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Appropriation Art

The extraordinary Boston-based artist, Chandra Ortiz, and I are collaborating on FRAGMENT/APPROPRIATE/REMIX, an art exhibit opening this Saturday evening and running through April 10, 2010, in the new art gallery at the Rozsa Center for the Performing Arts.

The exhibit explores the concept of appropriation across Law, Art and Technoscience, and is partly inspired by National Science Foundation-sponsored research on nanotechnology that colleagues and I have been performing for almost two years.

Here’s the introductory essay for the exhibit:


The works of the artist known as Dieppa (born Chandra Dieppa Ortiz) reveal and render problematic any number of societal issues, but always through a visual vernacular that stresses the beauty intrinsic to even the most inhumane conditions. Like the works of the great appropriationists/collagists of the 20th century, bracketed by Braque, Picasso and other cubists at its opening, and near its close by Romare Bearden, Dieppa’s art visualizes fragmented spaces, multi-dimensional collapses and detonated yet immediately almost-recognizable figures, all reconstituted by her polarizing thought and deft technique into a coherent form, like iron filings in a strong magnetic field.

Social criticism is a traditional trope of appropriation art. And here Dieppa is also solidly ensconced. Gender and sexuality are interrogated relentlessly in her works, but never to the end of producing stale graphic jeremiads. The works are aggressively and critically deconstructive of stereotypes, especially of urban and black experience, but simultaneously deconstructive of such critiques. It is as if second-, third- and fourth-orders of criticism have refused to wait their turn and instead now rush from as yet unrecognizable futures into our present. Presently intransigent problems like digital divides are alchemically displaced by preemptive answers such as analogue suturing.

But appropriationists have also been the targets of social criticism, particularly in legal domains. Appropriation artists are regularly called upon to justify their use of copyrighted works and trademark-protected images. Such artists, save the most marginal, become de facto intellectual property experts. And so this exhibition of Dieppa’s work in a technoscientific institution signifies three worlds —Art, Technoscience and Law— in collision. As in a high-energy physics experiment, novel forms result. Permutated conceptual couplings invite us to imagine Law as Technology, and Technology as Law; Art as Technology, and Technology as Art; Art as Law, and Law as Art.

“Appropriation” approximates a common divisor among these three worlds. The term grants a weight that it complexly distributes across Art, Technoscience and Law. The main effect is that conceptual or theoretical issues and problems are rapidly grounded in the messy “real” world. In Art, “appropriation” signals aggressive social critiques, and contestation of the rules of a rigid cultural property regime; in Technoscience, the term connotes the Newtonian-style indebtedness to one’s disciplinary predecessors and issues of academic plagiarism, reverse engineering and other violations of professional codes; and in Law, “appropriation” signals the eternally recurrent drive to maintain definitions of rightful ownership.

The remixing of technological artifacts, scientific theories and art is a gateway to radical experimentation. And as in all intrepid attempts, there are potential hazards. There is of course the possibility of the blandest types of base repackaging, minimally creative, maximally banal. More worrisome for the remixer, though, is the always-risked possibility of their appropriation being overcome, overwhelmed and outshone by the appropriated work. The experimental gaze presented to us in the artwork of Dieppa risks these hazards, and challenges us to embrace risk as well. And the chance to refresh our minds, to innovate genuinely, seems worth the gamble.

Michael G Bennett
Poughkeepsie, NY
January 2010

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