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Once bitten, twice shy: Canadian artist caught using comedians' photos without permission promises no more funny business

Despite controversy over public art project in Calgary, Derek Michael Besant has been commissioned to create a similar work in Ottawa

An artist in Canada who recently stirred up controversy for appropriating photographs for a public art project has been commissioned to create a new, more expensive work—with the promise that the images he uses will be his own.

In 2015, Derek Michael Besant won a C$20,000 ($15,500) commission to install a series of out-of-focus photographs overlaid with text in a pedestrian underpass in his hometown of Calgary. Called Snapshots, the project was meant to portray local residents, and included text with phrases such as “I live here” and “I own nothing”. The work had been up for two years when a friend of the London-based stand-up comedian Bisha Ali noticed that one of the blurry photos resembled her—even though Ali had never set foot in the Canadian city. (Ali’s face had the words “I want love” superimposed across it.)

In the social-media storm that followed, it emerged that all images for the project had been taken from a brochure for comedy shows at the 2015 Edinburgh Festival Fringe. The comics were not amused, saying they had not given permission to have their likenesses used in the work; some of the original photographers wanted compensation. Besant quickly apologised, saying he thought the images were in the public domain, and the installation was removed by pressure washers at the end of last year.

However, before the controversy broke, Besant had lined up two more public projects: a C$100,000 ($77,700) mural of water droplets at a sports and aquatic centre in Lethbridge, Alberta, and a C$200,000 ($155,000) commission at a railway station in Ottawa. The latter work, Train of Thought, will again feature out-of-focus portraits, “based on cross-sections of people who frequent the university environment”, according to the artist’s statement.

“We wanted to ask [Besant] questions, we didn’t know anything. You have to know the allegations before you are prompted to ask,” says Dan Chenier, the head of Ottawa’s recreation, cultural and facility services, about the city’s reaction after the Calgary controversy erupted. “Our staff followed up, asked for assurances that all the images [in the Ottawa commission] were appropriate and there would be no issues.” Chenier says the city asked for and was shown “physical proof” that Besant would use pictures that were properly secured, including waivers from the people photographed.

The Lethbridge commission, Near and Far, was awarded in mid-March and is expected to be completed later this year or early in 2019. Suzanne Lint, the executive director of the Allied Arts Council of Lethbridge, says she was well aware of the fallout in Calgary. But she told a local newspaper: “None of those concerns exists with the piece that was selected [for Lethbridge], which includes water images that are [Besant’s].”