Jon Wood and Carey Young

Carey Young had a one-month fellowship at the Henry Moore Institute in 2002-2003 and her solo exhibition ‘Disclaimer’ is an outcome of her fellowship. Here she talks with Jon Wood about the show.

JW: What are disclaimers, what are they designed to do and where do you find them?

CY: Although disclaimers are almost always hidden as 'small print', they increasingly surround us within our increasingly litigious society, whether at the end of emails, or on websites, even in certain kinds of advertisement. A disclaimer allows an author, publisher or (often corporate) organisation to protect themselves by renouncing responsibility for what they or their employees have said. Although disclaimers appear within films or at the beginning of many novels, these cases are designed to be specific to issues of libel. I am most interested in disclaimers on emails and websites, because I wanted to make particular reference to digital space and to notions of intellectual property, in which ideas are seen as having commodity value.

JW: What interests you about disclaimers?

CY: If we live in a communications landscape, as J. G. Ballard has said, or if language can be understood in sculptural terms, to quote Joseph Beuys, then in both senses disclaimers can be seen as a form of negative space. They create an absence, a near-silence - the retraction of communication back into itself, so that what has been said is also termed 'unsaid'. In this sense, my show at Henry Moore Institute will appear full of work, with four interrelated pieces, but nevertheless, each work proposes its own kind of void.

I am particularly interested in disclaimers in a political sense, as a signifier of the fluidity of corporate power. The spread of disclaimers can be linked to the same neoliberalvalue system that gave us the collapse of corporations such as Enron and WorldCom - the evasion of truth, the hiding of key information from the public, the absence of corporate responsibility. The fact that disclaimers increasingly encircle us should, in this sense, be seen as a cause for concern. They represent an act of imagination in which a problem has been pre-visualised, and then a protective legal structure created so that the disclaimer-user is protected. In this sense, disclaimers are contracts created to make us into powerless players in a legal performance that may be enacted in the future. They have a time-based, choreographic aspect, in that they delineate and create stoppages within possible future action.

JW: What, then, is the role of the art gallery in ‘Disclaimer’, your exhibition at Henry Moore Institute?

CY: The three text-based disclaimers in the show, which were made collaboratively with the intellectual property lawyer Massimo Sterpi, all make differing claims - or rather denials - as to their status as artworks. In 'Disclaimer: Access', for example, the piece makes a specific reference to an exhibition context. The text highlights the often unspoken power relationships between artist and host gallery/institution by stating ways in which 'access' to the work - particularly the work's siting and lighting, plus any accompanying information - may not follow the artist's specific intentions. I hope that the viewer experiences the work's exhibition context differently after seeing the piece, since the suggested disavowal of the gallery's responsibilities towards one work may be true for everything else it does as well. This piece creates a slippage in terms of our expectations of an art institution, and a gap in which critical thoughts are planted in the mind of the viewer, whilst also raising questions in terms of the work's meaning. If we can never really see the piece as the artist intended, then by implication the piece can never be understood. It is as if any exhibition may conceal the work, rather than revealing it to us… 

JW: Why collaborate with an intellectual property lawyer to produce these works?

CY: It was important for the works to have a functional status, and therefore an integrity in terms of the law. The texts on these works could actually be used as disclaimers, and in that sense they protect the artist - and in fact any artist who wanted to use the wording themselves - against the viewer and any actions he or she may take as a result of seeing the work. For this reason, the wording on the disclaimer specifically refers to 'the artist' as 'she/he' - it has a documentary aspect, referring to the artistic collaboration by a male lawyer and female artist, and also, at the same time, makes the disclaimers non-specific: tools for anyone else to use (partly a reference to art dealer Seth Siegelaub's contract for artists, the ' Artists' Reserved Rights Transfer and Sale Agreement'). In this sense the works could also be seen as pieces of design, in that they have a use-value, albeit proposed in a tongue-in-cheek way.

JW: Your video 'Terms and Conditions', however, takes us outdoors. It evokes a strange kind of ‘intellectual property': a no man's land between word and image, between space and place. Why did you choose this agricultural site for this piece?

CY: The setting looks like a landscape selected from a photographic image bank - the kind of idyllic but airbrushed location which gives the piece a quasi-fictional, hyperreal quality. I wanted a rural backdrop that would infer the painterly landscape tradition without pinning it down in terms of specific reference. Nevertheless, the yellow-flowering crop (clearly visible at the right hand side of the shot) and field markings in the distance show this to be a site of agricultural production, long used within painting to signify utopia in the sense of human harmony with the natural world.

The script voiced by the actress is a long disclaimer which was derived from disclaimers on a series of corporate websites. It refers constantly to a 'site', and that, by implication, seems to refer to the 'site' of the video. The word 'site' becomes the pivot in the work, since it refers both to a dematerialised, digital, legalistic sphere and also to 'site' in an artistic sense. I particularly wanted to create a link to notions of 'non-sites' in terms of the writings of Robert Smithson. In this sense, the disclaimer-script can be understood as a non-site, the 'site' of the physical world reproduced and reflected back to us as language. But here it is the materialistic language of ownership - not of physical property, but intellectual property. In this sense, the legalistic terminology seems very appropriate to the rural setting if we consider it in the light of seed patenting and genetic modification, and their operating framework within globalised agribusiness. This dystopian potential conflicts with the visual richness of the video's setting, and the newsreader-slickness of the actress, giving us a sense of being lulled into a seductive but false sense of place, beauty and time. The piece, like the show as a whole, gives us a strong sense of our own physical experience and the material world, whilst using language to push us into a more fictional, abstracted space, which is nevertheless the site in which everyday life is increasingly enacted.

Text © the authors and The Henry Moore Foundation, 2004