Before I left for San Francisco in March of 2005, my then-boss counseled: “You’re only going to be able to take so much of San Francisco, you’ll see— it’s a beautiful city, but it’s a very twee place. Trust me.” Twee. I hated the word as much as I despised her dismissal of any place that wasn’t New York City. (“Provincial” was a similar, compulsively used term of derision embedded permanently in her vocabulary, employed as freely to Pittsburgh as it was to Paris.)
The bossman was right though: twee it is, and twee— precious, quaint, little twee— has turned to veritable terror as the San Francisco Art Institute has elected to close French Algerian artist Adel Abdessemed’s “Birth of Love” due to threats of extreme violence leveled by local animal rights advocates who oppose Abdessemed’s depiction dying and dead animals in his work. See below for the letter circulating amongst the SFAI community, and for a more thorough description of the project.
Those who know me are well aware (ad nauseum, even) of my ambivalence toward San Francisco— sorry, but I’m just not entirely sold on the place yet. I am surely proud to live in and enjoy the benefits of a place that historically prides itself on tolerance. However, I have never witnessed as much hypocricy, political in-fighting, and yes, intolerance (a distinctly insidious intolerance) as I have in this city. The arguments inherent to this case— to the closing of Abdessemed’s show— are obvious ones. I feel many of them to be moot, even (or perhaps not) and am thus, more than anything, extraordinarily embarrassed for San Francisco— or rather, for this reactionary, hair-trigger bullshit that seems to be endemic to this place.
Provincial. Yes, in fact.
Adel Abdessemed, Birth of Love
(image courtesy Art 49)
The message below was sent by President Chris Bratton today, 31 March 2008:
I’m writing to inform you that because of a series of violent threats by animal-rights extremists, SFAI is officially announcing today that the public discussion on Adel Abdessemed’s exhibition Don’t Trust Me, scheduled for Monday, March 31, is cancelled. For the same reasons, the exhibition itself, which was temporarily suspended on Wednesday, March 26, is now permanently closed. My first concern as SFAI’s president is with the safety and security of our students, faculty, staff, their families, and members of the public that regularly visit the campus.
Soon after it opened, the Abdessemed exhibition became the subject of an orchestrated campaign by a number of animal-rights groups, including Animal Liberation Front (ALF), In Defense of Animals (IDA), and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). One result of this campaign was a parallel onslaught of explicit death threats and threats of sexual assault—as well as racial, religious, and homophobic slurs—against SFAI staff members and their families. The swift escalation from controversy to credible threats has regrettably forced us to make a decision unprecedented in our 137-year history.
Though we’ve decided to take this action for reasons of safety and security, SFAI stands adamantly behind the exhibition as an instance of a long-standing and serious commitment to reflection on, and free and open discussion of, contemporary global art and culture. Our conviction that it’s a fundamental responsibility of our educational mission to encourage and promote such dialogue remains unwavering.
Furthermore, I want the following facts to be made explicit. In the making of his videos, Abdessemed participated in an already-existing circuit of food production in a rural community in Mexico. The animals were raised for food, purchased, and professionally slaughtered. In fact, the central point of the controversy is that Abdessemed, an artist, entered this exchange, filmed it, and exhibited it.
Here, then, is a case where highly local assumptions about how things are produced have come to inform how the world itself is seen. In general, consumption in the US is fueled by things produced out of sight and from far away. In many cultures, particularly those of the global south including Mexico, the killing of animals for food is often direct and present, not concealed from sight, as is the case of industrialized food production here. This distinction is certainly relevant to the exhibition Don’t Trust Me. Admittedly, this is an uncomfortable confrontation for some, but is nevertheless a real condition not only for animals, but also for the people whose lives are bound up with them.
Simply stated, it is an outrage that threats of violence have derailed a public debate on issues that are critical to our everyday lives. We believe nevertheless it is imperative that discussion of the many complicated issues raised both by the Abdessemed exhibition itself and by the unprincipled campaign against it should continue, not only within the school but throughout the wider world.
Chris Bratton, President