CAE’s politically-charged mission was formulated out of objections to the privilege of education and the privatization of production in society.

The debate between those who identify art in terms of private consumption, and those who view it as a shared cultural asset is ongoing. By positioning their work in the public domain, today’s public art practitioners invariably align with the second alternative. They direct their creative actions toward the broad public and not individual collectors. In a sense, they position their work within ‘the commons’ where it is available to anyone regardless of income, age, and education.

‘The Commons’ refers to assets that are shared. Thus ownership is communal instead of private and participation is offered to everyone instead of being a privilege. Along with access comes the responsibility to maintain the commons for succeeding generations. The commons traditionally referred to forests, the atmosphere, rivers, fisheries, grazing land, and other elements of the environment. Recently the definition of the commons expanded into the cultural sphere where it encompasses information, software, sites of heritage, shopping malls, etc.

For Critical Art Ensemble, commitment to community originated out of the dissatisfaction of a group of grad students. CAE’s politically-charged mission was formulated out of objections to the privilege of education and the privatization of production in society. By targeting concentrations of power in education and corporations, they knew from the start that “this was not going to generate grant support or steady jobs or ready access to exhibition opportunities.”7 Insubordination against existing centers of power has distinguished their work ever since.

Critical Art Ensemble explains its pro-commons/anti-copyright stance by asserting, the reason “why information should not be privatized is the belief that experimentation and invention would be hindered by lack of access to the building blocks of culture. Once cultural artifacts (images or language) are privatized, they become cultural capital, and hence function to reinforce hierarchical social strata like any other form of capital. …In addition, privatizing cultural artifacts elevates the producer to the false status of metaphysical creator and surrounds the makers with the false aura of mystic individualism. The truth of the matter is that they (CAE members) have simply participated in the general cultural practice of recombination—a process in which representation as a reflection of individuated genius has no reality except as a cynical ploy to generate sales of the artifacts. …8

Tomás Saraceno is also a proponent of shared access to information. Ironically, he uses patent protection to assure that his architectural innovations are ultimately positioned within the commons. He explains, “OK, now let’s look at my patent. After having registered at the Patent Office there’s a period of time, about a year, in which you can sell your idea to industry, or to whoever may be interested in it. However, if after a year, the patent has still not been acquired (and I made sure that this didn’t happen), one loses the right to make a profit from their invention. This means that everyone in the entire world can now use the patent, but that no one can make an economic profit. This means that no large company will be interested in its use because the company is unable to gain a direct earning; but ordinary people will have the possibility to use it in a more accessible way (we hope!). …sustainable change does not occur if it doesn’t come from the bottom up.”9

Tomás Saraceno
Galaxy Forming along Filaments, like Droplets along the Strands of a Spider Web
2008 La Biennale di Venezia

SUPERFLEX provides a third example of artists committed to free distribution of their creative efforts. FREE BEER was originally conceived by Superflex and students at the Copenhagen IT University. The beer is not free, but the recipes (information) are. According to the artists, it “applies modern free software/open source methods to a traditional real-world product – namely the alcoholic beverage loved and enjoyed globally, and commonly known as beer. FREE BEER is based on classic ale brewing traditions, but with added Guarana for a natural energy boost. The recipe and branding elements of FREE BEER is published under a Creative Commons (Attribution-ShareAlike 2.5) license, which means that anyone can use the recipe to brew their own FREE BEER or create a derivative of the recipe. Anyone is free to earn money from FREE BEER, but they must publish the recipe under the same license and credit our work.”10

free beer
Free Beer

Likewise, Copyshop by SUPERFLEX was a shop where anyone could photocopy everything from text to images. It served as an information forum investigating the phenomena of copying as a challenge to intellectual property protected by copyright, licenses and patents.


Michael Mandiberg is also a proponent of free access to information. He comments, “Open Source is basically how we passed along all knowledge that humanity has had until these things very recently became privatized.”11 He observes that contemporary culture is returning to a shared information platform, “I think it is because there is a culture that encourages sharing, the culture of the Internet. It’s a reinvigoration of craft culture that is so strong right now. I think that that frames a context where people are like, ‘Sure, come over – let me show you what I’m doing’.”12 Mandiberg put these ideas into practice when he and a group of collaborators developed The Bright Idea Shade that provides shade for incandescent bulbs that have been converted into CFL bulbs after they burn out. The promotion begins with the phrase: “Steal this idea”. The Bright Idea Shade is licensed as “Creative Commons –Attribution — Share Alike”. Mandiberg explains, “….anyone can reuse it, modify it, and sell it, as long as they attribute us, and do not change the license from allowing sharing. If Ikea or Target wants to manufacture the light, more power to them. Our interest is in getting ideas out into the world. We are not business people. We are creators.”13

Jeff Koons is an unlikely partner to protest copyright limitations. This internationally renowned artist has never been shy about his ambitions to become rich and famous. Nor has he camouflaged his means for accomplishing this goal. His effort and creativity are directed at appropriating pre-existing images from popular culture, including a sculpture he created that was based upon a photograph of a couple holding a pack of puppies taken by Art Rogers, a professional photographer. The image was used on greeting cards and other popular merchandise.

Koons found himself on the defense side of a court case based upon copyright infringement for his using Rogers’ black-and-white photo to create his sculpture, String of Puppies. Koons instructed his assistants to make an accurate three-dimensional sculpture of the image except for three significant changes: the puppies were blue, their noses were exaggerated, and the hair of the man and woman was decorated with flowers. Koons sold three of the sculptures for a total of $367,000. Then Rogers sued Koons for copyright infringement and won a large monetary settlement. Koons appealed his case all the way to the Supreme Court — and lost. Ironically, sometime later, Koons threatened to sue his gallery for violating his rights when it created bookends that resembled one of his balloon-dog sculptures.

koons puppies
Jeff Koons
String of Puppies

a. Consider Molecular Invasion by CAE, and either an architectural work by Saraceno (not discussed in this book), Free Beer by SUPERFLEX (not discussed in this book), or The Bright  Shade Idea by Michael Mandiberg (not discussed in this book). How is the concept of sharing evident in these works of art? Consider their physical form and the manner in which they are presented to the public.

b. Consider Jeff Koons’s court case regarding String of Puppies. Imagine that Koons asked members of CAE to serve as his defense lawyers. What arguments would CAE present to the jury to justify Koons’s appropriation or to forgive him?