Salon NOTEBOOK: Difficult Conversations: The “C” Word: Censorship
by Zachary Whittenburg
Full-frontal nudity in photos of Joseph Ravens were in the performance artist’s application to participate in Pop-Up Art Loop — an initiative to fill vacant, street-level retail with art — in summer 2010. However, as Deanna Isaacs outlined in her cover story for the Chicago Reader, concerns about the triptych of portraits by Alan Rovge found Ravens walking away from the temporary gallery at 220 S Wabash Ave, and to Chicago Artists Coalition’s subsequent cancellation of five months of performances, curated by Links Hall for PUAL.
“The pop-up program is a special situation,” says CAC executive director Carolina Jayaram. “It affords the artists the opportunity for space, but the hook is it’s not our space to manage. Building owners have sensitivities regular galleries wouldn’t have. It’s been a big learning process.” She also notes that the CAC has never worked with performance artists before, and that’s “something different and challenging.”
“Different and challenging” also describes the work of Bangladeshi dancers that Munjulika Rahman studied for her recently defended performance-studies research at Northwestern University. Rahman’s doctoral dissertation, titled “Urban Dance in Bangladesh: History, Identity and the Nation,” brought her into contact with dancers whose work addressed gender and religion in unconventional ways. Said Rahman during the May 8 Chicago Dancemakers Forum Salon at DEFIBRILLATOR — a home for performance art that Ravens opened shortly after the Pop-Up dust-up — Bangladeshi dancers “have not been able to work on those themes. People in their communities have warned them not to work on those themes.”
Rahman and Ravens were the guests for this final “Difficult Conversation” in CDF’s 2011–12 Salon Series, but some attendees also shared their experiences of censorship. While presenting “Arte No Es Fácil,” a festival for Cuban-American exchange earlier this year, Links Hall encountered its own threshold to the offensive, explained Marie Casimir, the venue’s communications director. The guest-curated festival included a video of bestiality, screened only once.
What people find offensive varies broadly. “My reputation is maybe as something of a provocateur,” allowed Ravens, “but I think what I do is relatively tame in relation to some things I’ve experienced.” Upon arriving in Myanmar in late 2009 for “Beyond Pressure,” another international festival, Ravens had to unpack his materials for a solo, explain what they represented, and detail his performance. There was no tolerance for improvisation. “ ‘If you vary one inch from what you proposed,’ ” he recalls being told by government officials in Yangon (Rangoon), “ ‘we will kick you out of the country.’ ”
Kattywampus, the solo’s title, created issues of its own. American vernacular for askew, off-kilter or out of whack, “kattywampus” was translated for the “Beyond Pressure” program. Ravens doesn’t know what Burmese word was used in its place but it wasn’t a word Myanmar officials wanted to hear. Ravens chose the nonsense title on purpose and observed that, “if something can’t be defined, then that can cause problems.” Nevertheless, he and the festival’s 15 other artists passed inspection and presented their work as planned; the formal approval process, held around a long table outdoors at an upscale restaurant, “was a formality,” Ravens said — one whose absurdities were not lost on Myanmar’s cultural police.
“ ‘This is a giant replica of my own head,’ ” Ravens remembers telling the panel while holding a huge mask, custom-built by a mascot costume manufacturer, in his hands. “ ‘It’s an object that represents my ego.’ They started laughing after a while. I think [breaking] that tension was kind of cathartic.”
Responses to dances shown in Bangladesh, Rahman explained, depend on where and how public presentations of them are. In a reversal of attitudes in the United States, where there’s generally greater tolerance in urban centers than in rural communities, the concentration of government and media scrutiny in Dhaka narrows the range of what’s considered acceptable from, or even attempted by, dancers in the ninth-largest metropolitan area on the planet.
“In the villages, there are performances that have nudity, where you see men in drag [and] same-sex desire in a way you don’t see on stages in the capital city,” Rahman noted. Another factor there is a gender imbalance between audiences and performers: “Even if most of the dancers are female, 80 percent of the audience is male,” she estimated. Provocative, Bollywood-inspired numbers that feature more movement in the hips than traditional Bangladeshi styles are occasionally performed by men dressed as women. Rahman never saw Bangladeshi women perform in men’s clothes.
Censorship of dance over religious concerns is a complex tangle of intent, subjective interpretation and fluency in gestural codes. Referencing the work of Chandralekha, a dancer-choreographer from India who combined classical techniques and martial arts, Rahman explained how Hindu mythology includes “sexually explicit unions between god and devotee,” represented in dance by intricate hand gestures called mudrās.
To audience members unfamiliar with Hindu mythology and Indian dance, these mudrās are no more sexualized than thumbs-ups or peace signs. (Likewise, “flip the bird” with your palm facing out and it’s Japanese Sign Language for the letter se; in the United Kingdom, throw a peace sign with your palm facing toward you to flip the bird.) Context is key to what makes something subject to censorship, and “unacceptable” is culturally specific far more frequently than it’s universal.
In October 2011, during “Symposium on Folk Dances in the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation Region,” Bangladeshis from rural areas, many of them farmers, were invited to perform. They arrived in Dhaka to dance in their everyday clothes for South Asian state officials and cultural ambassadors. The presentation was not repeated as planned — but not because its choreography made contentious statements about sexuality, religion or politics. “In a poor country,” explained Rahman, who interviewed symposium attendees, “poverty can be something that really offends people, especially if they’re trying to give a good impression.… It was evident that this was not ‘staged poverty,’ so in their view it presented [Bangladesh] in a negative way.”
Other examples of controversy mentioned during the two-hour discussion included Banksy’s unauthorized street art; the notorious “fucksaw” incident in Northwestern University professor John Michael Bailey’s human sexuality class; “The Artist Is Present,” Marina Abramović’s 2010 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art; blackface drag comedian Shirley Q. Liquor; a recent revival by the Lyric Opera of Chicago of the 1927 musical Show Boat; dance and theater works by John Jasperse, Marie Chouinard and Young Jean Lee; Barbara DeGenevieve’s photography and the exhibition she cocurated at Johalla Projects, “In a Plain Brown Wrapper”; actress Nancy Upton’s subversion of a plus-sized model search for American Apparel; white Americans who wear sombreros and adhesive moustaches on Cinco de Mayo; and the response to choreography by Anna Sokolow, presented on tour in Bangladesh by Dakshina/Daniel Phoenix Singh Dance Company of Washington, D.C.
But despite a few grey areas, none of the above represent true censorship, and there’s the rub: Black-and-white examples are more difficult to discuss because a successfully censored thing is by definition unknowable.
In a 1999 interview, Al Paldrok of Estonia-based collective NON GRATA argued that “self-censorship of the people, including the intellectuals, has reached unbelievable dimensions.” I interviewed Paldrok earlier this year upon NON GRATA’s return to Chicago to perform Force Majeure, presented by DEFIBRILLATOR, and asked whether his thoughts on the subject have changed. His response:
The situation today is this: Established institutions in the art world are bowing in submission to authorities. [If you allow this degree] of self-humiliation, anyone can kick your ass, to put it plainly. The internet has brought about in the art world an inability to address issues or establish paradigms, scattering it into multiple discourses.… Although it may seem that free thought has made unprecedented gains thanks to the availability of information, the reality is quite the opposite.… State-controlled and commercial media channels are becoming more and more formal ‘public expressions.’
While Paldrok speaks in broader generalities than I’m willing to here, he raises good points for a new paradigm of public sharing by default. Self-censorship is necessary, to a degree, to avoid fistfights and maintain employment, and relationships both personal and professional.
Too much self-censorship in a community, however, lessens the experience of membership for everyone, and limits that group’s shared intellectual growth. And as alarming as some expressions of humanity might be, far more frightening is a world in which no voice risks being silenced.
The “C” Word: Censorship closed the Chicago Dancemakers Forum’s 2011–12 Salon Series of conversations, but keep a tab open at chicagodancemakers.org for more CDF programming, future discussions, and updates on current CDF Lab Artists Victor Alexander, Paige Cunningham Caldarella, Kristina Isabelle and Mark Jeffery.