Strewn Field Map @ SETI

I’ve been an artist-in-residence at SETIthe Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence — for several weeks now. Many think of SETI as people who listen for signals from advanced alien life in the deep desert.

Of course, this isn’t even close to the full story. SETI is also doing amazing work in the field of planetary science: the stuff in our solar system

Why would SETI scientists be playing in our astronomical backyard in the quest for extraterrestrial life? …a couple of reasons:

(1) there is a decent chance of microbial life in our solar system, which certainly counts as “extraterrestrial” life, though not as exciting as an advanced alien species.

(2) if we understand how life began on Earth, then we can apply that knowledge to determine how life might originate on other planets.

Planetary data is ripe with amazing possibilities. My current artistic focus is to write custom software code which translates datasets into physical sculptures and installations. My first foray is meteorite impact data from SETI.

The scientist I am currently working with is Dr. Peter Jenniskens, who is one of the world’s experts on meteors and meteorites. And, as I have discovered, he is also interested in the artistic possibilities.

seti_peter_in_front_of_signThe 2008 TC3 asteroid was discovered on October 6th, 2008, heading right for Earth. Calculations were made to determine its approximate impact, which ended up being in Sudan just 19 hours later. The event was significant — it’s the first time we’ve been able to calculate the location of a “small body” impact with Earth. For all it’s importance, 2008 TC3 deserves a much better name. After all, even Lance Armstrong has an asteroid named after him.

2008TC3-groundpath-rev
Dr. Jenniskens was not only near the impact zone the next day, on October 7th but also led an expedition to map and collect the meteorite fragments. He worked with nearly 100 students at the University of Khartoum to find, geolocate and weigh everything they could find.

It is very unusual to be able to get an accurate strewn field map like this. Usually fresh meteorites hit the ocean or areas that are difficult to collect meteorites for various reasons.

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I work at the Creative Workshops at Autodesk, and have access to their 3D printers. I printed out a model of the 2008 TC3 asteroid, at least one possible physical mapping of the asteroid that approximates its shape. Dr. Jenniskens got a gift of plastic that day.seti_peter_with_meteorHe later showed me the fragments of one of the meteorites. The crust has an amazing texture, which looks like baked clay. Inside, it looks like a regular rock, well at least to my untrained eyes.seti_scott_n_meteroitesOnto the datasets! Peter Jenniskens provided me which had the geolocation + mass of 639 meteorites that his team found. It is now my job to do something with this amazing information.

With my Bad Data series, I wrote custom software that translates the datasets into a map of vector shapes which I then cut, etch, mill or work with somehow on a CNC machine — laser-cutter, water-jet, Shopbot, etc.

I applied similar code to this dataset, creating this map. The larger circles correspond to more mass. It even looks like an impact, with the smaller fragments being shed off before the bulk of the extraterrestrial rocks hit our planet.

strewn_field_15scaled_no_notationIt will be a slog of testing with various materials before I get a final result that I’m happy with. I love this part — the back n’ forth playing with data and materials to get a final aesthetic result that is pleasing.

But, I did manage to squeeze out some tests on wood and have this result. It’s promising.

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PARISOMA art panel reportback

Sometimes I’m an art ambassador to the tech community in San Francisco.

Last week, I was on a panel of artists and non-profit educators called “How Technology is Revolutionizing the World of Art” as part of PARISOMA — a co-working space in San Francisco. This included colleagues: Matt Ganucheau, Danille Siembieda and Barry Threw.

I talk at these sorts of events fairly often, addressing a tech crowd who is art-curious. This forces me out of my comfort zone. I know the art world well, but the tech world of start-up lingo and social entrepreneurship is slightly unfamiliar. I do think art-technology discourse is essential, especially in SF in these times, so I do my part.

PARISOMA is faithfully trying to stir up conversation. This is so appreciated, especially since it would be easy to exclude artists from the “tech conversation”.

Oh, the naming problem: How Technology is Revolutionizing the World of Art. This presumes that technology is now changing the world of art. Let’s not forget our history. (New) technology has been turning the art world on its head for decades,  and for centuries, it has been influencing art-making in overt and subtle ways.

Projects such as E.A.T. (Experiments in Art and Technology) were talking about this very issue 35-40 years ago. I won’t get into the manyfold examples here, but the research is out there and easy to find.

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…and the over-use of the word “revolution” is well-documented. It’s a disservice to actual revolution: the overturning of a political state. Language is important. Point being that art and technology have been intertwined for a very long time. It is not happening just now, nor is it a sudden turn of events that is redefining art.

Patrol_of_the_October_revolution

However, the positive things from the dialogue were immense. A few key observations:

(1) The attendance for this panel in a tech venue was much higher than in an art venue (~100 people on a Wed night). Why is this? Why does the tech community garner more bodies? Is it because there is some flavor of “networking” involved? This happens at art events as well, so I don’t get it.

(2) Art jargon alienates the wider community. Tech folks get intimidated by art galleries and the language describing the works. At one point I brought this up and saw a sea of faces that were nodding. This is a thing that everyone seems to feel. I suppose the art dialogue is in my comfort zone, so I don’t think about the barriers it creates.

(3) Techies have a bad reputation for driving up prices, displacing old-time residents of San Francisco and hopping on corporate buses to work in the Peninsula. But, here was an audience of 80-100 people who wanted to integrate art somehow into their culture. Techies aren’t all bad!

The take-home message is that we should build bridges between the art folks and the technology folks…somehow. I don’t have the answers, but do feel like there are slow inroads being made by just having the conversations.

This video is a bit long (1 hour +), but for those of you who are curious, here it is. Thanks everyone.

 

Art in Space: the First Art Exhibition in Space

Art in Space is the first art exhibition in space, which was created in conjunction with Autodesk’s Pier 9 Creative Workshops and Planet Labs, a company which dispatches many fast-orbiting imaging satellites that document rapid changes on the Earth’s surface.

For this exhibition, they selected several Pier 9 artists to create artwork, which were then etched onto the satellites panels. Though certainly not the first artwork in space*, this is the first exhibition of art in space. And, if you consider that several satellites are constantly orbiting Earth on opposite sides of the planet, this would be the largest art exhibition ever.

My contribution is an artwork called: Hello, World! It is the first algorithmically-generated artwork sent to space and also the first art data visualization in space. The artwork was deployed on August 19th, 2015 on the satellite: Dove 0C47. The artwork will circle the Earth for 18 months until its satellite orbit decays and it burns up in our atmosphere.

 

The left side of the satellite panel depicts the population of each city, represented by squares proportional to the population size. The graphics on the right side represent the carbon footprint of each city with circles proportional to carbon emissions. By comparing the two, one can make correlations between national policies and effects on the atmosphere. For example, even though Tokyo is the most populated city on earth, its carbon emissions per capita is very low, making its carbon footprint much smaller in size, than Houston, Shanghai or Riyadh, which have disproportionately large footprints.

The etched panel resembles a constellation of interconnected activity and inverts the viewpoint of the sky with that of the earth. It is from this “satellite eye,” that we can see ourselves and the effect of humans on the planet. The poetic gesture of the artwork burning up as the satellite re-enters the Earth’s atmosphere, serves as reminder about the fragile nature of Earth.

Also consider this: the Art in Space exhibition is something you can neither see nor is it lasting. After only 18 months, the satellite, as well as the artwork vaporizes. I thought of this as an opportunity to work with ephemerality and sculpture. And, this is the first time I have had the chance for a natural destruction of my work. Everything dies and we need to approach life with care.

A few people have asked me where did my title come from? Anyone who has written any software code is familiar with the phrase: “Hello, World!” This is the first test program that any instructional has you write. It shows the basic syntax for constructing a working program, which is helpful since all computer programs embody different language constructions. By making this test code work, you also have verified that your development environment is working properly.

“Hello, World!” C implementation.

/* Hello World program */
#include<stdio.h>
main() {
    printf("Hello World");
}

And here is the full a video that explains more about the Art in Space exhibition.

 

* There has been plenty of other art in space, and more recent projects such as my collaboration with Nathaniel Stern for Tweets in Space (2012) and Trevor Paglen’s The Last Pictures.

KALW Story: Brothers and Cisterns

What’s beneath those brick circles in San Francisco intersections?” is a story that Audrey Dilling, editor and reporter for KALW’s Crosscurrents, recently released for broadcast on the radio. She joined us as a journalist-on-a-bike for the Cistern Mapping Project, shadowing a pair of volunteers.

The bike-mapping project is just one part of her larger story about the San Francisco Cisterns.

cistern30_VanNess_Bay

Audrey did a fantastic job on the production work. I like the asides, such as the question “What do they call manholes in Holland?” The radio personality talks over my own words, bridging the inevitable gaps and fissures in any audio interview, making me look smarter than I am.

Other interviewees include an author, Robert Graysmith, author of Black Fire, who gives character to the story by talking about 1850s San Francisco, and a representative from the San Francisco Fire Department.

And the sound queues such as “Can I get some period music?…great job.

Me: not the best interviewee, not the worst, still sounding too matter of fact. But hey, I’m learning slowly the lessons of being a better communicator.

And the finale, of bookending the story with Chava and Lucas, very nice.

 

 

 

 

Cistern Mapping Project Reportback

On October 11th, 2015, 18 volunteer bike and mapping aficionados gathered at my place to work on the Cistern Mapping Project — an endeavor to physically document the 170 (or so) Cisterns in San Francisco. There exists no comprehensive map of these unique underground vessels. The resulting map is here.

I personally became fascinated by them, when working on my Water Works project*, which mapped the water infrastructure of San Francisco.

The history of the cisterns is unique, and notably incomplete.

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The cisterns are part of the AWSS (Auxiliary Water Supply System) of San Francisco, a water system that exists entirely for emergency use and is separate from the potable drinking water supply and the sewer system.

In the 1850s, after a series of Great Fires in San Francisco tore through the city, about 23 cisterns were built. These smaller cisterns were all in the city proper, at that time between Telegraph Hill and Rincon Hill. They weren’t connected to any other pipes and the fire department intended to use them in case the water mains were broken, as a backup water supply.

They languished for decades. Many people thought they should be removed, especially after incidents like the 1868 Cistern Gas Explosion.

However, after the 1906 Earthquake, fires once again decimated the city. Many water mains broke and the neglected cisterns helped save portions of the city. Afterward, the city passed a $5,200,000 bond and begin building the AWSS in 1908. This included the construction of many new cisterns and the rehabilitation of other, neglected ones. Most of the new cisterns could hold 75,000 gallons of water. The largest one is underneath the Civic Center and has a capacity of 243,000 gallons.

The original ones, presumably rebuilt, hold much less, anywhere from 15,000 to 50,000 gallons.

Cistern109 22nd Dolores

Armed with a series of intersections of potential Cistern Locations, the plan was to bike to each intersection and get the exact latitude and longitude and a photograph of each of the cistern markers — either the circular bricks or the manholes themselves.

We had 18 volunteers, which is a huge turnout for a beautiful Sunday morning. I provided coffee and bagels and soon folks from my different communities of the bike teamExploratorium and other friends were chatting with one another.

Cistern Prep Meeting 3

One way to thank my lovely volunteers was to provide gifts. What I made for everyone were a series of moleskine notebooks with vinyl stickers of the cisterns and bikes. I was originally planning to laser-etch them, but found out that they were on the “forbidden materials” list at the Creative Workshops at Autodesk Pier 9, where I made them. Luckily, I always have a Plan B and so I made vinyl stickers instead.

Cistern Prep Meeting 4Cistern Prep Meeting 1

Here I am, in desperate need of a haircut, greeting everyone and explaining the process. I grouped the cisterns into blocks of about 10-20 into 10 different sets. This covered most of them and then we paired off riders in groups of 2 to try to map out the best way to figure out their ride.Cistern Prep Meeting 2

Some of the riders were friends beforehand and others became friends during the course of riding together. Here, you can see two riders figuring out the ideal route for their morning. Some folks were smart and brought paper maps, too!

Cistern Prep Meeting 7

Here are the bike-mappers just before embarking on their day-of-mapping. Great smiles all around!

 

Cistern Group 1

I would have preferred to ride, but instead was busy arranging the spreadsheet and verifying locations. Ah, admin work.

How did we do this? Simple: each team used a GPS app and emailed me the coordinates of the cistern marker, along with a photo of the cistern: the bricks, manhole or fire hydrant. I would coordinate via email and confirm that I got the right info and slowly fill out the spreadsheet. It was a busy few hours.

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The hills were steep, but fortunately we had a secret weapon: some riders from the Superpro Racing team! Here is Chris Ryan crushing the hills in Pacific Heights.

Cistern chris uphill

One reason that we traveled in pairs is that documentation can be dangerous. Sometimes we had to to put folks on the edge or actually in the street so they could get some great documentation.

Cisterns chris

So, how many cisterns did we map? The end result was 127 cisterns, which is about 75% of them, all in one day. We missed a few and then there were a series of outliers such as ones in Glen Park, Outer Sunset and Bayview that we didn’t quite make.

And the resulting map is here. There are still some glitches, but what I like about it is that you can now see the different intersections for each cistern. These have not been documented before, so it’s exciting to see most of them on the map.

Cistern web map

What did we discover?

Most of the cisterns are not actually marked with brick circles and just have a manhole that says “Cisterns” or even just “AWSS” on it.

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What I really enjoyed, especially being in the “backroom” was how the cyclists captured the beautiful parts of the city in the background of the photos, such as the cable car tracks.

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Also, the green-capped fire hydrants usually are nearby. These are the ones that get used to fill up the cisterns by the SF Fire Department.

Green hydrant

A few were almost like their own art installations, with beautiful brickwork.

Cistern118 24th Noe

The ones in the Sunset and Richmond district are newer and are actually marked by brick rectangles

Cistern135 46th Geary

Thanks to the AMAZING volunteers on this day.

* Water Works is supported by a Creative Code Fellowship through Stamen Design, Autodesk and Gray Area.

Joining SETI as an artist-in-residence

The SETI Institute just announced their new cohort of artists-in-residents for 2016 and I couldn’t be happier to be joining this amazing organization for a long-term (up to 2 years!) stint.

This includes a crew of other amazing artists: Dario Robleto (Conceptual Artist, Houston), Rachel Sussman (Photographer, Artist, Writer, New York), George Bolster (Filmmaker, Artist, New York), Jen Bervin (Visual Artist, Writer, Brooklyn), David Neumann (Choreographer, New York). The SETI Air program is spearheaded by Charles Lindsay (artist) and Denise Markonish (curator at MASS MoCA). I first met Charles at ISEA 2012 in Albuquerque, New Mexico when we were on the same panel around space-related artwork.

On January 13, 2016, at 7pm, in San Francisco’s Millennium Tower, SETI Institute President and CEO Bill Diamond will formally welcome the incoming artists and our new institutional partners, as well as patrons and friends of the program. This event is invitational and seating is limited.

SETI_Logo

So, what will I be working on?

Well, this follows on the heels of a number of artwork related to space such as Tweets in Space (in collaboration with Nathaniel Stern), Uncertain LocationBlack Hole Series and Moon v Earth, which were meditations of metaphors of space and potential.

uncertainlocation_main

Roughly speaking, I will be researching, mapping and creating installations of asteroids, meteor and meteorite data and working with scientists such as Peter Jenniskens, who is an expert on meteorite showers. These will be physical data-visualizations — installation, sculptures, etc, which follow my interests in digital fabrication and code with projects such as Water Works.

What specifically fascinates me is the potential between outer space and the earth, is the metaphor of both danger and possibility from above. These range from numerous spiritual interpretations to practical ones such as the extinction of the human race to the possibility that organic material from other planets being carried to our solar system. Despite appearances to the contrary Earth is not only a fragile ecosystem but also once that could easily be transformed from outside.

And already I have begun mapping some meteor showers with my custom 3D software, working with in collaboration with Dr. Jenniskens and a dataset of ~230,000 meteors over Northern California in the last few years. This makes the data-space-geek in me very happy.

Stay subscribed for more.

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And I will heed Carl Sagan’s words: “Imagination will often carry us to worlds that never were, but without it we go nowhere.”

EquityBot World Tour

Art projects are like birthing little kids. You have grand aspirations but never know how they’re going to turn out. And no matter, what, you love them.

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It’s been a busy year for EquityBot. I didn’t expect at all last year that my stock-trading algorithm Twitterbot would resonate with curators, thinkers and  general audience so well. I’ve been very pleased with how well this “child” of mine has been doing.

This year, from August-December, it has been exhibited in 5 different venues, in 4 countries. They include MemFest 2015 (Bilbao), ISEA 2015, (Vancouver), MoneyLab 2, Economies of Dissent (Amsterdam) and Bay Area Digitalists (San Francisco).

Of course, it helps the narrative that EquityBot is doing incredibly well, with a return rate (as of December 4th) of 19.5%. I don’t have the exact figures, but the S&P for this time period, according to my calculations, is the neighborhood of -1.3%.

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The challenge with this networked art piece is how to display it. I settled on making a short video, with the assistance of a close friend, Mark Woloschuk. This does a great job of explaining how the project works.

And, accompanying it is a visual display of vinyl stickers, printed on the vinyl sticker machine at the Creative Workshops at Autodesk Pier 9, where I once had a residency and now work (part-time).

EquityBot_installation_screen_c

 

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Cistern Mapping Project…with Bikes

Do you like riding bikes and mapping urban space?

On October 11th, 2015, I will be leading the Cistern Mapping Project, which will be an urban treasure hunt, where we document and geolocate all of the 170 (or so) Cisterns of San Francisco.

The easiest way to let me know you want to participate is to sign up with this contact form. This will email me (Scott Kildall) and I can give you some more exact details.

The plan
We will meet at a specific location in the Mission District at 11am on Sunday, October 11th. I am hoping to gather about 20 riders, paired up in groups. Each will be provided with a map of approximate locations of several cisterns.

The pair will find the search for the exact location of each brick circle, photo-document it and get the geolocation (latitude + longitude) of the cistern, using an app on their iPhone or Android. Plan for 4-5 hours or so of riding, mapping, documenting and tweeting.

The background story
Underneath our feet, usually marked by brick circles are cisterns, There are 170 or so of them spread throughout the city. They’re part of the AWSS (Auxiliary Water Supply System) of San Francisco, a water system that exists entirely for emergency use and is separate from the potable drinking water supply and the sewer system.

cistern-mapping

In the 1850s, after a series of Great Fires in San Francisco tore through the city, 23 (or so) cisterns were built. These smaller cisterns were all in the city proper, at that time between Telegraph Hill and Rincon Hill. They weren’t connected to any other pipes and the fire department intended to use them in case the water mains were broken, as a backup water supply.

They languished for decades. Many people thought they should be removed, especially after incidents like the 1868 Cistern Gas Explosion.

However, after the 1906 Earthquake, fires once again decimated the city. Many water mains broke and the neglected cisterns helped save portions of the city. Afterward, the city passed a $5,200,000 bond and begin building the AWSS in 1908. This included the construction of many new cisterns and the rehabilitation of other, neglected ones. Most of the new cisterns could hold 75,000 gallons of water. The largest one is underneath the Civic Center and has a capacity of 243,000 gallons.

cistern_main

Augmenting an Existing Map
Last year, as part of the Creative Code Fellowship between Stamen Design, Gray Area and Autodesk, I worked on a project called Waterworks, which mapped the San Francisco water infrastructure as a series of 3D prints and web maps.

As part of this project, I created an interactive web map of the San Francisco Cisterns (the only one), based on the intersections listed in the SFFD water supplies manual. However, this map is less-than-complete.

The problem is that the intersections are approximate and are sometimes a block or so away. They are inaccurate. Also, there are very few photographs of the brick circles that make the San Francisco cisterns. I think it would be an urban service to map these out for anyone to look at.

The goal will be to geolocate (lat + long) cistern location, photograph the bricks that (usually) mark them and produce a dataset that anyone can use. cistern-web-map

A Live Twitter Performance…on bikes

This will be a live Twitter event, where we update each cistern location live using Twitter and Google docs, adding photographs and building out the cistern map in real-time.

Bikes are the perfect mode of transport. Parking won’t be an issue and we can conveniently hit up many parts of the city.

Will we map all of these cisterns? This is up to you. Contact me here if you would like to join.

 

Press for Chess with Mustaches: the response to the Duchamp Estate

Press coverage is like an improv performance. It’s unpredictable, erratic and sometimes works or falls on its face, usually by the lack of press.

I’ve seen my work get butchered, my name get dragged in the mud. I’ve been called a “would-be performance artist”, an “amateur cartographer” and even Cory Doctorow recently called me a “hobbyist”.

But as long as my name is spelled right, I’m happy.

We recently went public with our response to the Duchamp Estate and the Chess with Mustaches artwork.

We soon received coverage from three notable press sources: Hyperallergic, 3DPrint.com and The Atlantic, and this was soon followed up by Boing Boing and later 3ders.com, plus a mention in Fox News (scroll down) and then Tech Dirt.

These are arts blogs, 3D printing blogs, tech rags — and well, The Atlantic, a  well-read political and culture new source — so there’s a wide audience for this story.

The press has certainly reached the critical threshold for the work. The cat is out of the bag, after being inside for nearly a year…a frustrating process where we kept silent about the cease-and-desist letter from the Duchamp Estate.

This is perhaps the hardest part of any sort of potential legal conflict. You have to be quiet about it, otherwise it might imperil your legal position. The very act of saying anything might make the other party react in some sort of way.

But the outpouring of support has been amazing, both on a personal and a press level. Sure, some of the articles have overlooked certain aspects of the project.

And as always #dontreadthecomments. But overall, it has been such a relief to be able to be talk about the Duchamp Estate and the chess pieces, and to devise an appropriate artistic response.

 

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What Happened to the Readymake: Duchamp Chess Pieces?

Over the last several months, we (Scott Kildall and Bryan Cera) have been contacted by many people asking the same question: What happened to the Readymake: Duchamp Chess Pieces?

cwm_orig_set

The answer is that we ran into an unexpected copyright concern. The Marcel Duchamp Estate objected to the posting of our reconstructed 3D files on Thingiverse, claiming that our project was an infringement of French intellectual property law. Although the copyright claim never went to legal adjudication, we decided that it was in our best interests to remove the 3D-printable files from Thingiverse – both to avoid a legal conflict, and to respect the position of the estate.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with Readymake: Duchamp Chess Set by Scott Kildall and Bryan Cera, this was our original project description:

Readymake: Duchamp Chess Set is a 3D-printed chess set generated from an archival photograph of Marcel Duchamp’s own custom and hand-carved game. His original physical set no longer exists. We have resurrected the lost artifact by digitally recreating it, and then making the 3D files available for anyone to print.

We were inspired by Marcel Duchamp’s readymade — an ordinary manufactured object that the artist selected and modified for exhibition — the readymake brings the concept of the appropriated object to the realm of the internet, exploring the web’s potential to re-frame information and data, and their reciprocal relationships to matter and ideas. Readymakes transform photographs of objects lost in time into shared 3D digital spaces to provide new forms and meanings.

Just for the sake of clarity, what we call a “readymake” is a play on the phrase “readymade”. It is ready-to-make, since it can be physically generated by a 3D printer.

Our Readymake project was not to exist solely as the physical 3D prints that we made, but rather as the gesture of posting the 3D-printable files for anyone to download, as well as the initiation of a broader conversation around digital recreation in the context of artwork. We chose to reconstruct Duchamp’s chess set, specifically, for several reasons.

The chess set, originally created by Duchamp in 1917-18, was a material representation of his passion for the game. Our intention was not to create a derivative art work, but instead to re-contextualize an existing non-art object through a process of digital reconstruction as a separate art project.

What better subject matter to speak to this idea than a personal possession of the father of the Readymade, himself?  Given the artifact’s creation date, we believed it would be covered under U.S. Copyright Law. We’ll get back to that in a bit.

cwm_bw_duchamp_set

 cw_duchamp_pieces

On April 21st, 2014, we published this project on our website and also uploaded the 3D (STL) files onto Thingiverse, a public online repository of free 3D-printable models.  We saw our gesture of posting the files not only as an extension of our art project, but also as an opportunity to introduce the conceptual works of Duchamp, specifically his Readymades, to a wider audience.

cwm_makerbot_grouping

The project generated a lot of press. By encouraging discussion between art-oriented and technology-oriented audiences, it tapped into a vein of critical creative possibilities with 3D printing. And perhaps, with one of Marcel Duchamp’s personal belongings as the context, the very notions of object, ownership and authenticity were brought into question among these communities.

Unfortunately, the project also struck a nerve with the Duchamp Estate. On September 17th, 2014, we received a cease and desist letter from a lawyer representing the heirs of Marcel Duchamp. They were alleging intellectual property infringement on grounds that they held a copyright to the chess pieces under French law.

Gulp.

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cwm_170914-letter-blackedout-p2

cwm_170914-letter-blackedout-p3

We assessed our options and talked to several lawyers. Yes, we talked to the Electronic Frontier Foundation…and others. We were publicly quiet about our options, as one needs to with legal matters such as this. The case was complex since jurisdiction was uncertain. Does French copyright law apply? Does that of the United States? We didn’t know, but had a number of conversations with legal experts.

Some of the facts, at least as we understand them

1)  Duchamp’s chess pieces were created in 1917-1918. According to US copyright law, works published before 1923 are in the realm of “expired copyright”.

2) The chess pieces themselves were created in 1917-1918 while Duchamp was in Argentina. He then brought the pieces back to France where he worked to market them.

3)  According to French copyright law, copyrighted works are protected for 70 years after the author’s death.

4)  Under French copyright law, you can be sued for damages and even serve jail time for copyright infringement.

5)  The only known copy of the chess set is in a private collection. We were originally led to believe the set was ‘lost’ – as it hasn’t been seen, publicly, for decades.

6) For the Estate to pursue us legally, the most common method would be to get a judgment in French court, then get a judgment in a United States court to enforce the judgement.

7) Legal jurisdiction is uncertain. As United States citizens, we are protected by U.S. copyright law. But, since websites like Thingiverse are global, French copyright could apply.

Our decision to back off

Many people have told us to fight the Estate on this one. This, of course, is an obvious response. But our research indicated this would be a costly battle. We pursued pro-bono representation from a variety of sources, and while those we reached out to agreed it was an interesting case, each declined. We even considered starting a legal defense fund or crowdsourcing legal costs through an organization such as Kickstarter. However, deeper research showed us that people were far more interested in funding in technology gadgets than legal battles.

Finally we ascertained, through various channels, that the Estate was quite serious. We wanted to avoid a serious legal conflict.

And so, without proper financial backing or pro-bono legal representation, we backed off — we pulled the files from Thingiverse. This was painful – it was incredible to see how excited people were to take part in our project, and when we deleted the Thingiverse entry and with it the comments and photo documentation shared by users, we did so with much regret. But we didn’t see any other option.

Initially, we really struggled to understand where the estate was coming from. As part of the estate’s task is to preserve Duchamp’s legacy, we were surprised that our project was seen by them as anything other than a celebration, and in some ways a revitalization, of his ideas and artworks. Despite the strongly-worded legal letter, we heard that the heirs were quite reasonable.

The resolution was this: we contacted the estate directly. We explained our intention for the project: to honor the legacy of Duchamp, and notified them that we had pulled the STL files from online sources.

We were surprised by the amicable email response — written sans lawyers — directly from one of the heirs. Their reply highlighted an appreciation for our project, and an understanding of our artistic intent. It turns out that their concern was not that we were using the chess set design, but rather that the files – then publicly available — could be taken by others and exploited.

We understand the Estate’s point-of-view – their duty, after all, is to preserve Duchamp’s legacy. Outside of an art context, a manufacturer could easily take the files and mass produce the set. Despite the fact we did put this under a Creative Commons license that stipulated that the chess set couldn’t be used for commercial purposes, we understand the concern.

If we had chosen to stand our ground, we would have had various defenses at our disposal. One of them is that French law wouldn’t have applied since we are doing this from a U.S. server. But, the rules around this are uncertain.

If we had been sued, we would have defended on two propositions: (1) our project would be protected under U.S. law; (2) not withstanding this, under U.S. law, we have a robust and widely-recognized defense under the nature of Fair Use.

We would make the argument that our original Duchamp Chess Pieces would have have added value to these objects. We would consider invoking Fair Use in this case.

But, the failure of a legal system is that it is difficult to employ these defenses unless you have the teeth to fight. And teeth cost a lot of money.

Parody: Our resolution

We thought about how to recoup the intent of this project without what we think will be a copyright infringement claim from the Duchamp Estate and realized one important aspect of the project, which would likely guarantee it as commentary is one of parody.

Accordingly, we have created Chess with Mustaches, which is based on our original design, however, adds mustaches to each piece. The pieces no longer looks like Duchamp’s originals, but instead improves upon the original set with each piece adorned with mustaches.

chesswithmustaches_fullset

cwm_plastic_set

The decorative mustache references vandalized work, including Duchamp’s own adornment of the Mona Lisa.

cwm_mona_lisa

Coming out with this new piece is risky. We realize the Duchamp Estate could try to come back at us with a new cease-and-desist. However, we believe that this parody response and retitled artwork will be protected under U.S. Copyright Law (and perhaps under French law as well). We are willing to stand up for ourselves with the Chess with Mustaches.

Also for this reason, we decided not to upload the mustachioed-pieces to Thingiverse or any other downloadable websites. They were created as physical objects solely in the United States.

cwm_king

Final thoughts

3D printing opens up entire new possibilities of material production. With the availability of cheap production, the very issue of who owns intellectual property comes into play. We’ve seen this already with the endless reproductions on sites such as Thingiverse. Recently, Katy Perry’s lawyers demanded that a 3D Print of the Left Shark should be removed from Shapeways.

And in 2012, Golan Levin and Shawn Sims provided the Free Universal Construction Kit, a set of 3D-printable files for anyone to print connectors between Legos, Tinker Toys and many other construction kits for kids. Although he seems to have dodged legal battles, this was perhaps a narrow victory.

Our belief is that this our project of reviving Duchamp’s chess set is a strong as both a conceptual and artistic gesture. It is unfortunate that we had to essentially delete this project from the Internet. What copyright law has done in this case is to squelch an otherwise compelling conversation about the original, Duchamp’s notion of the readymade in the context of 3D printing.

Will our original Duchamp Chess pieces, the cease-and-desist letter from the Duchamp Estate and our response of the Chess with Mustaches be another waypoint in this conversation?

We hope so.

And what would Marcel Duchamp have thought of our project? We can only guess.

   cwm_knight

Scott Kildall’s website is: www.kildall.com
Twitter: @kildall

Bryan Cera’s website is: http://bryancera.com
Twitter: @BryanJCera