In this essay, I treat intellectual property claims as “impossible realities,” as these have recently been defined by Susan Coutin and Barbara Yngvesson. Drawing from their joint legal ethnography of migration, deportation, and transnational adoption, I extend their observations about the routine mismatch between personal history, physical location, and legal description in order to understand the shifting value of design objects under various regimes of law and heritage. I trace how legal claims, aesthetic judgments, and historical understandings combine and conflict to create the contemporary value of furniture produced in the 1950s and 60s for the Indian modernist city of Chandigarh, and explore further shifts of value as the furniture circulates in a global market for what might be called “modernist antiquities,” and is potentially subject (in Europe) to copyright and trademark claims by the descendants of the designer Pierre Jeanneret. Further, a recent film by the artist Amie Siegel (American, b. 1974) explores the provenance and value of this furniture and provides a novel means of analyzing these shifts. Siegel has put her film up for sale at the same kind of auction where this furniture is sold, offering a reflexive critique of the paradoxes and (legal) impossibilities created by the relocation, restoration, and revaluation of this furniture. The history of the Chandigarh furniture and Siegel’s film together provide an avenue of commentary on the categories of IP, emerging subjects of regulation (like design copyrights), and the fraught relation of IP claims to both capitalist and postcolonial histories that make objects (and persons) bear different values in different locations.
About the author
Dr. Leo Coleman is Associate Professor in Anthropology at Hunter College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York. His research examines democracy, law, and technology in energy-intensive urban societies, and the political grammars, legal concepts, and material infrastructures that sustain modern mass solidarities and mark consequential social divisions. His book A Moral Technology: Electrification as Political Ritual in New Delhi was published by Cornell University Press in 2017, and he is working on a project provisionally entitled “Some Versions of Legalism.”
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