Tucked into an opening day panel on censorship at the College Art Association’s 2011 conference was some new information about the version of David Wojnarowicz’s 1986-87 video A Fire in My Belly, which was removed under political fire Dec. 1 from the exhibition “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture.” (The show remains on view at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., through Feb. 13.)
Though not ostensibly about the censorship scandal that has roiled the art world, “Against Acknowledgement: Sexuality and the Instrumentalization of Knowledge,” chaired by Jonathan Katz, a “Hide/Seek” co-curator and director of visual studies at the University of Buffalo, devolved largely into a discussion about the incident. Many have called for the resignation of Wayne Clough, the secretary of the Smithsonian, who made the decision to remove the video.
Wojnarowicz died in 1992, leaving his video unfinished. Questions have been raised about the four-minute posthumous version that was yanked from the show, and at the panel (and afterwards) Katz provided some clarity.
According to Katz, he himself engineered the video that was on view, editing down the original, unfinished version, which was silent. According to a spokesperson at the New York gallery P.P.O.W., which handles the Wojnarowicz estate, Katz took his excerpts from two sources: the rough original, which is 13 minutes 6 seconds long, and a 7-minute version edited by the artist. (Wojnarowicz specified in his notes that the two were to be shown together; the high-resolution transfer that has been made available for sale by the estate-for example the one recently acquired by New York’s Museum of Modern Art—contains both.)
Katz also added a soundtrack: audio from an ACT UP demonstration that Wojnarowicz recorded (you can hear the artist shouting slogans along with other protesters). Katz told me, after the panel, that the wall text accompanying the piece in “Hide/Seek” carried full disclosure of his role in what was seen.
I asked one of the panelists, Wendy Olsoff, director of P.P.O.W., about the mechanism by which the estate permits such alterations. “It’s done on a case-by-case basis. These were unusual circumstances,” she answered. As for the audio, it is part of the Wojnarowicz archive held by the Fales Library at New York University, among miscellaneous raw materials that the artist might have used in one way or another in future work.
In response to a question from the audience regarding the new soundtrack, Katz explained that various officials at the NPG were concerned that if the loop ran without audio, visitors would think it was “broken.” After the panel, I asked him about the silent Warhol “Screen Tests” that are also on view. “Well, everyone knows the Warhols are silent,” he responded, adding that it wasn’t just an issue of the video appearing to be broken. He was worried that no one would notice the video if it ran silently, and that if it were too long, no one would take the time to watch it.
“But didn’t you edit out some of the most highly sexual portions of the video? Those would surely have attracted attention,” I suggested. “Of course I did,” he responded, explaining that he believed those segments would have been just too much for a conservative institution already stretched to its limits of tolerance. “I pushed as hard as I could against the boundaries,” he responded. “But let’s not kid ourselves-there were boundaries.”
Katz spoke passionately at the panel about the need for an active queer political advocacy to marshal effective responses to incidents such as this one. But he also defended the Smithsonian, which agreed to take his show after it had been declined repeatedly by museums across the country—”Some of the same places,” Katz noted acerbically, “that are criticizing the Smithsonian today.”
Removing the video was not the decision he would have made, he said, but “I was not standing in the director’s [Martin Sullivan] shoes. If he refused, and resigned, I think he truly believed the show would have been taken down.”