RTpost: Censorship wars

Mary Lou Pavolvich, Execution Bed (2001)

Mary Lou Pavolvich, Execution Bed (2001)

In Post, RealTime 45, Tina Kaufman wrote alerting us to the implications of the Office of Film and Literature Classification discussion paper aimed at producing a single classificatory system covering computer games and film and television. The paper introduces some odd criteria for censorship including: sexual acts where one or other of the participants look like they’re under 18 years of age (whatever happened to the age of consent?); imitability (no more heist movies, thank god); and restrictions on the depiction of the use of legal drugs in these media (as Arts Today’s Julie Rigg argued, art is not a health education tool, Radio National, Nov 28). Australia’s censorship laws have tightened up considerably in recent years with new media arts being most palpably impacted by legislation pertaining to web transmission (see Linda Carroli, “[R] is for Regulation: cleaning up the net universe”, RT35, p20). But there is nervousness everywhere: the producers of a new performance work in Sydney in recent weeks self-censored projections with sexual material when the extremity of a possible prosecution was brought to their attention. As censorship laws thicken fast and furiously, and as punishments grow more draconion and the laws more inflexible, which artists or companies or arts organisations will be the test cases? It’s a tough choice. Eds.

Dear Editors

On Thursday 18 October the Experimenta 2001: Waste exhibition opened in Melbourne as part of the Melbourne Festival. According to the catalogue, visitors could expect to encounter Sexy Flowers, an installation by Boston-based artist and academic Katrien Jacobs that invites viewers to recycle internet porn images by printing them out and folding them into flowers.

Just before the exhibition opened, Experimenta’s Board of Management intervened and decided that Sexy Flowers had to immediately be taken out of the show. Jacobs was advised of this in a most unfortunate and very unprofessional manner: she was sent an internal memo from Experimenta in which Artistic Director Lisa Logan asks Robyn Lucas (President) and Geoffrey Shiff (Chair and lawyer) if they might contact the artist to let her know why the piece has been censored. Geoffrey Shiff later explained that Sexy Flowers was removed from the exhibition for the following reason: “The work was not ‘censored’ at all. It was removed because it breached the law to publicly exhibit explicit pornography of this nature.”

Do censorship laws differentiate between the media in which content is encountered? Pornographic imagery sourced from the Net is different in terms of what might be encountered and how it is encountered from pornographic content regulated by the architecture of a CD-ROM enframed by the curatorial logic of an exhibition. That is, one pornographic image is not the same as the next. Any sensible law needs to register this mediation of difference.

Experimenta’s Board of Directors has assumed that it is endowed with the capacity to determine what constitutes ‘legitimate’ artwork for the public. Once artworks have been approved through a curatorial selection process, surely it is up to the public to decide what constitutes ‘offensive’ material, and not the cultural disposition of the Board?

To say that the artwork breached laws on the public exhibition of explicit pornography is not at all equivalent to saying that Sexy Flowers was not censored. The formulation of categories operates precisely to determine that which belongs in a category and that which does not. This, in itself, is a form of censorship.

The issue of whether or not the content of the work fell into the category of explicit pornography is open to debate, or at least it should be. Instead, Experimenta’s Board of Directors has closed down the possibility for debate that might arise out of encounters with Sexy Flowers.

Perhaps more than anything, this instance of censorship—for that is what has occurred—is representative, in my view, of the inability, the horror even, of cultural institutions of the establishment to negotiate what is, after all, a popular cultural form. Pornography is mainstream, and has been at least since it was made mechanically reproducible with the invention of the printing press, followed by photography.

Sexually explicit content can be viewed pretty much any night of the week on free to air commercial and public TV. Programs are preceded by a warning to viewers about content. Similarly, ‘pornographic’ content has featured fairly regularly in State art galleries across Australia. State galleries also advise viewers of what they are about to witness, should they choose to inquire further into a particular exhibit. Prior to its removal, the Sexy Flowers installation displayed a warning about content. Experimenta, in this instance of censorship, has deviated from what until now has been a mainstream, institutional norm.

If there’s one thing you might safely assume is part of Experimenta’s cultural mission statement, it would be to provide the public with artworks that experiment with the possibilities of various media and to provide the public with contexts to experiment with the work of artists. Indeed, Experimenta’s mission statement reads as follows:

“Experimenta reflects, celebrates and stimulates the dynamic convergence of multiple media across technologies and in various spaces of engagement, challenging and extending the aesthetic, formal and conceptual potential of art.”

By having a Board of Directors intervene in an exhibition just before it opened, censoring an artwork that had already been approved and legitimated though a process of curatorial selection, Waste and Experimenta have failed in that mission.

Finally, on a more speculative note, I would suggest that this instance of censorship articulates with the new control society that is in the process of consolidation following 11 September. This is a society in which conservative actors assume to be beyond challenge, critique and questioning. It is a society that assumes its own legitimacy in universal terms. It is a society of terrorism enacted by conservatives.

Ned Rossiter, Melbourne
See also: “Enculturating Net-Porn: Interview with Libidot”
Dear Editors

Thank you for the opportunity to respond to Ned Rossiter’s letter regarding Experimenta’s decision not to proceed with the exhibition of Sexy Flowers.

Importantly, the work received from the artist Katrien Jacobs prior to exhibition as part of the Waste program was not the work originally submitted and selected during Experimenta’s earlier Call for Entries.

The work received for exhibition comprised CD-ROM generated images of sexual activity generally regarded in the wider community as of ‘hard-core’ pornographic nature. This was not apparent until the work was installed immediately before the exhibition opened.

The Board of Experimenta sought advice that indicated it would be an offence for the organisation and the venue, the Victorian Arts Centre, to proceed with the exhibition of these images under State and Commonwealth laws. On this advice it was decided to withdraw the work from the exhibition. The capacity of a general audience in a free venue without age restriction to print and remove these images further compounded potential legal ramifications.

This decision was not made lightly, and no disrespect was intended toward the artist or her work. I appreciate the artist’s intention was to transform pornographic images by creating paper flowers, but Experimenta’s Board and staff must operate within the law. I trust there is room for artists to consider these issues for exhibiting organisations when situations like this arise.

Fabienne Nicholas on behalf of Experimenta

Dear Editors

In early September the ABC TV Arts Show asked me if they could make a segment for their Closeup section of the program. This was scheduled to be aired at 9.30 pm September 13.

The segment discussed several of my works and featured the work Execution Bed. I recreated Timothy McVeigh’s execution bed (life-size) and then encased the structure in tiny hand painted balls that resemble hundreds and thousands.

After the bombings in New York on September 11, a decision was made by ABC management not to air my segment as people were feeling pretty shell-shocked. I agreed with the initial decision but expected that the segment would be aired at some point in the following weeks.

My work raises several issues regarding the American cultural hegemony operating in the media here and the sanitisation of real violence and political issues on television. It also confronts issues of ‘good taste’ and the predominance of ‘tasteful’ art over art that has any difficult content that permeates the Australian art scene. I am talking now about the commercial gallery system and mainstream newspaper and television arts coverage that is so conservative here.

At other levels, the work functions as a memorial; it arises from grief. It’s anti-violence, anti-death penalty, it questions our desire to watch these images on television. At a psychological level we’re horrified by them, but the fascination with them seems to be about being glad it’s not us in that position.

I was told recently by the producer of the program that they would not run the segment at all as people might see my work to be ‘tasteless’ and feel ‘indignant’, given current world events. She felt that some ‘weird’ sort of zeitgeist was operating.

I’m concerned about the censorship of this program discussing my work. Not only because of the impact on my artistic practice but more importantly the precedent it sets for other artists and anyone currently attempting to express alternative opinions.

Artists have appeared on the Arts Show recently talking about the current war. The problem is that the artist’s work is always legitimised by the rhetoric of the ‘genius’—of the brushstroke or drawing mark. This is a centuries old aesthetic tradition. It’s easy and it’s safe. I’m talking now about realistic charcoal drawings or painterly paintings of war scenes. My work seeks to take this rhetoric away and present something more objective and subversive. Contemporary art is supposed to be difficult and subversive.

When a journalist from the Age made an enquiry to the ABC about the non-airing of the segment, she was told the reason the segment was not screened was because the ‘production values’ were too low.

The producer told the journalist she would write to me to explain. I was told all this by the journalist, not a word from the producer. A letter never arrived.

The production values for the segment are not low. I have shown the tape to several colleagues (all celebrated contemporary artists) and we think that the standard is the same as anything else appearing on that program and feel unanimously that this is plain censorship.

Mary Lou Pavlovic, Melbourne
Execution Bed will be on display in Fall Out at the VCA Gallery in Melbourne in December & at Conny Dietzschold Gallery,
Sydney, in January. Eds.

RealTime issue #46 Dec-Jan 2001 pg. 6

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1 December 2001