7 February 2019

ALLOWING "PUSSY" IN THE LIBRARY: ART CONTROVERSY ACROSS GLAM SPACES



Much of this post is informed by Amy Arsenio and Diane Macklin of Markham Public Library's inspiring session at the Ontario Library Association Super Conference 2019, titled Defending Pussy: How Two Recent Public Art Controversies Challenged us to Change the Way We Think About and Defend Art in our Spaces.

The events: Censored to uncensored


From March 2-30 2018, the Markham Village branch of the Markham Public Library displayed Yafang Shi's exhibition Marching for Gender Equality: Voices, Movement and Empowerment. The exhibition featured 51 photographs from the January 2017 Toronto Women's March, including two photos that captured signs containing the word "pussy."


Wikimedia Commons, Toronto Women's March. Source

The library received complaints even as the art was going up. These complaints were largely regarding the art's child-appropriateness (although the photographs were not displayed in the children's section). The branch left the photographs up for the exhibition's opening panel on March 2, but then took down the two photographs containing the word "pussy."

At their conference session, Amy Arsenio and Diane Macklin described how these complaints followed directly on the heels of a previous controversial exhibit, which had contained a drawing of two nude men depicted from the chest up. In the first situation, the staff involved had been prepared for objections, had weathered them, and had left the art up, though they admitted during the conference session that it had been emotional for both the staff and artist involved.

They had been less prepared to receive complaints about the Yafang Shi's photographs, having barely noticed the word "pussy" hidden in two of them. This perhaps led to a more emotional and reactionary response to complaints.

A few weeks following the removal of the art, pressure to restore the photographs arose from sources such as the American Library Association. The library retracted and put the two photographs back up, apologizing for the act of censorship and acknowledging their fault. News media including the Globe and Mail picked up the story, conveying a dramatic tone at the library's act of censorship--while ironically themselves censoring the word "pussy."

Markham Public Library, Markham Village branch. Source.

Following the re-installation of the two photos, the branch, at Yafang Shi's request, held a discussion about censorship hosted by the artist. And, most recently, two of the staff members involved presented about the events at the Ontario Library Association Super Conference.


Cross-cutting GLAM questions


Across GLAMs, our institutions face challenges related to censorship and controversial content, although for libraries these challenges are more often directed towards their books.


At the conference session, questions arose that cut across our GLAM fields. How do we prepare staff for art that may be controversial? What do we give to front-end staff to help them be ready for any complaints they may receive? How do we write art policies that prepare our institutions to face these situations?

How much should GLAMs need to satisfy the demands of their communities? Is it our duty to create spaces in which visitors are comfortable, or spaces in which visitors are challenged?

Our expectations of spaces


These events also show the importance of considering context: viewers will have different responses to art depending on the space it is in, whether Gallery, Library, Museum, or public art in our own neighbourhoods.

How do our expectations of spaces change how we perceive the art in them? While visitors go to galleries and art museums expecting to view things that educate, surprise, or unnerve them, they might be going to the library for a peaceful study space, to use the internet, or to pick up a book. Art displayed in libraries faces different challenges and considerations to art in museums or galleries.

As Arsenio and Macklin noted in their session, many patrons feel a sense of ownership of the library. The library feels like it belongs to everyone. Libraries can be spaces of comfort or security, and having that security questioned by art that challenges us can be jarring.

For me, these events show a common concern across GLAMs relating to the display of controversial content, and how we can share questions and approaches relating to such situations. But at the same time, the events also show a key difference between GLAMs--our spaces are not the same, and patrons or visitors expect to encounter different types of content when entering them.

No comments:

Post a Comment