Interview with Hou Hanru
Duration: 00:20:26; Aspect Ratio: 1.366:1; Hue: 55.752; Saturation: 0.205; Lightness: 0.255; Volume: 0.223; Cuts per Minute: 0.147; Words per Minute: 79.516
Summary: These interviews were conducted as a part of the Contested Commons/ Trespassing Publics conference organized by Sarai: CSDS and the Alternative Law Forum in January 2005.
Hou Hanru is a Paris-based independent art critic and curator. He is widely published in journals on contemporary art, and has curated exhibitions all over the world. His work addresses questions of globalisation and identity, and understanding contemporary art
practice as it exists beyond geographical and regional boundaries.
Intellectual property and artists
SS: How does intellectual property become something you have to engage with in the everyday life of curation, working with artists?
HH: The first thing: working with artists is to not really consider this question, because it comes naturally afterwards, I guess. Mainly it has to do with the question of originality: how much an artist is original, in terms of his work, his thoughts, whatever. But this is also a dilemma, because basically every artist claims to be original. The smart artist would say nobody is actually original, in the sense that he is constantly inheriting a lot of things - from his education, from his practice, and especially from his collaboration with others, his encounters with other artists.
HH: Every artist is part of a historical descent, and is also trying to struggle against and go beyond a point, to claim a certain originality there's a theoretical possibility of trying to claim a certain personal, not copyright, but a certain characteristic. But this is impossible to define in practice. And of course it is impossible to define in terms of legal regulation, because how can you define an artistic language in terms of copyright? This is completely ridiculous, I have to say. In my practice as a curator, instead of claiming any regulation in that sense, I prefer to encourage people to share things, together - to encourage the maximum possibility of collaboration, exchange and merging. Also, the possibility of considering going beyond the myth of the individual as romantic hero/genius. I don't think it's necessary to even consider such an issue.
SS: In your practice, do you sometimes come across a situation where an artist, say, works with found material, and a gallery says, "We have to get clearance because of intellectual property involved?"
HH: This happens all the time. Artists, particularly contemporary artists, pick up things, to a great extent. Actually, the turning point in contemporary art practice is the 'readymade'. Artists working with the 'readymade' openly claim to use found objects and turn these into personal artwork.
SS: You're talking about Andy Warhol?
HH:Long before that - Duchamp, almost a hundred years ago. Found objects, found everything, are a part of our language today. But in some specific cases, especially when more and more artists are using video works, or found film footage, they can regularly get into trouble with the audiovisual market. However, most artists don't actually consider that. They just pick up whatever they can use. And when it goes for public exhibition in a public institution, it is the institution's responsibility to solve the problem. As a curator, I think I would always play the game on the side of the artists, to negotiate with the institution to solve the problem. We can help to articulate certain problems, on behalf of the artists and in favour of the artists.
SS: Supposing one says to an artist, "This is something you can't work with because we don't know who it belongs to" More and more cultural material - a sign, a particular fragment of music - becomes somebody or the other's property, so that artists have less room, in a sense, to play with.
HH:This is a very new phenomenon. The whole idea of copyright and intellectual property is a new situation because of the commodification of cultural institutions. I don't think there is any policy available that is shared by everyone. So it is up to you to negotiate, case by case. And in my experience, I've been lucky that I haven't run into many problems like this. I don't know what is going to happen tomorrow, but I think we should develop a kind of 'smuggling' strategy. At the same time we should also propose other alternatives so as to encourage discussion and debate on the question of consciously resisting market logic in the realm of cultural products. This is not easy, but it is possible.
SS: Can you say something about the idea that curation is like holding things in trust or in custody for a public, between a public and an artist? Because it's a different way of approaching something: neither owning it, nor
HH:Yes, you might call it that. But I don't think curating is a profession. Nor is art a profession. It is about individuals coming together to share and present their ideas in society, to share the products that translate the artistic imagination. The role of the curator is basically to create a bridge between isolated artists focused on personal interests, and the more publicly articulated artists, in a public space. And from that moment on, I don't think there is any personal/individual right over an object presented to the public.
HH: An artwork is always a kind of an open text; open for interpretation and sometimes participation and re-creation through the intervention of others. What we are doing here is actually to push this possibility. Also, as a curator I don't deny that we should have our opinions on public life and should present these in public. It's a very interesting process of sharing, negotiating and exchanging to produce projects effectively. I don't want to draw a clear line between the limits of a curator and the limits of an artist, the rights of a curator and the rights of an artist. I don't think we should operate on such a black-and-white basis.
SS: There's been some discussion at this conference of spaces like India and China in the contemporary world as being these engines of piracy, or a redistribution of intellectual property along different lines. As someone who works very closely with Chinese artists, do you see this sensibility becoming a part of what they address?
HH:Yes, I have to say, it is almost a necessity, a part of daily life, for an artist or for anyone in China to access the world through the pirated version of everything; in India too, I guess. But in the meantime, the question is how much this myth of copyright, this myth of intellectual property has been strongly empowered through the domination of certain kinds of economies - the so-called 'liberal' market, which is actually not so liberal.
HH: With the help of political powers, a certain kind of myth has been imposed on our consciousness, as a given. It's not about whether we should respect a given law or not. We have to discuss the myth itself, deconstruct it. In practice it is true that many artists in China use pirated computer programmes. Everyone uses materials they can get from the pirate networks. And this is also a way to access and distribute the work. Especially in a place like China, where public audiovisual distribution has to go through a very strict censorship system. Piracy is how the underground - well, not so underground any more - let's say, the illegal circulation of image and sound and other materials can help artists to distribute their work. Very often, it's the only way for them to exist.
SS: What is the relationship between censorship and intellectual property?
HH:Censorship and intellectual property don't have to have a natural connection. They are separate entities. But, in practice, the censorship mechanism can easily use the logic of intellectual property to censor certain things. This happens quite regularly. Also, the market system, which itself uses intellectual property as a self-protecting mechanism, can easily collaborate with the censorship mechanism to create a mode of social consensus to neutralise any kind of alternative thought.
SS: Do you see contemporary artists in China working to break this myth of intellectual property in their own work?
HH:Yes. There's a very interesting case. Yang Zhenzhong, a contemporary artist from Shanghai, did two articulations concerning intellectual property and piracy in a challenging urban environment: a local bus station full of the numbers of buses, route maps, the map of the city. He reproduced the same grids 20 metres away, changing all the signifiers, turning everything around to create confusion. And that provoked all kinds of questions about who has the right to design the bus station. In another more direct work, he downloaded images of very expensive famous contemporary artworks, and then used these low-resolution images. He blew them up to the original size, made an exhibition of them, and then tried to sell all the reproductions at the same price as the original.
campaign against piracy
contemporary chinese art
HH:This led to questions about the originality of the work, the market system, and of course intellectual property. More and more artists are working in this mode, consciously. The debate is not very developed yet, but it is going to be an interesting one. Again, in the world of music and performing arts, there are more and more debates about whether a musician should defend his rights according to the market rule, or focus on making his presence felt through the avenues of pirate networks. There are some material campaigns against piracy; there are also people who say different things. So this issue is definitely getting to the forefront.
HH: I don't know...(laughs)...There are many possibilities. Currently, the term most used in relation to piracy is "daoban". "Dao" means "stealing things"; "ban" is to "version". So, it translates as "the stolen version".
SS: And you were talking about the Chinese word for "hacker"
HH: "Hacker" in Chinese has two translations, as far as I know. One is "heike"; it means "the black guest" or "the dark guest", like someone invited from the darkness. It's very beautiful. The other is "xiake"; it means someone who suddenly interrupts, enters a place like a storm, or like a shark. This is also very beautiful. I prefer "the guest from the darkness"...(laughs)
SS: Do you think you're an art hacker?
HH:I think more that we are all hacked by art. In reality, we are basically overtaken by what we are doing, rather than the other way around.