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<nettime> Censoring Porn: An Experiment in Waste
Ned Rossiter on Fri, 26 Oct 2001 03:09:01 +0200 (CEST)


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<nettime> Censoring Porn: An Experiment in Waste


Censoring Porn: An Experiment in Waste

26 October 2001

Last Thursday night the Experimenta 2001: Waste exhibition opened in 
Melbourne as part of the Melbourne Festival.  The program entry 
reads: 'Experimenta's Waste program explores the excesses of 
contemporary culture and the regeneration and recycling of ideas. 
Showcasing the best of recent film, installation and interactive 
media throughout October, the program features the work of 
contemporary artists from Australia, Asia and Europe' 
(http://www.experimenta.org/events/2001/2001program.htm).  The entry 
for Waste in the Melbourne Festival guide goes on to state that the 
experimenta media lounge of Waste 'offer[s] scope to grapple with 
some of the major cultural issues of our time'.

I couldn't make it to the opening, but I popped into the group 
exhibition earlier in the mid-afternoon at the request of friend, 
occasional collaborator and fibreculture subscriber, Katrien 
Jacobs/libidot (interviewed for fibreculture, 
http://lists.myspinach.org/archives/fibreculture/2001-August/000478.html). 
Katrien had asked me to check out her Sexy Flowers installation that 
invites viewers to recycle internet porn images by printing them out 
and folding them into flowers.  Since Katrien is based in Boston 
(following her position as lecturer in Media Studies at Edith Cowan 
University, Perth), she wanted me to see how the piece was being set 
up.

Amidst the bustle of last minute preparations for the exhibition, I 
took some photos for documentation.  Instructions for viewers/users 
on how to make flowers were pinned up next to a computer terminal and 
printer.  You entered this space through a sort of cavern in a cloth 
draped wall.  A sign was pinned up on the exterior of this space 
advising viewers of the sexually explicit nature of the content: 
close-up images of genitals and penetration shots downloaded from the 
net and stored on CD-ROM.   (In this respect, the Sexy Flowers 
installation differed from its premiere at the Moore's Building in 
Fremantle in July, where viewers/users - who, as it happened, 
included parents and children - would access the porn images via a 
direct online connection [see http://www.libidot.org].  As I 
understand it, the Waste exhibition does not feature online material.)

If you've been to visit the Waste exhibition, or have plans to, you 
will not find the Sexy Flowers installation.  Don't let the catalogue 
entry mislead you!  Just before the exhibition opened, Experimenta's 
Board of Management intervened and decided that the installation had 
to immediately be taken out of the show.  Katrien 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 Katrien 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 
enountered 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.

Now, irrespective of the internal politics of this debacle, what we 
have is an instance, I would suggest, of:

1.  Extraordinarily unprofessional conduct by a government funded and 
commercially sponsored contemporary art institution.  Aside from the 
manner in which Katrien was informed of the removal of her 
installation, it is quite incredible that the Board of Directors 
should (a) intervene in an exhibition that had undergone a selection 
process according to Experimenta's exhibition policies (which I 
assume they have), and (b) that a Board of Directors can undermine 
the authority of an Artistic Director and in so doing determine what 
constitutes 'legitimate' artwork.  As far as I understand, a Board of 
Directors does not have the structural function to make curatorial 
decisions, that is what curators and, in this case, Art Directors do.

2.  Experimenta's Board of Directors has assumed that it is endowed 
with the capacity to determine what constitutes palatable artwork for 
the public.  Surely it is up to the public to decide what constitutes 
'offensive' material, and not the cultural disposition of the Board? 
Prior to the exhibition, Artistic Director Lisa Logan informed me 
that she had concerns over whether or not 'the public' would find the 
work offensive.  As sociologist Pierre Bourdieu so decisively 
demonstrated, one thing inner-city festival organisers and government 
administrators can be certain of is that there is a fairly 
predictable relationship between those who visit exhibitions and the 
kind of cultural capital they have accumulated.  When festivals claim 
to be for 'the public', it is, like all publics, a very specific 
public.  It is safe to say that viewers of new media art can, for the 
most part, handle a degree of challenge from the work they encounter. 
Indeed, this is what they might expect from an institution named 
'Experimenta'.

3.  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.

4.  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, as it was programmed to exist in this particular 
installation. The sexually explicit content of the work was framed in 
such a way, so far as I understand, that the content was 
contextualised in a manner that precisely raises questions around 
pornography.  An object never exists in isolation, and the meaning 
that is attributed to any particular object is determined to a 
significant extent by the ensemble of relations of which it is a 
part.  That is to say, one cannot claim that an object is 
pornographic without considering the set of relations in which that 
object is placed, and which enables the production meaning.  Even 
then, the problematic of what constitutes pornography remains a vexed 
issue.  Sexy Flowers presents images that in one instance are 
identifiably pornographic, and in another are transformed into a 
flower.  The image still exists, but its form or media has shifted 
from an electronic image to a handmade flower.  Is that same image 
still pornographic?

5.  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 gallaries 
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.

6.  I suspect this instance of censorship is also representative of a 
fear by the Board of Directors of the reaction government funders and 
commercial sponsors may have to the installation.  If this factor of 
perception is at all lurking in the cultural disposition of the 
Board, then what we have is a most disturbing instance where the 
bureaucratisation and commercialisation of art assumes a moral high 
ground over what constitutes the object of art.  In being 
interpellated into the space of commerce and government, the Board of 
Directors in turn reproduces the pernicious territory of absolute 
morals.  (Do you too, dear reader, detect the whiff of election 
fever?!)

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'. 
(http://www.experimenta.org/about.htm)

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
Lecturer in Communications
School of Humanities, Communications and Social Sciences
Monash University
Australia
tel. +61 3 9904 7023
fax. +61 3 9904 7037
email: Ned.Rossiter {AT} arts.monash.edu.au

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