I don't know much about performance art, but I know what I like. And I really like it when 100 performance and other artists assemble to talk about freedom of speech, and then spend two hours painstakingly censoring themselves.
But before we get into that, I'll need to tell you about the illegally-finger-banged bitch, the boy who ate too much banana, and the Mexican auteur who discovered the wrong way to skin a cat.
“They said,” says José Rodríguez, a San Francisco Art Institute performance art student who has spent the past month or so at home after he was suspended for showing artwork deemed by fellow students to be in bad taste, “that it was sick.”
Performance art, it should be noted before we get started, is that genre you hear about every once in a while, usually when artists shoot themselves, play with poop, or otherwise make anti-Establishment, highly personal expressions of the avant-garde. The San Francisco Art Institute is known as a crucible of this genre, and therefore occasionally finds itself having to choose between fostering artistic freedom and fostering dangerous, illegal, or otherwise repulsive behavior. Readers of this space will recall that institute directors became highly exercised a year ago when a student expressed himself by publicly forcing water laced with his own feces into another student's rectum. The student, Jonathan Yegge, was eventually made to leave the school. There have been other such troubling incidents since, and it's been said around campus that the directors of the institute are beginning to lose their patience with envelope-busting performance works.
It was into this troubled ferment that Rodríguez, a photography and video student at the institute from rural Mexico, stepped, showing on campus a trio of films he had made in Mexico “exploring,” Rodríguez says, “power structures of abuse and abusers.”
In one film, around three minutes long, a person is shown from the waist down using his hand to genitally stimulate a female dog. After a couple of minutes of this the film silently cuts to the torso of an older man who is laughing. In another film a young boy is shown trying to gobble so much banana that his mouth can't contain it. A third film shows a dead cat being skinned.
“Basically José had a film show on campus, many students came, and a lot of students were distressed about it,” says Jessica Miller, a close friend who was with the retiring Rodríguez when he and I spoke. “Students felt they were in an abusing and harassing environment, and they thought there should be disciplinary action taken against José. He was called into student services, and then he was immediately escorted off campus by security guards.”
Rodríguez was allowed back on campus on the condition he seek therapy, but then a student — nobody's saying who — called the San Francisco Animal Care and Control Department, and, Rodríguez says, he was suspended.
“I think the school wasn't very nice to me,” he says.
Which is when the real performance art began.
Some students, angry because they felt Rodríguez had been arbitrarily suspended, placed posters around campus advertising a “symposium” exploring freedom of expression on campus.
Last Wednesday evening around a half-dozen students sat in folding chairs on an auditorium stage, each accompanied by a sealed 16-ounce bottle of purified water, symposium style. The auditorium swiftly filled with art students — young ones, old ones, orange-haired ones, green-haired ones. A prim, bossy, smartly dressed art student named Jackie approached a lectern and announced that she would be setting ground rules. The next hour-or-so-long discussion would be conducted “hypothetically,” she said, because “it involves issues of conflict, and people who can't be here to represent themselves.”
Then, for the next two hours, a room full of 100 avant-garde, anti-Establishmentarian art students argued about what the students and school should do about José Rodríguez's dilemma without once mentioning the incident at hand. Instead, as Jackie suggested, they spoke “hypothetically.” To bossy Jackie's credit, although the word “José” slipped out now and again, the students spoke almost precisely as they were instructed, and wound up doing an amazing job of censoring themselves.
There was the red-faced youngster in a three-piece wool suit who narrowed his eyes to William F. Buckley slits every 10 minutes and said things like, “Art, after all, is dangerous.” A man in the back of the auditorium suggested in a French accent that everyone present was banal. A lone art instructor sat to the left of the stage like a partial Greek chorus, crossing his arms over his wide belly, splaying his legs from his folding chair, and mumbling things like, “I had wondered if anybody was going to respond to that pile of bollocks.” All the while Jackie put on a performance worthy of Leonard Bernstein. She cajoled, she hollered, she raised and lowered her neatly smocked arm. “We need to speak in hypotheticals,” she declared.
Nobody mentioned, not even once, human/dog sex, children, bananas, or cat-skinning. After two hours of this hypotheticality, I had no idea what they'd been talking about, and was as curious as I think I've ever been in my entire life. I got Rodríguez's number from a student who worked with him at the school library. And when I caught up with him, an academic panel had just recommended that he be allowed to graduate.
Students had rallied outside the hearing room, some in his support, some condemning his work. Rodríguez says he offered to see a psychotherapist as a condition of his readmission to campus. The school was chilly when I asked for details. “We don't discuss issues of student conduct or disciplinary procedures,” said school flack Patty Quill, in an appropriately censorious tone.
Let me be the first to announce that my cinematic tastes do not run in the direction of bestiality or suggested depictions of child sodomy. And I can definitely resonate with the Animal Care and Control spokesperson who said, “It makes me so ill, when you think about it.”
But it's worth considering that Rodríguez's work was intended as a depiction of childhood sexual abuse, which, as evidenced by this innocuous-sounding term, is something we currently lack the vocabulary to describe. Creating vile imagery was, therefore, precisely Rodríguez's point. This doesn't necessarily mean it's OK to go around fingering dogs, banana-ing children, or skinning cats. But it does illustrate that real freedom of expression is not for the timid.
In days gone by, I always used to silently root for the outrageous artists, even if I didn't really understand their work. When I'd hear one of them had, say, smothered naked bodies in animal blood and entrails, I'd sing muted huzzahs, though I'm not sure I would ever have the courage to witness such a thing. “There is our bulwark,” I thought. “By redefining the notion of freedom of expression, they keep it alive.”
But now I've sat in a room full of them, watching them knuckle under to a voluntary gag order, and I've lost faith.
Now, I fear, there's no place left for dangerous art, subversive literature, or journalism that threatens the citadels of power. Now, perhaps, it's time for those of us in the First Amendment biz to play it safe. For my part, I think I'll lay low and pick on some art students.