20 years after the NEA "culture wars" an anonymous* remixer and public sector screen capturer have made David Wojnarowicz famous again. Various bloggers and outrage merchants are treating a four minute composite, condensed Wojnarowicz video (including posthumously found footage) that got banned from a public museum as a bona fide art object and not a simulacrum. It is only fitting that the banning itself was the result of an "excerpt" from this composite: an edited copy of an edited copy.
Holland Cotter's New York Times report (excerpt below) doesn't tell us who made the new hit video that "went viral" after its censoring; we just learn facts about how it was cobbled together (written in the passive voice): "A raw, moving, disturbing piece of art that comes in two sections: one 13 minutes long; the other seven minutes long, video of the same title found on a separate reel after his death from AIDS. In an added complication, the two tapes were edited down to one roughly four minutes long for the National Portrait Gallery show." Cotter pronounces the 7 minute posthumous tape "packed and purposeful, and quite complete."
In 1989, a Methodist minister named Donald Wildmon, founder of the American Family Association, mailed a pamphlet reproducing details from collages by the New York artist David Wojnarowicz (1954-1992) to every member of Congress, to various media outlets, and to religious leaders across the country.
Twenty years later, history is repeating itself, with variations. Wojnarowicz's work is again under similar attack, this time by William Donahue, president of the Catholic League. The offending material is again a detail of a larger work, an image of ants crawling over a crucifix, excerpted from a Wojnarowicz video that was included in a large group show called "Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture" at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington.
On Dec. 1, the gallery, part of the Smithsonian Institution, took the video off view. One big change from 1990, however, is the near-universal presence of the Internet. Word of the self-censorship instantly spread and the video itself, titled "A Fire in My Belly," went viral, turning up on a number of Web sites, including YouTube. Untold numbers of people could now see something that, without the publicity generated by the flap, they never knew existed.
And what are they seeing? A raw, moving, disturbing piece of art that comes in two sections: one 13 minutes long; the other seven minutes long, video of the same title found on a separate reel after his death from AIDS. In an added complication, the two tapes were edited down to one roughly four minutes long for the National Portrait Gallery show.
"Complication" is right. Somehow we are outraged that Donahue excerpted the video but not that the video itself is a posthumous fabrication. It is important to have "teachable moments" where everyone has an opinion, even if they are all based on fake circumstances. Left can fight right, red state can yell at blue state, internet hits go up.
*On twitter I've asked if anyone knows who made the 4 minute Wojnarowicz remix. Would be interested to know more about how this "viral video" came about. The original would be three minutes too long for YouTube and it's possible it might seriously bore some people on the internet if it were shown as a Quicktime at its actual 13 minute run time.
Update: The video was posted to YouTube by the venerable theory journal Semiotext(e). Well, they wrote the book on simulation. Perhaps they should change their name to "Semitext." (hat tip JS).
Update 2: The remix was done by the curators of the show, as explained in this interview (hat tip jws): "Katz: Well, we edited in terms of length, not to remove content. We felt the imperative to represent David Wojnarowicz’s work as he designed it. We included every scene that’s in the video, we just truncated the length." Right, pacing has nothing to do with the success of art. Oh, well, enough on this topic, gotta get back to my Reader's Digest-condensed Moby Dick.
Update 3: For the record the "anonymous" remixers are Jonathan Katz and David C. Ward, the two curators of the National Portrait Gallery’s exhibition "Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture," where the Wojnarowicz Lite video A Fire in My Belly (4 Min Jam) was removed. [Just kidding about that title.] Katz is an associate professor at the University of Buffalo, where he chairs the visual studies doctoral program. Ward is a historian at the National Portrait Gallery, according to one blog. From that same blog, one of the commenters, Jeff, picked up on the shortening of the video:
Why is this acceptable? What gives you the right to determine that a short version of the film-–what, one bit of every shot, in order?–-is an accurate representation of how it was "designed?" Yes, I know the estate OK’d it, but that doesn’t make it right. Aside from the controversy about its removal, the placement and use of video in this exhibition was abysmal. The touch-screen kiosk holding the Wojnarowicz and Bidgood pieces looked like an information center, not a means of displaying art. Both video monitors were easy to miss and looked tacked-on, to put it mildly. I was not at all surprised to learn of their "inadvertent" omission from the catalog. That the curators did not accord video respect equivalent to the photographs and paintings is evident by the way in which it was displayed. Ironic that these curators are being lionized for something pertaining to the one part of this excellent show that failed completely.
Thinking about Douglas Gordon's 24 Hour Psycho, where the Hitchcock film was stretched out to 24 hours run time. This is like 4 Min Wojnarowicz, but even worse because it would be like adding "deleted scenes" from Psycho before the lengthening occurred. More from Jeff, the only sane person in Washington:
Look at it another way: if one of the paintings or photos in the show were removed, there would be a gaping hole on the wall that would have spoken volumes about the censorship the show underwent. Wojnarowicz’s video was offhandedly placed on the same monitor as another, completely different work (really, think about Fire in my Belly and Pink Narcissus–-the only reason they are physically together in the show is that they share a common medium and putting them together was more convenient.) Fire in My Belly could be snipped out of the show easily. I'm certain that was a consideration in the decision to remove the work: the censorship leaves no traces in the gallery. It was easy and clean. No need to replace the work, or even to spackle over a nail hole.