Philo T Farnsworth isn’t his real name but an appropriated one, taken from the man who invented television. Philo isn’t giving his actual name. If I was to ask, I wouldn’t get an address either, and there are many who have asked – most of them record company lawyers.
The American record label Illegal Art was founded by Philo (or, as has been suggested, a collective of ‘Philos’) in 1998. They release an eclectic mix of mashup records and audio documentaries; artists include the critically acclaimed Girl Talk, the Bran Flakes and the surreal Corporeal Blossom. There are no rules as to what they can and can’t put out, but Philo is clear that the label is there to support artists that the market won’t: ‘We support work that we feel is artistic and that otherwise might not see the light of day.’
The label was launched to infamy after it released Deconstructing Beck. This compilation album was built entirely out of samples taken, without authorisation or payment, from the musician Beck. The samples were manipulated electronically, producing a sound that is both abrasive, bizarre and, for the most part, entirely unrecognisable as the original artist’s.
Beck’s own music is also largely made up of samples, the difference being that he is signed to a large record company – the UMG-owned Geffen. It is this company that pays for the copyright clearance on his samples; it is also this company that owns the records he makes. Illegal Art is well aware that this means the money paid for samples moves from record company to record company; little goes to the original artists.
Freedom to create by appropriation should not be denied to those who can’t afford the royalty fees, according to Philo: ‘Copyright makes it so that most artists are afraid to appropriate. Appropriation, though, often leads to new forms of artistic expression and thus it seems the evolution of art is hindered.’
Illegal Art is savvy enough to ensure copyright doesn’t hinder its ability to reappropriate. When it released Deconstructing Beck, the label made sure to notify Beck’s record company, publicist, and attorney. Beck’s attorney threatened to sue and the tiny label suddenly found itself in the spotlight but Philo admits that the label knew what it was doing: ‘Violating the rules of the market has played in our favour. It’s a great marketing tool!’
In the end Beck’s attorney didn’t pursue the case, a pattern that has repeated itself with every other legal threat made against the label. No record company has proved willing to contest the legal case made by Illegal Art, which argues ‘fair use’ under US copyright law. This applies to reviews, news, criticism and parody, but ‘music is often perceived differently,’ says Philo. ‘The public perception remains that copyright is stricter on music than on gallery art. The whole purpose of limited copyright was to encourage the creation of new work. The application of copyright’s fair use provisions to transformative works such as ours is all about doing just that.’
Philo concedes that in a capitalist system some copyright laws are necessary. ‘There is a need for protecting artists’ work, definitely. The laws just go too far and make it difficult for other artists to build on past works. We certainly wouldn’t want to eliminate copyright as then large corporations would exploit everything and small artists would rarely be paid.’
For Illegal Art the key is to keep business out of art. ‘Companies’ refusal to distinguish between whole and unmitigated theft for profit and the fragmentary re-use of our common cultural artefacts in the creation of new work is the best reason we know of to keep lawyers out of art,’ Philo argues.
Artists on Illegal Art render the distinction between high art and popular culture obsolete. They joyfully mix a cacophony of material, often to humorous effect. For instance, the New York artist Corporal Blossom recently released A Mutated Christmas, in which classic Christmas songs were reassembled from hundreds of original recordings.
Illegal Art’s most successful artist is the pop collage mastermind Girl Talk, aka Gregg Gillis. While some mash-up DJs may have slipped into the banal and predictable, Girl Talk has continued to innovate. With increased success, though, comes increased risk of a lawsuit. One reason Illegal Art artists may have avoided this so far is that all their records can be downloaded for free. The label long pre-dated Radiohead in asking for donations for its records rather than setting a price.
Illegal Art is engaged in a struggle to open up our increasingly centralised and monopolistic cultural institutions to commentary, criticism and, most importantly, recreation. It is playfulness that defines its output, Philo enthuses: ‘I love play. We have a bias towards playfulness, to messing around in the margins.’
Grassroots posters giving an alternative take on the general election
Hundreds of people surrounded the fences this weekend. Hera Lorandos spoke to women who have suffered inside.
Laying out the case for Labour's leadership of a Progressive Alliance, Jeremy Gilbert argues that far from posing a threat to the Left, the Progressive Alliance offers a golden opportunity to end Tory rule and build a 21st century government committed to social justice
The Greens have stood down in Brighton Kemptown to clear the way for Labour, and the Lib Dems won’t stand in Brighton’s other seat, Green-held Pavilion. Davy Jones, who would have been the Green candidate in Kemptown, says this shows the way forward
The snap general election represents a unique opportunity to defeat this terrible government. We believe that visual artists have a crucial role to play!
Drax is the UK's biggest source of CO2 emissions – and we're paying for it, writes Almuth Ernsting
For the past 3 years, Barby Asante and members of London-based artists' collective, sorryyoufeeluncomfortable, have been responding directly to the vision of James Baldwin. Ahead of the nationwide release of a new film about the American activist and author, they reflect on the enduring relevance of Baldwin in Britain today.
Housing campaigners' gains in Bristol are spurring on a national movement to build a renters' union, writes Stuart Melvin
A new Espionage Act threatens whistleblowers and journalists, writes Sarah Kavanagh
We need an anti-austerity alliance, not a vaguely progressive alliance, argues Michael Calderbank
Greece’s heavy load
While the UK left is divided over how to respond to Brexit, the people of Greece continue to groan under the burden of EU-backed austerity. Jane Shallice reports
On the narcissism of small differences
In an interview with the TNI's Nick Buxton, social scientist and activist Susan George reflects on the French Presidential Elections.
Why Corbyn’s ‘unpopularity’ is exaggerated: Polls show he’s more popular than most other parties’ leaders – and on the up
Headlines about Jeremy Corbyn’s poor approval ratings in polls don’t tell the whole story, writes Alex Nunns
The media wants to demoralise Corbyn’s supporters – don’t let them succeed
Michael Calderbank looks at the results of yesterday's local elections
In light of Dunkirk: What have we learned from the (lack of) response in Calais?
Amy Corcoran and Sam Walton ask who helps refugees when it matters – and who stands on the sidelines
Osborne’s first day at work – activists to pulp Evening Standards for renewable energy
This isn’t just a stunt. A new worker’s cooperative is set to employ people on a real living wage in a recycling scheme that is heavily trolling George Osborne. Jenny Nelson writes
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 24 May
On May 24th, we’ll be holding the third of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.
Our activism will be intersectional, or it will be bullshit…
Reflecting on a year in the environmental and anti-racist movements, Plane Stupid activist, Ali Tamlit, calls for a renewed focus on the dangers of power and privilege and the means to overcome them.
West Yorkshire calls for devolution of politics
When communities feel that power is exercised by a remote elite, anger and alienation will grow. But genuine regional democracy offers a positive alternative, argue the Same Skies Collective
How to resist the exploitation of digital gig workers
For the first time in history, we have a mass migration of labour without an actual migration of workers. Mark Graham and Alex Wood explore the consequences
The Digital Liberties cross-party campaign
Access to the internet should be considered as vital as access to power and water writes Sophia Drakopoulou
#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part III: a discussion of power and privilege
In the final article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr gives a few pointers on how to be a good ally
Event: Take Back Control Croydon
Ken Loach, Dawn Foster & Soweto Kinch to speak in Croydon at the first event of a UK-wide series organised by The World Transformed and local activists
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 19 April
On April 19th, we’ll be holding the second of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.
Changing our attitude to Climate Change
Paul Allen of the Centre for Alternative Technology spells out what we need to do to break through the inaction over climate change
Introducing Trump’s Inner Circle
Donald Trump’s key allies are as alarming as the man himself
#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part II: a discussion of power and privilege
In the second article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the silencing of black women and the flaws in safe spaces
Joint statement on George Osborne’s appointment to the Evening Standard
'We have come together to denounce this brazen conflict of interest and to champion the growing need for independent, truthful and representative media'
Paul O’Connell and Michael Calderbank consider the conditions that led to the Brexit vote, and how the left in Britain should respond
On the right side of history: an interview with Mijente
Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Reyna Wences, co-founder of Mijente, a radical Latinx and Chincanx organising network
Disrupting the City of London Corporation elections
The City of London Corporation is one of the most secretive and least understood institutions in the world, writes Luke Walter
#AndABlackWomanAtThat: a discussion of power and privilege
In the first article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the oppression of her early life and how we must fight it, even in our own movement
Corbyn understands the needs of our communities
Ian Hodson reflects on the Copeland by-election and explains why Corbyn has the full support of The Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 15 March
On 15 March, we’ll be holding the first of Red Pepper’s Race Section open editorial meetings.
Social Workers Without Borders
Jenny Nelson speaks to Lauren Wroe about a group combining activism and social work with refugees
Growing up married
Laura Nicholson interviews Dr Eylem Atakav about her new film, Growing Up Married, which tells the stories of Turkey’s child brides
The Migrant Connections Festival: solidarity needs meaningful relationships
On March 4 & 5 Bethnal Green will host a migrant-led festival fostering community and solidarity for people of all backgrounds, writes Sohail Jannesari
Reclaiming Holloway Homes
The government is closing old, inner-city jails. Rebecca Roberts looks at what happens next
Intensification of state violence in the Kurdish provinces of Turkey
Oppression increases in the run up to Turkey’s constitutional referendum, writes Mehmet Ugur from Academics for Peace
Pass the domestic violence bill
Emma Snaith reports on the significance of the new anti-domestic violence bill