C Is for Censored

Talking with Marni Kotak, Brooklyn College student and censored artist

Marni Kotak has been in the Williamsburg art scene for a decade. When not doing public relations, she creates multimedia pieces where she re-enacts her real-life experiences. She and the other students due to graduate from Brooklyn College launched their thesis show, Plan B, at the Brooklyn War Memorial on May 3. On May 4, the parks department, citing an agreement with Brooklyn College that all exhibits be appropriate for families and claiming complaints from the public, shut down the show. Days later, without artist oversight or permission, Brooklyn College had the art removed, damaging, according to students, some pieces in the process.

Kotak, whose thesis piece, Third Grade, included a video of her as a schoolteacher and a live performance of her wearing a dunce cap in a classroom corner, contacted the media. Plan B artists are preparing to sue the city of New York, the NYC Parks Department, and Brooklyn College. They have also launched a blog at plancensored.blogspot.com.


A video still from Kotak's Third Grade
photo: Marni Kotak
A video still from Kotak's Third Grade

How did you find out that the parks department was shutting Plan B down? I received phone calls at about 3:45 p.m. on May 4. There were three students at the Brooklyn War Memorial. The parks department building supervisor for the site came and ordered them out. A locksmith then changed the locks and said, "If you have any questions, speak to Julius Spiegel, Brooklyn Borough Parks Commissioner."

There was a "verbal agreement" between the college and the parks department. Institutions don't make verbal agreements; individuals do. We'd heard nothing of this agreement until the lockout. We have not been informed of precisely when and between whom at the parks department and Brooklyn College it was made, or what their definition of "family friendly" is. Parks department spokesman Warner Johnston was unable to produce a copy of the agreement, and claimed it was "verbal." Colleen Roche, spokeswoman for Brooklyn College, refused to answer questions about it.


Behold some of the controversial artwork
photo: Marni Kotak
Art was damaged during the removal—what happened? Five days after the art was moved, one student at a time was allowed to inspect his or her work. Yejin Jun's Push and Pull foam-and-pins sculpture was damaged during the move. Carrie Fucile, who built a 7 x 8 x 10 foot wooden house, found only a few pieces that were used as packaging for other works of art. Other pieces were found by the loading dock for recyclable material

I'm missing over 10 drawings, the video of my performances at the show opening, and most of the elements of my installation. I found two chalkboard drawings, one torn apart, another erased and ruined. Most of Tamas Veszi's installation was missing; he could only find two paintings and three sculptures, all damaged. Augusto Marin's large folding chair and wall sculpture were found in pieces. None of us were given a chance to properly document our site-specific works before they were dismantled.

We've decided to try to go ahead and remount the show. However, as some of the works are badly compromised or missing—they may not be able to be shown in their original state.

Some of the art was "shocking"—a penis, a sexualized Eve, etc. Actually, the work in the show was not shocking at all by contemporary or art historical standards. Carl James Ferrero's work featured watercolors of male torsos. Augusto Marin's wall sculpture of a penis was classically rendered and set in a light box so that it was obscured. Honestly, I am not sure what prompted parks officials to shut down the show as if it were an emergency.

The war memorial has to be "appropriate for families." Last year, you made a piece called Pleasure War! An irony? My Pleasure War! performance/installation piece from 2005 was a commentary on our current political situation, but I honestly could never have foreseen something as incomprehensible as what happened to Plan B. There was nothing obscene about our show. Everyone in the armed forces must take an oath to defend the Constitution. It is sickening that city officials, in treating our exhibition with such derision, appear to scoff at that sacrifice.

Why sue? We as artists have to stand up to this violation of our First Amendment rights. We as students hope that our case will protect the civil rights of artists, students, and citizens across the country. Our decision to sue is based on principle; if we simply allow this to slide, who knows what civil rights may be in jeopardy next?

Everyone sues on "principle." But what do you want? Justice.

 
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