By: Annamarya Scaccia for the Brooklyn College Kingsman (May 15, 2006)
It was only 5 p.m. Saturday evening, but the graduate art students were sprawled on the floor, visibly exhausted by the day. They had held their vigil at this post from 9 a.m., entering one by one, escorted by a security guard, into 206 Roosevelt Extension to inspect the remnants of their artwork and to search for the ones that have seemingly gone missing.
At that precise moment, the other half of students were by the Central Routing Offices in the basement of Roosevelt Hall, doing the same thing. This was the first time the students had been able to view their work since it was seized by Brooklyn College.
The looks on their faces confirmed the worst.
This has been the situation for the 18 Masters of Fine Art students, whose recent thesis exhibit “Plan B.” was shut down unexpectedly by the Parks Department two weeks ago for “obscene” material displayed, deeming what it claims is a sexually explicit video, among other works, objectionable. Painfully visible by their demeanor, the students seem to have endured a tiring ordeal in a back and forth attempt to figure out where exactly things went wrong.
Much of what they had worked on for the past few months possibly years was irreparably ruined by movers employed by Brooklyn College administrators for the vacation of supposedly indecent material from the War Memorial at Cadmen Plaza last Monday- a move students did not consent to.
According to Brooklyn President Christoph Kimmich, the school had no choice in removing the work because when the movers arrived at the Memorial, “there were three sanitation trucks parked outside,” leading them to believe that the artwork would have been thrown out a claim the Parks Department denied.
“Let me make it extremely clear that the Departments of Parks and Recreation under no terms would consider throwing out students artwork,” said Warner Johnston, director of public affairs for the Parks Department, who said that, if sanitation trucks were spotted, it was only because the memorial is cleaned every day.
Following the shows sudden closure, Brooklyn College, according to Kimmich, searched for a new gallery to house the student’s thesis projects, even putting into consideration areas on campus. During this process, the college was approached by David Walentas, who offered the services of his studio, located at 70 Washington St. in DUMBO, Brooklyn. This past Friday, the students were expected to reinstall their work in the space and have a re-opening for “Plan B,” on May 24, a day before the exhibition was initially slated to end. However, this has now become an impossible undertaking because the pieces have been so badly damaged.
“I don’t know what we are going to do,” said Marni Kotak, one of the artists featured in the exhibit and press contact for the students. “We don’t know how we are going to recreate the work that’s missing or if some of us are going to have the time to do that.”
What upsets Kotak most, she said, is the obstinacy of the Brooklyn College administration. “If they had to move it, why didn’t they hire professional art handlers to move it?,” she said. “They treated our artwork with the same level of respect that you treat your garbage.”
Students had scheduled a meeting on the day of the contested move with Provost Roberta Matthews in order to discuss other options for the show. However, Tamas Verszi, one of the students featured in the show, claims that Matthews scheduled a “fake meeting” to divert them from what was taking place at the War Memorial- the unauthorized removal of their property.
According to Megan Piontkowski, another student whose work was exhibited in the show, the students were only informed of the move after hearing scattered rumors, prompting them to station a few students as lookouts at the memorial that morning. Kotak said that at around 8:30 a.m., a half hour before the scheduled meeting, she received a phone call from a student saying that Brooklyn College trucks had arrived at the Plaza. At that time, the other students and professors were in Matthews’ office waiting to be heard. Instead, they were welcomed with a cancellation notice, which they feel was a questionable move on Matthews’ part. Matthews denied that the meeting was a “diversion” and said that her reason for calling off the session was legitimate.
“It is absolutely not true,” said Matthews. “I canceled the meeting for a number of reasons that I can not get into at the moment.”
On May 9, three days after the students staged a rally at Cadmen Plaza, chanting “Unlock the Art” in protest of the exhibits closure, Brooklyn College faculty voted in a council meeting and were unified in condemning the Parks Departments censorship of the exhibit and BC administrations decision to remove the work without informing the students. They were also in support of the graduate art student’s right to freedom of expression.
Now, fed up with both Brooklyn College and the Parks Department, students are planning to file a police report and sue the city and college for violating their First Amendment right. Details of the lawsuit are not available as the students have yet to file a claim.
“What the Parks Department did amounted to censorship,” said the lawyer representing the students Norman Siegel, former director of the New York Civil Liberties Union. “Just as it is not the government’s job to decide what should and should not be expressed, it is not the government’s job to determine what art is and is not family-oriented.”
In this case, Julius Spiegel, Brooklyn Parks Department commissioner, has done just that he had determined that the exhibit was not “family-oriented.”
In so many words, he considered it was “obscene.”
But what is obscenity? The legal definition of the word states that in order for material to be considered obscene, it cannot have any serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value. According to David Hudson, research attorney at the First Amendment Center in Nashville, TN, who does not understand the rationale for the complete closure of the exhibit, it is particularly hard for artwork to fall under the category of “obscene,” and at the very least, it should be reserved for “very rare instances.”
“It sounds as if the exhibit was shut down because some believed it was offensive,” said Hudson. “But the point is that the First Amendment protects offensive, even repugnant expression.”
“Also, offensiveness is often in the eyes of the beholder,” he added.
Still, even if by legal standards, artwork should not, or rather could not, be considered “obscene” or offensive, the Parks Department thought otherwise. According to Johnston, Brooklyn College had reached a verbal agreement six years ago with Spiegel when the college first acquired the rights to use the space. It was conceded, Johnston said, that when using the space for M.F.A exhibits, the College would only display “family friendly” works- excluding overtly sexual pieces. This, coupled with the fact that the public space also serves as a war memorial, led Spiegel to his decision.
According to the New York Times, Spiegel has said that he received a few complaints about some of the pieces and felt that, because of the nature of the material displayed, the exhibit should be shut down immediately. The doors were then pad locked, preventing the students from viewing their projects for a week.
“If you look at the terms of the [verbal agreement], Spiegel made the determination that the pieces were not appropriate for families,” said Johnston. “He felt it was his responsibility to close the exhibit so that families would not view them.”
Mayor Michael Bloomberg seconds Spiegel’s decision. “There has been an understanding ever since art was put here that the art would be appropriate for families and respectful of a war memorial,” he said. “This time it was not…when the Parks Department saw it, they said it wasn’t appropriate and that’s the end of that.”
The students, though, remain frustrated. According to Kotak, Spiegel has yet to provide specific information on the complaints he claims to have received about the exhibit. The only statement he made, she said, was that the exhibit was not “appropriate for families.” However, Kimmich has stated that although he does not know the specifics of the agreement, he is aware of its existence.
Unlike Kimmich, students deny previous knowledge of such an agreement. “They said there was a verbal agreement but we have no information on the agreement,” said Kotak. “When the Parks Department spokesperson Warner Johnston was asked, he said there was no written agreement, just a verbal one.”
“Spiegel just decided that he didn’t like the show and locked it up, which is clear censorship,” she added.
Although Kimmich says his knowledge of the deal is limited, he did mention another form of contract between the two parties- one that is in writing. He said that every year, Brooklyn College would sign a permit that bared a disclaimer dictating that it could be “revoked at the discretion of the Parks Department.”
Regardless, speaking on behalf of the students, Kotak claimed Siegel has obtained a copy of the permit and no such disclaimer exists. However, according to Warner Johnston, all Parks Department standard permits are similar in the fact that they can be revoked.
“It seems like whatever standard the Parks Department has is an overly vague one that they are applying here,” said Megan Fitzgerald, organizer for the Center for Campus Free Speech, located in Chicago, IL.
According to Floyd Abrams, a renowned First Amendment attorney with the law firm Cahill Gordon & Reindel, in spite of the verbal agreement hammered out between the Parks Department and Brooklyn College which could have given Spiegel the authority to place judgment on the exhibit and ultimately shut it down, the students have grounds for legal action.
“Certainly, First Amendment issues of a very serious nature are raised by the college’s action. In fact, the only defense I’ve heard which could have any validity could be the terms of the contract the students signed,” Abrams said. “Even then, I think the students would have a strong case.”
Kimmich said that Brooklyn College does plan to monetarily compensate the students for any damaged artwork, but it would only be for material items used for the production because the college can not repay them for “time or effort.”
Baffled by Kimmich’s comment, Piontkowski had this to say in response: “So does that mean art itself is worthless?”
“That’s insulting,” she added.
However, for Marty Markowitz, Brooklyn Borough President, the situation between the Parks Department, Brooklyn College, and the students is not so black and white.
“Balancing our right to free expression with the public responsibility that any artist assumes is fundamental to maintaining an open and thriving democratic society, especially here in Brooklyn, the creative capital of New York,” said Markowitz. “I believe this incident was more a result of miscommunication than censorship and had the Parks Department been made aware of the shows content in advance, I am confident that a compromise suitable to all parties could have been worked out.”
Back at room 206, the students are wrapping up for the day as a security guard locked the doors, just as the Parks commissioner sealed the doors to their exhibit. Whether or not their show will reopen for exhibition any time soon remains to be seen, however, in the words of Zoe Cohen, president of the Graduate Art Student Union and one of the students featured, “we make our artwork to be seen, not to be locked up by the administration.”