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Content Dictates Form: An interview with Mitch Weiss

In Content Dictates Form, Mitch Weiss’ recently concluded photography show at the Piano Factory Gallery, I was most taken with the occasional mix of natural elements, or naturalistic gestures, and artificiality bordering on the surreal. The above image –Monet the Mollusk– is a prime example. The yellow and black snail and the mossy branch are vividly beautiful fragments of nature, but suspended in a dark vacuum, the branch takes on a magical quality, while the snail seems to have been caught in its own wonderment at the viewer’s stare; “Is there a problem here?” its positioning seems to say.

While I sat pondering this natural surrealism, more or less echoing the Monet’s position, my research assistant, Ms. Ellen Wu, went to the source with a series of questions, the answers to which shed light on other images from the show–

Ellen: Where do you draw inspiration for your urban shots? What makes a particular moment in an urban environment more photographable than another?

Mitch Weiss: Well the most important thing to me is the set. It’s the first thing look at. For example, for one of these I had noticed the wall, the floor, and the overall space before I noticed my actress. I actually saw her across the room and I set up all my equipment facing the set and I hoped that she would walk by. So urban shots are kind of like sketches for me in that way.

E: What was it like shooting Lady Gaga?

MW: It was really cool to shoot her. That was in 2008, when she was kind of just starting out, before she was really really huge. And it’s interesting because we are the same age, we’re both 25.

E: You have many prints in this show that are one of twenty-two; what is the significance of 22 prints?

MW: I like the number 2 because I like the idea of pairs. If you look at the human body for example, a lot of things come in pairs, we have two eyes, two ears, two arms, two legs, and so on. The number 2 has a lot of balance, and that’s why I chose two 2’s. I usually keep two prints for myself anyway so there are really only 20 that are in circulation. For some of the more unique prints, I sometimes only make five prints. Besides, in the fine art world it’s standard to have 25 prints, so I’ve kind of become “the 22 guy.”

E: How did you create the effect on the light bulb picture?

MW: First I broke the glass of the lightbulb. It actually took a couple of tries because I kept breaking the filament, and I needed it intact. Then, I plugged in the light bulb at the same time the strobes went off, and it caused the filament to explode. I’m happy I didn’t die doing that!

Weaponizing Copyright Law

Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly ran this op-ed of mine on December 13, 2011, one week before the Mehanna trial concluded in US District Court in Boston.

Somewhat mysteriously, the piece has managed to cross MLW’s paywall event horizon…

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The Most Explosive Copyright Case Never To Be Seen

A rather nerdy aspect of the Tarek Mehanna trial suits it perfectly for the bookwormy city of Boston, arguably the nerdiest of American metropoli. The legal arguments animating the trial orbit an allegation of what we might call literary terrorism, and very near those arguments’ gravitational center sits a work of translation, the legally determined significance of which will contribute much to the settling of Mehanna’s fate. Under federal law, Mehanna’s charged with conspiring to injure persons or damage property beyond U.S. borders. But this case is also about the politics of a book, and what it means to make it accessible to English language readers. In other words, it’s about literary criticism.

The prosecution insists that Mehanna offered material support to Jihadi terrorists, in part through his translation of terrorist literature from the origianl Arabic to English, and through his subsequent online posting of those translations. His defense team argues that he’s a Nirvana fan, an intellectual engaged in the robust Internet-based discussion of the merits of Jihadism, an All-American in the best, First Amendment sense of the term.

The dramatic starkness of these competing interpretations makes for intense courtroom drama (the number of L.A. scribes toiling at film treatments presently is anyone’s guess), and will probably pave the way to a relatively rapid decision from Judge Leo Sorokin. So even though the stakes are high for Mehanna, with a life sentence being a possible outcome should his defense fail to successfully rebut the allegations against him, court watchers expect a conclusion before 2012 opens.

But the starkness also serves to shroud another dimension of this public controversy, an as yet un-acknowledged legal issue that could potentially, and radically, complicate the legal proceedings, as well as future cases turning, at least in part, on similar translation-related issues.

Strangely enough, this shadowed issue is a function of intellectual property; copyright laws, more precisely.

It is an uncontested fact of the trial that, sometime in 2006, Mehanna translated Muhammad bin Ahmad as-Salim’s book, 39 Ways to Serve and Participate in Jihad, from the original Arabic to English. Though a shadowy figure, various sources strongly suggest that as-Salim is a Saudi citizen. If this is true, then Saudi copyright law and, by virtue of the Berne Conventional, U.S. copyright law could apply to Mehanna’s translation of as-Salim’s book. The laws of both countries grant authors strong ownership rights in the translations of their works. And as no court-admitted evidence seems to indicate that Mehanna acquired permission from as-Salim to translate 39 Ways and post it online, there is a good chance that Mehanna violated as-Salim’s copyright under the laws of one or both countries.

Suing Mehanna for copyright infringement in the U.S. would serve no apparent end of a Jihadi theorist such as as-Salim. But if as-Salim were to bring suit against Mehanna under Saudi copyright law, Mehanna could face a penalty spectrum ranging from a warning from the Saudi Ministry of Culture and Information at the weak end, to a prison sentence of up to six months at the strong end. That stronger sentence would obviously necessitate Mehanna’s appearance before officials in Saudi Arabia.

It’s likely, were he to allege such an infringement, that the personal costs to as-Salim could include a well-placed Hellfire missile, or whatever other nasty bit of payload a hovering Reaper might have at its disposal. But, the administrative costs that would be forced upon the Saudi and American courts, the diplomatic costs their respective emissaries would likely incur, the media kerfuffle and sensational exposure (think of it as an extreme book advertising campaign), might make it worthwhile for a true radical. And if this scenario seems a worthy plot element from an unpublished Thomas Pynchon novel, recall that before 9/11 the idea of a hijacked airliner being turned to terrorists’ ends was widely judged a foppish concept, suitable only for the pages of a Tom Clancy techno-thriller.

Ultimately, even if as-Salim does not turn out to be some kind of Zola of Arabia, an activist intellectual willing to stick his neck out to protect someone he considers to be an unfairly persecuted comrade-in-arms, the contours of the Mehanna case reveal a strange potential of the law. Like a plane, a cell-phone or a sacrificial body, copyright might also be weaponized in this Age of Terror.

Michael G Bennett is an Associate Professor of Law at Northeastern University.

Cainian Opinionoids

Nein, Nein, Nein—The Cain campaign’s slogan is a beautiful exercise in self-deconstruction.

Comparative Timelines from Morehouse—In the immediate wake of WWII, MLK graduated from Morehouse in 1948 and then left Atlanta for Chester, PA, where he enrolled in seminary school at Crozer. He was assassinated in 1968.

With the maximally intense moments of the Vietnam War –and, no more than a month old, MLK’s assassination– as an immediate cultural and political backdrop, Cain graduated from Morehouse in 1967 and headed directly off to begin calculating ballistic trajectories for the Navy while studying computer science at Purdue. Two decades later Cain had become the Chief Executive Officer of Godfather’s Pizza.

Versus The First Black President—Possibly to preemptively spite Toni Morrison, Cain crossed sabers with President Clinton in 1994.

Long Live The Kane—Blow’s mash-up of Cain and Big Daddy Kane hit me twice. With the first, I almost doubled over with laughter. After the second, I went into a kind of shock with the understanding of how much stranger than I’d imagined it the universe must be if these two could exist in it, on the same planet, no less, at once.

Hoping to find out what he thinks about Blow’s article, I sent Big Daddy Kane a tweet: “Any thoughts on Blow’s reference to BDK in his op-ed on the Republican field, @officialbdk ?” I haven’t heard back from him yet.

(For the 1-, 2- and 3Ls: Could Big Daddy Kane win any intellectual property-based claim(s) against Blow for use of the former’s name in the op-ed piece? Explain your answer in 500 words or less, pasted into comments below. Best answer wins a valuable price.)

Comic Genius—I know how these things work, so, just to be clear: NEIN! NEIN !NEIN! But one is forced to admit that Cain’s sense of humor (or the sense of humor that he approves of) is impeccable and devastating.

He is kidding, right?

Science Fiction, Politics &MLK

Appearing as a beautiful butterfly spliced with a majestic lioness, Nichelle Nichols dramatically recounts MLK’s demand (repeated three times) that she not quit Star Trek during its inaugural season. Apparently the Kings allowed their kids to watch no prime-time TV outside of Star Trek, because of its relatively positive depiction of a Black character (from the United States of Africa, no less!).

In his illuminating critical work The American Shore (1977), Samuel R. Delany brings us quickly to this recollected bit of sf media’s cash value— “Science fiction is not about the future. It uses the future as a convention to present a significant distortion of the present.”

Watch the full episode. See more Tavis Smiley.

Or is this a modest estimation of that cash value? For, as much as that particular passage —in its amplification of Nichelle’s recall, and in its gross distribution of an elevating force to so many other sf works— titillates, it seems to undervalue the chronopolitical force of sf, in my opinion. Science fiction is not about the future, but rather than offer distortions of what is, I argue that among its highest powers is the deployment of the future as a convention to effectively distort the present. And this is no minimal difference.

Google’s International Web-Based Science Fair Begins 01.11.11

“Get me Jack Bauer!” in Pashto, anyone?

Actor Najebullah Sadiq as "Kamran"

It’s difficult to determine which is stranger— 24’s apparent popularity in Afghanistan, or 24’s translation into Eagle Four, an American embassy-funded television show/tool of “public diplomacy” designed to “raise the esteem in which Afghans hold their much-maligned police force.

Broadcast time’s not clear at Tolo TV’s tv guide, but you can sample a few seconds worth, at least:

Requiescat In Pace, Harvey Pekar

“Seems like everyone is trying to get out of Cleveland, one way or another”–Dave Dee.


The Ripley Solution: Going Frakkin’ Nuclear in the Gulf?

Having grown up a short drive from the beautiful beaches of Florida’s Gulf Coast, I am desperate for an effective and sensible close to the Deepwater Horizon fiasco. The situation is horrendous: ecologically, psychically, politically, economically and technologically. But is it time to get Ripley on the Deep Ho?—

The Only Way to Be Sure???

Nearly three weeks ago The Telegraph revealed Obama Energy Secretary Chu’s dispatch of a nuclear science team to the gulf.

Early last week, with a measure of equanimity I find retroactively disappointing, Mother Jones chronicled the Soviet precedents for using nuclear weapons to cap pesky above-ground (not a mile underwater) gas (not oil) leaks. The Soviets have been successful four out of five times since 1966. The Lawrence Livermore scientist Milo D. Nordyke authored the definitive technical discussion of those blasts.

Yesterday NYT glommed on. So, too, the Atlantic Wire. Both, presumably, are reacting to Dan Foster’s asinine apotheosis at the National Review Online. On the Take-Away, Foster seemed to advocating the nuclear option and arguing that such a use should not be a political question, but rather a technical question.

Foster’s 1st problem: technology is politics, and nuclear weaponry –or “The Bomb Power,” as G. Wills likes to call it– quintessentially so:

Wills on Bomb Power; First Congregational Church of Berkeley, February 2010

Foster’s 2nd problem:

Foster’s 3rd problem: a pesky treaty.

Foster’s 4th problem: Ripley’s Nuke did not solve her problem. And we’ll fair worse: A detonation on the Gulf floor would likely compound our troubles.

Accelerator Envy Syndrome

Is it possible that the folks at Fermi’s Tevatron and Brookhaven’s Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC) are feeling anxious now that CERN’s Large Hadron Collider is the heavyweight champion of the subatomic world?

Fermi’s DZero collaborationa small army of researchers from 80+ institutions— has proposed a possible explanation for the preponderance of matter over anti-matter in our universe, and hence, among a few other things, human existence. Meanwhile, the Tevatronists have generated a edutaining animation explaining their newly created hot quark soup:

Not exactly signs of a Bloods-versus-Crips caliber rivalry (yet), I admit. But we certainly could use some research on the institutional imaginaries and collective/group psychology of the domestic accelerator labs in the wake of CERN’s ascendancy.

Northeastern Nano Regulation Conference

It’s unlikely that we’ll spend much time discussing the deleterious potential applications of productive nanoscale machinery at next week’s Global Regulation of Nanotechnologies Conference, May 7-8. Those days are behind us; for now, at least.

This gathering, hosted by Northeastern University’s School of Law –disclosure: I will officially join NUSL’s law faculty this summer– promises a broad and comprehensive set of discussions about how best to control the smorgasbord of presently available products and services that incorporate more modest forms of nano. Here’s the line-up.