Pangolo Junction
Life, arguments, and kunu... with Max, Nat and Zack

Friday, February 22, 2008

The Cult of Culture

(Nat and Zack are in the Junction chatting with a third man.)

Nat: So Chike, when are you going to see this exhibition? You sound so passionate about it.

Chike: I'm thinking of going down there this afternoon. I'm very impressed by Obadina's work - they say that he is one of the new wave of artists in Nigeria who is spearheading a new cultural renaissance in the nation. He blends a neo-classicist approach in the depiction of life forms with a realist use of imagery and vivid colour.

Zack (scratching his head): Erm... I'm sure that he must be very good if you say so. So... what are his pictures like?

Chike (in a slightly condescending tone): Zack, you can't just give a description of art like that. You have to experience it... to feel it... to be submerged in it. You have to take in the full visual drama as the various bold strokes and shades of colour engage and interact in a meaningful relationship...

(As Chike is talking, Max enters the Junction, smiling and whistling merrily to himself. As soon as he sees Chike, he stops whistling and rolls his eyes.)

Max (sighing): I see you have once again come to grace our humble abode, O Lord of High Culture. (in mock puzzlement) But what is this you are talking about? "Strokes of colour" being involved in extra-marital affairs with "shades of drama"? Is this a new soap opera or what?

(Chike turns to Max with a wry smile.)

Hello, Max. I can see that your mind remains impervious as ever to the subtle and refining influences of culture. I suppose that it's too much to expect from someone who worships Money as his god.

Max (shrugging): At least with money, I know where I stand. The rules are simple - the more you amass, the happier you are. But this culture that you're always going on and on about? It has no head or tail - we have to come to High Priests like you to educate us.

Nat: I don't think anyone needs Chike to tell them anything. He's enthusiastic about this new artist that he's just discovered, and he was sharing his passion with us, that's all.

Zack: And to be honest, the work he has shown us is quite good. Do you have that brochure, Chike? Show Max.

(Chike brings out a brochure with photos of some paintings and passes it to Max, who flips through the pages, pausing every now and then. He then hands the brochure back to Chike.)

Max: Very interesting... but rather dull, don't you think?

Zack (in astonishment): Dull? Can't you see that colourful picture of the woman cradling her child? Don't you think that's really artistic?

Nat: Or the painting of the sunset at the beach, as the fishermen pull in their catch for the day? Doesn't that take you back to a more carefree earlier age of innocence, when we didn't have all the problems of today?

Chike (gesturing): See, Max? Your friends get it - but as I keep on saying, you are too blinded by the pursuit of the pound and the dash for the dollar to see what I'm trying to tell you.

Max: Oh, I get it all right. I can see that these paintings are calculated - yes, that's the word - calculated to arouse feelings of patriotism and affection for our national culture. But (waves a dismissive hand across) they're all fake! Fake!!

Nat: What do you mean, fake? Explain yourself.

Max (scornfully): These kinds of paintings always dwell on these images of a time gone by, when our culture was relatively untouched by modern life and was supposedly much 'purer'. But who cares about those times? Why do we want to keep on living in the past? I'd like to see more contemporary images!

Nat (smiling): I think Max has a point. I like the paintings... but I think we've been conditioned to accept that there are certain kinds of paintings and sculpture that are culturally authentic in Nigeria. You know... the kind that show drummers, or dancers, or village life... that kind of thing.

Zack: And what is wrong with that? You don't disagree that all these things are part of our culture, do you?

Max (rolling his eyes): But are they the only aspects of our culture out there? I mean, our culture didn't stop in 1925, you know! What about paintings of an okada rider swerving on a potholed road in between two giant trailers? Or of a policeman receiving egunje? Or of people running helter-skelter in the middle of a torrential downpour? Or of goats looking for food in a rubbish dump? Now those I can relate to!

Chike (shaking his head): Those scenes you describe are too mundane. There is no great inspiration to be derived from gazing on a rubbish dump, or potholed roads. The artist seeks to celebrate that which lifts our spirit to the stars, not that which hurls it to the ground.

Max: And who are you to tell me where to get inspiration from? Some of my best ideas have come from looking at fowls and goats as they rummage around rubbish dumps. In fact, the scenes at the rubbish dump where people scavenge for recyclable material are a very suitable metaphor for the current state of Nigeria; wastage, poverty and resourcefulness in spite of it all.

Zack (scornfully): Huh! While most people are inspired by people like Nelson Mandela, monuments like the Statue of Liberty or ideals like Patriotism or Justice, you are inspired by rubbish dumps! Well at least that explains the worthlessness of the thoughts that you sometimes express here.

Nat: But don't dodge the question that Max has been asking since. Who is the final arbiter of culture? Why should I listen to you rather than Max?

Chike (drily): Well, I take more of an interest in these matters than Max. I follow the trends on which artists, cultural norms and styles of art are currently popular; I study exactly what medium these artists use to depict culture, and the motivation behind their work; I meet regularly with other people who follow these issues as well and we exchange information. So who would you trust more to give you an informed opinion on matters of art and culture?

Max: Chike, I'll allow that you are the expert when it comes to 'art'. In fact, you are the Holy Priest of the Religion of Art, complete with all its mumbo-jumbo about adultery between Mr. Red Colour and Mrs. Green Shade. But please do not try to make yourself a priest of a Cult of Culture. When it comes to Nigerian culture, I am infinitely more knowledgeable than you!

Zack: I don't believe that - you don't usually talk much about the various traditions and cultures of Nigeria.

Max: See? This is exactly what I've said already. You seem to have this strange idea that Culture is something special that is kept locked in a box, only to be brought out on special occasions, like when foreign dignitaries come visiting. You seem to feel that we need special experts like Chike to tell us all about culture. Well, you're wrong! Culture is not about holy artefacts - it's what we live, eat and breathe everyday! It's not just about the stereotypical images that the West have of Africa... it's about the good, the bad and the neutral events that we experience in our lives on a day-to-day basis.

Nat: Hmm... So - you're saying that Nigerian culture could include activities like eating in a bukateria? Or boarding a danfo bus? Or being disturbed by an itinerant medicine seller in the bus?

Max: Exactly! or arriving late at a wedding... ...or watching mechanics working in an open air workshop... ...or listening to the choir of generators as the soprano tuke-tuke 950 W generator sings along with the baritone diesel generator...

Nat: ...Or getting frustrated at the slow connection in a cybercafe filled with 419 boys... or being 'wedded' by a bus conductor to another passenger because there's no change for both of you... ...or buying groundnuts from a roadside seller to effect a quick 'divorce'...

Max: ...Or having power supply disrupted just as you're about to iron your clothes for tomorrow... or having the same power supply restored just as you're lying in bed being tormented by mosquitoes...

Nat: ...Or having church service extended by thirty minutes because the pastor had a special message to deliver... or seeing small boys make rams fight each other before being slain on Id-el-Kabir.

Chike: Well, these events may be part of culture - but as I said before, they aren't really worth celebrating in art.

This is what Max was accusing you of - trying to create a kind of separate High Culture from ordinary culture. Don't you know that by only celebrating the events that you consider special, you are cutting your art off from the masses? How is someone going to relate to an event which he rarely ever sees?

Zack: That's the whole point. There are many events that we rarely experience, but we still can relate to them. In fact, it is because we don't experience them frequently that we value them even more. And I think it's right that we should celebrate and value events that are special - just as we value clothes that we wear on special occasions too.

Max: Hmm... that gives me an idea... you say that the rarer the event, the more likely it is to be valued?

Zack: Er... what evil idea is about to enter your mind, now?

Max: Oh no, Brother Zachariah, this idea is not evil at all. In fact, I think you'll like it!

Nat: Oh go on, share.

Max: Chike, do you think it would be culturally authentic to produce a realistic painting of Ibrahim Babangida being chased by a pack of wild dogs who have succeeded in ripping the trousers of his babanriga outfit, but are still desperate for more? After all, this would be a very rare event, and I'm sure it would be very highly valued!

(Chike, Nat and Zack burst into laughter.)

Chike: I'm sure it would be highly valued, but I think that is too unserious to be regarded as worthy of an artistic subject.

Zack (vigorously): Nonsense! Since when did art have to be serious? Max, if you know anyone who has painted this picture, please let me know - I would definitely buy it.

Max: See? I knew you would like the idea. But why should I sell it to you when I can sell it to someone else for a much higher price?

Nat: Who do you have in mind?

Max: Babangida himself, of course! The alternative would be to have the picture displayed in a public gallery - not something I think he would be too happy about.

Zack: You know that this your idea has the whiff of blackmail about it.

Max (affronted): Blackmail? Moi? My friend, this is art! I am exploring several themes in this work; the raw expression of fear; the thrill of the chase; and the intense desire to sink teeth into a pair of juicy buttocks. In fact, I'm offended that you even think I'm capable of such a thing. All I would be doing would be giving Babangida the right of first refusal, since he is after all the subject of the work.

Chike (with a wry smile): You know you're not fooling anyone, Max. You really need to set aside this your obsession with money if you're going to learn to appreciate art and culture.

Nat: Speaking about cultural appreciation, you never did tell us when you were going to see this exhibition. Where is it holding again?

Chike: Oh, it's holding at the Excelsior Exhibition Centre.

Zack (suspiciously): Isn't that the centre where they usually charge a N5,000 for admission only? Where only really rich people usually go to for events?

Max (accusingly): And you were criticising me for being obsessed about money. I take it that your artist isn't planning to donate proceeds from his exhibition to the poor, is he? I think the words 'pot', 'kettle' and 'black pigment used in artwork' come to mind...

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Intellectual Property Over Internet Protocol

(Good evening. Wait - what's that you say? Well, it's evening here, so you'll just have to deal with that. Anyway, you join me, Atala Wala Wala as I eavesdrop from the rafters and listen into the goings on in the Junction...)

(Max and Nat are whiling away the time when Zack walks in clutching a packet.)

Max (beaming): Aha! Beta don land. Come on, Nat - get off that chair and let our good friend Zack be seated.

Nat (angrily): Why don't you get off your own chair if you care so much about Zack's welfare?

Zack (shaking his head): By the time two of you have resolved this battle, I will be dead of varicose veins from standing too long - so I'll get a chair from another table. (He dumps the packet on the table and goes looking for another chair. While he is gone, Max seizes the packet and tears it open.)

Nat (annoyed): What's the matter with you? Can't you wait? Zack isn't going to be too happy when he gets back!

Max (still unwrapping the packaging): Wow! That is great! I don't know how he's done it, but Zack has been able to get ahold of Harry Mosco's 'Country Boy'! (Sees Nat's look of utter incomprehension) Oh, you've probably never heard of him.

(Just then, Zack returns dragging a chair with him.)

Max: Hey, Brother Zachariah! (Waves the CD at him.) How did you manage this miracle?

(Zack's annoyance at seeing his package prematurely opened turns to smugness.)

Ah... well, Lizzy and myself were at this party last weekend, and there was this guy who was selling CDs from the olden days. I took a look at his collection, and I found this gem!

Nat (puzzled): But if it was from the olden days, how come it was available in CD format? Has it been reissued?

Max (dismissively): Who cares? All I'm interested in is that beta don land o!

Nat (irritated): Of course someone like you with the ethics of a rabid hyena wouldn't care! (Turns to Zack): So - how come the this album is available as a CD?

Zack: Mmm... I can't remember now, but I think the man said something about copying the music off a vinyl record and recording it onto a CD.

(Nat's expression turns to one of disapproval.)

I'm disappointed in you, Zack. How could you do this, especially when you're always preaching against corruption and stealing by our politicians?

Zack (surprised): What are you talking about? Who is stealing what?

Nat: You don't think that it's wrong to purchase stolen goods? Do you think it is right for the vendor you bought that CD from to make illegal copies of it?

Zack (still surprised): I don't know what you are talking about. Stealing is when I take from you so that instead of you having and me not having, I now have and you don't have. But in this case, the owners of Harry Mosco's music still have their music - so how can it be stealing?

Max: Exactly. What is your own business if someone is making a living selling stuff and nobody is complaining? Busybody!

Nat: It's still stealing, because you didn't get permission from the company with rights to the music before taking it.

Max (mockingly): So - what you are saying is that everytime that you use something that I own without asking me for my permission, you're stealing? In that case, I'm going to sue the living daylights out of you!

(Now it is Nat's turn to be surprised.)

Sue me for what? What are you talking about, Max? When did I ever use something of yours without permission?

Max (triumphantly): See - you just did it again!

Nat (in exasperation): OK, enough of your games! Explain what you are talking about or... (expression changing as he realises what Max is talking about) oh, I get it now. You're talking about your name, eh? (Max nods.) Come on - that's different. There's no way I can deprive you of income by using your name without your permission.

Zack: What are you talking about? Who is depriving the record company from making money? As I said - they still have the man's music, so they can sell it and make money if they want.

Max: But you know the funny thing? They aren't even selling the music any more - so why should they now try to block anyone from enjoying the music? That's the kind of dog-in-the-manger attitude that big businesses have!

Nat (smiling): That's a strange reaction coming from a businessman like you. But think about it this way. If the company allowed people to distribute its music because it wasn't selling it, the people would get too used to distributing that company's music. And before long, they would even start distributing music that the company was still selling! It's like allowing a squatter to set up a shack on your piece of land - before you know it, he starts parading himself as the owner of the land.

Zack: I still don't understand why you are making so much of a fuss about this. It's not as if the company are going round threatening people who use their music illegally. Who knows, maybe they even want to encourage people to distribute the music! After all, if I now start playing this CD, my neighbours will hear the music and ask me who Harry Mosco is. Then interest will develop and the company will be able to sell new copies of the record. So my purchase of the CD will actually be to their advantage!

Nat: That's just a self-serving argument. At the end of the day, it's still their music - only they have the right to decide how it should be used. Imagine if you bought a piece of land, but you didn't have the money to develop it right away. Let's say then that you left this land fallow for a few months. How would you feel if someone came along and said that you must allow him to sell it to you so that he could build houses on it to benefit everyone? Of course you wouldn't agree!

Zack: Well, I don't even agree that it is totally their music. Are you saying that they invented the instruments that were used in the song? Did they come up with the words used for the lyrics? What about the melody - they must have used do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti-do to make it, and who doesn't know about that?

Max: Exactly! As the Book of Ecclesiastes says in chapter 1, verse 9, "there is nothing new under the sun". Any so-called idea is really a clever rearrangement or combination of older ideas. And since many of those older ideas were got for free, how fair is it that we should pay for the new idea? As Jesus himself said in the Book of Matthew, chapter 10, verse 8, "Freely you were given; freely give".

Nat (amused): You don't fool me, Max. You're just supporting Zack because you're hoping to get a copy of the CD. I know that beneath this born-again bible-verse-spouting music-for-all attitude you're putting on, there lies the black evil heart of the profiteering exploiter that we know so well. (In a sceptical tone) So you're telling me that if you came up with a new song that people were crazy about, you would really be happy for them to make money off the sweat of your labour without lifting a finger?

Max: Ah - wait o! That's different, because they are trying to make money at the same time as I am trying to make money. As the originator of the song, I should be allowed a certain amount of time in which I am the only person who can make money from it. After that, well, anyone can try their luck with it - I'm not that greedy.

Zack (astonished): Max! You've just done a one-hundred-and-eighty-degree turn! Weren't you saying just now that no idea is new and we must freely give? How can you now be saying that you must have the exclusive right to profit from something that you got free?

Nat (chuckling): See? What Mosco has joined together, it looks like love of profits is about to rent asunder.

Max (smiling): There's no about-face at all. Of course the raw ingredients of the song are free - like the concept of rhythm, melody and so on. But there is creative work that goes into turning those raw ingredients into something that you and I can enjoy - that's my intellectual property, so it cannot be free. In fact, it's like cooking food. The value is not in the tomatoes, or the pepper, or the onions - it's in the culinary magic that the cook has used to turn all these into delicious stew. That's what you pay for, either in cash or in compliments.

Nat: Exactly! In fact, the problem with Nigeria is that many people are like Zack. They value concrete things, like machines or houses, but they don't value the more important abstract things, like the software that helped to design the machine... or the architect's plan that described the design of the house. So the creators of such abstract things are discouraged from producing them, and Nigeria becomes a place where we just end up imitating rather than originating.

Zack: All this big grammar that you are spouting makes no difference. The reality is that piracy is here to stay, and rather than preaching about abstract and concrete, you're better off learning to live with it. Look at the Nollywood movie makers - they have learnt to adjust they way they do business so that even though pirates make copies of their videos, they still manage to make money!

Nat: And you think that the movie makers are happy about it? Don't you think that it would be better if they received the money that the pirates are getting so that they could plough this back into making movies with higher technical quality?

Zack (sceptically): It makes no difference. They would just pocket the extra and continue to make more poor quality movies.

Max: But it's still their money, not yours - so they can do what they like with it.

Nat: Zack does have a point about the inevitability of piracy, though. In the olden days, most people had no choice but to buy CDs at exorbitant prices, because the technology to produce them was very expensive. Then the equipment to make CDs began to fall in price, and CD piracy increased. Now you don't even need CDs any more - you can just download songs, movies and software over the internet. My friend who is into these things calls this phenomenon '1'.

(Max and Zack look at him uncomprehendingly.)

Nat (smiling): You don't get it? OK, let me explain. Well, you know that software and music are intellectual property, right?

(Max and Zack nod.)

And you know that the one of the rules that power the internet is called 'Internet Protocol', right?

Zack (irritated): How are we supposed to know that?

Max (gesturing): Please continue.

Nat (enthusiastically): OK, so that means when download songs over the internet, you are transmitting intellectual property over internet protocol. Or if you like, you are sending IP over IP. And as you know, in mathematics, when you say something over something, you are dividing that thing by itself and you'll get 1. Therefore, IP over IP is 1!

(Max and Zack look even more confused than before.)

Zack (to Max): This must be one of those computer jokes that only ten people in the universe can understand, and only two can find funny.

Nat (flustered): OK, don't worry about it. The point is that piracy is so hard to stop that maybe the only solution is to offer people all the songs they want for download from the internet if they'll pay a fixed fee.

Zack: That's madness! The music companies will lose so much money, offering everything they have for just a small amount.

Max (musing): Mmm... maybe not. I remember that once when I went the UK on holiday, there was this restaurant I went to where they said that for ten pounds I could eat all I wanted. I thought "Ol' boy, awoof don' land" and I sat down and unbuckled my belt to expand my carrying capacity. You won't believe it, but after a few plates, I was full - in fact, I'm sure that if I had bought the plates I had eaten for the actual value, I wouldn't have spent up to ten pounds.

Nat: That's the point - people will get fed up downloading so much stuff when they realise they don't even have the time to listen to it. But they will like the service, because it will give them the choice to get whatever they want.

Zack: Well, your idea may work abroad - but here in Naija with unreliable internet connections and even more unreliable power supply, we're still some way off from that happening.

Max: Anyway, enough of all this talk - let's hear the CD. Philo has a battered CD player that we can test it on. (He gets the CD from Zack and walks over to the bar where Philo, the barman is serving drinks. After much pleading, Philo reluctantly agrees to hand over his CD player, and Max walks back triumphantly to the table holding the player aloft.)

Max: Zack - Oya, put it in - it has batteries, so don't worry. Nat, clean your ears out well, well - you're about to hear some good stuff!

(Zack puts the CD in, and presses the play button - and after a few moments, the melody of 'Country Boy' can be heard. But after a few seconds, the song begins to skip. Annoyed, Zack takes the CD out, looks at the underside and exclaims in horror.)

Oh, no! There's a nasty scratch underneath. How did that happen? This has completely destroyed the CD! (Turns angrily to Max) Who told you to open it? I'm sure you're the cause!

Max (defensively): Hey - don't blame me. You should know better than to buy pirated stuff that is of dubious quality.

Nat (chuckling again): Eh, Max - can you really be the same person who was not so long ago supporting the right of people to sell CDs as long as nobody is complaining? You're doing so many turnarounds tonight that you'll end up going almost as fast as that CD was going in the player!