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“Hide/Seek” Flap: “Silence = Death” (but so does intemperate rhetoric)

SilDea.jpg
Act Up (Gran Fury), “Neon Sign (Silence = Death)” from “Let the Record Show,” 1987, New Museum

There was a moment when I cringed while sitting in the NY Public Library’s auditorium beside the National Portrait Gallery’s director, Martin Sullivan, listening to his curators discuss the NPG’s controversial “Hide/Seek” show. It was a supremely quotable moment that I didn’t manage to capture on video, nor did I publish those comments in this post.

I had recoiled because it seemed to me that far from serving the cause of furthering exhibitions on gay themes, the name-calling by curator Jonathan Katz—a SUNY Buffalo professor given to no-holds-barred “academic activist” rhetoric—could only hurt his (and the NPG’s) cause by goading the opposition.

Today Philip Kennicott of the Washington Post published a soundbite from Katz’s “American Taliban” quote. The “representatives” he excoriates have undoubtedly now seen it.

Here (from my audio recording) is the long version:

We are almost united in opposition to the Taliban and their destruction of religious imagery in Afghanistan—the destruction of the famous statues. But we have an American Taliban that we haven’t called as such—an American Taliban that is very much invested in the destruction of images they don’t like, in contravention of freedom of speech and, of course, the separation of church and state enshrined in our constitution.

It is appalling to me that our representatives align themselves with that American Taliban and nobody seems to say anything.

Perhaps of more artworld interest than this counterproductive escalation of rhetoric were Katz’s remarks suggesting that the controversial four-minute clip that visitors to the exhibition had seen (until it was removed from the show) was not exactly the work that David Wojnarowicz had created. It was, in part, a concoction of the curator.

In response to an informed question from the audience, Katz stated:

As people probably know by now, I edited the film down to about four minutes. It was much longer in its original version. And I did so only in terms of length, not in terms of content. Every scene that’s in the original is in the four minutes; it’s just truncated in terms of time frame. And that was, of course, for museological display. The original was simply too long.

We had this problem, where [either] we put it on the wall and people will see it in a much shorter time frame, or we put it separately and run it full scale, but then only a fraction of the people would actually see it. I wanted video to be integrated in the exhibition; I wanted it to be on the wall. [Sullivan later said, as captured in yesterday's CultureGrrl Video, that the NPG didn't have the space to provide a separate space for the video.]

The point of the soundtrack is absolutely critical. Famously, a beautiful and powerful soundtrack was recorded by Diamanda Galas for this image. That was not the soundtrack that was original too it. It was originally silent.

What we elected to do was to find a soundtrack that was, in some sense, between the familiar Diamanda Galas version and an earlier silent version. That was using a tape from an Act Up demonstration that David Wojnarovicz himself had taped. With the permission of the foundation, we applied that as the soundtrack for the film, precisely because it has moments, as activist actions often do, of loud noise and moments of silence.

A member of the audience then asked:

She [Galas] had no idea about the marriage of the two works until about two years ago and only officially knew about it after it was yanked from the gallery. So I’m wondering what you know about that version. Who married those two artists in that way?

Katz’s reply:

As far as I’m able to understand, it came about in a [1990] film called Silence = Death, in which the filmmaker, Rosa von Praunheim, scored the two together. But that may not be the first iteration of it, and if there is one, I’d love to hear what it is.

Wojnarowicz, as I stated in my Huffington Post piece, might well have appreciated the current controversy over his work. It’s arguable, though, whether he would have approved of tampering with it. To me, it seems inarguable that there’s no such thing as “curatorial license,” giving a museum the right to alter a dead artist’s work to render it more museological.

an ArtsJournal blog