PHILIP ROTH TELLS ARTIST TO STOP THE SHOWApr. 3, 2012
Here's one for the annals of overzealous copyright lawyering. Over the weekend, the law firm representing author Philip Roth personally served performance artist Bryan Zanisnik with a cease and desist letter at the Abrons Art Center on New York's Lower East Side, where Zanisnik was in the midst of staging Every Inch a Man, a performance that involves locking himself inside a Plexiglass case while he silently reads Roth's The Great American Novel and a fan blows old baseball cards and money into the air around him.
Presented to an Abrons staffer, the boilerplate notice calls for the artist to halt the show, which takes place Thursday to Sunday, Mar. 30-May 6, 2012, since Roth owns the exclusive rights to all derivative works and reproductions. Zanisnik told Artnet Magazine that he and the gallery staff were "shocked" by the demand, but "not very concerned because we think the grounds of the cease and desist are erroneous. We're not reading anything out loud or reproducing anything -- there's no chance here of copyright infringement."
Stacey Rappaport of Roth's white-shoe firm, Milbank, Tweed, Hadley and McCloy, did not return requests for comment.
It remains unclear how the lawyers first learned of the offending artwork. After all, they delivered the cease and desist within a half hour of the show's premiere, before anyone had had a chance to see it. Zanisnik's only clue is that the press release was posted on the unofficial Philip Roth Society website. Perhaps a cursory glance there confused the promise of a silent "reading" for a dramatic one.
In reality, however, the book is a conceptual springboard at most and a prop at the least. Zanisnik said he isn't even a particularly big fan of Roth. "I'm interested in the novel because it overlaps with my interest in Americana, baseball and New Jersey," he said.
So, for now, he has photocopied the letter about 20 times and strewn the pages around the installation, which is already a hoarder's haven of clothing, cardboard and debris accumulated from the center's storage spaces and Zanisnik's own past. The cease and desist, he figures, is now another artifact from these crisscrossing histories.
"It's funny," Zanisnik said. "The installation has nothing literally to do with Roth, but now it almost feels as if this absurdity is out of a Roth novel."