her lawyer contact Garnett.

Everything is a Remix

Kirby Ferguson delivered a short TED talk titled Embrace the Remix. The talk explores the musical origins of Bob Dylan’s songs. He is and was a famous American folk singer, but in his day he was accused of plagiarizing the works of others. Ferguson tells us that an estimated two thirds of Dylan’s early songs borrowed the melodies of other lesser known folk songs. He would transform them a bit and combine them with new lyrics, but the relationship to the original melody remains.

In the US, our copyright laws are contrary to the idea that we create works that build on the works of others because creative works can be a kind of property. The current environment of frequent copyright lawsuits may be stifling innovation and the creation of new things. Companies can be hypocritical about these matters by copying things when they are starting out but later objecting to the copying of their own stuff when they are established. As an example, Ferguson quotes Steve Jobs who said in 1996, "we have always been shameless stealing great ideas" but in 2010 he’s ready to go to war with Android because it is a "stolen" product.

Musicians copying from others is nothing new, and in other contexts can be framed in a completely different way. For example, Wikipedia states that Béla Bartók and his peers "frequently quoted folk song melodies verbatim and wrote pieces derived entirely from authentic songs" but at the time it was considered "comparative musicology" and later "ethnomusicology." Bartók was ostensibly studying folk songs and preserving them, but much of his musical work, although beautiful, was derived from the folk music of others. This is analogous to what Bob Dylan was doing, but nowhere on Bartók’s Wikipedia page does it mention accusations of plagiarism like what we find on Dylan’s. Perhaps our cultural views on creativity and originality have changed in the past 100 years, and as Ferguson might argue, not for the better.

Ferguson concludes by telling us that creativity comes from outside of us. We are dependent on one another to create new things. We need to accept this reality, and accepting this is not accepting mediocrity, but an incentive to not expect so much originality from ourselves.

Allergy to Originality

Drew Christie created a short and clever animation about the lack of originality in our culture. In an amusing irony, the video is intentionally as unoriginal as possible, containing many unlabeled cultural or artistic references. Much of the dialog is also unoriginal, with both characters reciting paragraphs from Wikipedia.

The monologue about plagiarism points out that:

Through all of the history of literature and of the arts in general, works of art are for a large part repetitions of the tradition; to the entire history of artistic creativity belong plagiarism, literary theft, appropriation… There is no rigorous and precise distinction between practices like imitation, stylistic plagiarism, copy, replica and forgery.

And on originality:

The concept of originality is culturally contingent. It became an ideal in Western culture starting from the 18th century. In contrast, at the time of Shakespeare it was common to appreciate more the similarity with an admired classical work, and Shakespeare himself avoided "unnecessary invention".

Referring back to the different treatments of Bob Dylan’s and Béla Bartók’s works, we recall that they lived in different countries and eras. Perhaps we now live in a culture that sets the potentially unrealistic expectation that content creators must always be completely original. This may be from the litigious nature of companies or our belief in the creative potential of an authentic artistic individual. In either case, we should consider that our culture’s current expectations of originality are not absolute truths but instead are constantly evolving standards that may be very different in the future.