Public Enema No. 2

Bondage, fellatio, feces-swapping, and intimate cleansing at the S.F. Art Institute

Jonathan Yegge, a 24-year-old scholar at the San Francisco Art Institute, is angry, anxious, resentful.

"If I have to not have sex on campus anymore, they'd better put that in the student handbook, and then we can decide whether that's an appropriate rule or not," says Yegge. "I mean, I'm on probation, and I can't have sex on campus, and anyone else can."

Yegge's plight, his mood, and his outlook are a small -- no, minuscule -- portion of the aftermath of a performance art piece he crafted three weeks ago for an art class in the school's New Genres department, led by sometimes-controversial professor Tony Labat.

Jonathan Yegge, who tied, blindfolded, and performed unspeakable acts 
on a fellow student in the name  of art.
Amy Douglas
Jonathan Yegge, who tied, blindfolded, and performed unspeakable acts on a fellow student in the name of art.
S.F. Art Institute
S.F. Art Institute

Yegge asked for a volunteer from the class, got one, then took the young man aside into an empty room. Yegge handed the soon-to-be subject of his artwork a makeshift contract stating that the volunteer was agreeing to participate in a performance piece containing acts "including and up to a sexual or violent nature." The volunteer signed the contract.

Yegge led the volunteer out into a campus public area, in front of Labat's class and anyone else who happened by, and then ... well, maybe it's best to let Yegge explain.

"He was tied up. He had a blindfold and a gag, but he could see and talk through it. He had freedom of movement of his pelvis," Yegge says, by way of defending his piece. "I engaged in oral sex with him and he engaged in oral sex with me. I had given him an enema, and I had taken a shit and stuffed it in his ass. That goes on, he shits all over me, I shit in him. There was a security guard present. There was an instructor from the school present. It was videoed, and the piece was over."

But the piece wasn't over, really. In the world of performance art, a work may leave no physical artifact on the earth, so the audience is its canvas. During the days and weeks after Yegge's performance ended, his work has left brush strokes all over the small S.F. art world.

Not long after the piece was finished, the volunteer developed misgivings about what had happened to him.

"He was pissed off, as he should be," says Ryan Castaneda, a friend of the volunteer (whose name SF Weekly is not printing for obvious reasons). "He felt he was being violated. He just didn't think this was cool."

The volunteer complained. The school administration called Yegge in, put him on academic probation, and instituted the Yegge-specific no public sex on campus rule.

Administration officials held lengthy meetings with Yegge's instructor, Labat. Discussions focused on the dangerous nature of exchanging bodily fluids for art's sake. Implicit was the litigiously dangerous nature of allowing this to go on in a supervised classroom.

The volunteer's mother was rumored to be a judge, and it was feared the student might sue. The volunteer, contacted through friends, did not want to comment for this story. But students at the Art Institute, the Academy of Art College, and in the rest of the tightknit San Francisco artistic community were riveted by the incident. One student enrolled in Labat's class was said to be going so far as to plan her own performance piece protesting Yegge's piece.

"She was pretty upset by it," said a friend of Labat's student who witnessed the piece.

The Art Institute, meanwhile, seemed to scurry into a damage-control posture.

"None of us know anything about it," said a flush-faced employee at the school's cafe in response to a reporter's question.

And after hours of closed-door meetings with the Institute's administration, even Labat attempted to distance himself from the piece.

"It was plain bad art," says Labat. "This was irresponsible in any context. It made me wonder why anyone would want to do a story about it. Why would anyone be interested in anything as basic as that? Nobody should be interested in that." But Yegge says Labat did nothing to stop the piece while it was taking place. Yegge also says he ran the general premise of the piece by Labat before performing it. Labat declined to discuss the performance in detail.

From the most obvious perspective, Yegge's piece may indeed have been bad art. Yegge himself says the piece was hastily conceived.

"The whole piece was an edifiatory piece for the other performance artists. The teacher asked me to produce such a piece for him," Yegge says, a transfer student on scholarship. "This was something that's schlocky, quick, and just shows people what they are walking into before the add-drop period, before they can get out of there, or decide to stay. The easiest thing I could think of was this."

And Yegge's intellectual defense of his piece might -- might -- come across as a bit dilute.

"It's about Heidegger, Derrida -- all this stuff," he says. "It's about pushing the notion of gay sex, pushing the notion of consent, pushing the notion of what's legal. We are living in the era of AIDS. This is about his responsibility, my responsibility.

"During your tenure in this school you're required to read The Tears of Eros by Georges Bataille, where he discusses pain and the history of erotic art.

"You jump across time and you jump across eras. You might present this performance art, then the students might read Bataille and it might make sense. Or they might see this performance and then see Bataille."

Perhaps, or perhaps not.

But if one of performance art's central objectives is to get people thinking, the piece was a success.

The Art Institute administration has been forced to contemplate the risks inherent in its 20-year-role as a vortex of cutting-edge performance art. Students at the Institute, the Academy of Art College, and elsewhere are having conversations about the difference between creating out-there art and merely being an asshole. Labat has been confronted by an often-overlooked aspect of any professor's job -- looking after kids. And Yegge himself is now pondering a question artists of all types face: Is intellectual expression an end worth any means?

The fix the Art Institute finds itself in -- it conceivably stands to be sued into oblivion by a distressed student -- is entirely of its own making. Perhaps to its credit, by placing itself at the vanguard of the academic art world the Institute has also put itself in jeopardy.

While performance as art is still little-noticed outside the art world, it's enjoying a San Francisco-centered renaissance right now, in part thanks to artists coming out of the Institute. For 20 years, the boundaries of performance art -- and certainly performance art produced in an academic setting -- have been stretched at the San Francisco Art Institute. And for better or worse, shit and violence and sex and truly, truly appalling behavior are now prosaic on performance art stages.

Instructor Howard Fried two decades ago founded the New Genres department to bring into the academic fold "lifelike art" that had emerged during the 1960s. At the time, it was the first academic department to recognize artwork that left no physical remnants.

"The reason that department came into existence was because we wanted to redefine the boundaries, not so much in terms of content, but in terms of form, of what was considered by, what was suggested by, the structure of the institution as being art," says Fried, who retired from the Institute 12 years ago. "There was a sculpture department, but there wasn't a department that understood actions to be art, necessarily. At that time there was no school in the country you could go to that had a department that had that kind of activity."

The idea driving these new works, Fried says, began as an extension of the notion implicit in Jackson Pollock's spatter paintings, which, rather than creating a facsimile of something existing in the physical world, evoke in viewers' minds the image of a man pouring cans of paint onto a canvas.

"The act becomes as important as the result. The connection between the act of doing the thing and the thing that results from the act are both seen and have equal weight in the piece," Fried says.

Taken a step further, "When the action is finally free from the object it is producing, the people around it become the potential canvas."

So an artist may stand in the living room and give an erotic reading of a cereal box label, recite a soliloquy about his lot in life, or roll herself in a rug and lie in a museum entrance for hours.

Such pieces were novel, provoked audiences to reflect and ponder, and generally altered the human canvas they were painted on -- but not as much as some artists wished. Within the performance art world evolved a group of artists who wanted not merely to provoke people, but to shock them out of complacency.

So there was public masturbation, people shooting others in the arm on purpose, others hanging themselves by hooks.

HIV-positive artist Ron Athey makes his living lacerating himself onstage. And Art Institute alum Karen Finley made a tour of the national talk show circuit a decade ago after her NEA-funded work angered Republican congressmen. Finley's pieces involve forcing candied yams into her anus, shitting into a bowl and letting another artist eat it, and inviting the audience to lick goo off her naked body.

So Yegge was in good company when he physically humiliated his volunteer. Like his contemporaries, he shocked, angered, disturbed, and otherwise made his audience, participants, and sponsors very uncomfortable.

A success, no?

You wouldn't think so judging from the subsequent behavior of the parties involved. Yegge himself, after demonstrating persecuted-artist bravado during conversations just following the piece, is now contrite.

"Right now, I'm just worried about the student who volunteered," he says.

Labat was quick to change the subject away from Yegge's piece, repeatedly, during a recent conversation over breakfast.

"I find it very unfortunate that this incident is making us meet here, and not the other, truly good work that is being done at the Institute," Labat said.

And the Art Institute administration, which directs one of the most open-minded and self-analytical such institutions in the country, had a flack, rather than a dean as requested, return a call from SF Weekly.

"We'll send you a statement by e-mail," said the Institute's Patti Quill, who didn't send a statement by e-mail.

The administration's reaction is about what one might expect, says Fried, who has thought about such quandaries before.

"The term 'avant-garde' is defined as something that's pushing limits," Fried says. "It's ironic because when you start doing that, you're always in the same position, which is, people who are interested in operating in that space are going to redefine the space. The institution's never going to be comfortable with that."

It's the same dilemma dividing the ideal from the practical that institutions and individuals face all the time.

Fried says it exists in something as basic as the founding fabric of America. "The theory behind the Second Amendment is that it was put there to make it possible to overthrow the controlling structure of the country. Have a revolution once in a while. It was thought that that's a healthy thing to be in the fabric of the Constitution," says Fried, who notes that he's not debating gun control, rather pointing out the scary nature of violent revolutions.

"But everybody's always trying to stop it because it's dangerous," he says, before moving back to the subject of hosting avant-garde art in academic institutions. "This question about whether or not you should push the edges where you can't really define the edges is an important one. If you don't do that, it becomes reactionary and stupid. If you do do that, there's the danger that it will go out of control."

Indeed.

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