My Experience as a Censored Artist

from "Labels: One Fag Bashes Back" If you browse around the web today, you’re likely to notice something different… blackouts and censored photos in protest of two bills circulating in Congress right now (SOPA and PIPA) that threaten the Internet as we know it. I won’t write about these issues here now (but you can click my “stop censorship” ribbon in the upper right corner for more information).

But thinking about censorship today reminds me of a time when I was a young art student, and one of my art installations was censored by the University I attended. The controversy seemed to consume the student body, and threatened my grades, my reputation, and my personal safety. This post tells the story from my point of view… that of the censored artist.

Early College Life

I didn’t go to college until I was 25; partly because I was already working a full-time day-job, and putting in long hours doing semi-professional theatre in Dallas. When I finally decided to go earn a degree, I looked for a school with a good studio glass program that was not too far away from home, and yet far enough to escape the Texas heat in the summer. I settled on Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, which is about as far away from Chicago as you can get and still be in Illinois. It was 750 miles from Dallas, which was just right.

Being a large University in a small town, it had the best of both worlds: lots of arts and culture, and yet lots of small-town charm. It even boasted one of the oldest gay/lesbian student organizations  anywhere. If memory serves, SIUC’s GLBF group (for “Gays Lesbians, Bisexuals and Friends… we didn’t know to include transgendered people back then) was started around 1968-1970, before most of the students there had been born. Ironically, the GLBF office was in a former janitor’s closet, on the third floor of the Student Center. It was like being in Siberia, but hey, at least we had an office. The 35+ members of the group took turns volunteering to answer the GLBF hotline, where we would offer anonymous counseling services to anyone that called or dropped in. Even though we had a listing in every issue of The Daily Egyptian, (the student newspaper) the phone hardly ever rang. On the few occasions when someone dropped in while I was manning the desk, it was a straight person concerned about a friend of theirs that was gay. (As in, “is there any way I can make them not be gay?”) One particularly memorable client was an african-american woman who wanted to know if there were any physical tell-tale signs that would help her determine if her husband was cheating on her by having gay sex on the “down low”. (“Yes, his nipples will turn neon-pink”, I wanted to tell her.)

It was the early 90’s… we wore Freedom Rings and “I’m not gay, but my boyfriend is” t-shirts from Don’t Panic, and frequently held demonstrations and protests in support of equal rights for gays and lesbians. A group of us even drove to Washington DC for the “The March on Washington for Lesbian, Gay, and Bi Equal Rights and Liberation” in 1993. Every October 11th, we celebrated National Coming Out Day, and we wore red ribbons and draped the artwork in the Student Center with shrouds on December 1st for “A Day Without Art/National AIDS awareness day.”

Hate Crimes (or fear of them) became matter of fact

Even though it was a large art school within a large university, I was the only “out” art student I knew, and none of my professors was out to me or anybody else I knew of. Can you imagine an art school with hundreds of students, and only one out gay student? Neither could I.

OKAY © 1993 J. Thomson One day, I saw a listing in the Daily Egyptian that a new group for gay and lesbian artists was starting up. When I went to the first meeting, my boyfriend and I were the only ones who showed up. The instigator of that group was an out lesbian filmmaker and folk-song writer, and she seemed disappointed too that only 2 gay guys and no lesbians showed up. We didn’t last long. Still, I took up the call to be the out gay art student on campus (hoping that it would encourage others to come out). Whenever I had a class assignment, I tried to incorporate my out gay-ness into it. In my color theory classes, I painted icons of interlocking male+male and female+female symbols. In my psychology class, I wrote about being an out gay man. In my glassblowing classes, I made glass dildos and engraved pornographic drawings on my blown glass vases. Mostly I was tolerated, if not celebrated, on campus. Remember, this was the early 90’s in a rural area… gay couples I knew were afraid to hold hands on campus for fear of being beaten up, and even a night out at the one and only gay bar in town wasn’t always a safe bet. I’d seen more than a few fist-fights in that place. But overall, I was happy expressing my freedoms, and being who I was.

It was an early October Monday in 1993, when I discovered, along with 2 or 3 other GLBF members, that someone had tried to set fire to the GLBF office on the 3rd floor of the student center. The wooden door was scorched, and the calendar of events on the door was burned off. Around the same time, we discovered that the entire tape on the GLBF answering machine had been filled up with nasty messages from a group of drunken frat boys. There were threats and lots of expletives. And it went on for 30 minutes. We filed complaints and talked to campus police officers and officials in the student center, but they did nothing. They seemed to want to sweep the incident under the rug, and basically told us to just forget about the incident. That was pretty much the vibe I got from everybody (gay and straight) on campus… “why do you have to make such a big deal out of everything?” was constantly ringing in my ears. It wasn’t that it didn’t matter to them that gays and lesbians were being discriminated against (sometimes openly), but most of the students and residents of Carbondale were too scared to do anything about it.

One fag bashes back (part 1: the performance)

 

program cover from "Labels: One FAG Bashes Back"

Click to download the program (PDF).

Exactly one year later, one of my art professors assigned an open project for the semester. We could do anything we wanted, and we met at regular intervals to discuss our progress. I decided to mount an ambitious two-part project I entitled “Labels: One Fag Bashes Back” as a response to the anti-gay discrimination I had experienced on campus, and in particular to that answering-machine tape full of homophobic comments. The first part was to be a performance piece, and the second part an art installation in the Student Center’s Art Alley.

In the weeks leading up to the performance, all was going well. My professor was supportive and encouraged me to think big and be more ambitious, even if it had nothing to do with glassblowing. I had already applied for, and been granted an exhibition space in the Student Center for the second part. (“Art Alley” as it was called, consisted of three very large glass display cases on the second floor of the Student Center, each about 20′ wide and 3′ deep… bigger than some small theatres I had worked in.) For the performance piece, I enlisted the help of my friend and partner-to-be Richard to play the part of my accomplice, “Sissy”. It was his job to document my performance AND the audience with a Polaroid instant camera. (Yes, it was still the pre-digital age.)
Polaroid image from "Labels: One Fag Bashes Back" I set up a small stage in one of the glass department’s work rooms. I rigged a backdrop painted with Pollock-esque drips and splatters, and used simple clip lamp lights to illuminate the stage. It was a full house of about 35-40 fellow art students and a few friends from GLBF. Richard, my accomplice, was seated in the audience. I came out and welcomed the crowd and thanked them and my professor for supporting my performance. What came next was quite a shock to most of my friends and fellow students, who knew me for being fairly mild-mannered.

At the start of the performance, I disappeared behind the backdrop momentarily where I stripped down to my black underwear. Even I didn’t think SIUC was ready for a nude performance! Underneath my street clothes, my skin was painted a bright pink with tempera body paint. When I stepped out on stage, a recording of the answering-machine tape began to play. As the voice on the tape got nastier and more vitriolic, I became angrier. First I shaved my head with a pair of clippers (well, mostly…. I’d never shaved my head before, and I wasn’t prepared for how difficult it would be to do it myself onstage without a mirror.) Then I began to paint words on my body using sponges cut in the shape of letters and dipped into black paint. The words were the epithets being hurled at me on the tape: “faggot,” “homosexual,” “sissy,” etc. As I was doing this, “The Sissy” was snapping polaroid photos of myself and the audience all the while (I wanted the audience to feel as uncomfortable as possible about taking part in this.) At the end, I smeared all the painted words on my body and yelled defiantly at the disembodied voice. Blackout.

I invited the audience to stay for a discussion afterwards, and the comments were all positive… one person even gave me a hug despite the fact that I was a mess! It was incredibly gratifying to have surprised my fellow students and teachers, and to accept their criticisms.

One fag bashes back (part 2: the art exhibit)

from "Labels: One Fag Bashes Back" Two days later, I installed the exhibit in the Student Center for part two of LABELS: One FAG Bashes Back. I took an art installation approach to the display, lining the entire case with silver mylar. The polaroids were framed, with a hand-written transcription of the answering-machine tape below. Other elements of the display included a moving LED sign that displayed the message “Nemo me impune lacessit (No one provokes me with impunity)”, and several of my quirky sculptures that had to do with ideas of labels and passing.

Keep in mind that getting approved to display something in the Student Center was a pretty big deal, as there was lots of competition for the space. I had to submit an application to the Student Center staff, which was approved and accepted many weeks prior.

The day after the installation, I stopped by to check it out only to find that portions of it had been censored by somebody with a key to the display case. They had put up black paper over all of the photographs and unplugged my LED sign, but left the sculptures untouched. Although there was no nudity in the actual performance, I did include 2 new polaroids of a “dress rehearsal” where I was nude. But all of the photos were censored, not just the nude ones.

Of course, I immediately went to the office to protest the censorship. I was refused. But they did allow me to put up signs on the black paper which said the work was being censored without the permission of the artist. I continued to negotiate with the Student Center staff, but they refused to un-censor the display. The Student Programming Council’s advisor was quoted in the paper saying that my display was censored because it differed from what I proposed in my written application. But this was a false statement, because I proposed to include my current work in the display, and this performance and installation was my current work. They even made me put a comment book out for people to write in (not normally done in this space). Of course, I insisted that the artist who occupied the other windows had to have a comment book as well! (Her paintings were really quite awful pictures of kittens in baskets—literally! The dichotomy between our work only served to heighten the drama, and I did feel badly that she got lots of negative comments in her book almost no comments in her book, and some of those were really negative.) I felt that I had a good response to every argument against my display… there were other works of art displayed in the Student Center that showed nudity; the display was pre-approved by the same staff that was now censoring it; the original incident occurred IN the Student Center, and the staff did nothing about it and this display was my response to that.

"Nativity" (destroyed) © 1993 J. Thomson The controversy went on for several weeks, and played out in numerous articles in The Daily Egyptian, as well as the “real” newspaper, The Southern Illinoisan. I was even interviewed on camera by a local TV station, and a friend who worked at the Southern Illinoisan told me the story was sent out on the AP News Wire, where it could be picked up by any news outlet in the country. I even got a few messages on my home answering machine (mostly against my work), and phone calls at work from various groups either in support of, or against my art display.

"Labels" © 1994, J. Thomson. Cast glass and mixed media. But after weeks of this controversy, it was beginning to impact my life in ways that I had not expected. I found that nobody would talk to me in my classes, and even my supportive professors started asking me to back down. My boyfriend was a little less than supportive (was he jealous of the attention?) and even the GLBF group wanted the issue to just go away. My social life was in the toilet (not literally), and my grades were beginning to suffer, too. I had a fight with a guy from NORML (the pro-marijuana campus group) who was aghast that I didn’t want to let NORML ride on my coattails, so to speak, by letting me do the performance again at one of their rallies. Then I got an unexpected call at work one day… from a chapter of the ACLU based in Chicago, offering to take on my case. Although in retrospect I wish I had pursued the case, I didn’t because I just wanted my life to get back to normal. I felt like my work had achieved its goal of starting a dialog… one that went on for many weeks all over campus, in classrooms and everywhere else.

"The Last Supper" © 1992 J. Thomson. Mixed media. After the furor died down, I heard from friends that it was discussed in their classes… whether I was right or wrong, whether it was “Art” or not. I felt that the main discussions got away from what I intended… it was no longer about homophobia on campus, and became more about censorship and art. Don’t forget that the late 80’s and early 90’s was a time of a lot of art meant to be controversial… Andres Serrano put a crucifix in a jar of urine and called it Piss Christ, Chris Burden shot himself in the arm in the name of art, and Ron Athey slashed his body with razor blades and made “prints” using his own HIV-positive blood. What I did was very tame by comparison, and yet the controversy gripped this sleepy university for more than a month.

from "Labels: One Fag Bashes Back" The Student Programming Council never did back down and allow the photographs to be shown. So when the exhibit was scheduled to come down a month later, I listed it as an event in the paper and invited the public to attend. Dozens of people showed up to get a look at the censored exhibit as it came down. Some expressed disappointment that it was so tame, but most expressed their support of me if they said anything at all. I still have a binder full of comments written by the public… half in support of what I was doing, and half that thought it was totally bogus. I’m still glad I went through that experience, even if it was somewhat traumatic for me. I could have pushed the issue further, but my personal well-being and education would have suffered as a result, and I was not ready or willing to be a martyr for the cause.

I never intended for the performance or the exhibit to be controversial; I just thought it would start a dialog about homophobia on campus. But it was the fact that the powers-that-be not only censored my art, but seemed to be making up the rules as they went along (and unfairly at that) that really made me angry. Of course, the controversy that erupted on campus meant that my exhibit was seen by more people, and that more people were talking about the issues involved. In that regard, this project was a huge success.

Ironically, two years after this incident, I was honored by the University when they gave me a commission to create a mural (totally unrelated to this exhibit) that is now in the permanent collection and on display in Faner Hall.

The slide show below includes all of the polaroids from the performance (but not the NSFW additions) and pictures from taking down the censored exhibit. Links to PDF scans of the newspaper clippings are below the slideshow. I’ve also included scans of the entire comment book (56 page PDF), but be warned… some of the comments in the book are pretty offensive.

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The Daily Egyptian, “Artist’s Exhibits Needs Committee Approval”

The Daily Egyptian, “Art Student Questions SPC Censorship”

The Southern Illinoisan, “Censorship: Artist Says Work Censored Because Of Homosexual Theme”

The Daily Egyptian, “Nudity, Slurs Keep Exhibit Under Cover”

The Daily Egyptian, “Art Exhibit Draws Varied Reactions”

The Daily Egyptian, “Censoring of Art is UnAmerican”

The Daily Egyptian, “SPC Needs To Get Out Of The Art Business”

The Daily Egyptian, “Indecent Exposure”

The Daily Egyptian, “Pornography Sold At Student Center”

The Daily Egyptian, “Censorship, DE Cause Controversy”

Labels: One FAG Bashes Back, part 2 (comments from the public book)


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