Pelonio, a well-known creative agency based in Madrid, has sold a concept by artist Valentin Ruhry to Absolut Vodka, but without the artist’s consent. Now, there’s not much he can do about it.
His work, Untitled (Hello World), a light-switch billboard created for a May 2011 exhibition at the Austrian Cultural Forum New York, looks a whole lot like a light-switch billboard developed by Pelonio for Absolut Vodka’s “kissing room” at Madrid’s Fashion Week. Ruhry wouldn’t have known about the Absolut knock-off if it weren’t for an anonymous email sent to him by someone within the production team. It read:
they think they have been inspired by your work.
I think they have copied.
According to Ruhry’s website, he then exchanged several emails with the source, who revealed that the production team went so far as to take photos of Ruhry’s work before sending it off to artist Luisa Alvarez to creatively reconstruct for Absolut. The result is a remarkably similar artwork, with direct inspiration from Ruhry.
Ruhry’s piece wasn’t exactly unknown here in the States. When Ruhry debuted Untitled (Hello World) at the ACFNY in May of last year, its popularity was immediately apparent. Almost overnight it became an Internet sensation, as images of Ruhry’s work were reposted across hundreds of art, design, and tech blogs. Gizmodo playfully referred to the work as a “Giant Lite-Brite for adults.” It was somewhere between Reddit and Gizmodo that Pelonio found out about the work. Just weeks after Untitled (Hello World) had been deinstalled at the ACFNY, Absolut’s very own giant lite-brite was unveiled during Madrid Fashion Week.
Over email, Ruhry told me his lawyer was not encouraging about how a lawsuit would fare in court. He had been told “it would be a very difficult case, due to the different rights situation in Austria/Spain.” Despite the EU’s promise of a land without borders, it’s still difficult for an Austrian artist to pursue copyright claims across the continent. The main problem for Ruhry, however, is that the legal fees are just too high.
At this point, Ruhry has dropped legal action and embarked on a social media campaign to publicize his case. So far it hasn’t picked up much steam. But with the apparent inability of either Pelonio or Absolut Vodka to respond, it’s exactly what the artist needs for bringing attention to this case of corporate art recycling.