May 27, 2009

Animal Torture as Art, Hate Mail and Privacy

In 2007, Guillermo Vargas, a supposed artist, paid local children to catch a stray dog. He then tied the dog to a leash next to a bowl which said, "You are what you eat," and let the animal starve to death. He was later invited to recreate the installation at the 2008 Bienal Centroamericana Honduras.

Personally, I quite like the idea of showing that one is what one eats but that's what you have the "Ce n'est pas une pipe" genre of art for, what you have modern animation for, not what you use as an excuse to be inexcusably cruel and abusive. Yes, animals do starve. So do people. But usually not because some jerk's decided that watching them starve might be artistic. Also, I can sort of understand one person being cruel but I cannot even begin to comprehend what the people who saw the installation were doing — surely, they could have given the dog some food and rescued him — and what were the judges thinking when they chose Vargas to be one of the artists to represent his country, Costa Rica, at the Bienal Centroamericana?

Unless we've become so used to cruelty that we don't see anything wrong in voluntarily starving a living being to death. Or unless that is now acceptable art.

A Dutch artist named Katinka Simonse (Tinkebell) seems to be the another person who treats torturing animals as art. Among other things, she killed her cat in 2004, skinned it and made it into a purse. She seems to have called the 'project' 'My dearest cat Pinkeltje'. There isn't too much to be said about her having done that. People who don't get why that isn't acceptable to do such things are unlikely to have enlightenment dawn simply because they're told that it isn't OK or because such legal enactments as the (Dutch) Health and Well-being Act for Animals exist. And the trouble is that there really doesn't seem to be a shortage of people who engage in torture masquerading as art. Take Theo van Meerendonk, another Dutch artist, for example, who, in 2004, covered a goldfish in paint and left it to flounder until it died. He was convicted of 'torturing a goldfish without a reasonable purpose'. Somehow, it's difficult to fathom how he could even have come up with such an idea.

Coming back to Tinkebell, her latest project 'Dearest Tinkebell' finds its base in what she did to her cat. Not too surprisingly, there were a number of people who weren't thrilled with what she had done, and between 2004 and 2008, she received a large quantity of hate mail. What she's now done is compiled this mail and self-published it (after having had her publisher back out because of the copyright and privacy issues involved).

What's creating a stir in legal circles is that she's not only published the mail itself but that she's also published information about its senders. Another artist named Coralie Vogelaar helped her collate information about the persons who sent her the mail. She says that all the information she's got is publicly available and that it was all legally obtained but even if that's the case, it raises some interesting questions. Among others: a) can information which has been posted on, say, a social networking site be collected, compiled and published by a third person? b) can hate mail (or, for that matter, any other mail) be republished without the consent of its senders (which, in this case, the artist does not seem to have obtained)?

And so, the book contains not just the hate mail itself but also the names of the persons who sent the mail along with their addresses and other identifying information. In some cases, this seems to include photographs of the senders. (In case you're wondering who sends hate mail as a general rule, yes, in most part, (it appears from the photos, etc. in the book that) it is bored American teenagers but there are others too.

The fact that the senders sent the mail not intending that it be compiled and published should ensure that if they or any of them should choose to do so, they would be able to get a court order to restrain distribution/sale of the book. If not anything else, they own the copyright in the letters. The fact that the letters are hate mail doesn't change the ownership of copyright nor does it change the fact that by publishing the mail without the senders' permission, the artist is effectively infringing the copyright of the authors of the letters. And similar arguments regarding copyright would exist with regard to the photos of senders downloaded off the net. When it comes to privacy though, the issue could be murky considering that, if what the artist claims is true, the information was made publicly available by the senders themselves.

In all probability, such issues will soon become clearer. Considering how willing people are to go to court these days, it's likely that it'll only be a matter of time before one or more of the senders of the hate mail approaches a court seeking some form of remedy.