Thursday, May 24, 2007

Mass MoCA's Lawsuit

The following is from a letter I sent today to Mass MoCA's lawyers regarding the lawsuit they have filed against my client Christoph Büchel. There are a bunch of factual inaccuracies floating around out there, which we will address, but, for now, the essential point to understand is that the Visual Artists Rights Act is there to prevent the exhibition of works of art that have been distorted or modified -- and the museum is doing exactly that six ways to Sunday here. No amount of "tarp" can cover that up.

Here's the text of the letter:

With respect to the proposed exhibition Made at MASS MoCA, your client should be aware that:

1. It is not possible to "shield" the work "from view" in the way that has been proposed. As Mr. Thompson well knows, the work is not merely a visual but also a physical experience; the design of the space itself, and the ways that the visitor is moved through it, are as much a part of the meaning of the artwork as the objects within it. To take just one example, to enter the gallery one must pass through the cinema that is an essential part of the work. There is no way to "cover" that up; the visitor experiences the work by moving through it, and being "inside" of it. Accordingly, the museum's plan to allow visitor access to the work while "shielding the huge objects from view" will result in nothing other than the exhibition of a drastically distorted and modified version of the work, in willful violation of VARA as well as the parties' clear understanding. It is also clear, based on the photos that ran in The New York Times and The North Adams Transcript on Tuesday (the latter expressly admitting that "the single-family house taken from Houghton Street in North Adams for artist Christoph Büchel's unfinished exhibit can be seen peeking above a tarped-off aisle"), that the effort to "shield" "the objects" from view is incomplete at best, so that, even if one were to think of the work in purely visual terms, the result of the museum's actions is the display of a highly distorted version of what was intended as an integrated work – a version in which some of the objects that make up the work can be seen by the viewer and others cannot, utterly destroying the work's meaning and integrity. If the museum follows through on this plan, rest assured that we will seek all available remedies, including for all past violations (on which see the May 23 "Exhibitionist" blog post by the Boston Globe's Geoff Edgers wondering "who hasn't" already seen the show).

2. In any event, it is not the case that what the museum is seeking permission to show is "Mr. Büchel's" unfinished work. Instead, numerous elements have been assembled without his involvement or approval, as a kind of guess as to how he would have done so. (So it's more like a painter leaving a canvas less than half finished -- and it is absolutely false, by the way, that the work is 90% completed -- and a museum picking up a brush and filling in the rest and then having the audacity to present the painting as a "work in progress" by the artist.) The lawsuit you have filed is essentially a request for permission to show a distorted, modified work to the public.

3. The act of "covering" objects from the work (again sometimes only partially) is itself an intentional distortion and/or modification, once more in violation of the law as well as the parties' understanding.

4. As the copyright holder, Mr. Büchel denies permission for the use of any installation photographs in the exhibition.