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Feature

Scene Stealer

With Little More Than a Video Camera, Jon Routson Turns Low-Tech Movie Bootlegging into High-Concept Art

Jefferson Jackson Steele
Routson, incognito
Steal This Movie: A still from Jon Routson's "Bootleg (8 Mile)"
A still from his "Bootleg (Chicago)"
Commercial Break: Stills from Routson's "Cremaster," his edited-for-television version of Matthew Barney's Cremaster 4.
Shower Scene: Stills from Routson's "Carrie/Porky's: Originality, Neatness and Hygiene"
Rabbit Run: Examples from Routson's ongoing collection of mall Easter bunny portraits

By Bret McCabe | Posted 1/21/2004

Jon Routson doesn't look like a thief. Not that you can always tell a criminal by appearances, but one glance at the skinny, soft-spoken 34-year-old and you know he doesn't make a living taking down scores. Routson looks more like the clean-cut guy who fixes your computer, or the good-natured barista who knows how to make a latte without scalding the milk and doesn't bother you with empty small talk.

The Baltimore artist's Charles Village apartment is definitely not the pad of one who traffics in pilfered products. It's an ordinary residence of a single young man: a table with a lamp in one corner of the living room, a modest but comfy sofa against a mostly bare white wall, a cozy kitchen table in the next room. The only concession to the proverbial good life is the large color television, DVD player, and VCR stacked opposite the sofa.

You'll need these devices to see the evidence that Routson is, in fact, a thief, at least by some definitions. Since May 19, 1999--the day Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace opened in theaters--Routson has attended movies with his mini digital-video camera in tow. Once he's seated in the darkened theater and the movie starts, he points the camera at the screen--just eyeballing it, because looking through the viewfinder is too conspicuous and opening up the LCD screen drains the battery power too much; he rests it on his lap, on his sternum, on the armrest. And then he presses record. Afterward he goes home, imports the DV into his computer, converts it to Mpeg format, and burns the entire movie onto DVD as one continuous piece of stationary, unaltered observation.

The practice is called "bootlegging"--the illegal duplication, distribution, and exhibition of copyrighted intellectual property such as a movie. And yet Routson isn't packaging his illegal DVDs with color-copy tray cards and peddling them on the sidewalks around Lexington Market. He's bootlegged almost 40 films over the past four years, but they're not for sale. And he doesn't really even watch them himself. They're his artworks, and once finished dumping them from camera to computer to DVD, he pretty much leaves them be until it's time to exhibit them in art galleries in Washington and New York under absurdly matter-of-fact titles such as "Bootleg (Chicago)."

"I guess it's theft," Routson muses. He's not being coy; he's just extremely laconic. When he does speak, Routson says exactly what he thinks, only what he thinks tends toward an encyclopedia of similes, approximations, and comparisons, expressing ideas and feelings in terms of other terms. His low-activity demeanor makes Andy Warhol look like a frenetic neurotic, which makes it often hard to tell when he is and isn't flexing his arid-dry wit.

"Now, getting caught with a video camera in a movie theater is a felony in California, so that makes it feel more like theft," Routson continues. "And it isn't fun. It always makes me very nervous. And now I've read that all the money from the bootleg market supposedly goes to fund terrorism. But I'm not doing that. They're not for sale. I just show them."

Routson's theft doesn't end with bootlegging. He's stolen images from Hollywood movies and used them for his own devices, intercutting the shower scenes from Porky's and Carrie for his "Carrie/Porky's: Originality, Neatness and Hygiene." He's lifted a single shot of the pooch in As Good as It Gets for his "Puppy Zoom." And most infamously, Routson obtained a copy of artist Matthew Barney's 44-minute Cremaster 4, the first video work of Barney's famed "Cremaster Cycle," and re-edited it down to 22 minutes for television, complete with "Saturday Night Movie" leader, commercial breaks, local station identification, lotto numbers, and a floating network ID in the lower right-hand corner.

Though Routson's works made their first art-world splash in 2003 thanks to some New York exhibits--particularly his Recordings solo show at Team Gallery and Whitebox's summer group show Six Feet Under: Tear Me Up Tear Me Down--he's not the only artist riffing with movies themselves. Douglas Gordon's 2001 video projection "Five Year Drive-by" slowed down John Ford's 1956 The Searchers so that its screening lasts five years, the length of John Wayne's search for the kidnapped Natalie Wood, turning video into digital fresco. More recently, Christian Marclay stole/borrowed hundreds of images from Hollywood movies for his DVD-installation "Video Quartet" (2002), a 13-minute, four-channel video mix tape.

Routson's enterprise, however, is more than mere appropriation of the movies' pop-cultural acumen. In fact, that he's taken liberties with both Hollywood movies and the highly revered Barney is a thorny hurdle even for the art world.

"I spoke to people at the [Recordings] opening who were wondering which one was more illegal," Routson says. "People were debating that. And I found that really weird. I have no concept why one would be fair game and why one wouldn't be."

That Routson doesn't separate Barney from Hollywood is the first key to getting inside his bootlegs as more than witty, one-off pranks. He's not working on the already established divides separating the high from the low, the commercial from the noncommercial, the narrative from the nonnarrative; that fact quashes the art-or-theft question that his work may initially raise, at least as far as art itself is concerned. The bootlegs fit into a context of Routson's ongoing oeuvre. It just so happens that his work comes along at a time when it gels with an underground video movement that is one of the more exciting and active in art right now, and when the legality of cinematic appropriation is at its most hotly debated and stringently policed.

Routson didn't set out to make art that could land him a rap sheet. In fact, the Silver Spring native has weathered a rocky, on-again/off-again relationship with art since his days at the Visual Art Center of Albert Einstein High School in Kensington. He entered the Maryland Institute College of Art in 1987 only to leave after his first year, utterly disappointed in the experience.

"It's just a really conservative and traditional school--at least it was then," Routson says of MICA. "You go to art school and you think all the other kids are going to be as interesting as the kids you met in high school doing art, and most people were just not that dedicated, really. It was like, 'I thought this was suppose to be the big show. We're doing the same things I've been doing.'"

A water-treading freshman year at MICA led into an equally stagnant year at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, where Routson transferred in 1988 and first made a stab at filmmaking, but ultimately "quietly lost my mind a little bit."

"Everything was boring," he says. "I was just kind of isolated out there and I felt like I wasn't doing or learning anything."

He left UMBC in 1989 and moved to New York, landing artist's assistant gigs first with painter Marilyn Minter and later with sculptor and installation artist Vito Acconci. "That was pretty good, because if you're an artist and such, you don't know crap unless you live in New York," Routson says. "Of course a lot of people say it's commercial and crap, but that's part of it. You get to go to galleries all the time, and museums, and you're working for people who have enough money to have assistants. And you get to see artists at work, making a living--and then it seems possible."

A year in New York reinvigorated Routson enough to complete his undergraduate degree, and eventually he earned a B.A. in studio arts from the University of Maryland at College Park. With no post-graduation prospects, however, he stopped making art completely, working a 9-5 job at the Department of Justice for five years.

"I was just doing records management," Routson recalls. "Then I started to take some classes at George Washington [University in Washington, D.C.]. Not real classes--continuing ed, trying to learn Web stuff, interactive media. And then I found out UMBC had the Interactive Media graduate degree and I thought it'd be better to do that. At that point I didn't even want to do art anymore. I just wanted to get a good skill in line with what I already knew, just to get a job."

In 1998 he enrolled at as a grad student in UMBC's Imaging and Digital Art department, a program dedicated to the creation of new images using state-of-the art technology. Though the program is an inspired fusion of applied technology with creative think, Routson's experience there turned him away from the cutting edge and toward technology's more simplistic uses.

"I was pretty good with the computer already, so I lost interest in the computer stuff pretty fast and started focusing on film," he says. "And that was great, because you can edit easily with not much of a [computer], so then everything I was thinking about all went that way: How can I use what I have here?"

Routson started producing art again, simple video pieces such as "I Still Know What You Did Last Summer," a collection of spinning images of pop-cultural personas such as Britney Spears set to clunky instrumental music, and "Strober," a disorienting close-up video of a strobe light flashing on and off, further distorted by the difference in the strobes blinking frequency and the camera's shutter speed, resulting in a fractured stroboscopic effect that appears digitally altered but is just an artifact of the technology.

Soon, he was drawn to movies--not making movies, but using images of movies as his medium. The resulting pieces would technically be film/videos--images that move over time--but he wasn't approaching them as narrative, cinematic works. They were merely artworks using the visual language in which he felt the most well-versed.

"I guess that's probably because it's what I've seen the most of in [my] lifetime," Routson says. "I've seen a lot more video and movies since the day I was born than I've ever seen of real paintings in real life. So I guess it's one of those things where you just feel like you have more of a relationship with it. Like, even when I was trying to paint still, I was using video."

Shown in 1992 at New York's Thread Waxing Space, Routson's untitled "video painting" was a series of images he had taped off the television. "It was just me pressing record when something interesting came on," he says. "It's just a mishmash. So there was baby chickens being processed at the Perdue plant from the TV show 3-2-1 Contact. And then remember when they had the television version of Hollywood Babylon? I had some of that. I had a part from that movie Looker, where they would scan the models into the computer and they would kill them, and then they could put them in anything they wanted. So I had the scene where a woman's falling slo-mo in a nightie onto the top of a car. And then I have some stuff with some puppets. I have some French skeletons and a French pineapple. And then there'd be lots of blue chunks where there was no video signal. This was all very the lowest-tech you could get."

Literally a random document of what Routson saw on TV, the untitled video painting craftily recast these images. Though photography and cinema started out as ways to document reality, their fictional potential was immediately realized. And while the televisual snippets Routson captured were a random mix of fantasy world and pseudo-documentary, together they form an accurate representation of a time, place, and event specific to Routson: Him watching television.

Armed with the knowledge and ability to convert a digital-video image into a DVD-burnable format, Routson returned to this low-tech "event" capturing idea at UMBC. Only this time, he was going to push record when something interesting came on at the movie theater.

Through a friend in New York, he located a place to show his first bootleg, of The Phantom Menace, in 1999. "I shot it and drove up to New York and showed it that night," he says. "It seemed like a nice thing to do because not everyone could spend eight hours in the parking lot to get a ticket that day. And it also seemed nice because it was about all these reasons you're not supposed to make art. It was very sentimental and nostalgic. It was crude and the sound was bad and the image wasn't of very high quality. It wasn't very artful at all. And I liked it like that. So [after that] it started turning into doing it almost every time I saw a movie."

Not everybody agrees that Routson's art is nice, much less art. In a posting titled "Stealing Is the New Appropriation" on his www.thetearsofthings.net Web site, the Phoenix, Ariz.-based artist and writer Jerome du Bois slams Routson's Cremaster 4 edit: "Let's be clear: Mr. Routson illegally snagged a copy of a complex artwork which cost blood, sweat, tears, time, and money--none his--then sat on his ass in front of his technology and cut apart a piece of work he couldn't conceive a thousandth of on his best day."

Du Bois was responding to an Aug. 17, 2003, New York Times Sunday Arts and Leisure story written by Greg Allen about the recent rise of bootleg film and video on the Web, citing Routson's work as a piece that tackles the practice of bootlegging itself.

"Worse, Mr. Allen just lets the video thievery slide," du Bois writes. "So let's ask: has Mr. Allen already handed over copies of his own films so Mr. Routson can have some fun with them? If not, what's he waiting for? because [sic] if he has any objections I'm waiting for him to call out for the nipping of Mr. Jon Routon's [sic] career in the bud."

"Quoting or sampling or referencing previous work seems like it's a natural evolution, and responding to it is just the way art moves forward, whatever the medium is," replies Allen, a filmmaker and writer who splits his time between Washington, D.C., and New York. "With painting, you can quote a painting by mimicking it or putting an obvious visual cue in. Music, one of the most obvious examples, is driven by sampling and by laying down all these references.

"With video-based or projection-based art becoming more important in terms of people see it more and a lot of artists work in it, it now has a seat at the table with all these other media," Allen continues. "It seems like it should be something people respond to and reference. And for the [video] medium, I think [innovation] means sampling, it means reworking it. It's a very good thing."

What may be good for the medium is not always viewed as a good practice. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998 (DMCA) implemented into U.S. copyright law two 1996 World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) treaties--the WIPO Copyright Treaty and the WIPO Performances and Phonograms Treaty. The WIPO treaties were originally created to develop and maintain the protection of the international rights of authors in their literary and artistic works creation and use (specifically "authors" as it applies to computer programs, "cinematographic" works, and music), which, through the DMCA, laid the groundwork for the Recording Industry Association of America's (RIAA) and the Motion Picture Association of America's (MPAA) ongoing prosecution of peer-to-peer file trading of music and movies and the bootleg market.

Under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act's aegis, U.S senators Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and John Cornyn (R-Texas) introduced a bill--the Artists' Rights and Theft Prevention Act--in November 2003 to make Internet distribution of music and movies and "to use or attempt to use" a video camera in a movie theater felony offenses carrying maximum prison sentences of five years for first offenders, along with monetary damages. (California, New York, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Washington, D.C., already have similar laws, but so far federal law doesn't criminalize the act or attempt of copying a movie in a theater.) And it was with the DMCA in mind that the MPAA recently tried to ban its members from distributing DVD or VHS copies of films to critics for review purposes (and ultimately, to talent guilds and voters for the Academy Awards), a prohibition a California federal court overruled but which the MPAA is appealing in district court.

These measures, however, specifically target the pre-release ownership of movies or their distribution for profit, and Routson isn't guilty of either of those, exactly. Yes, he does take a video camera into theaters and copies films. Yes, he does take these tapes home, burn them onto DVDs, and exhibit them in public without consent. The distinction between Routson's bootlegs and the piracy industry is a very fine one--why. Movie pirates do it to make money, fans trade movies online because they can. What is Routson's reasoning?

He is the last person to ask about the meaning of his work. Not that he doesn't know, just that it's not always fully formed.

"I don't really make art in the proper way," Routson says. "The bootlegs aren't profound or have anything to say--like I didn't make them because I was trying to say some big idea. The meaning of the work never really comes together for me until later, until after the work has been finished, after it has been shown, after it comes down and I'm back at home thinking about it, and it's like, 'Oh, this was about this.'"

Routson's feelings about the works themselves haven't ripened yet either. "They're dumb," he says. "Not stupid, but very literal. There's nothing more to see than what's already there. I think in a way [what I'm doing] is sort of '70s, because it is a documentation of a performance of me even though it's completely mundane. I think of it more in terms of that, because it's not really a pretty image. The document of it is artless."

Routson undersells his work's 1970s connection; with his bootlegs, he's simultaneously returning to video art's origins and wryly turning them on their heads. Video art was midwifed by artists such as Bruce Nauman, William Wegman, Martha Rosler, and Routson's former employer Vito Acconci, who used it in the '70s to document performance events--frequently the repetition of simple gestures or mundane tasks. Hence, videos of Nauman circling his studio playing a single note on a violin; Wegman trying to teach his dog Man Ray to spell; Rosler's "Semiotics of the Kitchen," a simple description of a housewife's day; and Acconci's confrontational videos. Routson is working from a similar idea, only he himself is not explicitly included in the performance of the piece. You only "see" Routson is his bootlegs when you realize that you're him, sitting in the theater.

The documentation of performance event is what Allen keyed into about Routson's bootlegs, and, taken with Routson's Cremaster re-edit, it points toward a larger understanding of Routson's mission: These are works about how we watch.

"The bootleg pieces, by shooting these things at an angle and making sure to get heads in the shot and getting horrible sound and the seat rows, it's like Mystery Science Theater," Allen says. "It's certainly not a bootleg, even though it kind of is. He's saying, 'This is the experience that we all go for in a movie theater.' It's almost more about the experience of watching a movie than really the movie itself. It highlights way we watch films, the space and experience of watching a film.

"With Cremaster, [Routson] takes this thing that usually shows in a museum--and nobody has more elaborate installations than Matthew Barney, he creates literal theaters in these spaces to show his movies in--and recontextualizes it to ABC," Allen continues. "Network television is the opposite end of that spectrum, from a museum full of rare doves and Vaseline sculptures. What could be more banal than network TV? And that's the context--he literally changes the way we see it. We're like, 'Oh yeah, that's right. This is video. This is the medium Matthew Barney is working in and this is the medium you're watching it in.'"

Routson's Cremaster 4 edit, "Cremaster," is by far his most immediately winning bootleg work. Even though Barney's tap-dancing satyr and ambiguously sexless creatures are not the usual TV imagery, when a commercial break comes or the nightly lotto numbers are laid over the opening credits, it certainly feels like TV--very normal TV, in fact. At first familiar yet foreign, Routson's Cremaster becomes funny and utterly engaging after a few minutes. And in hearing Routson talk about it, everything about it makes practically perfect sense.

"I did 'Cremaster' because if you live someplace like Baltimore you'd never get to see anything like it," he says. (Note: Barney's Cremaster 3, his most recent work, screened in Baltimore in 2003.) "He's kind of like the most famous American artist that's living and working right now, but I had never even seen one [of his films]. So I thought it should be shown on TV, because he's supposed to be important enough now. So then it was like, 'What would [Cremaster] look like if it were on TV?'

"So I got the whole 44-minute movie--at some point it was broadcast on Dutch TV, and I got a copy of that--but it didn't need to be that long," he continues. "So I cut it down to make it more watchable, so people could watch the whole thing and feel like they've seen the whole piece. So, what channel should it be on? I guess it should be ABC, since ABC is owned by Disney, and Barney and Disney seems like a fair match. And it seemed that if the network bought it and they were going to broadcast it, they would make it as big a deal out of it as possible. They wouldn't try to sneak it in somewhere. They'd be, 'OK, it's going to be the Saturday Night Movie.' So I [added the Saturday Night Movie leader], and then I made sure there's lots of local station IDs, so there's a lot of the Eye Team escapades kind of stuff, so you'd know it was localized and know where this was happening."

As yet, neither Barney nor Barbara Gladstone, his dealer, have contacted Routson about this work, but Routson admits that could merely be because he is still a little below their radar. It could also be because bootlegging in art is still a contentious practice, both accepted and dismissed. For every person who finds Routson's work, or bootlegging in general, an aesthetically rich development in video art, another exists who sees the practice as little more than an opportunistic joke.

In the Village Voice's 2003 annual "Take 5" year-end poll of movie critics, Ed Halter cites a "group of pranksters" at Postmasters Gallery who held a one-time event last summer called "The Pirate Movie," which consisted of a projection of a bootlegged copy of Pirates of the Caribbean played to improvised music and sound, a recorded phone call to the Pittsburgh Pirates trying to get their Pirate Parrot mascot to attend, and Captain Morgan rum drinks. And writing about the 8th Istanbul Biennial in the British art journal Frieze, critic Peter Eleey praised the "effective mix of humour and oblique critique" of Serbian artist Milica Tomic's three bootlegs of XXX, which he argues highlights the "method by which a great many Serbians obtain Hollywood films" and contrasts its seriousness with the "work of the young American video artist Jon Routson, not included here, who bootlegs blockbusters primarily as an aesthetic prank."

Though the unlicensed use of moving images has been practiced by artists and filmmakers for years and the affordable prices of commercial electronics enables just about anyone to play around with pre-existing materials--recall the anonymous fan re-cut The Phantom Edit that made the rounds on the Web--it's quite possible that in the art world right now, just as hip-hop was in its early years, bootlegging as an artistic strategy isn't taken that seriously.

"Is Matthew Barney more fair game than some Hollywood film?" Allen asks. "I don't know. I think Matthew Barney should be slower to sue someone who is using his work in a real serious way, and I think that's exactly what Routson did."

Though his Barney rework has given Routson the most exposure of his young artistic career, it nicely fits into the greater body of his work. In fact, though these DV works have given him a certain cachet as a video artist, he doesn't embrace the tag.

"I don't know if I'd call the work video art proper, or that I even know what video art is now," Routson says. "I guess it's video art because I'm shooting them on DV and working with that. But I do other things, and I just sort of think of them all as art. And showing them, to me, it's more like showing somebody your own personal photo album. It's not something you would sell. But it's something you would sit down and look-through."

The photo book of Routson's career is an odd, witty, and eccentrically original look through. The most recent work is video-based and ranges from the witty Barney piece to the incisively analytical--"Carrie/Porky's: Originality, Neatness and Hygiene" is a tightly wound and abstract commentary on voyeurism--to the confounding and transfixing. For an early-'90s group show, Routson's "Free Kittens" contribution was five cats set loose in the gallery, which the gallery owner ended up adopting. "My Guitar," a Routson piece in the current group show Mama's Boys at White Columns in New York, is an installation of his Fender guitar sitting in a stand with a photocopied flyer announcing for sale, complete with his home phone number on tear-off pieces at the bottom. (As of press time, he's only had one call about it.)

One of Routson's ongoing projects is a collection of shopping-mall Easter bunny photos. For these images--all eerily the same but different--Routson drives around to malls in Maryland, Delaware, and Pennsylvania and pays the mall "studio" for a photo of its Easter bunny, which he keeps in a book. It's another one of his works whose meaning, per se, hasn't quite formed yet, but flipping through all of them is a slightly creepy undertaking. Sure, almost every American kid has at one point had his or her picture taken with the Easter bunny, but looking at a large parcel of such photos without a child involved only highlights the custom's odd nature: Every year thousands if not millions of parents pay money to put their child on the lap of a stranger in a bunny costume.

It's this still-evolving social/conceptual element to Routson's work that makes it so interesting, and it's that element that he's referring to when he says that some of the artists he responds to most--Jeff Koons, Richard Prince, Gerhard Richter--though vastly different, all exploit art in some way.

"They make art that's kind of about art, but not in a very pretentious way," Routson says. "It's coming from some conceptual somewhere. All work, even painting, it's always based conceptually first. It's funner. It feels like you're doing something, instead of just making something to be looked at."

Though it can easily be misconstrued as sheer jest, Routson's total lack of condescension about what he's doing is his best innate quality as an artist; it makes his work extremely approachable and user-friendly, even at its oddest. He knows that you don't have to know much about art to appreciate or "get" his pieces, a fact that he backs up by naming his biggest "fans"--the retirees and the homeless in Chelsea who came to the gallery every day during his show to watch his bootlegs.

But that isn't exactly the population that might turn into future patrons, and Routson doesn't make work that fits into the traditional art market. Most of his artworks aren't for sale--though you can buy "My Guitar"--and presently Routson is figuring out how to support himself. This past fall he worked on a Sol LeWitt mural at the Washington Convention Center as hired painting labor, and he is now teaching at Washington's Corcoran School of Art. If that doesn't work out, he might start looking for temporary employment or possibly another teaching assignment. He really doesn't know, making his ongoing career as murky and imprecise as some of the images in his bootlegs.

"I guess I still have this naive idea about art," Routson muses. "I started making art just to make friends. People would come see the work, and then we'd have something to talk about. And I guess in a way I still do. I know I will eventually have to make work I can and want to sell if I want to make a living as an artist, but I can't really think about creating the work for that reason. It's just not the way I work."

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