Intellectual property: A local artist’s accusation highlights the debate on originality

Creative differences: David Sanchez Burr says his work was copied by another artist.

Editor's note: This story has been updated from its original version, after the Weekly received comment from ArtPrize.

Indianapolis artist and former UNLV professor Emily Kennerk won a $5,000 grant from international arts organization ArtPrize this month, honoring her proposal to create a 70-foot dinner table that would respond to sound waves from audience members whispering into a microphone. The vibrations would disrupt the table settings. Those knocked to the ground would be replaced. Titled “Whisper,” the interactive installation seems like an interesting concept and, depending how well executed, a fascinating piece. But to Las Vegas artist David Sanchez Burr, the idea is all too familiar.

In 2009, Sanchez Burr—then a Master of Fine Arts candidate at UNLV—created a dinner table and used sound vibrations to alter it. In 2014 he revisited the dinner table idea with “Materialism Antagonism,” designed as a critique of “the influential class and its relation to the deterioration of democratic process,” this time with sound deconstructing an entire scale-model crystal dinner table and accoutrements. The concept of deconstructing with sound is one he’s honed over the years with several kinetic sound works in exhibits, including a residency at Cosmopolitan’s P3Studio.

Learning of Kennerk’s award, Sanchez Burr posted on Facebook that Kennerk (whom he said was one of his former teachers) copied his work, adding that she attended its presentation in his thesis exhibit. Sympathetic commenters mentioned similar situations with other artists. But that list is long if we consider the past few centuries of famous artists’ famous works originating with or similar to another artist’s idea. Examples range from Manet to Picasso, Sherrie Levine to Andy Warhol, Marina Abramovic to Sturtevant.

Some argue that in a work by an artist using an idea presented by another artist, only the intention needs to be different—not the art itself, particularly when it comes to appropriation. Others argue there is no such thing as an original idea, especially in art, where inspiration, exchange, borrowing and dialogue are part of an ongoing history. That’s no easy consolation for someone who created something and then watched someone else recreate. The law argues the point to varying degrees.

Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams were ordered to pay $7.3 million when found guilty of copying Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up” for “Blurred Lines,” a song they co-wrote. Artist Shepard Fairey was accused of stealing a photograph of Barack Obama by an Associated Press freelance photographer, then manipulating it and selling prints, resulting in an out-of-court settlement. Todd Goldman, founder of David and Goliath merchandising company, was accused of plagiarism for a praying kitten cartoon and settled with another cartoonist.

Sanchez Burr brought the issue to the attention of ArtPrize representatives. Jaenell Woods, an ArtPrize spokesperson, says that ArtPrize carefully reviewed the claim and will go forward with the Kennerk piece: “Based on many important differences between his work and ‘Whisper’ by Emily Kennerk—including form, material, scale, audience interaction, use of found objects and genesis of the idea—the organization has decided that ‘Whisper’ complies with the ArtPrize originality requirement."

Sanchez Burr says the materials used are not the issue here. “I am not making a claim that either the materials or the size and scale are the same, the claim is that the process used in the artwork is one that she lifted from my research,” he says. “It is the process that makes the final aesthetics of the work as the work will move from organization to movement and disorganization using sound as the potent kinetic force in the artwork.

“The fact that she knew this work, used similar elements, and used the process, is what makes me feel like I am being robbed of research I have worked on since 2008. Since Emily has never executed an exhibition with this process it is hard to say she simply came up with it one day, knowing that she never worked with sound, and saw my work do it years ago."

Kennerk, whose large-scale three-dimensional works often reflect and comment on suburban housing and the American dream, did not respond to a request for comment. An article announcing her prize said this was her first time using sound deconstruction as a medium. “Whisper” is slated to be featured at ArtPrize Seven in September and October in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

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