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November 2019   |   Volume 21 No. 1

The Art of Bending the Law

Paolo Cirio and Alessandro Ludovico initiated the Face to Facebook project in which a custom-made software was used to steal one million public profiles from Facebook, filtering them with artificial intelligence for face-recognition software and posting the resulting 250,000 profiles on a dating website. (Courtesy of Paolo Cirio and Alessandro Ludovico)
Protest movements are often associated with civil disobedience. But some protesters pursue ‘uncivil obedience’ – adhering to the rules in such an exaggerated and literal way that it becomes subversive. Art historian Dr Monica Lee Steinberg has been exploring this phenomenon and other ways that artists interact with the law.

American conceptual artist Lowell Darling is practised in the art of bending (but not breaking) rules to the point of absurdity. Faced with onerous demands by US tax authorities to prove he was a ‘for-profit’ artist and not a hobbyist, in order to claim some US$800 in expenses, Darling turned the challenge into a project. He established the fictional Fat City School of Finds Arts and handed out thousands of free MFA and PhD degrees; and he transformed the documentation of his art practice (business records, correspondence, project ideas) into a marketable portfolio – a copy of which is in the special collections division of the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles.

Darling also challenged the political system by running for California governor in 1978 on the platform ‘The Inevitable Campaign Slogans and Promises’. His campaign featured a large stuffed hand on a stick (a ‘glad hand’) for shaking people’s hands and an admission that he was selling out to special interests, a proposal to replace taxes with good luck, and an announcement that he would appoint the incumbent candidate Jerry Brown as the governor.

Such acts of ‘uncivil obedience’ are the focus of ongoing research by Dr Monica Lee Steinberg, Assistant Professor of American Studies in the School of Modern Languages and Cultures. She has been trawling through archives to uncover work by contemporary artists, like Darling, who engage in what she describes as “contentious compliance to expose the flaws of a system”. Unlike civil disobedience, uncivil obedience has received scant attention from fine arts scholars.

“Artists like Lowell Darling are taking the letter of the law and looking at how they can work within it while also protesting certain aspects they disagree with,” she said. “US tax law is dense and complicated, and it has always been a point of difficulty for artists to demonstrate they are working ‘for-profit’ and thus eligible to take a deduction for expenses related to their practice. Darling fulfilled, in an unexpected way, the requisite for-profit factors considered by the Inland Revenue Service. He also deconstructed not only a political campaign but the ludicrous things that are very common to campaigning.”

Lowell Darling, Elect Darling Governor, 1978. Button pins, diameter: 1¾ in. (4.4 cm), Lowell Darling Papers, box 2, Santa Monica Art Studios, Santa Monica, California. Photograph by Sabine Pearlman. © Lowell Darling

Staying within the lines

Intellectual property rights are another area that has been the target of artistic uncivil obedience. One well-publicised case was the 2011 project Face to Facebook. Artists Alessandro Ludovico and Paolo Cirio used 250,000 public profiles on Facebook to create a fake dating website, which they uploaded then shut down quickly afterwards. They assiduously documented the ensuing repercussions, which included a letter from Facebook’s legal team that focussed not on privacy violations, but on the artists’ trademark infringement.

“What becomes clear in a very public way is that, in the United States, there is little privacy protection for users of social media sites. But Facebook can galvanise intellectual property protections if and when others use the word ‘Facebook’,” she said. “The artists were very careful to stay within the lines of certain laws to highlight a discrepancy between privacy and intellectual property protections.”

Dr Steinberg’s interest in uncivil obedience traces back to an earlier project about contemporary artists who create works using fake names. Some, such as Lynn Hershman Leeson and Bruce Conner, even signed contracts using their fictional characters’ names.

“I kept thinking, are these contracts even valid? It led me toward the question of what happens at the intersection of art and law from a humanities perspective, which is an understudied area. That’s when I started looking at all these artists who were using law as a medium of expression and found an entire body of work,” she said.

In addition to the art of uncivil obedience, Dr Steinberg has also started studying ‘true crime’ representations in art. For example, Mark Lombardi created hand-drawn infographics and diagrams to creatively trace fraud and abuses of power, such as a work illustrating the business connections between former US President George W Bush and Osama bin Laden from 1979 to 1990.

As with uncivil obedience, Dr Steinberg’s interest in true crime in art leans towards artworks about taxes, particularly given the labyrinthine nature of US tax law. In fact, she is finding that such complexity abets artistic expression.

“The norms that underpin how we apply policies, mandates, and laws are not written down, so the more rules there are on the books, the more opportunities there are to explore those rules in an unexpected and hyperbolic way,” she said.

Mixed media installation at Public Private exhibition 2013 at Kellen Gallery of The New School, New York. (Courtesy of Paolo Cirio and Alessandro Ludovico)

The norms that underpin how we apply policies, mandates, and laws are not written down, so the more rules there are on the books, the more opportunities there are to explore those rules in an unexpected and hyperbolic way.