Calgary to remove underpass art after British comedians complain about unauthorized use of their images

Calgary is removing a $20,000 public art installation from a downtown underpass after British comedians complained that it used photos of them without their permission.

Bisha Ali says, at first, she 'wondered if Alberta is just full of doppelgangers for U.K. comedians'

See the uncanny resemblance between the art installation and photos from the 2015 Edinburgh Fringe Festival program guide

4 years ago
Calgary is removing a $20,000 public art installation from a downtown underpass after British comedians complained that it used photos of them without their permission. 0:38

Calgary is removing a $20,000 public art installation from a downtown underpass after British comedians complained that it used photos of them without their permission.

"The City of Calgary was made aware of concerns about the temporary art installation in the 4th Street underpass," Kurt Hanson, the city's general manager of community services, told CBC News in an email Tuesday afternoon.

"As part of the city's investigation, we have been in contact with the artist. The artist has said that we should remove the installation. We will be doing this and are considering our next steps."

Speaking to reporters later in the day, Hanson said they are consulting the city's legal department and reviewing the contract with the artist, Derek Besant, to determine his responsibilities. Hanson would not rule out the possibility of seeking to have the artist fee returned. 

"There's a number of possibilities and that's what's being explored at this point in time, through law," he said. 

The move comes after a U.K-based comedian named Bisha Ali was alerted to the fact that an altered photo of her appeared to be among several images plastered on the underpass as part of the art project, which has been in place for the past two years.

Ali said an old friend from Canada just recently noticed the image and messaged her about it.

Once she started digging into the mystery, Ali said she not only believed her photo was used without her knowledge, so too were the images of some of her comedic colleagues. 

Ali took to Twitter to highlight the situation and posted the original picture that adorns the underpass.

A comparison of the two seems clear, although the Calgary installation, called Snapshots, has the photo flipped so that it's a mirror image, and then blurred.

"Trust me; I've second guessed myself a lot and wondered if Alberta is just full of doppelgangers for U.K. comedians," she said. 

At first, Ali said the whole situation was kind of amusing, but then she realized the installation might be using the work of photographers without their permission. 

"So, from where I'm sitting, it looks like these people haven't been credited or compensated in any way for their work being used, and as an artist myself, that's kind of bulls--t."

The photographer who took the photo of Ali said she did not authorize its use in the Calgary art installation.

"I can confirm that this artist has never asked for my permission and I am seeking advice from a copyright lawyer today," Jayde Adams said in an email.

The temporary public art display, which cost $20,000, was to eventually be replaced with an interactive light display as part of a permanent refurbishment of the passageway.

Besant, the man behind the installation, is a Calgary artist and former Alberta College of Art and Design (ACAD) instructor. He did not reply to a request for comment from CBC News on Monday night.

Besant retired from the School of Visual Arts this past August, according to an ACAD spokesperson.

His instructor profile was still on the college's website on Monday but it was removed Tuesday morning.

Another comedian, Sofie Hagen, also took to Twitter and posted the photo which she says was used as part of the Calgary art installation.

Again, the similarities are striking and her image is also flipped and blurred. 

Later on Monday night, someone added to the Twitter thread by comparing the images used for Snapshots and multiple images from the 2015 Edinburgh Fringe Festival guide — including that of Ali. 

Also in the guide that year? A series of photographs of Edinburgh printmakers by Besant. 

Mayor Naheed Nenshi was asked about the situation on Monday night and said he takes the allegations seriously. 

"Obviously, as soon as I saw that, I flipped it to city administration and said investigate, investigate, investigate," the mayor said.

On Tuesday, the mayor said he doesn't think this is a reflection of the city's public art program. 

"This particular one I don't think is really about the public art program, because we actually have to trust the people with whom we contract. And certainly there is a contract talking about intellectual property and so on that every artist signs," he said.

"So while it might be fun to pile this onto the sins of the public art program, I think this particular one is probably, the blame belongs somewhere else."

When asked where that blame lies, Nenshi demurred. 

"Next question," he said. "There is an investigation happening and I'll be better able to answer that question later."