The first half of this post is written by me. The second half by my collaborator on this project, Maryann Tan.
In April, a curator invited me to be part of a new digital art project sponsored by Samsung.
It’s called Masterpieces, an online platform to crowd-source and showcase digital art from Asia. At this moment, anyone can go to the website, create a free account and upload images. But what gets shown is subject to review and selection by the curator, Iola Lenzi.
Disclosure: Iola Lenzi was co-curator for Negotiating Home, History and Nation: Two Decades of Contemporary Art in South East Asia 1991 – 2011, an exhibition that included my work. I’ve also corresponded with her professionally on a number of occasions.
Samsung would send me their latest tablet, the Galaxy S Note 10.1, on which I was to create at least 3 works to be self-uploaded to the Masterpieces website. A real-life exhibition of selected works would be launched later. In the Philippines, the Masterpieces exhibition was held at the Ayala Museum, in Singapore at the National Museum – plenty of institutional cred.
I was offered no contract, artist agreement or fees, only a ‘possibility’ that I would be given a Samsung device as ‘thank you’ for participating. After I requested twice that this ‘thank you’ not remain a matter of ambiguity, Samsung confirmed that I could keep the Galaxy S Note I was sent.
Iola Lenzi told me I was free to experiment and create whatever I wanted, including being ‘provocative with the brand’, with the exception of hardcore pornography. In the absence of a contract, I was sent Terms & Conditions of the Masterpieces platform – 24 pages of legalese that I didn’t read.
I decided to collaborate with my friend Maryann Tan, a writer and content developer, to produce a story about the troubled relationship we have with our smart devices.
This is what we made (if you can’t see the reader below, please go here):
We uploaded it to the Masterpieces platform in mid-May and waited.
Last week, I received a call from a Samsung executive informing me that our work was not acceptable due to legal concerns, citing unauthorized use of the Samsung trademark.
I pointed out that such restrictions were never mentioned in any of their communications with me. Since there was no contract (though I requested it repeatedly), I could only follow the curator’s ‘you’re free to experiment, except for porn’ statement as a guideline.
The executive explained that any mention of Samsung was not allowed because Masterpieces was a strictly non-commercial CSR project. This was also the reason why artists were not given contracts – since it was non-commercial, my participation was a ‘non-commission’, and because it was a ‘non-commission’, they were not REJECTING my work, they were merely not including it because of legal reasons.
Flummoxed by this circular corporate logic, I forgot to remind her that the Android app in the Google Play Store is called ‘Masterpieces Art by Samsung’, and that the exhibitions held in museums had been called ‘The Samsung Masterpieces Digital Art Exhibition’.
The executive went on to assure me that they really wanted me in Masterpieces, and asked me to create new work so I could continue to be part of it. I said to send clear guidelines on the permissible content, and asked if there were specific clauses which our first submission had violated. She said she wasn’t sure and would have to check the Terms and Conditions.
Evidently neither she nor the curator had read the document. Can’t say I blame them.
Well, they can breathe easy. Their asses are covered. After the Samsung call, I did what no one would do in ordinary circumstances and read the Ts & Cs. Buried in there is this clause: ‘You are not entitled to use any of Samsung’s (including Samsung’s Subsidiaries) trade names, trademarks, service marks, logos, domain names, or other distinctive brand features (“Samsung’s Brands”) without Samsung’s prior written consent.’
I haven’t heard from Samsung or Iola Lenzi again.
I estimate that I and Maryann laboured a combined total of 150 hours to produce this work. In the DEDICATION section for each uploaded image we wrote the following: ‘Dedicated to workers in the semiconductor industry worldwide.’
When Sharon asked if I’d like to be part of a new art project that she’d just taken on I didn’t think twice about it.
There are some things you just don’t say no to. Psychedelics that may afford transcendental experiences could be one of them, the other is an opportunity to collaborate with one of Malaysia’s most thoughtful and unaffected visual artists.
Sharon explained that Samsung would afford no pecuniary reward for whatever work we might eventually submit but in any case, the project was novel to me and I’d have the opportunity to flex some creative muscle, so that was attractive enough.
While I knew I’d be doing the easier part of the work, I also believed that I could be part of something meaningful. A reader of the documents on this blog will gather that Sharon’s output, especially in recent times has been motivated by a desire to use art as a means to be in solidarity with ordinary folks everywhere. In drawing beauty from the mundane and familiar, and even the “wicked”, her art reminds us of our humanity and calls for compassion.
She warned that the work might be rejected because of the subject matter we chose. We discussed that a couple of times. Somehow, that risk didn’t trouble us much and we went ahead, putting a lot of thought and effort into it. I guess this is an instance of two people in their own way having to justify doing something for which there seemed no real purpose nor reward. Knowing that somehow accrued gravitas.
Without exaggerating, I found the entire process, in the end very rewarding indeed. I’m not one known for being a conscious consumer. But Sharon raised this real issue that all users of modern mobile devices ought to be aware of and think a bit harder about. At least, it has made me consider getting the Fairphone, when my Samsung wears out its useful life, although I do admit technological advances continue to tempt and enthrall me.
I am also very proud of the end result. The art was beautiful and Sharon’s depiction of the writhing tentacles of a Kraken is a wonderful metaphor for how technology creeps into and grips our consciousness. By then I was hoping that the curator would accept the work on its merits. The story, while it may not put Samsung in the most positive light, was based entirely on news reports and documentaries so we weren’t exposing anything new. Indeed, there is a full panel dedicated to the apology that Samsung issued to the aggrieved families of the deceased and afflicted.
When Sharon told me the news I chuckled with cynicism. I was neither angry nor disappointed. Just resigned. I thought about the Samsung executive and imagined how she’d prepared a script to explain the decision to Sharon. How, she might have calculated the possible repercussions from a very conservative management if she’d let this through. And what about the curator? Might she have felt that the artwork, judged purely on its merit could have been exhibited but then corporate and marketing objectives took precedence? Maybe Iola Lenzi herself wished she wasn’t put in that position; after all she must have pursued a career as curator out of her love for art.
Still, I wished they’d just be more upfront with their reasons for the rejection. They wouldn’t use the negative, and instead tried to appear conciliatory, although I think they failed miserably. Deferring to item 13 on page 8 of a 24 page-long Terms & Conditions was a convenient bureaucratic manoeuvre. The part about this being a “non-commercial CSR project” also strikes me as disingenuous. Incidentally, neither executive nor curator pointed us to that clause when Sharon asked them to be specific. I looked it up after I got the news. From the language used in the first email that invited Sharon to submit her work, I’m inclined to think that they didn’t take the time to read the Ts & Cs because let’s get real lah… Who does?
Because I’m really an outsider without any investment in the art world, other than to view beautiful creations on gallery walls on occasion, I think I’m less affected by this revelation. However, I think it adds another weight to the argument that CSR is mostly an insidious and elaborate marketing ruse. It’s not that they are purposefully evil but when your fiduciary duty and obligation boils down to making profit for shareholders, how can you truly care?