July 6th, 2012
Been dipping into a unique film festival – “Fishing for the Future,” the brainchild of Memorial researcher Barb Neis. Barb’s work is all about engagement with community and she has been tirelessly, brilliantly working on projects related to fishery and ocean communities for years. It’s July and warm and sunny, and so not everyone wants to sit in the dark and watch documentaries about the collapse of the fishery in this province and beyond or about disappearing ways of life. Those who are, however, are being rewarded with a variety of perspectives on what is not just a local social reality but a global condition with enormous consequences.
A festival panel with artists and filmmakers addressed a really tiny crowd this morning. I couldn’t help think of how many people were missing out on a great conversation. Moderated by the mellifluously- voiced Paul Kennedy of CBC Radio’s Ideas program, the panelists spoke both to their own practice and to larger questions regarding the ethics of collaborating with others who are not artists. The big category into which these ethical questions fit is intellectual property. Coincidentally, I am off to a conference in sweltering, hot Beantown USA next week to discuss this very issue, and so I was especially eager to hear what the artists had to say.
Central to the topic is the question of ownership. If an artist is intent on working with a rural community about, say, life after the collapse of the fishery, how much credit does that community get in the production of meaning? Artist and doctoral candidate Pam Hall spoke of this very challenge, always underscoring the need to relax the hold on ownership. As she rightly said, in the world of the mash-up and the remix there is a lot more tolerance for the blending of property rights. Those who are providing the source material and speaking from their experience in community members surely have a huge role in the artistic product, and should be acknowledged as such. There is an alchemy that exists between artists and non-artist without which that product would never have come to being in the first place.
As I prepare for my academic conference I have to admit that the university academy has a long way to go to sorting through this conversation – and relaxing the way the panelists have about intellectual property rights. There are reasons for this, some of which have to do with careerism and where credit might be bestowed and rewarded in postsecondary institutions, but there really isn’t any big philosophical difference. Our impulse in universities is to draw really clear lines between different contributors to a research project. And when students are involved the lines need to be even clearer, so as not to encourage exploitation of their contributions. I understand this, but also see the unintended consequences.
The problem is that the clearer we want the lines the more difficult it might be to promote truly collaborative work. If we had a more casual –and shared—view of intellectual property then we would abandon the notion of hierarchies of knowledge and allow everyone working on a project to have equal stake in the final product. The world of art might be shifting towards a much more blended model of collaborative authorship but many researchers resist that impulse, instead seeking clarity of authorship, territorial certainty. The commercialization of university research also encourages such resistance. Industry wants finely drawn lines around data and findings. That’s why we invented lawyers, I suppose.
I was heartened by the progressive tolerance of the artist-panelists’ perspectives, and aim to take some of that spirited generosity with me to my own panel in Boston. Trying to get out of the fishbowl, you see….