Just Do It - Be Neoliberal!
Intellectual theft as a curatorial method
Or: How capitalist exploitation is disguised as a "left-wing" strategy
Open Letter, July 3rd, 2005
( -- Thanks to a lot of friends and colleagues
and to Florian Cramer for an almost instant
English translation ;-) --)
For the exhibition "Just Do It - The Subversion
of Signs from Marcel Duchamp to Prada Meinhof" at
Lentos Museum in Linz, Austria, the three
curators Thomas Edlinger, Florian Waldvogel and
Raimar Stange have produced a catalogue
consisting of (sometimes very long) passages from
texts by different authors. The authors were
neither asked for their permission of the
reprint, nor do the texts bear any attribution,
i.e. they cannot be matched to single authors.
The catalogue thus appears to consist of one
long, continuous text.
The only ones named in this catalogue are Lentos
Museum as the editor and the three curators of
The publication is commercially distributed.
The last page of the book contains, under the
headline "Thanks", an impressive list of people.
It remains unclear however if those are the names
of the authors whose texts were used, people who
supported and collaborated in the exhibition or
even commercial sponsors. The authors who are
named here did not know that they would be put on
In most general terms, this is a misunderstanding
and even an abuse of the concepts of "culture
jamming", "appropriation" and "subversion of
signs". Those practices are not a general license
for serving yourself with the work of your
colleagues, but - mostly in the field of net
activism - a strategy of appropriating symbols
(trademarks, corporate identities, logos) in
order to subvert the authority of large
corporations. They are about the critical,
artistic alteration of ruling codes, not
uncritical postmodern recycling, and they are not
meant to free lazy curators and critics from
doing their work.
In the case of "Just do it", the misunderstanding
does not seem to be based on a lack of knowledge,
but an intentional carreerist camouflage strategy.
A few elaborations:
1) In fields where free distribution of works is
more important than commercial use - like in free
software, the sciences, certain areas of art and
other volunteer work - proper attribution and
crediting people is indispensable and part of
fair ethics. After all, the authors have no gain
from their work except public recognition. The
"Just Do It" book is even too cheap for that. If
the editors had been consequent, they should have
left out their own names, too, instead of taking
credit for the texts themselves.
EXPLOITATIVE MISAPPROPRIATION OF OTHER PEOPLE'S LABOR
2) According to [continental European] copyright
laws, proper attribution is an indispensable
right of every author. There can be no doubt that
an illegal act was committed here that could be
3) Yes, there are pseudonymous and anonymous
publications like those of Luther Blissett. But
it is solely upon the author to choose such a
form of publication, not upon some editor.
According to both legal and ethical rules, it is
an editor's duty to get a permit from an author
for every kind of use, including secondary uses,
unless there are other contractual agreements or
license rules. The exhibition itself documents
that artist transgress these rules. But if
editors and curators do the same and claim the
same artistic freedom for themselves, they
shouldn't mind being called manipulators (just
like the artists).
4) Authorship involves responsibility, with the
author's signature at its visible expression.
Without attribution, all texts are devaluated.
5) The catalogue doesn't declare its text a
collective, anonymous work, but implicitly
ascribes it to the curators. This way, they -
respectively Lentos Museum - cash in their value.
Other authors can no longer be identified and get
purged from history like in Stalinist media.
Since the readers get the impression that the
texts were written by the curators, this is not
simply suppression of names, but
plagiarism. Unlike in artistic plagiarism, it's
not a (weaker) individual borrowing from an
institution, but an institution taking from
individuals, similar to a professor who publishes
the research of a student or assistant under his
own name in an academic journal.
6) The people listed on the "Thanks" page of the
catalogue are being recuperated since at least of
the authors I know had not been contacted and
negotiated with in advance. This (fictitious)
list suggests a quality standard that increases
the reputation of the curators and the editor.
7) The authors were removed from the economic
value chain of the catalogue publication on full
purposes. In a private e-Mail message to me, the
curators said that including them would have
prevented the publication as a whole because it
would have become too expensive. They thus
testify to a quite disturbed sense of right and
wrong, putting their economic freedom above the
legal rights of the producers.
8) With their behavior, the curators demonstrate
that they don't understand "appropriation": It's
not about saving money for publishers. And not
about using other people's work to increase your
own reputation and market value.
9) Since Lentos Museum has refused to react so far, I propose the following:
- all money made from the sales of the book will be donated to the Free
Software Foundation Europe or the Creative Commons project.
- the curators give back their honorarium and donate it to Creative Commons,
- the remaining copies of the book will be given away for free and the
manuscript will be put online as a freely downloadable PDF file.
- Lentos Museum and the curators will be anonymized on all related
websites and printed matters, just like the authors before.
10) Copyright gives me all means for stopping the
distribution of the book. Since I don't mind
giving away my texts when a minimum of ethical
rules are being obeyed, such as attribution of
author and source, I will draw one consequence
from this unpleasant experience: I will attach a
license to all my texts which unmistakably
explains the fair play rules for their use, and
let a lawyer handle all infringements.
Dr. Inke Arns
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