When imitation becomes exploitation: virtual artists Pussykrew speak out against the erasure of queer creativity in Poland

Besides working with major brands and musicians on digital visuals, Poland’s queer artist duo Pussycrew build virtual safe spaces for the LGBTQ community — so they were dismayed to find a company with links to the right-wing government copy one of their most popular videos.

28 September 2020

In the music video for the 2015 track “That Other Girl”, singer-songwriter Sevdaliza appears otherworldly, encased in a shiny membrane reminiscent of melting ice. Directed by New York-based, Polish digital artists Pussykrew, Sevdaliza’s universe is a museum of metal sculptures and melding bodies, over which she presides as a cyborg that’s both part flesh, part diamond.

Eerily similar is “Bez Ciśnień” by Polish pop-rock singer Beata Kozidrak. Released on 17 August by Lech Music, a subsidiary of a popular Polish alcohol brand, “Bez Ciśnień” features not only similar character design, but 3D animation, textures, camera movement, set design and ambiance, as Kozidrak appears disembodied and statue-like flanked by precious stones. But what makes this apparent appropriation worse for queer artists Pussykrew is that Lech’s parent company, Kompania Piwowarska, sponsored an event earlier this year that named Jarosław Kaczyński, Poland’s homophobic leader of the ruling Law and Justice party (PiS), as its “man of the year”.

“We’re trying to build very inclusive spaces in digital media, as well as places for women and nonbinary people, so it’s bizarre for us to see a company that supports a radical right-wing government and makes sexist ads use our work without considering its context,” says Pussykrew’s Tikul. Alongside partner miśgogo, the pair have spent over a decade utilising technology to blur identities, gender norms, and social backgrounds.

Pussykrew, whose 360° visuals, multimedia installations, and sculpture designs have been showcased across the world, believe such appropriation is especially dangerous right now, when Polish LGBTQ activists continue to be persecuted. Following events such as the mass arrest of LGBTQ protestors after the detainment of activist Margot Szutowicz, virtual environments like Pussykrew’s offer solace and a certain escapism. “We’re getting a lot of messages from young queer people, who say that what we are doing is important, and super engaging for them,” says Tikul, who met miśgogo in Ireland after the two left Poland as economic migrants in the early 2000s.

The duo, who are currently building a queer virtual safe space for Unsound Festival in collaboration with band 700 Bliss, characterise the surreal situation as part of “this schizophrenic image of Poland”. Miśgogo ascribes the situation to “toxic masculinity” within the creative industries back home, where men “appropriate ideas for their own personal gain.” Pussykrew link these practices to the strongly defined roles for men and women prescribed by the country’s powerful Catholic Church. But they also believe Poland’s collective trauma following the Second World War, as well as earlier destruction, such as the Partitions of Poland, have played a part in shaping how people behave. “It’s a toll that is still visible in the mental state of people, their energy, and emotions,” says Tikul.

When it comes to intellectual property, however, taking someone to court can be a long and complex process. There is scarce legislation or case law relating to digital art, both in Poland and elsewhere. As for music videos more generally, high profile examples of appropriation include Billie Eilish’s “bad guy”, which was accused of copying a photoshoot for Toiletpaper magazine, and, more recently, Nigerian singer Lyta was accused of plagiarising the video “Just Right” by South Korean K-pop band GOT7. Across the industry as a whole, there seems to be scant fear of prosecution in such matters.

And, as pointed out by Plagiarism Today, a blog ran by a copyright and plagiarism consultant, showing that plagiarism exists isn’t necessarily about proving similarity, but disproving that such parallels are mere coincidence. Pussykrew believe they can do that, claiming that the “Bez Ciśnień: video was at least partly directed by someone they’ve had several dealings with in the past. They say Piotr Matejkowski, who contacted them on many occasions asking to collaborate, and interviewed them in 2015 for Polish fashion and photography magazine Melba, admitted that he worked on the video. But unsurprisingly, he has not taken responsibility for any similarities, instead saying that making the clip was a convoluted process involving several different companies. Lech too passed the buck, laying blame on the production company Papaya Films. In turn, Pussykrew say that when they contacted the production company, they “got a very arrogant, aggressive response,” says miśgogo. “They said that if we continue to talk about this [on social media, where Pussykrew first called Papaya Films out], they will actually sue us.”

For Pussykrew, who’ve worked with Nike, Adidas, Chromat, and Burberry, this isn’t the first instance of their work or creative ideas being appropriated. But, because of the unrest that the pandemic has brought to the industry, as well as their own uncertain future in the US due to Covid-19-related visa restrictions, this instance feels especially damaging. “Because we were already so drained from the many things that have happened this year, for a few days, we felt as if we’d never be able to do creative work again,” says Tikul. The pair also say they feel their situation is challenging because “call-out culture” in Poland is weak: Papaya Films is a leading Polish production company that people within the Polish creative industries are afraid to cross.

Still, despite being devastated that their work has been used by a brand who ideologically stands in stark opposition to their own inclusive creative practice, Pussykrew feel it’s very important to draw attention to this incident. “We’re voicing it out so other people from the agency don’t feel like they can continue to take what doesn’t belong to them,” concludes Tikul, who alongside miśgogo, believes singer Beata Kozidrak herself wasn’t aware of the situation. “If we start a dialogue, maybe people will reflect, and more people will be brave enough to speak out in future.”

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