Art Gallery of Windsor, Wafaa Bilal, Ashes Series

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pascale Chapdelaine
Associate Professor
University of Windsor, Faculty of Law

 

I love the outdoors and yet like many people, I have spent most of my student and professional life behind a desk and a screen. This is one among several reasons why the distinguished lecture on outdoor legal education and indigenous law[1]  delivered in the fall 2015 by Professor John Borrows (U Victoria) struck a sensitive chord with me. There, Borrows eloquently presented the many pedagogical benefits of taking our students outside and of the lost opportunities by failing to do so. In the article that was published later on, Borrows wrote:

Law is not just about ideas; it is a practice. The life of the law is experience. […] The often isolating walls of a Law School can breed an unhealthy insularity. Law students can miss vital insights if professors pay insufficient attention to ‘cases’ which lie beyond their doors. Furthermore, student interest and engagement can be significantly heightened by field school moments.[2]

Borrows emphasized that while teaching in the field and the connection to the land was critical to indigenous law, it was equally true to other fields of law. Law schools should learn from other disciplines where outdoor education has long been part of their curriculum and teaching practices.

As I continually reflect on my teaching and what knowledge, skills and experiences students should gain from a particular course, taking the students outside made immediate intuitive sense to me. But while I had vivid memories of most of the outings I did in school and of what I learned there, I had zero memory of one single law school class outside the confines of four walls. In my law school and others, legal excursions have not typically been on the curriculum.

Inspired by Borrows’ lecture, I decided to take my copyright law students of that year outside the classroom for an afternoon at the Art Gallery of Windsor. I wanted an environment that was highly susceptible of triggering the students’ imagination on various copyright law issues (e.g. authorship, originality, reproductions, fair dealing, exceptions to copyright infringement applicable to museums, and more broadly, the role of museums in making visual art accessible to the public). The Art Gallery seemed particularly auspicious for this purpose. Little did I know then about how rich the experience would turn out to be for my students, and for myself.

Before the visit, I met the curator at the time, Ms Srimoyee Mitra. The objectives I had in mind for the visit were driven in large part by the short written assignment that the students would have to produce following our visit to the Art Gallery. There, the students would become the lawyer or the legal scholar, observing, listening, reflecting on what they were going to see, and would have to identify possible legal issues for their written assignment. The students had a choice between producing a memo of best legal practices that they would deliver to the Director of the Art Gallery, or to write a legal essay on one piece of art they saw, and discuss potential copyright law issue(s) surrounding that piece. For these purposes, I asked curator Srimoyee Mitra to talk about a regular day at the Art Gallery and not to be too concerned about the possible legal ramifications of her work. We convened that Ms Mitra would give a personalized tour of the temporary exhibition at the time, and guide the students through the permanent collection of the Art Gallery.

On the day of the visit, all students arrived ahead of the agreed meeting time. Talking casually with the students, I found out that except for one, it was their first visit to the Art Gallery.  After a brief introduction by Ms Mitra about her day-to-day work as curator in the Art Gallery, we were guided under her excellent care through the temporary and permanent exhibitions.

At the time, there was an exhibition of photographs by Wafaa Bilal, an Iraqi-born artist,[3] titled The Ashes Series: Dark Palace, 2003-13. The photographs depict the ruins in Bagdad after the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. The curator invited us to walk around in the exhibition room. The photographs were strangely beautiful, gripping by their sadness and a sense of quiet desolation from the ruins left after the attacks on Bagdad. We were soon to find out that there was more to the photographs than we first thought.

The curator explained to the students that actually, these were not Wafaa Bilal’s photographs of the ruins of Bagdad. They were photographs of miniature models that Bilal built, faithfully representing what was depicted in the press photographs Bilal collected of the bombings in Iraq. Before taking the photographs of his reconstructed models, Bilal dusted the pieces of furniture and other elements with human ashes, more precisely 21 grams thereof.[4]

After Ms Mitra’s account of what the photographs were actually about, you could have heard a pin drop in the room. The students were attentive, taken even, with no smartphone or laptop in sight. We then took another look at the photographs in this new light. There were hours of meticulous work behind each photograph of the models: building the minuscule objects and rooms or street settings where destruction had taken place, adjusting the light piercing through the ruins, creating the perfect illusion that the photos had been taken in Bagdad right after the attacks.

From a copyright perspective, several questions immediately came to mind: If these photographs were faithful reproductions of the photographs taken from the news wire, they could technically infringe the copyright of the press photographers. But were they really the type of reproductions that copyright law seeks to protect authors against? Is it not equally important to encourage and protect the work and creativity reflected in Bilal’s work? Assuming the miniature models photographed are a faithful reproduction of the initial news wire photographs, is it “original work” as understood in copyright law, regardless of the hours that were put into producing the miniatures and photos? What is the purpose of copyright law? And many other questions about how fair dealing may be invoked in a Canadian law context, and how this may contrast with other jurisdictions (e.g. the fair use doctrine in the US, just on the other side of the Detroit River facing the Art Gallery).

Visiting the Art Gallery, listening to the curator, untangling the issues raised by Bilal’s work process gave the students context to what we were studying in the classroom. It forced them to think about the purpose of the law and its possible limits in mediating between potentially conflicting interests. Many students told me the visit to the Art Gallery was one of the highlights of the course and of their term. The quality of the written assignments that the students produced afterwards showed a particularly high level engagement on their part.

What stuck with me long after our visit to the Art Gallery is the jaw dropping moment when my students (and I) realized what went on behind Bilal’s work. Just as with having vivid memories of childhood school excursions and what I learned there, students may be more likely to retain information and learn when they are engaged emotionally and physically, in addition to intellectually. It is not possible to create these moments at all times, but it is a nice thing when that happens.

This episode at the Art Gallery is a perfect illustration described in the outdoor education literature about the element of surprise and greater relinquishing of control by the instructor than in a typical classroom: you may have an idea about what you want to achieve by leaving its four walls, but you never fully know where the excursion will take you. Since then, I have sought to include an outdoor component to my courses, as much as it is pedagogically sound and logistically feasible.

I read later in a short piece of the New Yorker that with the Ashes Series, Bilal “wanted to help people to establish an emotional connection with the flood of images produced by the war.”[5] Also, that “he hope[d] to provoke a sense of unease, and to trigger “the viewer’s search for an answer from among the ashes and ruins […] to bring people to these lost places and engage them to look closer, instead of turning away at the sight of destruction.”[6] Based on the reaction of my 2016 Windsor Law copyright students, mission accomplie, Mr. Bilal.

[1]  2015 Windsor Yearbook of Access to Justice Distinguished Lecture delivered by John Borrows at the Faculty of Law at the University of Windsor in October 2015: “Learning from the Land: Outdoor Legal Education and Indigenous Law”.

[2] John Borrows, “Outsider Education: Indigenous Law and Land-Based Learning” (2016) 33 WYAJ, online: https://ojs.uwindsor.ca/ojs/leddy/index.php/WYAJ/article/view/4807/4031.

[3] Wafaa Bilal is  Associate Arts Professor at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts: https://tisch.nyu.edu/about/directory/photo/112869977.

[4] 21 grams is said to be the “weight of the soul” i.e., the difference in weight of a human being immediately before and immediately after they die.

[5] Jackson Krule, Wafaa Bilal’s “The Ashes Series” (May 28, 2014) online: http://www.newyorker.com/culture/photo-booth/wafaa-bilals-the-ashes-series-2.

[6] Ibid.