Against Censorship at KCAD

Image description: A screenshot of a still from Le’Andra LeSeur’s performance “He Was 12”. Photo credit is the artist’s. The artist, a Black woman dressed in a black t-shirt and black pants stands against a mauve background with the letter “N” in white projected upon her and the wall.

Update 9/12/17 9:29am: I received the following email through the gallery (i.e., no, I have not received any response from the President or anyone outside gallery management) — “…we are moving forward with presenting Le’Andra’s full body of work on a looping basis in the gallery space with some modifications. The audio will be presented with speakers rather than headphones and we’ll have a structure (temporary wall) that will contain the gallery space a bit further so that there is not accidental viewing of the video. We are pleased that we will be able to present this provocative and important work.”

Update 9/14/17: This issue, as an ongoing issue and discussion and being part of a larger set of issues at KCAD prompted me to delve deeper into my thoughts and information I have gathered. I had not tweeted about this issue — everything had been posted to Facebook prior to this, so I decided to tweet a thread walking through this issue further, discussing the importance of LeSeur’s work, and connecting this to larger issues at KCAD. The Storify of those tweets can be read HERE.

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As a student at Kendall College of Art & Design, and a student worker in the Fed Galleries at KCAD, I was made aware of an issue of censorship when our school president objected to the work of one of our ArtPrize participating artists in our professionally curated exhibition. The objection focused primarily (though not exclusively) on the language of the N-word projected upon the artist, Le’Andra LeSeur, during part of her performance. You can watch the videos online here. As a student of color and a student worker I was consulted regarding this concern, which I found a laughable concern because the language is well contextualized within the video of the performance and the accompanying wall text (which I acknowledge, was researched and written by myself), though I suggested some ways we could improve the wall text to be even plainer that the artist is a Black woman, that it is the artist herself performing, and that of course this performance touches on sensitive issues. I was asked to keep the issue to myself, asked to stop referring to it even privately as “censorship,” and asked to modify other reactions/language used in discussing the exhibition as a whole in order to respect the “sensitive nature” of the controversy they wanted to keep quiet. I was emotionally impacted by being asked to hold onto the evidence of racism and censorship harming a fellow Black artist, and no one involved seems to have considered how the secrecy and emotional labor of holding their tensions and fears as the “controversy” played itself out towards a decision of “what to do” (that completely disregarded the unpaid consultation with me) was itself another form of unintentional but real racism. To be clear, it was not the gallery that had objections or concerns about the work itself, but the school president.

While I am uncomfortable with providing the text of the President’s email that I reference below, because it was an internal email, I have decided to make public the letter that I have sent in response to her email that included informing us of a decision to place the video in a separate viewing area, outside of the galleries, and show it only at selected times. There are, in fact, two separate displays for LeSeur’s entry. One is a video series (“Visual Profiles”) that has been allowed to remain in the gallery, and the other is the series that has been moved. Because of the high volume of ArtPrize attendees (often about 1,000 per day in our gallery alone, though the event is spread out throughout the entire downtown area), it is not likely that many will really have an opportunity to see the “Searching” series, nor will they want to wait around for or return for time of the showing, especially for what amounts to a total of about 20 minutes of film. They are therefore less likely to be able to understand the impact or true context of “Visual Profiles” and less likely to vote for LeSeur’s entry.

As a student, working artist, and art historian/culture critic who has dealt with significant amounts of racism at my school and been adversely impacted by it, I am deeply concerned about the root issues of this controversy as well as the immediate inclination to censor work by the only Black artist in the six artist exhibition. For further context, it is important to note that concerns were raised about the work presented by a Latinx artist as well, even though the concern raised was related to nudity that is regularly exhibited in the gallery. It was therefore apparent even to many white people involved in the conversations that race was an underlying factor in the concerns being raised.

Below is the full text of the letter which I have sent to the school regarding this issue. It is long, but I believe it is important.

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Dear President Bellavance,

Audre Lorde, a queer Black poet and writer once wrote: “Your silence will not protect you,” (1) and on another occasion she wrote:

“and when we speak we are afraid

our words will not be heard

nor welcomed

but when we are silent

we are still afraid

So it is better to speak remembering

we were never meant to survive” (2)

Out of respect for SJ and MB, I have held my peace, attempting to be patient and weigh the situation, but given your email of September 8, 2017, I can no longer afford silence. To be clear, I am addressing this to you as the President, but I am copying this to and also addressing it to President Eisler, Dr. David Pilgrim as Officer/VP of Diversity and Inclusion, and the KCAD Deans, (as well as copying MB and SJ, who were not aware of my intent to respond to you), because I do not want to see this brushed under the rug internally. Because this is also a point of integrity, however, and because this has gone on too long now and the artist and students of KCAD deserve to know who is in solidarity with them, this letter will also be made public, and I want you to know that quite clearly.

I was made aware of the concerns about Le’Andra LeSeur’s entry Searching shortly after they arose because I am a student worker in the gallery. As a Black and Indigenous student, an artist/art historian, and the person who researched and wrote up the initial artist statements and wall text, I was asked for my advice on further contextualizing the work and how to use language thoughtfully in doing so while considering the concerns that had been brought up. I have therefore been aware of the way this “controversy” was manufactured and managed by you.

Let me be clear from the outset: What you are doing is censorship, no matter how much you dislike that word. And it is wholly unnecessary and inappropriate, something a university, much less one dedicated to the arts, should not be perpetrating. The only controversy caused by LeSeur’s video is by you, and it is blatantly racist that the concerns about this year’s show are targeting a Black artist and a Brown/Latinx artist. I am well aware that white people think it is the greatest insult to be named as racist, but there is no euphemistic way for me to put this. This entire situation is created by your racism, and it is a profound insult and damage to the artist, to KCAD’s students of color, and to the larger community. Now, I am not surprised by the racism of the situation because I deal with racism one way or another every single day at KCAD, from fellow students, from professors, and from the very way classes are taught that disrespects or downplays the contributions of artists, art historians, and culture critics of color. I also deal with it in the responses of ArtPrize visitors to art that we show. And this is the crux of the issue: You are more concerned with defending the potentially racist worries of visitors than providing a show that embraces and offers voice to the rest of us.

From your email:

“A key component of KCAD’s mission is promoting the ethical and civic responsibilities of artists and designers.”

As an opening line, this set the stage for how I read the remainder of your message, and even if I had not been fully aware of the entire situation, this would have been concerning. This sentence implies that the artist is at fault and was not ethical or civically responsible. Quite the opposite, LeSeur’s work is deeply responsible and ethical, and it is KCAD that is being neither by reducing access to her work.

Your choice to ghettoize Searching in a separate room with limited showings and access is not ethical or demonstrating civic responsibility. I use the term “ghettoize” quite intentionally as a Black student of your college. That is exactly what you are doing, and I have no illusions that you are not aware and intentional in doing so. Censorship doesn’t always look like outright full removal; it can also look like limiting access in such a way that it strongly discourages people from trying to view the work and/or makes it too difficult for them to do so. Aside from the issue of censorship, this also affects the artist’s ability to receive votes for the project as described on her ArtPrize page. Although people can still vote for her on the basis of her other Visual Portraits work, they are not able to properly and fully contextualize that video without Searching, and people will be less likely to recognize the power of the combined work now that they have been distinctly separated. It is unethical to limit her access to votes. ArtPrize, whatever critiques I may have of them, is explicitly about the democratization of art, which includes making art accessible and available and providing opportunities for complex conversations that art engenders. To limit that access and seek to exert control over those conversations goes against the intent of ArtPrize.

There are layers of insulting dishonesty in your email, including that placing the work in a “separate screening room” is “a widely-accepted solution for similar works”. The reasons that many galleries would place such work in a screening room is related to gallery design and seating. Essentially, gallery F in the Fed Galleries already served the same purpose as screening rooms in various other spaces — a relatively quiet space slightly separated from the crowds of the remaining show, in which people could concentrate on the video with little distraction. Viewers already have a “choice” whether they enter gallery F, and another choice upon reading the accompanying text as to whether they will put on the headphones to engage with the video and for how long they will do so. By removing Searching from the galleries all together and separating it from Visual Portraits you are not offering any additional nuance. You are instead saying, “this is something we are ashamed of, afraid of, and unwilling to fully engage.” I am also well aware that this was NOT your original decision for the work and was, instead, the option you chose only because you realized the backlash to your intended full censorship was going to be ugly. I am here to tell you, this choice is not significantly better or less offensive, and again, yes, it is still censorship.

Black people do not have the luxury of refusing to engage with our realities in this country — the truth of police violence, the truth of communal trauma, the issues that LeSeur is raising with her performance. That white people want to demand the right to disengage or choose if/when/how they engage is the root of exactly why we have these issues at all. This video could offer so many conversation and education opportunities, but instead you have decided to make things easy for white people who already are abdicating your responsibility for the larger issues the video is reacting to.

In your final paragraph you say you plan to engage with members of the community who will be impacted by the work, as well as the artist. It is deeply damaging to our community that you not only failed to make those efforts much sooner in this process, but that you have never ever made those efforts to engage with our community before so that you are making decisions based on bad assumptions about our truths and needs. You are making reactive decisions based on an attempt to clean up the controversy, rather than in good faith efforts to provide opportunities to members of our community to lead conversations on this work.

As a Black and Indigenous student at KCAD, I can say with no compunction that the school has absolutely no concern at all for our opinions, feelings, or needs. I have been irreparably damaged by my experiences of rampant and ongoing racism (as well as transantagonism and ableism, but that’s another email) at KCAD. It is through the Fed Galleries (and support from very new faculty in my department) that I feel any respect for my identities and life. It is through the Fed Galleries that I have been able to refine my artistic and critical voice, while being validated and encouraged that my voice matters. That staff would be made to fear risk to their job for speaking against censorship and against the underlying racism of that censorship is appalling.

The message your students of color are receiving is that we are too much for you to handle, that our issues — and art that addresses our lives — are offensive to you. Students who are marginalized in other ways than race notice this and will wonder if it applies to their voices as well. Nor does this offer students who do not personally face racial, disability, sexuality, gender identity, or class marginalization the opportunities they should receive in college to learn about experiences and lives outside their own or how to embrace empathy. This is a massive failure in your duties as President and your supposed concern for ethics and civic responsibility.

Anything less than allowing LeSeur’s full participation in ArtPrize is an affront to the very values you claim to be upholding. Something as simple as vinyl text at the entry to gallery F saying that “some language and topics may not be suitable for younger viewers” (which I disagree with — our children of color are certainly being subjected to the language and the danger to their lives) or “the following addresses the sensitive topic of police violence and race, viewer discretion is advised” would have been a far more reasonable and logical solution to your concerns. Such steps could still be taken even now. As long as Searchingis ghettoized away from Visual Portraits, LeSeur remains censored, her work is being evaluated by voters and other viewers in an incomplete fashion, and many of us in the community will remain dissatisfied. A significant apology and offer of amends should also be made to the artist, as well as an apology to the KCAD community. I am at this time also requesting a personal meeting with Dr. David Pilgrim and our new Dean, Charles Wright to discuss the fact that this is just one symptom of many in the utter failure of “diversity and inclusion” at KCAD which has directly impacted my own academic and personal well-being, as well as that of many other students who have been afraid to speak up about it. An investment must be made in students of color and other marginalized students, in which we 1. are more genuinely affirmed and supported, 2. know how to seek redress for issues that we experience, and 3. are able to be heard in our concerns and proactive measures are taken to lower incidences of racism and other harms. Students are certainly paying enough to have the right to a racism-free education, and the right to create and show work that expresses their lives without fear of censorship or loss of other support, and your ability to attract and retain us is directly dependent on giving us a safe and respectful education. Faculty and staff have that same right to an affirming employment situation where they do not fear loss of their job or voice every time the most conservative elements of our city decide to forget that we are, after all, an art school — and art schools should be at the forefront of critical thinking and creative solution seeking.