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Performance Art or Health Threat?

SAIC Student's Performance Banned from 4-D Extravaganza

A student performance art piece concerned administrative authorities to such a degree that the piece was denied entry into the 2001 4-D Extravaganza held December 8.

SAIC first-year student Kerry Weber was forced by the administration to withdraw his piece Consequences of Capitalism from the Extravaganza because it was deemed harmful.

Paul Coffey, Undergraduate Administrative Director, said that Weber performing live was a health risk because the body piercing would create open wounds and blood, possibly endangering those present at the public event. Secondly, the administration felt that the performance was detrimental to Weber's health, and that allowing the piece to be viewed, even on video, was an endorsement of Weber inflicting harm upon himself.

"This is a legitimate performance and I think it has some artistic merit, and he could perform this anywhere that would want to support this kind of act. Here at the school, because of health and safety, we could not support this act," Coffey said.

Consequences of Capitalism was voted into the Extravaganza by Weber's 4-D class, taught last fall by Eleftheria Lialios, in which Weber initially performed the piece.

The performance, which Weber insists is about the pain capitalism causes, involves Weber being pierced up to 15 times by an experienced piercer, also a SAIC student, in front of a live audience, while a large projection screen played looped clips of popular commercials. At the onset of the piece, performed for his class on December 7, each participant was told to grab one of 15 five-dollar bills laid out by Weber's piercer. Each piercing, said Weber, represented each time capitalism hurt him, and he was pierced once for each five-dollar bill a person took. During the performance, which was videotaped, Weber was only pierced 13 times, as two students gave back their money, thus reducing his suffering and pain by two - the idea being that those who kept the money would only continue the vicious cycle of capitalism.

Lialios, Associate Adjunct Professor in the First-Year Program, responded to F's request for a statement regarding Weber's performance and the issues inherent therein, writing that: "Students selected his piece for the Extravaganza (as I have allowed them to since 1988) because they thought that it had artistic merit. Panic was not present in the class at any point. We did not feel that he was endangering his life while being pierced. ..."

"This performance was an expression of Kerry's response to the politics of consumerism, and a metaphorical reaction created within youth culture in the form of body piercing. Kerry did not inform me of his performance in class. And, we were only allowed to enter the classroom after his stage was set. He had a professional tattoo artist, a current student, pierce him with gloves and alcohol swabs several times. The performance was very controlled and theatrical in its progress. Afterwards, he smiled and sat through a critique from his peers. At the time of the performance, we did not think he was violating social codes, or that it constituted gratuitous self-destruction.

"While body piercing has been a part of human culture for thousands of years, it is apparently only recently that artists are using their body in this manner as a political form. The idea of a body piercing had never been explored by any other student in my classes, and I have been teaching this class since 1988. Because of the fact that body piercing and tattooing have become such a big part of youth culture, I imagine this piece was waiting to happen sometime soon. It happened in my class, under conditions that were not considered to be dangerous," Lialios wrote.

Weber and his performance became the focus of attention after a hall director in the 162 N. State Building, where Weber resides, became concerned about scars and other markings on Weber's forearm. According to Weber, the hall director saw his forearm, which showed healing cuts from a separate performance piece in which he cuts his arm over a sink filled with water. Weber said he told the hall director that the cuts were a part of his performance, but the hall director reported her observation to Debbie Martin, Assistant Dean of Student Affairs, who then suggested that Weber meet with a member of health services and the hall director.

Weber told F that the health services staff member and the hall director, neither of whom saw Weber's performance, met with him after his 4-D class on December 7. At that time Weber said he was given antiseptic and a pamphlet on body piercing, and he spoke about his background and childhood. Weber said that during the meeting he insisted that his actions were not a result of him having any type of mental illness, nor were they an attempt on his part to inflict harm upon himself.

Linda Pas, director of Health Services, was unavailable for comment.

Martin, citing confidentiality, declined to speak about the specifics of Weber's case, but acknowledged that other services were called upon and a discussion with the administration was entered into about the Weber situation.

"Our concern is first and foremost for the safety of the individual and out of care for them. Not only is it school policy but I think anytime you [are] concerned about somebody's safety it's a humanistic response to try to work with that individual," Martin said.

Acts of self-mutilation, while not specifically mentioned in the residence hall or student handbooks, are often seen as signs of mental or emotional instability.

Martin said that residence hall staff should be aware of any signs that students may be a danger to themselves.

"If a student were [for instance] cutting themselves in the residence halls we would be concerned about that ... that would fall under the realm of causing harm to themselves. ... We would be concerned with their physical and emotional safety and we would try to work with them to see what we could do to prevent that from happening," Martin said.

School officials were not clear about when the various members of the administration were notified of the situation. It is unclear exactly when the hall director first notified Debbie Martin and when the remainder of the administration was notified. However, all agree that they were working within a short time span.

Felice Dublon, Dean of Students, noted that time played a key role in the decision-making process of the administration.

"Along the lines of health and safety, this is really where I was coming from. If a student is at risk of hurting themselves or others that is usually when I get a phone call, and that is what we were trying to ascertain. What made it difficult was that it was happening over the weekend and happening so quickly," Dublon said.

The hall director's observation occurred on what Martin thought was the Thursday of the week of the Extravaganza, leaving little time for Weber's performance to be seen and discussed by the administration. Coffey called Weber on the morning of the performance, Saturday, to discuss concerns.

The time factor prevented the decision-making members of the administration (with the exception of Coffey, who saw the video), from viewing Weber's performance before the determination was made to withdraw it, something that Lialios thinks could have possibly assuaged some concerns.

"I am a little concerned," Lialios wrote, "by the fact that none of those in a position to decide whether the piece would be included in the Extravaganza actually saw the work in its live form, rather than a video, void of theatrical energy, and misrepresenting the nature of the work. I understand that students in the class did try to intercede and convey their sense that Kerry was not actually harming himself to the administration. None of us thought that this piece was other than a piece about consumerism, conveyed through the act of piercing. I feel that if others had seen this piece in person they would have drawn similar conclusions."

A female student from Weber's 4-D class, who spoke under the condition of anonymity, said: "Although I cannot argue with the administration's health/safety concerns about Kerry's work being performed live, I cannot understand why they would not allow a video documentation of Kerry's work to be viewed [at] SAIC. ... The piercing was conducted responsibly ... by a student who, I understand, is experienced with piercing. I trust that Kerry's intention was not to permanently hurt himself, but to convey his message through actions that he felt would most strongly capture the issues of consequence, pain, disgust, discomfort, and victimization."

Coffey said, "This [wasn't] going to be done in the intimacy and privacy of a classroom or a bedroom; This was going to happen at a public event, at an event where we didn't know who was coming and there was no way that we could speculate on the reactions to this."

Both Weber and Coffey agree that the situation became contentious when Weber refused to alter his piece so as to omit the actual piercing. According to Weber, "[Coffey] wanted the performance to be modified so there would not be any body piercing in it. But I felt that it couldn't be changed because [the piercing] is a key element."

Dublon was unable to view the video. Coffey, who did view the video, said, "We needed to find some way where the piercing was not actual, so I tried to talk about how to simulate this, how can we go about this in a different way and at that point it became a little more contentious. He wasn't willing to compromise the performance by simulation," said Coffey, "He felt we were censoring him."

Coffey said that after viewing the tape he felt even more strongly that Weber was inflicting harm upon himself. Coffey said that the administration told Weber he could still participate in the Extravaganza if he adjusted his performance or chose an entirely different piece. Weber opted out.

The impact of the administration's decision on Weber manifested itself in an impulsive protest by Weber who, along with friends, protested at the Extravaganza. During the show's intermission, Weber appeared with a couple of friends, carrying a bullhorn and copies of two well-known controversial pieces of SAIC student artwork (Dred Scott's "What's the Proper Way to Display an American Flag?" and David Nelson's "Mirth and Girth"). Weber posted the two pieces, along with stills of his video and then proceeded to spray paint BANNED BY SAIC on the main wall of the exhibition space. During the protest Weber was tackled to the floor by an unidentified staff member who, according to Coffey, has been spoken to about his behavior.

The spray paint compromised the work of students who were projecting images onto the wall. The overall "protest" was not received well among students or faculty who spoke to F.

Lialios wrote: "I wish he would have approached me in an attempt to find a more civil and effectual way of protesting. I think that he considered himself a victim of hypocrisy and was indignantly unwilling to consider other ways of coping with this conclusion. I do have faith that Kerry's methods of communication and expression will evolve toward a mature dialogue."

Monashee Frantz, a senior studying performance art at SAIC, said that she was disappointed by both the way that the administration handled it and the way that Kerry lashed out at the performance.

"I don't think anything about his work is problematic. The only thing that I think is a problem is the way he dealt with it," said Frantz, adding that she didn't understand why this piece would be censored because many artists use self-mutilation or blood in their artwork.

Weber has since stated that he has mixed feelings about the way he protested his disagreement with the administration and admits that his behavior at the 4-D Extravaganza was a spur of the moment act.

However some, such as art history undergraduate Trev Kelderman, are unimpressed by performance art such as Weber's.

"I respect his right as an artist to perform this type of art, but personally, I think this type of art is bullshit. I feel it is opportunistic, egocentric, and elementary. But to each their own," Kelderman said.

In an effort to explain why the administration viewed Weber's performance as harmful, Dublon said, "Primarily this is harmful to him. We had heard that his hands were being tied, he was gagged and so on. Let's say he changed his mind and was in such pain or trauma, we're not equipped to deal with it. Whenever blood is drawn there is a health and safety risk, to not just the individual, but to anybody around them who might suddenly get something sprayed on them."

Weber said that during the hour-long conversation with Coffey he explained the precautions he and the piercer were taking to ensure safety. According to Weber, they worked out a secret safety word if at any time Weber was in too much pain or unsafe, all the materials used were sterile and hygienic, and that the piercer was the only person who would come into immediate contact with Weber's body.

Both Dublon and Coffey insist that the incident involving Weber is a case in specifics and that it is not the administration's position that they should be censoring student art. They both stated that the issues here were concerns with Weber's well-being, as well as public health.

Ethan Roeder, co-president of Student Government, in an email statement to F, wrote: "It is absurd to propose that no restrictions should be placed upon the form in which creative expression takes place at an art school. [It is equally absurd] to say that one entire genre of art-making practice (such as self-mutilation) should be banned. Everything, I feel, must be addressed on a case-by-case basis. If a law is being broken or if the safety of unwilling participants is being compromised I will be the first person to say SAIC should neither support this nor even allow this to happen within its walls. However, are we to relegate ourselves to the faraway corners of hotel art by restricting, out of form, controversial and challenging art? That's not a hypothetical question. The answer is no."

The issue for Weber boils down to his right as a student to perform and produce the type of art, however controversial, of his choosing. Weber feels that the administration sees his performance only for the shock value of the piercing, rather than the deeper artistic vision and message that he intends. At the same time the administration, acting with the school's interests in mind, has an obligation to protect its students and consider the viewing community. The incident further calls into question what exactly are the boundaries of student art. At an institution that prides itself on art making, an issue as potent as this one begs for discussion.

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