Cloud Gate is a piece of public art sculpted by Anish Kapoor. It resides in Chicago’s Millennium Park, and is more commonly referred to as “The Bean.” This is because it essentially resembles a 110-ton mercury jellybean.

The construction of Cloud Gate began in March of 2004, with the sculpture being unveiled in July of that year. The Bean is 66 feet long, 33 feet tall, and 42 feet wide. The concave side faces the ground, comfortably allowing many people to simultaneously stand underneath it. Most striking about Cloud Gate, however, is its surreally reflective surface. Currently composed of over 100 stainless-steel plates bolted to internal scaffolding, this exoskeleton is being fused together to form an unbroken mirror surface. It will be re-unveiled sometime in the spring of 2005.

The elliptical curves of Cloud Gate reflect massive panoramas of Chicago’s skyline, as well as distorted images of its viewers. Clouds, unsurprisingly, look fantastic plastered on the upper half of The Bean. The concavity of the underside is deeper than it appears from without; looking straight up into this upside-down well gives the impression of the "gate" portion of the work's name.

The aesthetic of Cloud Gate is one of pure futurism. It epitomizes the blobject, the curvilinear design mantra that CAD/CAM has made ubiquitous. Moreover, it screams science fiction. Its placement, shape and unreal reflectivity give the impression that it is somehow on loan to us from some other civilization. It is monolithic, though rather cheerier than the obsidian version found on the moon. Like many works of modern art, especially public works, its existence demands participation from the viewer, even if that participation is merely having their image appropriated in reflection.

Now, if you were to try to appropriate the image of Cloud Gate, that would be a different matter altogether. While Cloud Gate is a piece of public art, it was not created with public funds, but rather by a generous gift of $11 million by the SBC Corporation. SBC, whose name also graces the plaza of Millennium park on which Cloud Gate sits, is rather particular about its digital rights management. According to park officials:

The copyrights for the enhancements in Millennium Park are owned by the artist who created them. As such, anyone reproducing the works, especially for commercial purposes, needs the permission of that artist.

Talk about futurism! Cloud Gate may very well be the first copyrighted public space, as if that statement represented a coherent idea. Completing the distopian tableau, this copy-protection came to light when a freelance journalist was stopped by Segway-mounted police while attempting to take a photograph of the sculpture. The cops demanded he purchase a $50-an-hour license, though they left him alone after a private conversation with Mr. Andrew Jackson.

Apparently, park police were instructed to hassle only those photographers who looked like professionals, and were therefore more likely to profit from the sale of images that SBC felt it owned. As with other forms of DRM, the implementation often punishes fair-users and pirates with equal vigor. So, while it is technically illegal, there has been a groundswell of copyfighters reproducing Cloud Gate’s image on FLICKR and other photo sites.

My original impression of this scandal (CloudGateGate?) was that this ridiculous copy-protection scheme was somehow part of the message of Kapoor’s sculpture. Here we have a piece of art that is dependent on copying the images of its setting and viewers. Viewers taking pictures of Cloud Gate do not steal its image any more that it steals theirs. A piece of art that fights attempts to record what it looks like, especially with the tools of the digital age, is a brilliant synthesis of futurist and post-modern art. And while the end of that last sentence may seem like so much academic bullshittery, it is a good illustration of how the terms "futurism" and "postmodernism" are not synonymous.

In reality, the injunction on photography was likely created as a bulwark from street vendors selling bootleg Cloud Gate t-shirts and such. In any case, since prohibiting tourists from taking pictures of a tourist-attraction is largely impossible, this controversy became great PR for the sculpture. The onus of nasty DRM falls on SBC and city officials rather than Kapoor, and it hooks the attention of Internet-minded people such as ourselves.

So, next time you are in Chicago, take a picture of The Bean.

Joravsky, Ben, “The Bean Police,” The Chicago Reader, Jan. 27, 2005

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