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People Like Us/Vicki Bennett

Copyright, Open Culture

Collagist People Like Us (a.k.a. Vicki Bennett) is most at home exploring fault lines — artistic, emotional, legal. Take “Going Out of My Town,” one of many songs Bennett has made available under a Creative Commons license. It starts with an unsettling assortment of pops and fizzes, then introduces an acoustic guitar sample under a sweet, vaguely familiar melody. By the time the rousing German chorus breaks in, you don’t know whether to feel mildly disturbed, smile serenely, or burst out laughing.

In her ten solo albums and regular live performances (including Creative Commons’ launch party), Bennett has made this sort of odd juxtaposition her signature.

“I have always wanted to make magical worlds that are unrestricted by the practicalities of ‘real life,'” Bennett said in an interview with Creative Commons. “When I sample disparate elements I can bring together all sorts of people and situations that I could and more likely would never get together. In this sense I am an editor of life.”

Featured People Like Us Work
Going Out Of My Town
Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 1.0
[download MP3]

Bennett is part of a larger artistic appropriation movement, which ranges from collage, to dance remixes, to “mash-ups.” Though hampered by copyright’s restrictions on derivative works, these practices have flourished as editing software has gotten cheaper and easier to use.

Bennett spoke with Creative Commons about her music, Creative Commons’ upcoming sampling license, and the legal and ethical issues surrounding collage and other kinds of re-creativity.

Creative Commons: First, tell us a little about how your affinity for audio and visual collage developed. What first got you interested in the artform?

Vicki Bennett: [in 1980] I discovered the work of Steve Stapleton, better known as Nurse With Wound. It is a very funny record full of appropriated soundbites. It made me realize that it is possible to release music like this. Until that point I was under the naive impression that if you made appropriated art you would somehow be found out at the pressing plant and be struck down by a lightning bolt.

CC: What is it about sampling that inspires you?

VB: Even before I had the slightest clue about what I was doing, I was making collage. It seems like the most natural way of finding relationships between subjects and objects, and also to gain some perspective on one’s thought processes and reactions. I started working with visual collage as an art student in the 80s—first photographic, then video, and then some sound. I left college, and financial restrictions led me to work with music and radio.

CC: How do you create your songs? Where do you draw your samples from?

VB: Sampling isn’t new. We have always recycled, but only now is this seen as offensive or, oh yes, illegal. We have always drawn from what is around us—not just creatively. It’s no different than being influenced by another’s speech patterns and expressions.

Samples are drawn ethically from any source, so long as I use it in a way different from where I found them.

At present 99% of my film footage comes from Rick Prelinger’s public domain archives. There are many film people who are very protective of what you do with their material, and many others who charge far more money than an artist like me can afford. It’s not practical for anyone except a famous or rich artist. When I found the Prelinger Archives, where everything is free, I felt like I’d come home.

Audio-wise, the sky’s the limit. Sound is available everywhere; music is so far ahead of film on so many levels, least of all that we have so many ways of getting it for free.

CC: In a BBC interview, you asserted that the bootleg movement has been the most important music in the last ten years and has brought music “back to where it belongs.” Why is that?

VB: The bootleg movement (and by “bootleg” I mean “mash-ups,” not mass duplication) has brought energy, relevance, and humor back into the world of popular music, and brought the art back to the streets. It’s like punk music. Thankfully, it has also given people like me a higher profile because mash-up is a form of collage.

Forget all the analyzing; it’s fun, and lots of people are doing it.

CC: Why did you Creative Commons license your music?

VB: I license partly because of the negativity of IP law, which says, “You can’t do this, you can’t do that.” How about building on creative works, and finding out what the creator thinks, rather than what marketers and A-and-R execs want? The idea behind a Creative Commons license is good because it cuts out the middleman. One can find out how the creator feels about interpretation and duplication of their work.

I also did this to support the cause of a thriving public domain and am glad that Eric Eldred and Larry Lessig do what they do, promoting works available for everyone, not just those who can afford it.

CC: Creative Commons is developing a sampling license to help alleviate legal concerns about copyright’s gray areas. Have you experienced any problems sampling others’ work?

VB: No, not legal problems. Only problems with people assuming I’m not to be taken seriously for “taking from other people” or writing nasty letters about their dead grandfather when I send a mail out supporting the fight for the public domain.

Practically speaking, I’ve had problems finding a higher profile label that will distribute and promote my work because of the sampling. They are worried about getting sued. Other potential labels have wanted to control how I sample, and I’m not about to go along with that. So as a result the focus has turned to making live concerts (audio and video), which reaches far more real people face-to-face. I also use the Internet as a means of distribution, rather than making physical albums.

CC: To make the sampling license, we’ve had to define “sampling” in a useful way. What, to you, is “sampling,” and what reuses of a work would you not be comfortable with?

VB: Any creative use of a pre-existing work is sampling, including any interpretation in part or re-contextualization (which may be using elements as a whole, but in a collaged, cut-up way). There are some people working with a whole song but then putting another whole song over the top. When I say “creative use,” I am not placing any judgment that the creative work is good or bad. Neither do I believe that one should be making a different judgment on whether someone sells the work or not. Given that we are all using what went before, that we all have the right to work, and if we give our lives to this work we have a right to be paid for our labor.

Any carbon copy of a physical object (i.e. CD, DVD) made purely for commercial use is in the traditional, negative sense of the word, a bootleg.

I am comfortable with any creative re-use of my work that is made for art’s sake rather than purely as part of a commercial agenda (i.e. pirate copies for sale, or use for advertising).

CC: Your sentiment about advertising is shared by several people participating in the Creative Commons sampling discussion. How do you reconcile that with collage’s expansive view of “art for art’s sake,” or, as you say, that art is neither good nor bad?

VB: Mash-ups appropriate the obvious, or are very simply constructed. But it’s intended to be pop music, which only works if it’s obvious or simple. It is still a transformative appropriation.

The anti-advertising argument does not have to do with whether it’s good workmanship, or whether one may think advertising is bad. First it is an advert, then it is art. That is where the distinction lies—in what its primary function is, and the initial intention behind the act.

Posted 01 October 2005