A conversation between G.H. Hovagimyan and Mark Cooley conducted through electronic mail - January 2008.
MC: Over the years, you've had experiences with various authorities that have tried in one way or another to censor your work. I'm interested if you could identify and comment on particular sites of censorship that exist in and around Art institutions and identify some the taboos that tend to generate negative responses from potential censors (curators, board members, sponsors, politicians, and other interested parties).
GH: The most blatant example was a piece called, Tactics for Survival in the New Culture. It was a text piece. I was going to put it in the windows of 112 Workshop (the first alternative space in New York City & the US) in 1974. Since 112 depended on grants from NYSCA and National Endowment for the Arts I was told I couldn't do the piece because it would jeopardize their funding. I did do the piece later for another exhibition called the Manifesto Show for COLAB (an artists group I was a member of). When I first started working on the internet twenty years later in 1994 I put the piece up as a hypertext work. I have also updated it from a manifesto to an interactive textual maze http://www.thing.net/~gh/artdirect . The piece is not cute. It deals with the dark side of the American psyche. It is a meditation on the psychological states that would bring one to be an anarchist. It is a New York Punk Art piece. Punk was a rebellion against the fake hippy utopian art that was being produced at the time. That type of art is still being produced. It gets a lot of funding because it uncontroversial.
There are of course several ways to censor artists for example the simplest is to not include the work in an exhibition or ask the artists to alter the work to make it more acceptable. This happens to me a lot in the US. Several of my artworks in particular my net.art works have sexual content. One of my first internet pieces Art Direct/ Sex Violence and Politics http://www.thing.net/~gh/artdirect was always raising hackles because of the sexual content. It was not included in several major internet shows because the museums were afraid that children would come upon the images and they would be liable. In this case both the government and the institution censored the work. In France the same work was featured in a centerfold of Art Press magazine in a special issue on techno art.
People who censor are often corporations flexing their muscle. One of the pieces in Art Direct … called BKPC http://nujus.net/gh_04/gallery6.html , used Barbie, Ken and G.I. Joe dolls. At some point the isp host, *the thing* received a letter from Mattel toys demanding that the site be removed for violation of copyright. I had to get a lawyer and send them a letter saying it was fair use and for them to back off. Luckily the people at the thing were not intimidated by Mattel so the site stayed up. By the way BKPC is about interracial sex so it makes people uncomfortable or it's titillating. When I showed the physical work in a Christmas showed called Toys/Art/Us , I was asked by the curators to make sure that children could not view the art work. I did this by mounting the works in glassine sleeves on a podium that could only be seen by standing adults. I was lucky the curator wanted to show the work and was willing to work through the problem with me. In other cases the curator would not be that imaginative and simply shy away from showing anything that was vaguely controversial.
Another case of censorship was the Whitney Art Port an online new media projects gallery. I did a piece called Cocktail Party that featured synthetic voices in conversations as if they were drunk and at a cocktail party. I was asked to remove three sequences because of their sexual content. I wanted so much to be included in this project and the curator was a friend that I altered the piece, removing the offensive parts. The curator was afraid that the corporation would stop funding the project if I offended them with my overt content.
This happens all the time to every artist and it's quite a dilemma. If you do the work unaltered it often means that you are not ever selected again for exhibitions. But then again Michelangelo had to paint a fig leave on the Sistine Chapel.
MC: The funding issue is interesting to me and seems to come up in many of your experiences. Censorship stories, as rarely as they are covered in the news, seem to focus heavily on the ideological component of censorship and whether public money should be used to fund controversial art. I'm interested to hear more about how anxieties regarding funding (public or private) influence curatorial decisions inside art institutions. I'm interested to hear your thoughts on this sort of economically determined censorship and its effects on art and public discourse around art. I'm also interested to know if these funding anxieties have worsened or changed as art institutions have switched over to the Arts management model and have made themselves so dependent on corporate sponsorship for programming?
GH: I did a large billboard piece called Hey Bozo… Use Mass Transit http://nujus.net/gh_04/gallery2.html . It was five large billboards scattered around New York City to convince people to use mass transit. It was part of a competition put on every year by the MTA and Creative Time. I received an Honorarium of $500 and they produced the billboards. The piece caused such a stir that it was in the papers for a week straight and I was on TV on all the networks. One of the upshots was that conservatives wanted to know why public money was used to produce an artwork that insulted motorists and the other thing that happened was that Bozo the Clown tried to sue me for trademark infringement because I used the word Bozo. These are symptoms or indications of a deeper issue albeit a populist one. One the one hand you have a media figure (bozo the clown) who tries to sue anyone who uses the word Bozo. He's got a sort of cottage industry. This is the way that corporations deal with the avant garde they can't control. On the other hand you have mass media that tries to produce outrage in order to keep the attention of the population. This is also called delivering eyeballs and is a way to sell advertising. As you can see the main tool to attack an artist is money. either cut off funding or sue them. This is a way to stop them from getting their message out whatever that message might be. But there's a flip side to this coin. We live in an information environment. There really is no way to stop information from coming out. It will be presented in a different venue for example the internet or in the case of art, alternative festivals, galleries etc.. So the idea of censorship is media specific or venue specific. It becomes a power game that is about who controls the venue and therefore controls the message. In this case it's a reflection of the capitalist marketing system and art is a part of that system. But I see art as something beyond that system.
There are essentially two economies for art. One is the market for objects this includes galleries, museums, magazines and all the ancillary services of art fairs etc.. The other is the academic economy, which trains artists, curators and all the people interested in art. These systems shape what art is seen and what the content and style of the work is about. Both systems have self perpetuating mechanisms. In the market it is about the object. If you don't make art that has a physical object you can't be in the market. There is a component that has to do with entertainment and ticket sales in museums. This allows for installation and performance art as well as digital art and screen based art. Indeed, the economies of temporary museum spaces are a reflection of corporate manager style art.
The academic system on the other hand allows for artists who don't necessarily fit the market to have some financial patronage by teaching. The problem is that the artist's work and creativity is all about getting students to attend the university and their own class. This is another form of marketing.
I believe in a different type of art, an experimental, anarchic art that shakes things up and operates outside the existing art economies. In many instances this has been confused with the idea of an alternative life style that is a sort of well of inspiration for entrepreneurs looking for new products, ideas and people to sell to. Anarchic art is about something different it's about challenging and critiquing the existing systems. Why? because I believe that art is about seeing things clearly and is one of the few areas that has freedom. That form of art becomes dangerous because it is uncontrollable. It can't be packaged and marketed. That is why there is always a move towards censorship of radical art works.
There is also fake censorship or more precisely using outrage as a way to manipulate the art market. This is used successfully by people like Maurice Saatchi who had a show of his Young British Artists at the Brooklyn Museum. This show was also shown in England and there was outrage in London as well. The outrage in the US was about Cris Ofili's use of elephant dung in a virgin mary painting. A nice piece of art that was about his African roots. The outrage in London was about a photograph that portrayed a famous criminal child murderer in England. The public and the press demanded the works be “censored.” The works themselves went up in monetary value because of the outrage. The position is that of an artist that uses an epatez de bourgeois position in their art. This reinforces the patron's sense of being better than the masses. It is an elitist position. I happen to like the art works but the content of the pieces are standard for the art world. The Ofili piece is multiculturalism and the other work is punk. Both styles were first presented in the late 1970's and I view these latest pieces as stylistically conservative.
As you can see the notion of censorship is more of an unfulfilled demand by an outraged person in the street than any sort of actuality when it comes to the marketing of objects. Those works that are actually censored one never sees or hears about.
MC: I'm interested in what you call "fake censorship" or the use of public and media outrage as a marketing tactic. I'm reminded of an article - http://rtmark.com/rockwell.html - by Jackie Stevens concerning "Paradise Now: Picturing the Genetic Revolution," a 2000 Exit Art show concerning biotechnology. The article points out that, though the show included some very hard hitting criticisms of the biotech industry, it was nevertheless sponsored by biotech companies - companies that would have much to lose if consumers in the U.S. had the same sorts of concerns about biotechnology as some of the artists in the show. The obvious question of why would the biotech industry sponsor exhibitions that are openly critical of the industry's practices is answered with the help of interviews with the chief biotech investor behind the show. Stevens writes, "The reason is simple: art about biotechnology, especially with a critical edge, serves to reassure viewers that serious concerns are being addressed. Even more importantly, biotech-themed art implicitly conveys the sense that gene manipulation is a "fact on the ground," something that serious artists are considering because it is here to stay. Grotesque and perverse visuals only help to acclimate the public to this new reality." I am also reminded of a transcript I used in a piece once in which a Sara Lee Corporation executive, speaking of the corporation's "gifts" of impressionist art to the Art Institute of Chicago, stated, "Sara Lee's art collection has made a statement - a quality statement - about our company. Art is all about excellence and vision and striving for perfection - the same standards that we uphold for our portfolio of leading brands. We are quite certain that the ‘brand names’ of Monet, Renoir and Degas have been a great complement to Sara Lee and have become icons of excellence that reflect our approach to doing business." It seems that the mythology of fine art or the aura produced around fine art itself (namely, mythologies concerning artists being prophetic or ahead of their time, that art is about transcendence, universals, timelessness and so on) is a very useful context for the deployment of marketing schemes. Cases like these I've mentioned could almost make one nostalgic for old school censorship - the kind in which an authority comes down on an artist for producing work that is perceived as being offensive. At least in these scenarios the content is working - the work is having an effect. All this raises a couple of questions that I'd like to know your thoughts on. Firstly, do you agree with Stevens' assessment that the content of an artwork as intended by the artist can be eclipsed (effectively censored) by the curator, sponsors and institutional framework surrounding the show and fine art itself, and if so, should artists be trained (in academia and elsewhere) to be able to anticipate how their work is being used in a larger context and be prepared to engage in content production beyond the frame (so to speak)? What are the lessons you have learned over the years in these regards?
GH: This goes back to Wittgenstein’s Dictum, “the meaning of a word is its’ meaning,” and “The meaning of a word is its’ use.”
Look at it another way Steve Kurtz http://www.caedefensefund.org was creating some bio-art that was also political when he was arrested. The event caused the USGOV to come down hard claiming he’s a bio-terrorist. The art world has rallied around Steve and is doing what it can to stop his persecution. Steve’s artwork was in process and never exhibited so you can’t say that it was censored and yet the USGOV is trying to pin a terrorist label on him. The context here is fluid between a media occurrence, freedom of speech, and forces of unreasonable paranoia. Steve and the people around him now have an ongoing performance work that is a cause célébre about free speech. In the end it doesn’t matter if anyone ever sees the actual work, the censorship and repressive activity of the USGOV is the key factor. When realpolitik comes up against art, art always loses. On another level both sides of the Steve Kurtz dilemma are winning because they are using the event to create meaning for their separate actions.
Back to your initial question which is the context created by the venue and the funders. There is always a deal struck between the funders/patrons/venues and the artists that show in the venues or accept support from the patrons. The patrons are seen as progressive and open because of their support of the arts. The artists are seen as giving their support/approval of the patron and the gallery system by participating in it. That’s the simple deal. The complex deal has to do with the content of the artwork. When the church is your patron you do religious paintings. When the Dutch merchants are your patrons you do domestic scenes. When the government is your patron you do heroic art that glorifies the government and its programs. In America the market has become the patron or more correctly corporate marketing capitalism and its’ technocratic bureaucrats/ managers are the patrons. The content of art reflects that reality.
However, there are many forms of art that operate outside these realities. The notion of experimental art is an art that doesn’t function in established arenas. Maybe we can call this theoretical art because it posits an art that can function outside of the normal venues set up for art.
In terms of censorship it may be more of a case of power and control. If one chooses to work in theoretical art one can expect no support from the existing patrons of the arts. This is a very fundamental struggle about who controls the meaning of art (content). Who controls the how, when and where of art? That is one of the reasons that I choose to work with the internet and digital art. The venues are much freer. There is little or no market action attached to this type of artwork. Indeed, this very interview is an artwork that uses the internet as its vehicle. I can state that it is an information/meditation that comes from the use of the networks. In this case it is an outgrowth of all the other communication artists that have come before me such as Fred Forest or, Joseph Bueys or Allan Kaprow.
MC: Earlier, you spoke of an anarchistic art practice that would function in opposition to the status quo. I'm assuming that this art practice would take on the political economic structure of an anarchist community. What might this look like? Are there examples of art subcultures that operate on anarchistic principles like anti-authoritarianism, free association, nonhierarchical organization, consensus decision making, egalitarianism, etc? I'm also interested in your estimation of online communities and new media art portals (like Rhizome.org for instance) who seem to reference some of these concepts in their mission statements yet seem to fall short in their editorial structure and policies. Perhaps, the concepts that sites like Rhizome imagine - decentralized and nonhierarchical - and indeed the internet itself seems to offer - would work in such stark contrast with what the dominant values of the fine art establishment (and our dominant political economic systems) that it becomes impossible to maintain funding, affiliations etc. Do you think the openness and opportunity for alternative systems and practices that electronic networks offer(ed) is now closing up, or do you see as much opportunity now as in the mid-to-late 90's when it comes to networked art practice?
GH: There are many artists groups that are functioning at the moment. There is always a struggle and a dynamic where groups are involved. Rhizome has set up a sort of blog/news reporting website that has a brand name and a loose community around it. They have a mailist than functions somewhat as a place for critical discussion but the fundamental question is how does one move from discussion to action. The answer for rhizome is to be techno-centric and highlight emerging artists and technologies. They also spend a lot of time fundraising. The original project of rhizome by Mark Tribe was a simple anarchic mailist. This was also happening with nettime and thingist lists. There is one functioning now that is called [empyre] that comes out of Australia. Empyre was one of several list/communities that was featured during the documenta 6 in Kassel. I was actually involved in the discourse. My position was that I wanted to have my thoughts presented at the documenta http://magazines.documenta.de/frontend/article.php?IdLanguage=1&NrArticle=1718 .
There’s a back and forth flux on the internet that has some onerous aspects of fake digital democracy and fake creative freedom. This is web 2.0 where everyone can be creative and be content providers ala blogs and youTube etc.. This is the corporate bullshit of Facebook and Second Life. There’s an interesting piece in the Guardian about facebook that has be re-published on post.thing.net http://post.thing.net/node/1883 .
In any case, I am involved with three very vital digital art groups that have online/offline communities. One is called [PAM] http://perpetualartmachine.com - this is a video-artists community that has a physical kiosk presentation mode that is very much about non-hierarchical presentation. Another is locus sonus http://locusonus.org in France - that is an experimental sound art lab. I’ve also organized an artists group called Artists Meeting http://artistsmeeting.org that is just beginning to pick up steam. Part of what these groups are about is using the technology to create a media space for group interactions to occur. The funding model is pooling resources. I maintain the server nujus.net that Artists Meeting and locus Sonus use. The sysadmin is an engineering student in Split Croatia who is donating his services. Locus Sonus is funded by the French Cultural Ministry as an experimental lab. [PAM] got its' start by being included in the SCOPE art fair and artists Meeting is bootstrapping it at the moment.
What these groups have in common is the notion of doing projects together rather than having an individual artists’ voice. I like to engage in both positions, that is, I do individual pieces and I do group works. Two previous projects are accessible on the web right now. One is called rantapod http://spaghetti.nujus.net/rantapod and is a series of performance/meditations that is downloadable to ipod. The other is called Art Dirt Redux http://spaghetti.nujus.net/artDirt , which is a podcast/sound art piece. These all challenge the art market in some way because they exist and are seen by large numbers of net audiences without any artworld support whatsoever. So I can say that the internet does still function as a good venue for experimental anti-hierarchical art.
MC: In preparing this conversation for publication I noticed that in one of your initial emails to me - before we actually started the interview - you stated that you'd been censored for not using particular software or hardware in the production or display of your work. I think this ties in nicely with our discussion concerning corporate funding, but something that seems more of an issue in new media art then anything else (I can't imagine a paint company sponsoring a show and requiring the artists to only use their brand of paint). Perhaps you have some thoughts on this.
GH: There's a lot of net.art and digital curators who set up defining parameters for new media shows. These often focus on a piece of hardware or a type of coding as an organizing principal. This plays into or is a symptom of the computer/technology scene where there are *platform* wars such as internet explorer vs. netscape or mac vs pc. There are software wars such as Dreamweaver vs GoLive. These competitions are about dominating a market. This also happens in digital art where a group of artists insist that for example they are the only net.art artists that exist and try to corner the market with the willing help of a number of curators. Often artists working in new media believe that you must write your own code in order to be a digital artist or you must use JAVA or you must use open source software or …. You get the idea. I remember once speaking at a panel where there was a net artist who was using perl and php and Peter Sinclair and I were using Max MSP. The other artist talked only about the coding structure. Our piece used custom built software as well but we were interested in the content and the user interactions. This happens all the time where a person mistakes writing code for art or insist that digital art is only code. It's a rather boring discussion about hardware and software.
About the artists
G.H. Hovagimyan http://nujus.net/gh_04/index.html is an experimental digital artist working in a variety of forms. He was one of the first artists in New York to start working with the Internet in the early nineties. His work ranges from hypertext works to digital performance art and installations. His streamed video talk shows, Art Dirt and Collider explore and document the artists of the digital art scene at the time circa 1995-2000.
In 1996 he began collaborating with Peter Sinclair a British artist who lives in Marseilles, France. Their collaborative works have been shown internationally in Europe and the US. In 1998 their work, A SoaPOPera for Laptops received a prize in the Computer Music category at Ars Electronica in Linz, Austria.
Recent awards include: 2003 fellowship from Experimental Television Center, 2003 TAM Digital Media Commissions, 2002 Artists Fellowship from Franklin Furnace, 2002 pilot artist in residence program from Eyebeam, NYC.
He lives in New York City but is often in France, which has become a second home.
Mark Cooley http://www.flawedart.net is a new genre artist interested in visual rhetoric, forgotten histories and political economy. His work has been exhibited in many international venues - online and off. Mark is currently an Assistant Professor in the Department of Art and Visual Technology at George Mason University.