I am sure most of you have heard about the art student who draped condoms on the Hilltoppers for Life “crosses” display on WKU’s campus. The reaction of the university is an outrage! I sent this to Rachel Maddow today. Help us blog and get the word out that there are two side to this story!
I am professor in the gender & women’s studies program at Western Kentucky University. Recently Rachel Skyped with one of our journalism and broadcasting classes and it was fantastic! I attended as an invited guest.
I am writing about an incident that recently occurred on our campus with the college right-to-life student group, Hilltoppers for Life (led by male students by the way). Here is what happened (from our local news station): “Hilltoppers for life had placed nearly four thousand crosses in the school’s old football stadium to represent the number of abortions that take place in a day. But on the last night of their University approved display, the president of the pro-life group says he captured footage of a student and her boyfriend placing condoms onto some of the crosses.” Unfortunately, Fox News Radio picked up the story and it has gone viral; almost 100% supporting the right-to-life students.
The format of the LIFE project was visual. It was not a letter to the newspaper, a speech given on campus, or a leaflet handed out to passers-by. The HFL chose to participate in public activism by installing their work in a public University space. Their project literally asked for feedback within their installation. So, the art student chose to provide feedback by draping condoms on the crosses. As a professor of gender studies, I feel like this is another attack in the war on women. The display itself was an attack then was exacerbated by the treatment of the art student who countered the “voice” of the right to life students.
The administration is referring to this as an “unfortunate” and disgusting” act. They have called for a public apology from the student and she has refused. Others are calling for the faculty member to not give her a grade (or give her a failing grade) for the course; a direct violation of our academic freedom policy. A simple Google search on “WKU +Art +Condoms” yields hundreds of hits with only negative reactions to the art student’s action. It has been picked up by every right wings news blog and magazine in the country. What bothers me the most here is it seems there is no support for the student or acknowledgement of HER freedom of speech.
The faculty member teaching the class sent me this email:
As we teach our students, actions do not exist in a vacuum and context is important when establishing meaning. The context into which the Hilltoppers for Life placed their 4,000 crosses project is important in understanding the reaction to the project created by an art student.
First, the topic covered by the HFL installation was controversial, and the group who installed the piece was aware of and emphasized the work’s shock value. (The scale of the piece was enormous. It appeared seemingly overnight and without warning early on a Monday morning. Questions posed were inflammatory, ie: “How do you justify abortion?”) The work was placed not in front of a church, or in front of the University Center or dormitories. It was placed in front of an academic building, engaging itself in an academic conversation. The project was intended to offend some of those that saw it, and did. As the artist says in her statement: “I had worried that my idea might offend some. However, after giving it a lot of thought, I came to believe that it is no more or less offensive than the original installation of thousands of popsicle-stick crosses, each representing an aborted fetus.”
The student also spoke to me about the voicelessness she and others felt when viewing the installation. She stated she felt let down by the administration who should have anticipated negative reactions in students and done something to somehow counteract or speak to alternative points of view in an issue so deeply controversial and potentially personal. “How would someone who had had an abortion feel if they came in and saw that without warning? They would feel terrible” she told me when I asked why she felt compelled to react to the work.
For wider context: within FAC [our humanities academic building], we sometimes have art exhibitions that we anticipate might offend some viewers. We are always conscientious about these, and careful to ensure no one accidentally stumbles upon something they might find upsetting. The students in FAC were not given similar consideration, coming in Monday morning to find their building hemmed in by 4,000 crosses. As the art student who reacted to the piece stated, she was offended, and concerned for others who might see the piece.
Moving into the present: students in an art class for the Spring 2012 semester have been creating outdoor art installation projects on campus, clustering primarily around the Fine Arts Center (FAC). Over the past ten weeks, they have created 45 art installations in and around FAC. A major rule of the class is that installations cannot alter their environment (buildings or plants) permanently in any way, and that any alteration made to a space or structure must be reversible and must be reversed if requested. To date, including in this instance, this rule has not been broken.
For the week of April 16, an installation of popsicle stick crosses and plastic tablecloths was placed over the entire set of bleachers in front of FAC. The cloths spelled LIFE when read from the fourth floor, the floor that houses the art department. Pads of paper with a question written at the top and pens for responses were placed in front of the bleachers. Students from Hilltoppers for Life stood in front of the installation and asked passers-by to respond to questions.
The crosses were placed in the exact spot as an installation done by a student in the art installation class the week previous, and faced three art installations on the FAC lawn. Whether it intended to or not, the fact that the LIFE project was a visually based installation placed in direct proximity to other art installations, that it was placed immediately in front of the building housing the art department and composed to be read primarily from the art department’s windows (there are no other classroom windows facing the colonnades) made it speak directly to students in FAC and forced the project to read in part as a response to the art projects installed previously in this area. As the student who made the work stated to me: “I thought – they’re speaking my language, they are speaking to me. They had a powerful visual message.”
To many within FAC, the 4,000 crosses project was an aggressive, politically-oriented piece with one point of view aimed at them, done in poor taste to make them angry and uncomfortable. Many of the art students in the installation class felt the piece was done with a nod specifically to them, as a reaction to the installations they had made in class, and believed the HFL group was using the tools and language of art. Based on the words spoken in the video of the encounter between the HFL students and the art student that the HFL recorded, provoking a reaction, potentially from the art students, was an intent of the HFL project. As spoken by the HFL videographer as he was approaching the artist on the bleachers: “This is the response we are getting from them …. We knew something would happen …. It very well could be an art installation.”
The fact that the HFL students “had permission” to use the bleachers and ampitheatre begs the question of what permission to use a public University space includes. The bleachers and ampitheatre, a heavily trafficked area used by a large number of the campus community for reading, studying, teaching class, eating lunch, etc – were completely covered by the installation and made unusable for any other purpose for the duration of an entire week. The HFL installation was impossible not to see when entering FAC from most every major vantage point. The campus community was remarkably respectful of the way in which their communal space had been altered and consumed. However, on an active college campus, it is naive to think that work placed in public will not be interacted with in any way. It is also difficult to imagine that rights to use a public space would completely supersede others’ competing rights to use that same space, particularly when a large, well-used space is taken over for a substantial length of time.
To take account for the competing needs and rights of public space, in teaching the installation class, students are reminded that making the decision to place work into the public University arena in a non-classroom space automatically asks for engagement by the public, and the students have to be willing and prepared to take the consequences of that engagement. Additionally, asking either implicitly or specifically for engagement (the HFL work specifically asked for feedback) invites the public to participate in the visual dialog, and such participation should be anticipated. Nearly every project my students have installed for class has been altered, with three removed completely. Campus administrators reinforced the idea that students placing projects in public on a busy college campus should prepare themselves for the ways in which their projects might be interacted with, by making it clear to me that if student projects were altered or damaged by public interaction, it was the student who installed the project’s responsibility to “clean up” what was left, not the campus’ responsibility to protect the projects to ensure that they were not altered in the first place.
This art student chose one of many methods available to her in making her voice heard and to engage in the request by the HFL for dialog. Dialog the in-depth discussion of issues from multiple angles such as the type of discussion encouraged on college campuses is complex, takes time, and involves listening in addition to talking. Various ways of stating a point of view, and what the different impact and consequences are of choosing each of these methods, is exactly what a University teaches. Hands on and active learning are methods we are encouraged to practice, and asking our students to engage publicly in debates of the day and making critical thinking and action relevant to their daily lives is something faculty are asked to do as a matter of course.
Learning and debating are not always pretty or polite processes. Critical engagement with ideas can get messy. If we are asked to introduce our students to all the tools of debate and engagement, they will use these tools. The use and discovery of tools, and the use and discovery of voice is exactly what is occurring on our campus, on both sides of this current discussion.
Unfortunately, this is not a local campus dialog, although it disguises itself as such. This is an orchestrated, national-scale, politically motivated propaganda machine targeting colleges and universities. This project pretends to be one about opening a dialog on the issue of abortion. But instead, it is designed to frustrate and bait students into a response, a response that the National Students for Life of America followers are encouraged to video record and send to the national organization for their distribution and use. In the end, the real danger is that WKU and our students on BOTH sides of this issue simply become pawns in a larger political game and real learning is lost.
We sure could use some help in getting some positive publicity on this matter. It truly is a prime example of the war on women we are facing in this country.
Dr. Molly Kerby