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Hacking the Homeland Hack

November 27, 2018

Untitled designEarlier this year I published a post describing how back in 2015 three artists  — Heba Amin, Caram Kapp and Stone — were hired to create background graffiti for the sets of the TV show Homeland, and decided to express their disdain for the way the show represents Arabs in general, and Muslim Arabs in particular, by inserting messages that broke the fourth wall and critiqued the program in which they appeared.

The artists took credit for the act as soon as the show had aired, and it came to be called “the Homeland Hack,” and much celebrated by activists/artists.

So celebrated that German artists David Krippendorf decided to do a “homage” to the hack. He created an installation called “This Show Does Not Represent the View of the Artist,” a small series of silkscreens that reproduce the graffiti from the hack in gold on silk. This art is in line with much of Krippendorf’s other work, which involves appropriating images from films and media and recontextualizing them to expose and rearticulate  the ideologies that pervade them.

In a less dramatic, more rareified and certainly better compensated way, Krippendorf’s work is inspired by the same impulse that inspired the Homeland hack–which is why he wanted to make an homage to it.

The original artists were deeply offended that their work was appropriated and used without their permission. So they confronted the artist.

At this point it gets tricky. Amin, Kapp and Stone claim that Krippendorf offered to destroy the works or turn them over to the artists. Krippendorf claims that this was not something he offered but something they — or Amer, at least — demanded. The Arabian Street Artists took the prints, only to be ordered, five days later, to return them under threat of prosecution.

Krippendorf argues that because “we live in an age of sampling and appropriation,” he was not “ ‘stealing’ anybody’s narrative.” He wrote:

Homeland is a product of the US entertainment industry, and my homage to a hack at its expense also becomes my narrative, as I have been exploring precisely these issues of cultural identity, belonging, displacement, misrepresentation, and scapegoating for over twenty years.

Heba Amin, Caram Kapp and Stone, by contrast, see this as a clear case of cultural appropriation. When people from colonizing countries take things–including expressions of ideas–from previously colonized people, charges of cultural appropriation are almost inevitable.

Cultural appropriation is one of those complicated issues that are often misunderstood. Diffusion is a normal cultural process that can be empirically described and mapped throughout human history as ideas, religions, technologies, artistic styles and many other things have moved from society to society over time through many different forms of contact.

But some modes of diffusion of more just than others. Charges of cultural appropriation apply when people who are wealthier and more powerful appropriate the technologies, cultural forms, and knowledge of peoples who are poorer and less powerful–and profit from it. As the US group Unsettling America puts it:

Cultural appropriation is harmful because it is an extension of centuries of racism, genocide, and oppression. Cultural appropriation treats all aspects of marginalized cultures … as free for the taking. This is the same rationale that has been (and still is) used to steal land and resources from People of Color, particularly Native people. Put together, the theft of the lands, resources, and culture of a marginalized group amount to genocide.

At another level, this is an argument about intellectual property rights. Unfortunately, intellectual property rights tend not to protect people from cultural appropriation for a number of reasons:

First, copyright and other intellectual property laws are rooted in an 18th century romantic notion of individual authorship, and they don’t usually protect collective knowledge, or collective expressions of ideas–i.e. culture. Shamanic knowledge of local plants can be exploited by global pharmaceutical companies without acknowledgment or compensation. Revered ancestors, tutelary deities and sacred objects can be appropriated and used by artists, advertisers and designers without the knowledge or permission of the communities in which these cultural forms originated.

Second, copyright and other intellectual property laws are primarily designed to promote innovation. Laws tend to be very broad in interpreting the kinds of transformation of one work by another artist that makes it new–an “original” art work. Mostly,this is a good thing because it means I can take a Coca-Cola ad and mutate it into a criticism of overconsumption and Coca-Cola probably can’t come after me (or at least, if they do I would probably win in court). But Krippendorf’s photoreplication of the Arab Street Artists’ graffiti in gold on silk would almost certainly pass.

Only courts can decide if Krippendorf is guilty of plagiarism, and it isn’t clear to me whether this is technically a case of cultural appropriation. What is clear to me is that whether this is technically cultural appropriation or plagiarism, his actions are morally bankrupt.

Here’s why:

This is a successful professional artist who appropriated the work of other artists less well situated than him without informing them, or seeking their approval, and used his modifications of their work in ways that profited himself without sharing authorship credit, or sharing any monetary compensation with them.

That is not homage. That is exploitation.

References

Dry, Jude. 2018. German Artist Sells the ‘Homeland’ On-Set Graffiti That Declared Show Racist Without the Original Artist’s Approval. IndieWire <https://www.indiewire.com/2018/10/homeland-graffiti-artist-plagiarized-german-art-fair-1202016796/&gt;

ElGanaidi, Deena. 2018.  An Artist Defends His Appropriation of a Fellow Artist’s Work Without Permission. Hyperallergic <https://hyperallergic.com/467202/an-artist-defends-his-appropriation-of-a-fellow-artists-work-without-permission/

Krippendorf, David. 2018. The Homeland Case. davidkrippendorf.com <http://www.davidkrippendorff.com/selected-works/the-homeland-case/&gt;

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