I shifted uneasily in my seat.
With each pressing question, I could feel my face slowly turning red.
“Wasn’t this work shown in Singapore last year?” asked the man in front of me.
I frowned, “No. It’s never been in Singapore.”
“But I’m pretty sure I saw something like this in Singapore; in a group show.” He continued.
“No. It has never been in Singapore. Only Johor Bahru. And never in a group show.” I answered curtly.
“I could’ve sworn though…”
In my head I blabbered on, “Don’t you think I should know where my artwork goes off to? Are you suggesting that I copied someone’s work in Singapore? Why should I lie to you?”
My facial expression was of anguished irony. Despite being straightforward, I felt as if I had been caught cheating in an exam. By then, the air between us in the meeting room was drenched in awkwardness. What started off as a warm introduction between myself and another Malaysian artist by a mutual curator acquaintance turned into a heated interrogation.
Attempting to deflate the tension between us, the curator then tactfully intercepted with a change of topic. A welcome distraction. I sank into my chair and drifted off to mull over this bane-of-a-concept: to be original.
Our society’s sensitivity to “copying” probably stems from copyright laws. According to Joost Smiers, creative expression is the 21st century’s most valuable commodity. The arts, a form of entertainment, is released into the modern-day environment in order to increase and perpetuate conspicuous consumption. Entertainment makes big bucks. There is a race between these cultural conglomerates to invest in intellectual capital and to own the rights to as much music, movies and books as possible. Jessica Litman said, ”Copyright today is less about incentives or compensation than it is about control.”
Copying turned into a problem when computers stepped into our lives. In 1999, Napster brought a peer-to-peer sharing program to the fore that spread like wildfire. It attracted 38 million users in the first 18 months of its existence. Copying MP3 music files under the notion of “sharing” presented a critical threat to the big corporations. Napster wasn’t just another nineteen-year-old pain-in-the-ass because this “kid” was quite able to bring their business to its knees. They had to stop him, or in capitalist terms Napster was acquired and absorbed into the Dark Side. Similar to the story of David and Goliath, but in this modern fairy tale, David lost. Or did he? Yves Eudes said, “Even when the original site of Napster is forced to close, the spirit is out of the bottle.”
But the problem is artists have always copied from their predecessors. Star Wars: A New Hope was copied from Akira Kurosawa’s Hidden Fortress. Lucas even admitted that he did it because he is a huge fan of the late Japanese director. Kurosawa, on the other hand, was known to have copied from Shakespeare’s plays. And it probably doesn’t end there. For any culture to survive, it needs to be able to evolve with its time to stay relevant. Copying is a cultural necessity. Jean-Pierre Babylon calls it “one of the grounding instruments of our civilization.”
Copying isn’t an issue to me because I think it’s a given. If someone copied any of my work, I’d take it as a compliment. Which is probably why I felt irritated when the artist implied there was a problem because two artworks were similar.
In the end, I said to the artist, ”You know, it’s really not a problem if the works are similar. My works aren’t about being one-of-a-kind. I’m about being site specific. I try to manifest a phenomenon from the site. Apparently, there’s something in the local ground for this artwork to appear at 2 different places at about the same time. You can say that I’m only responding to that phenomenon.”