Neon — Not Just Another Colour? How do we protect it?

by Koka Tarini Siddhartha

“Neon is both futuristic and inherently retro.” — Richard Parry

In today’s context, ‘neon’ largely refers to the bright or fluorescent colours we find in garments, lights and a myriad of accessories. However, neon is more than just a commercialized colour. It plays a prominent role in art and we use this post as a platform to draw your attention to the same.

The birth of neon lighting

Neon was stumbled upon by Sir William Ramsay and Morris W. Travers in the late nineteenth century. The process of neon lighting was discovered by the Frenchman Georges Claude, who went on to get it patented in the United States in 1915 and later licensed it to several countries.

The popularity of neon lighting soared between the 1920s and 1960s, when advertising boards and signs were brightly lit and enticing. Essentially, neon when subject to high voltage emits an orange-red colour while argon emanates blue. However, since people prefer a multitude of colours, the glass tubes are often coated with coloured powder.

The process of manufacturing the glass tubes, which would then emit neon lights, requires considerable physical skill for manipulation. Glass is a fragile medium and the makers of neon tubing melt the glass to shape, size and design without gloves — supposedly a more effective way. (Watch this for the making of neon lights.)

What is neon’s role in art?

Believe it or not, neon has a prominent role in art; so much so that the Museum of Neon Art (MONA) was established by Lili Lakich and Richard Jenkins in 1981, in downtown Los Angeles. This museum was set up to save old, vintage signs and to restore broken and/or abandoned signs. It is the only museum in the world devoted to neon, electric and kinetic art and is currently located at Glendale, United States.

Museums like MONA which display neon art seek not only to showcase this contemporary art form, but also to trace the historic and cultural values it embodies. They preserve the signs to remind the public of how the cities once looked, and to reconnect people with the past. The curators of these museums strongly believe they are preserving an art and craft; every glass tube is handmade as is its carefully selected design, colour and even the technique in which the tubes are bent.

While most people associate neon lights with cafés, clubs and the like, artists have increasingly been using neon lights in their artistic creations. In Blackpool, United Kingdom, a six mile-long lighting display takes place for sixty-six nights every year (The Blackpool Illuminations) where artists display works of poetry, text, geometric forms and sculptures through neon lights. Grundy Art Gallery in Blackpool is also currently displaying an exhibition devoted to “artists’ longstanding love affair with neon” (NEON: The Charged Line).

Some artists launch their own solo neon art exhibitions. Louis Sidoli will be launching his David Bowie exhibition (the musician’s journey from 1970’s to 1980’s) in London later this year. The 180 individual components took him six weeks to create, and the work is a mixture of pencil sketches, computer aided designs, carpentry and neon lights.

Artists, neon lights and the law

There are surprisingly many artists who engage in neon art. Artists like Dan Flavin, Robert Irwin, Joseph Kosuth Gavin Turk, Kelly Mark, Betrand Lavier and Olivia Steele are heavily into this art form. To a large extent, they experiment with light for it to be seen rather than to illuminate.

In 2015, the neon artist Kelly Mark sent a legal notice to a restaurant, Old School, for the display of a replica of her neon artwork which had the text “I called shotgun infinity when I was twelve” in red. Mark requested the work be taken down as it was an exact copy of her work and because it would not be fair to the collectors who had bought her original pieces.

Copyright laws do not protect short texts, phrases and titles, as there is limited or no creative element involved. In this scenario, while the text per se is not copyrightable, the artwork as a whole can be protected. Old School received a lot of flak from Mark’s fans and friends demanding the removal of the replica. Both parties finally settled the matter privately.

Kelly Mark discovered another ‘appropriation’ of her work when she came across a clothing brand (Bluenotes) selling graphic T-shirts with the same text. Here, if she were to make a claim of copyright infringement, she would be unsuccessful, as texts and phrases are not copyrightable.

The primary purpose of this post is to demonstrate that neon art is a resurrected art form and is often portrayed as a three-dimensional art installation, which can in fact be protected by law (more here on art installations). Neon art in India is yet to catch on, but in due time, the same laws would extend to it.

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