Artist Gareth Long is from Toronto, Canada and currently based in London, UK. We met in 2013 in Vienna and worked together on several projects, such as the seminar Appropriate Kidnapping for Kunsthalle Wien. Gareth’s work focuses on processes of transference, translation and collaboration as a means to question authorship in artistic and literary traditions. He was the perfect person to ask about originality and what that means in the arts today. I posed three straightforward questions, which he generously answered:
The concept of originality became an ideal in our Western culture since the 18th century, especially when it relates to creative works by artists, writers, and thinkers. It seems that nowadays an original idea is nearly impossible. Is it inconceivable to have an idea not thought up by another person?
There are lots of ways to approach this question. I could be a bit pedantic and say, “of course,” in that since much of what we’re surrounded by is constantly changing (politically, technologically, etc.) there are always new stimuli for us to respond to. These responses are new, and their expression and manifestations can, of course, be new in turn. This is one approach, but I don’t think it’s necessarily the most interesting way to address the question. What–for me at least–is more interesting or more productive, would be to turn around and ask: “Why does it matter if an idea is new or is recycled?” Even the question suggests a hierarchy between the “original” and the “not-original,” and I find this hierarchy spurious, outmoded, and kind of boring. A reused idea is already new through its very reuse. Through repetition, it takes on new meaning. And also casts a new light on the “original.” But sure, we can have new ideas. But I don’t know if we need to.
In the arts, there is traditionally this unavoidable tension but necessary link between originality, imitation and plagiarism. How should we negotiate or renegotiate these concepts now and in the future?
I think this negotiation is constant because I don’t think that any of these terms–original, imitation, and plagiarism–are static; they are moving targets. But you’re right, that tension still exists as if the definitions of these terms have been fixed for quite a long time, particularly in regards to art. Often I find that the debates around these terms center on a willing myopia; our culture has changed—particularly with the rise of digital culture and tools. We’re living in a culture of the copy. If everything is a copy, then the idea of an “original” is thrown into a new light. Yet these debates seem to still be going back to the idea of the singular genius, making his (and it’s always a him) grand original works in his studio. But that’s not how things are made today. So, getting back to the question, I think the best approach for a negotiation of these terms is to recognize that each utterance necessitates a new negotiation.
You are an admirer of Gustave Flaubert. I came across this quote by him, that says: “Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.” Does that mean for him, originality was essential?
Flaubert is a very difficult figure to essentialize. He helped invent (or put down strong foundations for) the realist novel, but was also the first to obliterate it. He was a man of great ego, so in that regard he would probably think that there was, indeed, a possibility for originality. But that said, when he was 15 he won an essay-writing prize. What was his essay? It was all about mushrooms, and it was plagiarized from an encyclopedia. And the text of his that I’ve turned towards the most–from which many of my works have generated–is a story about two copyists. And in writing the novel, Flaubert effectively had to become them. So he also had a staunch commitment to copying as an artistic outlet.
Either way, trying to speculate anything final about Flaubert is a losing game. And why make a conclusion about him? One of my favorite quotes by him addresses that:
“Stupidity consists in trying to conclude. We are a thread and we want to know the pattern. That goes back to those eternal discussions about the decadence of art. Now one spends one’s time telling oneself: we are completely finished, here we are at the very end, etc., etc. What mind of any strength–beginning with Homer–has ever come to a conclusion?”
Image: Gareth Long & Derek Sullivan. Since 2009 Gareth and artist Derek Sullivan have worked towards an on-going project to illustrate and translate Flaubert’s “Dictionary of Received Ideas.” Read about it on Gareth’s website! (Drawing Session/Performance – Flat Time House, London, UK. September, 2010.)