From Chess

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, and The Atlantic, and this was soon followed up by Boing Boing and later, 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.



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?


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.



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.


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.





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.



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


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.


Scott Kildall’s website is:
Twitter: @kildall

Bryan Cera’s website is:
Twitter: @BryanJCera

Soft Machines and Deception

The Impakt Festival officially begins next Wednesday, but in the weeks prior to the event, Impakt has been hosting numerous talks, dinners and also a weekly “Movie Club,” which has been a social anchor for my time in Utrecht.

10437517_643169085789022_7756476391981345316_nEvery Tuesday, after a pizza dinner and drinks, an expert in the field of new media introduces a relatively recent film about machine intelligence, prompting questions that frame larger issues of human-machine relations in the films. An American audience might be impatient about a 20-minute talk before a movie, but in the Netherlands, the audience has been engaged. Afterwards, many linger in conversations about the very theme of the festival: Soft Machines.


The films have included I, Robot, Transcendence, Her and the documentary: Game Over: Kasparov and the Machine. They vary in quality, but with the introduction of the concepts ahead of time, even Transcendence, a thoroughly lackluster film engrossed me.

The underlying question that we end up debating is: can machines be intelligent? This seems to be a simple yes or no question, which cleaves any group into either a technophilic pro-Singularity or curmudgeonly Luddite camp. It’s a binary trap, like the Star Trek debates between Spock and Bones. The question is far more compelling and complex.

The Turing test is often cited as the starting point for this question. For those of you who are unfamiliar with this thought experiment, it was developed by British mathematician and computer scientist, Alan Turing in a 1950 paper that asked the simple question: “can machines think”.

The test goes like this: suppose you have someone at a computer terminal who is conversing with an entity by typing text conversations back and forth, what we now regularly do with instant messaging. The entity on the other terminal is either a computer or a human, the identity of which is unknown to the computer user. The user can have a conversation and ask questions. If he or she cannot ascertain “human or machine” after about 5 minutes, then the machine passes the Turing test. It responds as if a human would and can effectively “think”.


In 1990, the thought experiment became a reality with the Loebner Prize. Every year, various chatbots — algorithms which converse via text with a computer user — compete to try to fool humans in a setup that replicates this exact test. Some algorithms have come close, but to date, no computer has ever successfully won the prize.


The story goes that Alan Turing was inspired by a popular party game of the era called the “Imitation Game” where a questioner would ask an interlocutor various questions. This intermediary would then relay these questions to a hidden person who would answer via handwritten notes. The job of the questioner was to try to determine the gender of the unknown person. The hidden person would provide ambiguous answers. A question of “what is your favorite shade of lipstick” could be answered by “It depends on how I feel”. The answer is in this case is a dodge as a 1950s man certainly doesn’t know the names of lipstick shades.

Both the Turing test and the Imitation Game hover around the act of deception. This technique, widely deployed in predator-prey relationships in nature, is engrained in our biological systems. In the Loebner Prize competitions, there have even been instances where the human and computer will try to play with the judges, making statements like: “Sorry I am answering this slowly, I am running low on RAM”.

It may sound odd, but the computer doesn’t really know deception. Humans do. Every day we work with subtle queues of movement around social circles, flirtation with one another, exclusion and inclusion into a group and so on. These often rely on shades of deception: we say what we don’t really mean and have other agendas than our stated goals. Politicians, business executives and others that occupy high rungs of social power know these techniques well. However, we all use them.

The artificial intelligence software that powers chatbots has evolved rapidly over the years. Natural language processing (NLP) is widely used in various software industries. I had an informative lunch the other day in Amsterdam with a colleague of mine, Bruno Jakic at AI Applied, who I met through the Affect Lab. Among other things, he is in the business of sentiment analysis, which helps, for example, determine if a large mass of tweets indicates a positive or negative emotion. Bruno shared his methodology and working systems with me.

State-of-the-art sentiment analysis algorithms are generally effective, operating in the 75-85% range for identification of a “good” or “bad” feeling in a chuck of text such as a Tweet. Human consensus is in the similar range. Apparently, a group of people cannot agree on how “good” or “bad” various Twitter messages are, so machines are coning close to effective as humans on a general scale.

The NLP algorithms deploy brute force methods by crunching though millions of sentences using human-designed “classifiers” — rules to help determine how a sentence looks. For example, an emoticon like a frown-face, almost always indicates a bad feeling.


Computers can figure this out because machine perception is millions of time faster than human perception. It can run through examples, rules and more but acts on logic alone. If NLP software code generally works, where specifically does it fail?

Bruno pointed out was that machines are generally incapable of figuring out if someone is being sarcastic. Humans immediately sense this by intuitive reasoning. We know, for example that getting locked out of your own house is bad. So if you write that this is a contradictory good thing, it is obviously sarcastic. The context is what our “intuition” — or emotional brain understands. It builds upon shared knowledge that we gather over many years.


The Movie Club films also tackle this issue of machine deception. At a critical moment in the film, Sonny, the main robot character in I, Robot, deceives the “bad” AI software that is attacking the humans by pretending to hold a gun to one of the main “good” characters. It  then winks to Will Smith (the protagonist) to let him know that he is tricking the evil AI machine. Sonny and Will Smith then cooperate, Hollywood style with guns blazing. Of course, they prevail in the end.


Sonny possess a sophisticated Theory of Mind: an understanding of its own mental state and well as that of the other robots and Will Smith. It takes initiative and pretends to be on the side of the evil AI computer by taking an an aggressive action. Earlier in the film, Sonny learned what winking signifies. It knows that the AI doesn’t understand this and so the wink will be understood by Will Smith and not be the evil AI.

In Game Over: Kasparov and the Machine, which recasts the narrative of the Deep Blue vs.Kasparov chess matches, the Theory of Mind of the computer resurfaces. We know that Deep Blue won the chess match, which was a series of 6 chess matches in 1997. It is the infamous Game 2, which obsessed Kasparov. The computer played aggressively and more like a human than Kasparov had expected.

At move 45, Kasparov resigned, convinced that Deep Blue had outfoxed him that day. Deep Blue had responded in the best possible way to Kasparov’s feints earlier in the game. Chess experts later discovered that Kasparov could have easily forced a honorable draw instead of resigning the match.

The computer appeared to have made a simple error. Kasparov was baffled and obsessed. How could the algorithm have failed on a simple move, when it was so thoroughly strategic earlier in the game. It didn’t make sense.

Kasparov felt like he was tricked into resigning. What he didn’t consider was that when te algorithm didn’t have enough time — since tournament chess games are run against a clock — to find the best-ranked move, that it would choose randomly from a set of moves…much like a human would do in similar circumstances. The decision we humans make is emotional at this point. Inadvertently, Kasparov the machine deceived Kasparov.

KASPAROVI’m convinced that ability to act deceptively is one necessary factor for machines need to be “intelligent”. Otherwise, they are simply code-crunchers. But there are other aspects, as well, which I’m discovering and exploring during the Impakt Festival.

I will continue this line of thought on machine intelligence in future blog posts, I welcome any thoughts and comments on machine intelligence and deception. You can find me on Twitter: @kildall.









How to display net art

Last week, I installed Playing Duchamp — a Turbulence commission — at Futherfield Gallery for the “Made Real” show. The work is a net art piece, existing only on the web, which presented obvious difficulties in a gallery setup where: (1) people tend not to engage with an online chess game and (2) the gallery doesn’t want to give access to the operating system or other applications.

Here’s how we solved this. First, we used a monitor embedded in the wall and then placed a 5′ x 5′ white platform in front of it. Adding a step, a white chair and white table, made it so that the player crossed an invisible threshold, making them part of a “living sculpture”


Inspired by the “Singing Sculpture” image from Gilbert and George as well as “One and Another” by Antony Gormley, which invited 2400 different people to stand on a plinth at Trafalgar Square for one hour and do whatever they wanted, I designed the exhibited artwork to be both the viewer and the contents on the screen. It worked! Each player made a decision to step up and play and spent time with the game while others watched.



The second issue was a technical one and was easily solved by one of the assistants, who turned me onto a free browser called Plain View. It is a simple browser which goes into full screen mode and locked out other applications. Combine it with a wireless mouse and an alternate version of the Playing Duchamp website, which disables external links and there you have it: a net art kiosk that feels like a genuine gallery-quality artwork.

3D Duchamp Chess Pieces

For the Playing Duchamp project, I made custom 3D chess pieces to resemble Duchamp’s hard-carved originals.

The 3D-rendered versions (designed by Daisuke Imai):


In the Playing Duchamp project, I have reprogrammed a chess computer to play like Marcel Duchamp, which anyone can play online.


And the only documentation of the original set:


At this point, I’m considering sending them to the 3D printer to make them real.

By the way, if you are looking for custom 3D work, I’d highly recommend working with Daisuke.

Play Chess Against Duchamp

I have just completed a new Turbulence Commission for a project called “Playing Duchamp,” where based on records of his chess games, I have programmed a chess computer to play like Marcel Duchamp. You can play Marcel Duchamp here.


During my childhood, I was a chess whiz and spent many hours playing against a primitive chess computer my father bought me. I reveled in the infinite possibilities on such a small board. When playing firends, I learned about imagination and deception: how to set traps, feign weaknesses and when to attack. After university, I became a computer programmer and in later years, I transitioned into the contemporary artworld as a new media artist. Fascinated by paradigm shifts such as those created by Duchamp, I wanted honor his legacy as a both an artist and chess player — the two are inseparable. Combining my early love of chess with my algorithmic skills and a current passion for creating conceptual media artwork, this piece serves this purpose.

Thanks to both New Radio and Performing Arts, Inc. ( and  <terminal> at Austin Peay State University for funding and support.

Beta-testing Duchamp

I’m looking for some beta-testers for “Playing Duchamp” — a new net art project.

Working with 72 recorded games of Marcel Duchamp’s chess matches, I have created a computer program to play chess as if it were Duchamp. In a series of open challenges, I invite all artists, both skilled and unskilled at this classic game, to play against a Duchampian ghost.

You don’t need to know how to play chess well to try this out.

The official release for the project will be on November 30th. Stay tuned.

If interested, please email me at: lucky (at) kildall (dot) com