How Behance Shut Down a Subversive Work of Art

January 17, 2014 | Andy Cush

Pro-Folio, by Royal College of Art student Sures Kumar, was good art. Enter any name — your own, perhaps — into its simple web interface, and it generated a slickly-designed artist’s portfolio, fully populated with other people’s artwork, randomly selected from public profiles on the art- and design-sharing site Behance. By so effortlessly birthing fictional artists into being, and using the hard work of real, flesh-and-blood creative people to do so, Pro-Folio raised important questions about artistic ownership and the nature of identity on an internet that’s increasingly populated by catfish and people pretending to be bots pretending to be people.

Kumar eloquently explained this to Co.Design in the comments of a post about Pro-Folio earlier this month. “If this project disturbs you, it’s the right time to think, ‘What sorts of systems do we have in place online to differentiate a real human identity from a machine generated one?'” he wrote. “Can we stop large scale organizations from doing this? Theoretically, anyone with the right infrastructure can scrap the entire internet for intelligence to come up with extremely believable identities. My intention is to raise such questions among the audiences and possibly encourage discussion.”

Behance, as you might imagine, wasn’t pleased, and asked Kumar to take the site down. If Pro-Folio‘s goal was demonstrating that the internet makes it easy (too easy?) for machines to threaten human and artistic identity, that Behance felt threatened enough to shut it down would seem to qualify it as a success.

Kumar thinks so. “The speculative nature of the project provoked many artists, designers and corporations involved in creative industry,” he told ANIMAL. “Currently the issue of authenticity of machine-generated identities is being discussed in many online forums. Thus, Pro-Folio, a ‘design for debate’ project, accomplished what it was built for.”

Scott Belsky, founder of Behance, said he had “no reservations” about asking Kumar to shutter the work. “It’s extremely important for us to protect the intellectual property rights of Behance members,” he wrote in an email. “Only by doing that, can we ensure that it remains a place where creatives can share their work — some of it still in progress — and get feedback.”

To Behance’s credit, it simply notified Kumar that Pro-Folio violated the network’s community guidelines, and didn’t issue a cease and desist or threaten any legal action (though Belsky did mention Pro-Folio left Sures “open to legal proceedings from those whose work he used”). But doesn’t asking Kumar to take it down run counter to the site’s stated mission, to “empower the creative world to make ideas happen”? If Richard Prince or John Oswald were on Behance, would they get shut down too?

Had the company decided to go to court, it’s unclear how Pro-Folio would fare. According to Kevin Tottis, a board member of the American Intellectual Property Law Association who was quoted in Co.Design‘s piece, the piece doesn’t meet the guidelines for artistic fair use. Here’s what he told them:

[Pro-folio] is like a DJ taking an iPod shuffle and, then publicly performing copyrighted songs off it. And he says, ‘Yeah, but I used an iPod shuffle, and I used a shuffle algorithm! And I’ve named this particular set Bruce. These are Bruce’s songs, it’s a separate identity, so that gives me carte blanche to perform 100 copyrighted songs without a license to play them!’ That’s sort of what’s going on here.

I won’t deign to know as much as Tottis about copyright law, but his glib dismissal ignores something important about Pro-Folio as a work of art. Kumar isn’t trying to pull one over on his audience by passing someone else’s work as his own, or another artist’s. That it’s obvious the images are stolen is precisely the point. In Tottis’s music metaphor, the songs aren’t important at all; it’s the fact that the DJ says they’re being performed by “Bruce” that matters.

Mark Wilson, author of the Co.Design article, states that Pro-Folio probably violated a key provision of fair use — that the appropriating work doesn’t replace the market for the copyrighted original — because it “[lifted] full images without attribution.” But I’m not sure that’s true. Again, to use Tottis’s metaphor, the listeners aren’t there for the pretty melodies; they’re there for the act of appropriation.

All that said, Kumar seems content with the conversation Pro-Folio started while it was online. “The idea of this project is not to keep generating fictional portfolios and populate the web,” he told us. “The idea is to show a possible future where machines will be doing such a thing, and Since Pro-Folio has made its point, its the right time to pull the plug.”

“Also,” he added, “I do not have any plans on turning the algorithm back on or altering it at this point.”

(Images: Sures Kumar/Vimeo)