Beginning with the notion of a gallery as a charged or loaded space, Vancouver-based artists Erik Hood and Sam Willcocks produced a fleeting gesture based on military traditions and tactics of deception as part of a year long series of experiments in free choice learning at Seattle University’s Hedreen Gallery. Their endeavor was at once bluff, truth, and double bluff.
As part of an afternoon of performances, the artists built a Quaker Cannon using found materials, and aimed it directly at the entrance to the gallery. This act occurred last winter, shortly after the Smithsonian’s removal of David Wojnarowicz’s film from the exhibition Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture, and though its creation had no direct or intentional correlation to that event it acted as a reminder of the conversational context of a work of art. Situated in a space that had recently hosted a screening and discussion of the censored film, the work provided a new context of confrontation.
Its presence was palpable and at the same time benign, urging the viewer to linger in thought while considering advancement. This momentary suspension of disbelief situated within the active space of the gallery – a space commonly used for screenings, discussions, and other social events – brought into relief the discursive nature of art as a social object. Though not a controversial work in itself, this gesture recalled the tactical potential of art to be used as a tool for discussion. In this context, the Quaker Cannon served a dual purpose as both a false weapon (object) and a target (conversational proposition). The recoil of this false firearm was comparable to its discharge, producing a period of latent repose – a reminder that the power of art lies in its ability to create a space for reflection, discussion, and critical thought.
Around the same time, the Henry Art Gallery – a contemporary art museum located on the University of Washington campus – hosted a community seminar on censorship to explore and analyze the complex issues surrounding the removal of Wojnarowicz’s film from view at the National Portrait Gallery. The afternoon was focused around a series of small group dialogues sandwiched between a panel of regional museum directors and convening with a panel of artists, curators, activists, and other cultural producers. This opportunity for public discourse was designed to encourage informed discussion and foster a community dialogue on a variety of censorship topics, from the politicization of the work of gay artists by conservative activists to the silencing of artists through censorship and the specter of renewed culture wars.
Utilizing the museum as a discursive space, knowing that the intention was not to answer questions but to promote more asking, attendees broke out into several discussion groups and generated a series of questions for the panelists and fellow attendees. Many of the questions generated by those in attendance focused on issues of selection, self-censorship, the responsibility of arts institutions, and the relationship between discussion and prevention.
“What are the techniques institutions can use to combat issues of censorship?”
” What IS censorship? Is it more dangerous to self-censor?”
“Are we moving towards an overly safe society?”
“Can discussion = prevention?”
Erring on the side of optimism, I’ve come to believe that the most realistic response to censorship for individuals and institutions is continued discussion. If art is a way of thinking and thinking is phenomenological, the most powerful act of solidarity and protest is critical discourse. This participatory act creates a shared ownership of experience that not only supports accountability, avoiding self-censorship and the creation of regressive cultural feedback loops, it helps to create a safe space for learning and artistic exploration.
In thinking about our current social and political climate of censorship, budget cuts, and bigotry, the gesture of the Quaker Cannon is an encouraging reminder that art and ideas carry with them a force and trajectory that is defined by public discourse and social circumstance. Though it may sometimes be seen as a threat to those who choose to place themselves in opposition, this tactical gesture can be used effectively to delay an immediate response, buying time for consideration. The force that it carries is only that which is projected upon it. If we are indeed encountering a culture war our best defense/offense is to continue to utilize art as a method of discourse.