PIERRE HUYGHE, Two minutes out of time, 2000, beta digital video, 4 min. Courtesy the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery, New York / Paris.

PIERRE HUYGHE and PHILIPPE PARRENO, A Smile without a Cat (Celebration of Annlee’s Vanishing), 2002, fireworks display at the inauguration of Art Basel Miami Beach. Photo by Angel Art Ltd. Courtesy the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery, New York / Paris.

Escaping Ghost

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On January 18, 7,000 websites, including Wikipedia’s English site, orchestrated a collaborative blackout to protest the Stop Online Piracy Act and the Protect IP Act from being passed in the US House of Representatives and the US Senate, respectively. As the internet generates new means of expression and economic exchange on a daily basis, our digital era has magnified the fundamental tension at the heart of copyright law—that of free speech and innovation versus exploitation of property.

No Ghost Just a Shell (1999–2002), the quixotic art project conceived by French artists Pierre Huyghe and Philippe Parreno at the close of the last century, foreshadowed several aspects of copyright’s contemporary travails. The title refers to Masamune Shirow’s manga classic Ghost in the Shell, (1991). In 1999, Huyghe and Parreno bought the copyright to Annlee, a run-of-the-mill female manga character from the Japanese company Kworks, which develops such characters for commercial use. The more complex they are, the higher their price. Annlee, a generic, doe-eyed female with pixie ears and lavender bangs, commanded a humble 46,000 yen—slightly over USD 400 at the time.

The would-be Cinderella found herself in good hands. Huyghe and Parreno gave her a 3-D makeover including voice and motion capabilities, and debuted her in two short films, speaking chirpily about her various identities as a commodity, an artwork and a female character. The French duo then invited several artists and writers to appropriate Annlee, creating artworks to imbue this “shell” with a life—indeed, several—over the course of three years. Sixteen creative luminaries—including actress Catherine Deneuve and artists Liam Gillick, Rirkrit Tiravanija, Dominique Gonzales-Foerster and Richard Phillips—composed paintings, performances, videos and other artworks around this once-unsung character, propelling her into art world stardom with exhibitions at Kunsthalle Zurich, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and other institutions. One of the most prescient works is Tiravanija’s eight-and-a-half-hour film Ghost Reader C.H. (2002). It features Annlee reading the entire 1968 text of Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the book that spawned Blade Runner (1982), Ridley Scott’s cult film about genetically engineered robot “replicants.”

In 2002, shortly after Eindhoven’s Van Abbemuseum announced its decision to acquire the entire body of Annlee artworks, Huyghe and Parreno chose to simultaneously emancipate and kill off their protégé. They announced that they were “liberating a fictional character from the realms of representation” by terminating the art project and vesting Annlee’s copyright in the project itself, hence preventing others from further exploiting her. In Parreno’s words, “we own the copyright to this sign, and we decided to give the copyright back to the sign itself.”  The Annlee Company was established to acquire, hold and protect this copyright to “ensure that the image of Annlee never reappears.” Huyghe and Parreno are company members, and their attorney Luc Saucier its chairman and managing representative. The artists saw to it that Annlee went out literally with a bang: at an Art Basel Miami Beach party, fireworks lit up the night sky in the shape of her face. 

No Ghost Just a Shell inspired commentaries lengthier than Annlee’s poignantly brief life itself, on a range of issues including authorship, ownership and exploitation. Did Annlee really wish to disappear? Might she not have desired to own her copyright while she was alive rather than dead? Critics also pounced on the multiple stereotypes inherent in the narrative of a young, powerless Asian female who is first given form and then silenced by a pair of white Frenchmen. The project’s true Achilles’ heel, however, lay in the allegation that No Ghost Just a Shell doesn’t really emancipate the Annlee character in any substantial way; instead, it reinforces Parreno and Huyghe’s control over their fictional puppet. As the scholar Rachel Wolff chastised: “They establish themselves as Annlee’s originators, liberators and fathers. They gave birth to Annlee, and they ultimately know what is best for ‘her.’ Despite the claims they make about protecting Annlee as an object, what they are really seeking to protect is Annlee as a demonstration of their own creative output, a manifestation of their artistic genius.”

Less widely discussed is the Annlee Company’s legal structure, which seems inherently flawed in light of No Ghost Just a Shell’s purported quest to liberate Annlee. Notably, the company’s objectives are utopian and susceptible to challenge.  For example, its purported objective to ensure that Annlee’s name and image are only used with Company permission is practically unenforceable. Artists are free to appropriate Annlee sans the company’s consent. For example, a Shepard Fairey graffiti rendering or a Richard Prince appropriation of Annlee’s image could be perfectly legitimate despite the Annlee Company’s most strenuous objections, assuming that these works sufficiently transform the original Annlee image. One real, feisty retort to Annlee’s demise was issued by the Puerto Rican artist Pedro Velez and art collective Law Office, whose artwork Ann Lee Lives! (2003) is a C-print of a girl looking up at the camera passively, over which is scribbled in black marker: “Philippe + Pierre, you can’t kill Ann Lee! She is alive and well, in Puerto Rico. Go fuck yourselves! L.O. + P.V.”

Another of the Company’s objectives is to prevent copyright infringement of the Annlee image. Its “Articles of Association” state that “if the Company regards it as justified, and within the limits that it will set,” persons authorized by Huyghe and Parreno may “preserve their rights to works that they have already completed” and “exploit these rights freely.” Presumably this refers to the 16 artists who created works using the Annlee image between 1999 and 2002. However, assuming that the artists created these works in the capacity of independent producers and not as works-for-hire in the service of Huyghe and Parreno, they retain such copyright in their work regardless of the company’s position on the matter. Absent agreement to the contrary, the Annlee Company’s attempt to restrict these 16 artists’ lawful exploitation of their works would constitute an undue and illegal infringement of those artists’ moral and economic rights.

Finally, it remains unclear whether Annlee’s name and image have really been extinguished. It’s tricky to establish proof of death, as in the case of the recent North Korean dictator, beyond the smoke and mirrors. The Company’s stipulation that nobody may use Annlee’s name or image “except with the President’s derogation” smells suspiciously like an escape clause. Furthermore, under the Annlee Company’s auspices, Annlee’s image continues to be exhibited—not so long ago at London’s Tate Modern in 2009. Arguably, if Annlee is to be truly freed from the representational realm, then all past works should also be taken out of circulation and the project categorically laid to rest. As we know, it isn’t good manners to disturb ghosts.

Despite these issues—or perhaps, precisely because everyone felt compelled to weigh in on the fate of the melancholy purple-haired girl—No Ghost Just a Shell was widely beloved by the art community. From a legal perspective, this project, that first invited collaboration and then rather unsuccessfully attempted to kill it, sheds some interesting light on the travails of copyright law today. As Parreno asserts, “We’re trying to give rights to a thing . . . The history of authors’ rights moves from the king to the printer to the publisher, then from the publisher to the authors, and today, from the authors to the character.” The problem with this statement is, of course, that characters are nonlegal personalities. However, Huyghe and Parreno correctly identified the salient point that copyright in the 21st century must address new and rapidly evolving constituencies.

Huyghe and Parreno might have embarked on a very different project had they replaced the word “character” in Parreno’s statement with “audience.” A decade after Annlee’s cybernetic demise, the internet has spawned exponential numbers of platforms that democratize users’ abilities for expression and exchange.  Calls for a copyright system nimble enough to serve these new technologies resulted in the Copy Left licensing movement extolling the virtues of open-source software and granting users far wider latitude to appropriate and distribute works. In the lively realm of art and entertainment, audience participation in almost every art form has surged over the past decade, further diluting the conceits of the lone artist and linear narrative. Reality television programs rule the airwaves; multiple endings proliferate in novels and video games. Art that invites audience participation is around every corner.

In exploring copyright’s modern quandaries, Huyghe and Parreno could have emancipated Annlee in life rather than death by releasing her image under a Creative Commons license or, more bravely, into the public domain. They would, of course, be offering her up into the realm of representation rather than freeing her from it. But it seems more generous to imagine that, somewhere in the cybernetic darkness, a purple-haired pixie contentedly updates her Facebook page as she swaps escape yarns with a raggedy bunch of replicants.