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.’