Monday, March 31, 2008

Kill the Messenger

This originally began as a post about the San Francisco Art Institute's decision to shut down Adel Abdessemed's exhibition "Don't Trust Me." However, the furor around this exhibition has created a kind of a perfect storm for me, as it touches on almost everything I find abhorrent: inhumane treatment of animals, censorship, knee-jerk alarmist reactions by those who don't appear to know (or don't want to know) anything beyond their own alarmist reaction, threats of violence against human beings, the notion that anyone should be permitted to force their viewpoint on a larger group through intimidation or violence, artistic "critique" of the impoverished, and blind stupidity/groupthink.

I find myself so spun around by this that I have trouble pinning down which of these things is most distressing to me. But perhaps worse is the way in which I found that I was nearly ready to censor myself, and the reasons thereto. I will address those issues in a future post, perhaps tomorrow. But for now, I want to focus on the controversy surrounding Abdessemed.

I want to start off by making it clear that I did not see this exhibition, nor do I know very much about this artist, although I am a little familiar with some of his other work. And although I spent the morning looking for it, I was not able to find a great deal of information directly from him about his intentions for or his process in creating this particular work. I suspect this may be intentional. What I do know is that the exhibit included video footage shot in Mexico of five individual animals being slaughtered, apparently by being hit in the head with a sledgehammer.

Some descriptions of the video called it “surreal” and suggested it left the viewer confused as to what had actually happened. Still others called it “visceral” or “disgusting” or “horrifying.” Clearly, it is, at the very least, profoundly affecting and disturbing.

What is not clear to me is whether the artist physically participated in the killing of the animals or orchestrated it in any way other than operating his video camera.

A press release from the San Francisco Art Institute quotes president Chris Bratton, saying Adbessemed “participated in an already-existing circuit of food production in a rural community in Mexico. The animals were raised for food, purchased, and professionally slaughtered. In fact, what causes the controversy is that Abdessemed, an artist, entered this exchange, filmed it, and exhibited it.”

I am a bit disturbed by not knowing what is meant by "participated in …" or "entered this exchange …" but I take this statement overall to suggest that the killing of these animals in this particular way was going to happen whether there was a video camera present or not. As a horse-lover, I have made it my business to learn a little bit about how the large livestock slaughterhouses work in Mexico, where most of this country’s cast-off equines wind up. Let me tell you, their primary objective is not the humane dispatch of the animal, it is getting as many of them through the kill box and onto the meat floor in as short a period of time as possible. This sometimes involves use (sometimes expert, sometimes not) of a captive bolt, but also sometimes involves use of a large knife to stab the horse multiple times in the back in order to damage the spinal cord enough to render the horse paralyzed. At this point its throat is cut and the animal is hung up by its hind legs to facilitate “bleeding out.” This is not a peaceful death, nor a death free of trauma or pain.

There is video of this process available on the Internet; all one has to do is Google “horse slaughter” and “video”. And yet, there is no mass letter-writing campaign to the SHARK web site to remove its slaughterhouse videos immediately, no movement of radical animal rights activists calling for the vet who filmed the work to be killed to secure “revenge” for the animals. No one is phoning or emailing the slaughter houses threatening to rape the workers’ children or blow up their homes.

Yet this is what occurred when word about Abdessemed’s piece got around. Why? What was the difference in this case that made “kill the messenger”—sometimes literally—an almost universal response, among both “radical animal rights activists” and groups of “deeply offended” soccer moms, most of whom had not seen and were unlikely ever to see the exhibition?

The only difference I can find, given the informaton that I have (aside from art being an easy and frequent target; like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart and obscenity, most people can’t define art but believe they know it when they see it)—is that of the context of a clear intent. The slaughter videos on the SHARK (SHow Animals Respect and Kindness) web site have a very clear context, there is no ambiguity in what they hope to achieve by making these videos available. Although the videos are what they are, they are presented in a framework that clearly articulates SHARK’s point of view.

In an art gallery, the viewer is oftentimes invited—or abandonned—to calculate his or her own point of view, without clues as to what the artist “wants” them to think. Adbessemed’s intent for—indeed, even his level of participation in—the “kill” videos remains ambiguous. And as we are often afraid of what lurks in our own heads, human beings are generally not comfortable with ambiguity.

Am I defending the work? I’m not sure. As I said, I didn’t see it before the Art Institute pulled the exhibition, and I don’t have much information to go on that hasn’t already been filtered through multiple layers of hysteria. If Abdessemed orchestrated the killing of these animals in any way differently than the fate they would have met had he not been there, then I definitely have a problem with it. If he was videotaping something that simply was the norm in that community, even as much as I might disapprove of the act itself, there is nothing in videotaping it that I can find to criticise, nor with including it as a piece in an exhibition.

When we get right down to it, however, it is not the artist nor the work that upsets me. It’s not that the Art Institute caved in the face of what it called “credible threats of violence” (although we all know that some circles might read that as “credible threats of negative publicity among potential donors.”).

Instead, there are two things: one is the fact that some people believe they have the right to impose their will on others through intimidation and threats of violence. I find this idea completely appalling, whether we are talking about a 6th grade schoolyard bully or a religion or a government. I also think it particularly offensive that groups that insist humans have no dominion over animals can so easily make the leap to taking on for themselves dominion over other people who hold opinions (or in this case, are assumed to hold opinions, or are even related to the expression of assumed opinions) that differ from their own. This is supposed to be America-Land-of-the-Sort-Of-Free, not a fascist state. And the last time I read through some of the message boards on the "kill video" issue, the comments there certainly did not support any notion that the posters were somehow operating from a position of superior intellect, insight, or moral character.

The second thing: if this video footage is, as the President of the Art Institute has suggested, a representation of the way things are in “a rural community in Mexico,” is this not just again another instance of a resident of a priviledged nation (Abdessemed is Algerian-born, but lives and works in the U.S.) pointing up a fictive “otherness” among those who ultimately are not less human but instead merely less priviledged? Perhaps again we meet with ambiguity for a reason, perversely unsettling, but unsettling with a purpose that we ourselves must determine from within.

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