Puppies and Kitties and Death Threats: Adel Abdessemed’s “Birth of Love” Cancelled at SFAI

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.

Enter rant:

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.

birth-of-love.jpg

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

Advertisements

14 Comments

Filed under Contemporary Art, Criticism, Forward Retreat, Politicks, San Francisco

14 responses to “Puppies and Kitties and Death Threats: Adel Abdessemed’s “Birth of Love” Cancelled at SFAI

  1. k.f.

    Thanks for this. The whole controversy around this show has been really bugging me, and in fact I just posted a long response over at the Discerning Brute about it. I’ve lived in San Francisco for a total of 13 years (though not consecutively) and I have to agree with you about the provincialism. I stay here because my work, my friends and community are all here, but the provincialism (and the self-congratulatory attitude about how open and tolerant and so-very-p.c. it all is here) has always bothered me about this city. But most of my friends tell me I’m just cynical and ornery. It’s nice to find someone else who feels the same.

  2. joy

    Wow, this is truly nuts.

    (You mean I can stop being annoyed at he NYC brand of provincialism for a few seconds?)

    Thanks much for the email update and everything Sarah.

    J

  3. Anonymous

    I personally tried very hard to get information on the production of Abdessemed’s video. I even talked to the David Zwirner gallery who represents him in new York. If at any time I had been given the information that his video was not staged, myself and many others would not have requested the SFAI to stop running the video. It is interesting why the SFAI did not make it clear when they announced the forum or at any other juncture, that Abdessemed had found this slaughter house and then filmed what he saw. It still looks like the SFAI has some moral issues to me. If they were so worried about safety of the facitaly, why didn’t they invite the police so as to give us less extreme folks a chance to speak? Blaming it on threats from animal activist and coming out with how the video was made after the fact without a real discussion, offers no resolution. What baggage will carry over to the next US venue where Abdessemed’s work is shown?
    Personally the SFAI’s ambiguousness in the production of the video seems manipulating also I think the SFAI in being irresponsible. And Where the hell is Abdessemed? Dose he not have a comment about his show coming down?

  4. I personally tried very hard to get information on the production of Abdessemed’s video. I even talked to the David Zwirner gallery who represents him in new York. If at any time I had been given the information that his video was not staged, myself and many others would not have requested the SFAI to stop running the video. It is interesting why the SFAI did not make it clear when they announced the forum or at any other juncture, that Abdessemed had found this slaughter house and then filmed what he saw. It still looks like the SFAI has some moral issues to me. If they were so worried about the safety of the faculty , why didn’t they invite the police so as to give us less extreme folks a chance to speak? Blaming it on threats from animal activist and coming out with how the video was made after the fact without a real discussion, offers no resolution. What baggage will carry over to the next US venue where Abdessemed’s work is shown?
    Personally the SFAI’s ambiguousness in the production of the video seems manipulating also I think the SFAI in being irresponsible. And Where the hell is Abdessemed? Dose he not have a comment about his show coming down?

  5. Some Curator

    I agree that the obfuscation on the part of SFAI ultimately did not serve their own ends. My assumption about their unwillingness to frankly disclose the circumstances of the work’s production is that they believed in doing so it would narrow the meaning of the work and not leave room for any of the suggestive ambiguity that is primary ingredient in most contemporary art.

    But, from what I understand from members of the SFAI community, it was the police who ultimately advised SFAI to cancel the public panel, fearing that they could not offer adequate protection. The staff certainly wanted the panel to continue, and were taking the necessary steps with security and the police to do so.

    Early on there was little clarity about the production of the work, but even after public statements by SFAI administration, too many people continued (and continue) to make too many assumptions about what happened/is happening, and I would imagine SFAI wanted the forum to clear up these misapprehensions.

    And, no, I don’t work at SFAI.

  6. Hazel Chambers

    The SFAI needs to stop playing victim. The vicitims are the poor animals’s that Adel killed and wants to claim as art.

    I do not condone threats….but I suspect most did not threaten….they simply expressed their well-placed outrage at this morally degenerate attempt to claim animal cruelty is art.

    They also need to stop claiming the protests were some how part of a plot against them

    People spoke out not because of any campaign as they would have us believe.

    People excercised their right to free speech to express their repugnance againt the loathsome work of this NOT-artist.

  7. a student

    So…,
    you suspect that most of the phone calls and emails were people just expressing “their well-placed outrage”. I find that statement to be quite interesting. Do you know for a fact what was stated? Did you happen to write one of those emails or leave a message on someone’s voice mail? So you think free speech includes threatening violence against another person? Is it possible that if is someone truly objected to this show, one must examine the bigger picture for animal rights. If you don’t support the death of animals you can make active decisions not to support industries that use animal products in any way:
    Don’t wear fur
    Don’t wear leather
    Don’t use non leather shoes that are glued together by glue made from animals
    Don’t use make-up that contains fish-scales to make it glitter
    Don’t use moisturizer that contains by-products of animal blood as a thickener(if the label doesn’t say vegan then it has animal by-products in it)
    Don’t use ant traps
    Don’t use rat poison
    Don’t use cockroach hotels
    Don’t use fossil fuels because oil comes from fossils of dead animals
    Don’t buy pets form pet stores that buy from puppy mills
    There are many decisions one can make to take a stand on how one feels about animals. However thinking that you have the right to classify for the public what is art and what is non-art is not one of them. By the way did you even see the show that you are protesting? Or did you let others make that decision for you?

  8. Anonymous

    The video still shown above, what is that? That was not shown in the gallery. “Birth Of Love” was never shown at the gallery…

  9. Anonymous

    I think this show fell into pretty murky territory. If it’s true that the artist just filmed these scenes (which would have happened anyway), I can’t really object too much. He’s showing us reality, the true brutality that makes possible the food we eat.

    If he killed the animals himself just for this exhibition (as people had the impression before the gallery came forward with some origins for the tape), it becomes truly horrifying. Killing animals “for art’s sake” is pretty sick.

    I don’t advocate threats, regardless, but I can understand why people would be outraged about videos of animal slaughter being shown as art. Especially if they thought the animals were killed by the artist just for the sake of getting this footage.

  10. ftw

    what is wrong with this world today,the only reason he is using animals is to attract peoples attention. cant be much of an artist.i was thinking of stepping on some ants and taking photos.maybe an art gallery will pick me up also.looks like the student is a big fan.maybe the so called artist could use you in one if his sick videos.

  11. paul

    A.A. is one of the most engaging artists around. And I agree, as ‘some curator’ states above, revealing the circumstances surrounding the making of this piece of work clearly narrows down the readings of the work. And of course I can see why certain people are upset if they believed that A.A. himself killed the animals. However, why did they think that A.A. killed the animals ? It clearly helps their existence to have a such scenario, because it gives them something to be upset about. For the record I do believe in treating animals lovingly. But taking to extremes such as the threatening behaviour mentioned above, based on half truths and unfounded rumours is just silly and plainly childish. I do hope for peace between all parties and a certain amount of embarrassment by the animal extremists. Hopefully, you learnt something, not just about art but also about yourselves.

  12. Heathor

    While I don’t support the threats of violence and insults the SFAI staff received for this exhibit, I think it’s sad that it had to reach such an extreme before the right thing was done and the exhibit was taken down.

    Adel Abdessemed created a travesty glorifying animal cruelty. This was not a piece of art to be mourned.

    There is a line between what can be considered art, and what is simply tasteless, sensationalist, shock-value BS that some like to call “avant-garde.”

    As for “professionally slaughtered”–what constitutes professional? The fact that these people do it all the time? That doesn’t make it humane. Bludgeoning an animal to death is not acceptable, no matter what the reason.

  13. As a life-long San Francisco resident, and not a “terrorist” or “animal rights activist” or “demogogue” but a simple animal lover, I was appalled by this exhibition. To me, it doesn’t matter whether the “artist” filmed it or created it, it’s not art. It’s a snuff film, and represents the worst elements of the art world – those who shock to advance their own careers, not to provoke any meaningful dialogue.

    What’s “pc” and “twee” and “provincial” in this whole situation is people from the art world being so desensitized to the rhythms of life around them, viewing everything through their rose-colored avant-garde art-chic glasses, that they lose their humanity and moral compasses in the process, and can’t say “No, this is beyond the pale, we have to have some standards.” To have standards is apparently unacceptable in the art world. Not “PC.”

    If there were extremists out there who made death threats, they were not the majority. The majority were like me, law-abiding citizens who were appalled that an exhibit like this could be staged in the City of Saint Francis, patron saint of animals.

  14. I helped install the show. Adel lectured during the opening, which was also the 5th anniversary of the U.S. WAR on Iraq. Adel is from Algeria, which is a desolate, beautiful and in many ways an old world country, with a past riddled with colonial hypocricy and tragedy.

    This being said…David Zwirner was perhaps not authorized to disclose info, seeing as the work was made on the request and offer by curator Hou Hanru, as a way to engage this young artist that is in the middle of a fresh and inventive career. The videos were shot in a public market place in Mexico City, and were of animals being slaughtered for transport. The images of the animals tied to brick walls was reminiscent of scenes from the streets of Adel’s home country, yet Adel engages with the west coast culture of this continent in a way that provokes, and distills us, on the westcoast, with a semblance of what life is like in another place, and it’s insidious connection to our lives, in a local, or glocal sense.

    This was real art, dangerous, and without hesitation.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s