In response to "Our freedom of expression"

In last week’s Letter to the Editor, Ruqayyah Ahdab posed thoughtful and relevant questions regarding the legality of “offensive nudity” in relation to the controversy around the video Bend by Johnson Ngo that the Blackwood Gallery presented on the video wall in the CCIT building from March 4 to 15. But the questioning ended there. As Director/Curator of the Blackwood Gallery, I thought I would offer my own set of questions which respond to Ahdab’s letter and also to a number of other complaints I received about the work:

What if we viewed the video wall as a challenging and stimulating forum as opposed to an imposing and infringing television?

What if the programming on the video wall you found offensive became the impetus to an educative search where you would inform yourself of the artist’s intent and examine your own preconceptions?

What if the automatic reaction to “dangerous” material became this process of questioning, instead of a categorical definition (and implicit dismissal) of freedom of expression as a “dangerous absolute”?

What if the contentious material provoked a generative debate in lieu of a retreat or coccooning?

What if the debate addressed the difficult questions posed by the artist in his statement posted beside the video wall?

Is his exploration of racial and cultural stereotypes not relevant to you?

Should thorny subject matter be ignored in favor of only palatable pablum?

Would you rather not to be confronted or provoked by anything at anytime in your daily routine?

Does the non-gratuitous and well-articulated artist’s statement pose a threat to your notion of “security”?

Is to “underscore and problematize the established voyeuristic power relations” (from Johnson Ngo’s artist statement) an endeavor dismissable by your disgust or is your disgust confirming the acuity of his gesture?
It is always heartening to witness a passionate level of engagement and I sincerely thank everyone for voicing their opinion. However, as my questions above outline, I am perplexed by the tenor of the debate. That being said, I do acknowledge that work needs to be done with the video wall in order to better facilitate feedback. I believe this work begins with better signage and more visible forms of contextualizing the works that we program for this space. We are working on various manners to address this. This is not to say that material in the same vein as Bend will no longer find itself on the video wall, but that the Blackwood will endeavor to present the work in such a manner that complementary information will be more readily apparent.  Part of the Blackwood’s mandate is to “disturb preconceptions, foster discussion, and engage the intellect” (see, in other words to initiate and instill change. The direction of that change is not prescribed, but it certainly includes the challenges of being challenging, and the conviction that art’s purpose is not to retrace the safe route but to take on the arduous track.

Curator- Blackwood Gallery

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