Dr. David Shevin photograph

Great Balls of Fiber

December 21, 2001

Often in the debates about globalization and the trade wars, the proposition comes forward that the concept of "intellectual property" is a singularly Western idea. The position is that cultural ventures are shared prospects, and that ownership of an idea may jive well in the industrialized West. Such regulation is often ignored in Eastern and developing countries, because the same assumptions simply are not operative.

So listen up, venturesome artists -- a world market awaits the enterprising practitioner who successfully constructs and exhibits the Bra Ball. Here in the United States, the project is stymied in the court system.

This fascinating intellectual property argument has its inception nine years ago, and recently came to its current proportions. The zenith of this argument is not yet visible. Let's take this back to '92, when conceptual artist Nicolino began his project of collecting bras, with the intention of stringing a line of them across the Grand Canyon. Nicolino's appeals for donations yielded a gargantuan harvest. By October 2000, he had collected 20,000 bras, but was frustrated by fruitless negotiations with the Department of the Interior over executing his project. Nevertheless, he wanted his haul to be used for bra art. He wrote the San Francisco Chronicle that his collection was to be donated to the arts organization which would make the best use of the materials.

Artist Karen Duffy was taken with the bra art concept. Her first inspiration, a hundred bras to decorate her van, was rejected. Nicolino did not want to split up the collection. Then she struck gold. She phoned Nicolino with her proposal that would put all of the fabric and elastic to artistic use. Thus was born the ingenious Bra Ball. The way that some folks collect string, others tinfoil, others rubber bands, the display of the bras as a huge wound ball entertained both artists. Here was collaboration and a vision worthy of Wordsworth and Coleridge. Behold! Reporter Amy Benfer in Salon quotes Nicolino's account of the conversation: "...[H]er exact phrase was 'Do you know what a rubber band ball is?' -- to which he replied, 'Perfect, Emily, a giant Bra Ball!'"

As concept approached execution, artistic temperaments and differences made themselves known. Nicolino, owner of the collection, envisioned the Bra Ball touring the country as a road show, as a Barnum-style spectacle. Think of how the visions of Kong's captors must have danced. Duffy did not agree that this was a practical idea. Rather, she saw the Bra Ball as a statement piece that would not only embrace the craft of the short blouse, but would have a box at its center with items like a breast implant and a scalpel. The bra ball should make a statement, thought she. This center, or "yolk" of the bra ball would tour gallery to gallery, with some of the collection. Each showing would collect local bra donations to formulate the ball. No, argued the Midas of the halter-top. Such a statement would be too negative.

The collaboration broke over this difference of artistic vision. Nicolino decided to construct the Bra Ball himself, promising to credit Duffy with the idea at showings. "Credit!?" thought Duffy. The concept he was setting out to execute no longer reflected her vision, and she had originated the concept. So, she contacted an attorney, who sent sketches of a sealed Bra Ball to the federal copyright office. The opposition counter-argued that copyright is for manuscript, not for concepts.

As the lawyers began wrangling over the ramifications of which artist owned the Bra Ball concept, Duffy decided to address the unfair advantage that her competitor had: he owned collection. So she went to the Internet, with an e-mail sent through arts lists for donations. The response was swift; thousands of bras came from every corner of the world, and she began construction of a Bra Ball to her own criteria. Again, my appreciation goes to reporter Benfer, who recorded an on-site report. "The most spectacular thing about it is that it is spectacularly heavy. It is about 3 feet high now, but when it's completed it will be exactly 5-foot-4, which ... is the height of the average American woman." Says the artist, "If this thing gets loose, it will be quite a hazard. It could ruin the neighbor's garage."

Ownership of the concept remains unresolved. The interest of an Irish gallery in exhibiting Duffy's work suggests the international appeal of the project, and the unlimited possibility for bra art across endless and worldwide platforms.

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