Barely Legal

Colby Chamberlain at “The Legal Medium: New Encounters of Art and Law” at Yale

Amar C. Bakshi, lead organizer of “The Legal Medium: New Encounters of Art and Law,” with artist Mary Ellen Carroll. (Photo: Elizabeth Bick)

INTERDISCIPLINARY CONFERENCES require extra signage. I’ve been to symposia at Yale before, but last Saturday’s was my first at the law school, so it was only by grace of several fluorescent red posters that I found the auditorium and the gratis coffee. An enormous freestanding placard marked the check-in desk: “The Legal Medium: New Encounters of Art and Law.” There, four graduate students sat in a row tending to stacks of name tags, each of them, jarringly enough, dressed in red—a swatch-book’s worth of clashing hues. When I opened the program they handed me, I half expected to find a Valentine’s card.

Too easy a punch line? Perhaps, but that early-morning salvo of color coordination—to my eyes, an overzealous collective commitment to the conference’s “brand identity”—was the harbinger of things to come. “The Legal Medium” brought together artists and art historians, lawyers and legal scholars. As panelists talked to (or past) one another, it became evident that interdisciplinary dialogue negotiates more than knowledge gaps or specialized jargon. There’s also, well, style, small manners of presentation that over time accrue legitimacy. I chafed at how the lawyers ate into their allotted minutes with lengthy preambles, usually inaugurated with the phrase “I will now provide an overview of…” Conversely, others in the audience—around a third of whom identified as law students or lawyers when asked for a show of hands—likely had little patience for poet Kenneth Goldsmith’s gnomic pronouncements, spoken in a tone that hybridized John Cage’s “Lecture on Nothing” and Sunday NPR. Between art and law, there’s an attraction, for sure, but first dates can be awkward.

In opening remarks, lead conference organizer Amar C. Bakshi, a third-year law student, summarized the basic proposition: that increasingly artists are engaging with the law, either by deliberate strategic choice or as a consequence of moving between multiple sites and institutions. That is, when art sheds the pretense of autonomy, it becomes enmeshed in law. Like art, however, law can be notoriously difficult to locate or define. Does it reside in written statutes, social norms, enforcement mechanisms? The task of “Legal Medium,” then, was to bring multiple expertises to bear on the question of how artists approach law as a material, a process, a readymade, a target.

Left: Architect and urbanist Keller Easterling. (Photo: Elizabeth Bick) Right: The greeting at the conference dinner at the New Haven Lawn Club. (Photo: Colby Chamberlain)

NYU law professor Amy Adler addressed the most familiar version of art encountering the law, the copyright-infringement trials of Richard Prince and Jeff Koons. (Her explanation of why Prince lost the first round of Cariou v. Prince whereas Koons emerged victorious in Blanch v. Koons was both revealing and entirely unsurprising: Apparently Prince did himself no favors by shrugging off serious questions, whereas Koons ably parroted exactly what the court needed to hear.) By and large, though, “The Legal Medium” pointed away from these high-profile (and big ticket) cases and toward more subtle engagements, like the yearlong performances of the conference’s first presenter, Tehching Hsieh. By pledging to imprison himself in his studio, or to punch a time clock at hourly intervals, or to stay outdoors, Hsieh imposed on his own body strictures that reverberated with wider regimes of control: incarceration, labor, homelessness (and perhaps, in the case of his collaboration with Linda Montano, marriage).

A session concerned with laws of the built environment was the strongest of the day, since each panelist extracted significant insights from the typically stultifying topic of zoning. Architect and urbanist Keller Easterling pointed to the free economic zones that have facilitated the mirage-like appearance of megacities across the globe. Artist Mary Ellen Carroll discussed her ongoing project Prototype 180, 1999–, which performed a 180-degree rotation of a house in Houston, a city notorious for its complete lack of zoning. Artist and lawyer Sergio Muñoz Sarmiento connected his “clandestine construction” pieces to the seizure of Chavez Ravine, the Los Angeles neighborhood where his family lived until it was bulldozed to make way for Dodger Stadium.

“I live in a world where copyright doesn’t exist,” uttered Goldsmith. I believed him, in part because I was fairly sure that, in Goldsmith’s world, New Haven didn’t exist either. Goldsmith and several others radiated the Teflon aura of Perma-Panelists, those in-demand speakers who appear impervious to context. Liam Gillick dropped references to the Schengen Agreement, Third Way politics, and Pol Pot’s show trial while clicking through slides of convivial seating arrangements. YLS’s Jack Balkin launched into a nimble précis on the origin of right-to-publicity laws with the friendly, polished patter of a TED talk. Midafternoon, choreographer Jonah Bokaer performed a solo dance, stretching, bending, balancing his body—not to mention arching his bare feet—over the dais furniture. How this inflected the conversation, beyond literally warping the conference table, I couldn’t tell you.

Left: Choreographer Jonah Bokaer. (Photo: Elizabeth Bick) Right: View of “Irregular Rendition.”

When American Studies professor Laura Wexler discussed Frederick Douglass’s belief that photography would help integrate former slaves into the American body politic, it was the closest any panelist came to touching on the recent grand jury verdicts in the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. Perhaps that should have been expected from a lineup that was largely white and tenured, but it was just the previous month that one panelist, art historian David Joselit, was asking in Artforum what pressures and obligations the Garner case placed on artistic practice, and it was difficult to watch footage of Hsieh’s physical confrontation with the police during his outdoor performance without recalling other such recordings. (As I began writing this text, video of LAPD officers shooting an unarmed homeless man on Skid Row was popping up on Facebook.) Also hanging over the conference was its absent panelist, Tania Bruguera, who remains in Cuba awaiting the release of her passport.

After closing remarks, everyone decamped to a nearby gallery for the opening of “Irregular Rendition.” Curated by Yale doctoral candidate Lucy Hunter, the show brought together historical works by Gordon Matta-Clark and Mierle Laderman Ukeles with more recent instances of artists wrangling with regulation, like Park McArthur’s hilarious documentation of her struggle to improve wheelchair access at a residency, or Alexandra Lerman’s sculptures based on proprietary touchscreen gestures. As I left, I picked up a copy of the exhibition pamphlet for perusing on the train. No Valentine’s card in there either, but it did contain the complete record of Mary Ellen Carroll’s multiple applications for permission to film the Federal Building in Los Angeles—which, when it comes to art and law, likely qualifies as a courtship.