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June 2016 Exhibition: An Ethical Framework

I am currently academic host to Samantha Wraith (Drama Therapist) who has put together the following exhibition inspired by my research at the University of Exeter and that of my colleague Professor Charlotte Waelde at Coventry University:

Whats Mine is (Y)ours poster

For more information on the exhibition events go to the exhibition blog and the University of Exeter: Arts and Culture website.

For more information on this artist residency and my role as academic host, click on the Collaborators page of this blog.

As a historian and theologian with a strong background in ethics and the interaction of philosophical and religious thought with broader historical, geo-political, social and cultural contexts, my contribution to this exhibition is an ethical framework (included below) which will serve as a guide to help you to represent/’tangify’ your cultural heritage. It will help you to do so in ways that will be innovative and exciting without compromising the integrity of that cultural heritage and the impression of it which your works will leave in the minds of viewers. After all, your cultural heritage belongs not only to you as an individual, but to a wider community of people with backgrounds similar to yours. Sometimes you may well be surprised by the people you discover have heritages overlapping with your own!

As a poet and singer I am also on hand during the exhibition to support any participant who wishes to express their cultural heritage through music and creative writing. I will also be happy to give advice on blogging and other media you may want to use to showcase your work. Furthermore, I can give advice on copyright and the licensing of works for publication.

An Ethical Framework for the Tangification of Cultural Heritage

Note that unethical approaches are often unconscious and unintentional rather than deliberate and premeditated which is why an ethical framework can be a useful checklist and reminder for responsible artists in the run up to the publication of their works.

The Fair Representation of Subjects

It is important to accurately and fairly represent the subjects, especially people but also concepts, depicted in your artistic works. Things to consider are a) whether subjects are far removed from their original/normal contexts because here there is the danger of mis-representation, or b) whether portrayals of subjects represent only specific/selected aspects of them and are not comprehensive, running the risk of encouraging unhelpful stereotypes. You should also consider whether any descriptions/metadata accompanying your art work accurately and fairly represent the subjects depicted as well, and whether you have manipulated images/recordings or added or altered sound in any way that could mislead viewers or misrepresent subjects.

If your art works intentionally remove subjects from their normal/original contexts then the important thing to ask yourself, is whether the overall theme/messages of the exhibition in which the works are contained accurately, fairly and comprehensively represents the subjects by getting participants to reflect critically upon their initial, possibly biased and ill informed reactions and responses. It is preferable to seek a diversity of viewpoints, and to work to include unpopular or unnoticed points of view in art works and especially in the curated content used for an exhibition.

It is important to treat all subjects of your artistic content with respect and dignity, in just the same way as you would treat your exhibition guests. Have you also given special consideration to vulnerable subjects such as victims of crime or tragedy? Have you asked subjects, especially vulnerable subjects, for permission to use their image? Remember, if you are also in the image yourself, that not everyone feels the same way about sharing as you do. Remember also that you should only share images, videos or other content that reveal private moments of grief, humiliation or other situations of vulnerability, when users have an overriding and justifiable need to see them, that is, if the benefits to wider society are sufficiently great. Equally, if you or your close family members are shown in the work, you need to give careful thought to whether you want the work to be made public and/or re-used by others, taking possible future changes of circumstances into account.

The legal protections of copyright come into existence automatically as soon as you ‘tangify’ your idea by creating an original drawing, photograph, video, sound recording, crafted object, digital design, or work of writing or notation. However, once your work is ‘out there’, especially on the internet, it will be very difficult to enforce restrictions on its use in practice.

Personal/Political Agendas

It is important that all your images are genuine and that they have not been obtained through manipulation, bribery or from sources or subjects otherwise rewarded or coerced. Though you may never consider doing such a thing yourself, it is important to make sure that you do not inadvertently creatively reuse materials obtained in this way unless your purpose is precisely to use your overall exhibition to expose such activities.

Ask yourself also whether you, or the sources or subjects of your art-works have accepted gifts, favours, or compensation from those who might seek to influence the presentation, use and sharing of content for political purposes. You do not want to discover you or your subjects have been manipulated after the event!

Also ask yourself whether, when sharing, using and presenting cultural heritage content online and elsewhere, you have intentionally contributed to, altered, or sought to influence political events. You may have done this unintentionally because it is hard for us to distance ourselves from our current political/ideological leanings, or you may have done this deliberately, in which case you should carefully consider the potential consequences of your actions before going ahead. It may well be that influencing policy-makers and imminent events is one of your primary and legitimate goals for the exhibition.

It is important to stand back from your work and imagine you are seeing it for the first time. Could your work (or accompanying descriptions) wrongly lead viewers to believe copied works or copied elements within your works are original works which you and/or your co-creators have authored? If so, you will need to change them so that they more clearly acknowledge all the true authors. You also need to be sure to fully and comprehensively acknowledge the contribution of any co-creators in collaborative works.

Intellectual Property Rights

It is important to consider who owns the copyright in your work as you create it, and before you publish it, especially if the work is a collaborative piece. You should also keep clear and precise records of any elements in the work which are originally the work of others that you have reused.

The rights of all authors, creators and owners of co-created and reused content must be respected. This can mean seeking permission to reuse the works from the authors themselves (or owners e.g. a publisher or a cultural institution like a museum) if the works are subject to copyright. Older works may be out of copyright and may have entered the public domain where they are now free to use but it is important to make sure this is the case. Always heed the terms of any licences attached to the works, and always attribute the work to all the authors fully and accurately.

It can at times be difficult to determine whether a work is in copyright or not and how to seek permissions. Here are links to some easy to follow tools which will tell you when and how to seek permissions, and how to attribute works correctly:

Rights Clearance Tool

Proper Attribution Tool

In this E-Space toolkit are also resources to help you to understand how licensing works and what the terms mean, including Creative Commons open licenses. It will help you to understand the licences attached to works you may want to reuse and will give you the information you need to choose whether and how to licence your own works for reuse:

E-Space IPR Toolkit

From the E-Space Content Space you can access a repository of reusable content and many other resources and case studies concerning the reuse of digital cultural content, accessing high quality reusable open content and managing IPR (Intellectual Property Rights):

E-Space Content Space

Collective Ownership of Shared Cultures

When it comes to cultural heritage, most people agree that it is best to make your work as open as possible and accessible to the public, especially if it records and conveys cultural heritage which goes beyond a narrative centred on just you and your own family/ancestors. You should aim to broaden and enhance viewer and user access and experience of shared cultural heritages. It is important to avoid political, civic and business involvements that compromise or give the appearance of compromising these objectives.

It is not so much that you should not commercialise such works. Indeed, commercialisation may well be a valid route to take, especially if you are to survive as an artist and contribute to securing a healthy future for artistic practices, institutions and the creative industries in general. However, these benefits have to be carefully weighed up against the right of the general population to easily access information and expressions of shared cultural heritage. It is necessary to find a way of working which balances and sufficiently honours both goals of openness and sustainability.

See the link to the E-Space Content Space above if you want to read up on information about how to commercialise either works which reuse digital cultural content, or tools which make use of such content.

Summary of Key Points

The following 5 points distilled from the ethical framework above will be displayed at the exhibition:

1. Be fair and considerate in the way you represent human beings and conceptual subjects in your work, especially when they are vulnerable humans or sensitive subjects.
2. Always ask permission to use people’s images in your art works, even when they are friends and family.
3. Always ask permission to reuse the work of others, even when you are altering that work or using it in a new context.
4. Always attribute works to all the authors who contributed to their creation.
5. Consider sharing artistic cultural representations with the public in the most accessible way possible, since cultural heritage belongs to communities rather than to individuals.

Below is a poem I have written especially for display at the June exhibition. It is an example of the tangification of cultural heritage, in this case, what I believe to be my own cultural heritage.

An Inheritance
To all the fallen brave who won my freedoms,
and those who gave their years to spur my cause;
the soldiers, suffragettes and pioneers,
of social and religious life reformed;
to those who led the way in modern science,
and in critical approach to histories,
who placed aside their interests and their bias,
to find a truer knowledge far beyond;
I shout in gratitude from top of hillside,
from storeys high in cities’ sentinels,
I walk with pride to ballot box and hustings,
and freely lend my voice when protest calls.
This, the baton passed to us; a treasure,
fragile yet, as the souls we must defend;
this, the measure of a nation’s glory,
not the wealth the sly and lucky few pretend.
So my ancestors have gilded me with courage,
entrusted me with a heritage of wisdom,
and like a woman several thousand years in labour,
hoping, longing, for the birth of peace,
they ask to see the fair society they once envisioned,
the muse of all philosophers old and new,
advanced to end the sufferings of our weary past;
they ask to see what you and I will do.
© Anastasia Somerville-Wong 2016