What can dance tell us about intellectual property? A lot, it turns out

As mentioned earlier, one of the really excellent performances we saw at the Minnesota Fringe Festival was casebolt and smith’s O(h).

While it’s really hard to describe and summarize such a complex performance, a section I particularly loved had them doing a somewhat traditional dance to a large chunk of the audio from the video below. The video is of an art installation by Nate Harrison where the viewer listens to the audio on an LP, where Harrison discusses how a drum break from the The Winston’s 1969 B-side “Amen, brother” (often referred to now as the “Amen break”) has been sampled, re-used, and deconstructed in hip-hop and commercial advertising. Harrison’s discussion is a really nice piece of cultural history and analysis, although I confess it was perhaps more compelling with casebolt and smith dancing at the same time.

It would have been interesting in its own right if casebolt and smith had simply danced with Harrison’s commentary. They took it up a notch, however, by following it up with a really interesting dance/discussion of how dancers use and re-appropriate moves and steps they learn in classes and see in performance, effectively “sampling” movements much like a hip-hop artist samples beats. She demonstrated various moves and styles, and he then grilled her about where she learned the moves, and on the appropriateness of re-using these moves without credit or payment. This quickly borders on the absurd, which is of course the point. The courts have allowed labels to charge for re-use of tiny fragments of recordings, where there are no such expectations in dance. Presumably a key piece of this is the ability to record (either on paper or as an audio recording) and distribute music, where dance can’t be recorded and copied in the same way.

In short, it was a cool, funny, intelligent performance. We had a great time, and highly recommend the show.

I found it really interesting to find that the YouTube version of the video above was in fact lifted from Harrison’s web site without his permission, although he says in the comments that he doesn’t care (search for “nkhstudio” in the full comments). So you have Harrison making a commentary on copyright and intellectual property, which is then appropriated by someone else and turned into a YouTube video. Then casebolt and smith use it in their performance, without ever telling us where that audio comes from, as a starting point for a great conversation about intellectual property. And while it’s possible they knew about the Harrison piece before it showed up on YouTube (Harrison was a friend from college for all I know), the odds favor them discovering the piece via YouTube, where it has over 2 million views.

So…

  • Now I’ve listened to “Amen, brother” (a song I’d never heard of)
  • because of a dance performance
  • borrowing parts of an audio track
  • which I was able to find via Google
  • as a YouTube video
  • generated (without permission) from a video by a performance artist commenting on intellectual property and copyright
  • using as a springboard the extended and repeated use of a 6 second drum break from The Winston’s “Amen, brother” in hip-hop and advertising

What a wonderful example of how re-appropriation can enrich the world, especially if we worry less about profit and more about gain.

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2 Responses to What can dance tell us about intellectual property? A lot, it turns out

  1. CoryQ says:

    This is an awesome post and not just for the video (which is fantastic!).

    • Phi says:

      Thanks :-). It was an awesome performance, and definitely deserved the attention and awards. I really want to get them to come to Morris sometime.

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