In response to the present social and political climate of censorship, shifting international politics, and a global epidemic, Jeanette Ingberman and Papo Colo, the original curators of Illegal America, first shown in 1982 at Franklin Furnace, and subsequent co-founders of the New York City gallery Exit Art that same year, felt it necessary to reconstruct the exhibit in 1990.
Featuring the original work along with several additions, the purpose of the show was twofold. First, the exhibit focused on artists whose work challenges social ideas and, intentionally or unintentionally, conflicts with established law. Second, structurally, Illegal America dealt with the process of documentation since much of the work and the show was conceptual and temporary in its original formulation. Thus, the exhibit relied heavily on text in whatever traces were left from the original event or display – often taking the form of documentary photographs, statements from the artists or residential artefacts. Due to the volume and nature of much of this documentation, Illegal America was a show of casual perusal nor did it allow instantaneous consumption.
The exhibit consisted of works by 36 individual artists and artists groups. The work of French surrealist Louis Aragon served as a point of origination, beginning the exhibit at the turn-of-the-century, and historically contextualising transgressive art. Similar works, predominantly from the last 30 years, suggest that censorship is not specific to time or place, but always narrowly threatening. Dread Scott’s piece What Is The Proper Way To Display A Us Flag? (1989) was next to text concerning The People’s Flag Show (1970) in New York. In both cases flag desecration laws were invoked to either censor the work or arrest the organisers of the show.
Vito Acconci’s work and written text underscored the importance of social context in transgressive work. By the 1970s he noted in his statement, work that had once been identified as obscene or illegal was now invited to participate in a sanctioned arena of cultural consumption. It was even expected, to a certain degree, by art audiences and galleries in the newly defined art district of SoHo in New York.
In addition to works addressing issues from South Africa to urban decay, the exhibit included work that specifically addresses the imbalance of the art world itself. This was most explicit in the work of GAAG (Guerrilla Art Action Group) which, among other things, staged a protest in 1969 at the Museum of Modern Art by removing Maravich’s White On White from the wall and replacing it with a list of demands that included museum reform. Photographer Richard Mock and César Chávez, in an effort to publicise a political issue but without funds, took panels of Christo’s $2 million Running Fence. Without authorisation they photographed grapes in the configuration of the number of the Bill that would grant union rights to migrant workers in California with the Chávez’s signature on top of the panels making clear the level of disparity between established artists’ resources and others.
The only disappointment to the show was that of the 36 artists and groups featured, though only for women artists. More unfortunate was that two of the women artists featured – Charlotte Moorman and Carolee Schneerman – figured as signifiers of transgressive sexuality. Undoubtedly, it is the political task of women artists to address issues of the body and sexuality, but retaining half of the female participants primarily in the realm of sexuality – and two other pieces by women dealt with animal rights and stealing – problematically reiterates already existing social patterns of sexual inequality.
Regardless of this inequality, this show was an important and voluminous one; the strongest work seems to be that which elicits the strongest reactions and forces public involvement. Like the flag in Dread Scott’s piece, which was alternatively taken off the floor and folded by those who believe in it as something to regard with total reverence, and then trampled upon by those who believe it is to be a more debatable symbol, strong work allows itself to go through whatever mutations are necessary to force an issue into the public arena.
New York, Illegal America, Exit Art 578 Broadway, (This was Exit Art’s first show as a new gallery Ed.).