Artist Who Inspired Sulphur Springs' Glass Bathroom Says the Texas Town Stole Her Work

Categories: Arts

Thumbnail image for GlassBathroomSulphurSpringsPeopleLaughing.jpg
Flickr user nsmithtnz
The locals take in Sulphur Springs' glass bathroom, made entirely of one-way mirrors.
In December 2003, across the street from London's Tate Britain museum, artist Monica Bonvicini debuted her latest installation. Titled "Don't Miss a Sec," it was a public toilet inside a cube of one-way mirrors. The bathroom user could gaze out upon the passing museum goers and see the construction workers milling about, but they couldn't see inside. It was, among other things, a way for Bonvicini to challenge how people interact with their surroundings.

A decade later, Bonvicini was horrified to learn that the city of Sulphur Springs had constructed a knockoff version of "Don't Miss a Sec" and plunked it down next to the oversize chess set on the town square. The copy is completely faithful to the original, save for the addition of a steel frame and heating and air conditioning, which the city manager bragged about on local TV.

See also: Sulphur Springs Invites You to Pee in Its Public Restrooms, Made Entirely of One-Way Mirrors

It is, in the words of Bonvicini's New York-based attorney, Patricia Hertling, "not very nice for her to have her kind of sophisticated sculpture" turned into a low-brow tourist attraction, which Sulphur Springs has advertised in press releases and by putting it in the running for "America's Best Restroom" contest.

Recently, Hertling sent Sulphur Springs a cease-and-desist letter claiming that the town's bathroom infringes upon Bonvicini's copyrighted artwork and demanding that it be removed.

The town has scrubbed its website and Facebook page of all references to the bathroom but has refused to take it down.

"Basically, they've got a cubed design with mirrors," says Sulphur Springs development specialist Gus Gustafson. "How the heck can you copyright that?"

But Hertling -- who, unlike Gustafson, speaks with a cultured German accent -- says it is much more than just a mirrored cube.

"The glass bathroom is very exquisitely designed as a minimalist cube with mirrored walls," she says. "The overall look and feel is this architectural sculpture that references minimalist architecture. Inside, the appliances are stainless steel, which Ms. Bonvicini did on purpose to kind of hint at prison-cell architecture. Foucault comes in [with] the pantoptical view. You all of a sudden become the prisoner guard where you can see outside but no one can see you."

That may all be true, but Philippa Loengard, assistant director at Columbia Law School's Kernochan Center for Law, Media and the Arts, says Bonvicini will have a tough time convincing a U.S. court that Sulphur Springs has infringed upon her intellectual property.

Works of art are protected by copyright upon their creation, but not all copyrights are created equal. Had Sulphur Springs faithfully reproduced Picasso's "Guernica" on its town square, it would have been a clear violation of copyright. But Loengard says that Bonvicini's copyright for "Don't Miss a Sec" is "thinner."

"It's just that a glass-enclosed toilet is not the most original thing," she said before clarifying that she wasn't making a pronouncement on the merit of Bonvicini's work. "It doesn't qualify, I think, under copyright for the highest degree of protection."

Hertling sent a separate cease-and-desist letter to the Observer demanding that the paper remove a photo of the Sulphur Springs restroom we published last fall, not because the photo itself is copyrighted (it's available on Wikipedia under a creative commons license) but because the subject of the photo is an illegally copied artwork.

"Any reproduction of that sculpture [e.g. a photo] infringes upon our copyright again because it is a reproduction of the infringement," Hertling told us.

An attorney with Observer's parent Village Voice Media informed Hertling last week that the photo's publication falls under fair use and that it will not be removed.

Bonvicini is still deciding whether to test the courts. Hertling says they are reluctant to file a lawsuit, the prospect of paying Sulphur Springs' legal fees if they lose being rather daunting for an artist, but they haven't ruled it out.

If Bonvicini does sue Sulphur Springs, Loengard says it's unlikely that a court will rule in her favor and that, even if that happens, the damages would probably be small.

For Bonvicini, though, this isn't about the money. It's a matter of principle -- the principle of Bonvicini not wanting to have her reputation attached to a toilet in Sulphur Springs.

"We're trying to avoid the spreading too much on the news," Hertling says. "We're just trying right now to avoid that people are going to talk too much about it."

Send your story tips to the author, Eric Nicholson.

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22 comments
laa2005
laa2005

Who cares it's creepy anyways.

ctgodfather
ctgodfather

Let the 'cowboyz' pay the artist!  They have plenty of $$$ from ripping us off from the sale of gas!!!

rusknative
rusknative

is it unisex, and does it have a kiddie changing mat?  what color toilet paper is provided, and are their blow hand driers instead of towels.....so many issues and no answers provided....tisk tisk.

mudi
mudi

I think Stark Club did it way before all those fools.

shercrawford
shercrawford

the 'artist' ripped off the idea herself!  restaurants in tulsa had those bathrooms in the 90's!  

Chupacabra
Chupacabra

The square in SS is quite beautiful and the glass bathrooms are an asset.  Nothing tacky there.

wepreferedquaint
wepreferedquaint

Please come take it. The City Manager and Tourism Director are the only ones who think it is amazing. The rest of the community think it is an embarrassment to a beautiful and respectful area created to honor our Veterans.

DDallas
DDallas

What ever happened to "imitation is the highest form of flattery?" Sheesh...it's a bathroom...of mirrors. No one else could have EVER possibly thought of that besides her, right?

DDallas
DDallas

OMGosh. SS is a wonderful little town. Sad that it's being made out to be po-dunk.

parisrec
parisrec

As Hunter Thompson once said," #### England!!!".

Sarah O'
Sarah O'

The only person who associated this self important snob with the restroom in Sulphur Springs was herself. Methinks this is a pathetic stab at receiving some publicity. By her own doing, I will always associate her with redneck turds.

Sotiredofitall
Sotiredofitall topcommenter

Please, someone build one of these for Klyde Warren Park  

gm0622
gm0622

What is the difference, her 'reputation' is attached to a loo in London.

Is a sh****er in Sulpher Springs any different?

Sotiredofitall
Sotiredofitall topcommenter

See-through Toilet in New York = Sophisticated Social Commentary 


See-through Toilet in Sulphur Springs = Low Brow Tourist Kitsch 

TheCredibleHulk
TheCredibleHulk topcommenter

@Sotiredofitall

Maybe Dallas should build a City Hall like this. They could certainly use some transparency down there.

bifftannen
bifftannen

@Sotiredofitall London isn't New York. And the fact that Sulphur Springs submitted it for "America's Best Restroom" shows what they think about it.

Sotiredofitall
Sotiredofitall topcommenter

@bifftannen  Amended 

See-through Toilet in London = Sophisticated Social Commentary 


See-through Toilet in Sulphur Springs = Low Brow Tourist Kitsch 

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