Art Gallery Closed by Homeland Security (Part 1) by Peter Lasch

Durham, North Carolina
September 16, 2002

Last Thursday September 12 a message with the title "Re: White Box Closure" was distributed through the list of 16 Beaver Group, a New York collective concerned with politics, activism, art, and culture. Signed by artists Rene Gabri, Ayreen Anastas, and curator Tanya Leighton, the letter informed its recipients about the closure of their project "RadioActive" ( by The Homeland Security Cultural Bureau ( The Bureau had shut down the New York Chelsea gallery "White Box" the previous day, without clarifying whether the threat to national security was posed by the space or the show itself.

Some readers quickly forwarded the message to friends and colleagues, asking for an immediate response. Several journalists were also interested in the matter. Others, however, viewed the official website of The Homeland Security Cultural Bureau (HSCB) with suspicion, especially after reading that Arnold Schwarzenegger -a reported board member of the Bureau, had talked to one of the artists and denied any knowledge of the closure. Those who called the gallery discovered that it was never really shut down, that the HSCB website was a fake, and that the whole thing was staged by Anastas and Gabri.

A second wave of e-mails and calls ensued. While many people had already complained to White Box for showing any art that might pose a threat to national security -without even asking why the exhibition was censured, most of the responses came from a more progressive community. They have been consistently angry and offensive. Fellow artists and cultural workers concerned about real censorship and civil liberties, attacked the project as unconscionable, insulting, embarrassing, sophomoric, a useless prank. People previously asked to protest the closure were now asked to protest the fake closure. The producers were called cynics, people desperate to achieve fame, even assholes. The action was a waste of time and energy that should be spent on real causes and real people.

Any hoax, of course, is likely to produce such strong emotional responses. Rumors can easily make one feel insecure, if not taken advantage of. What I find disappointing about these rather personal attacks, though, is that none of the people so aggressively disqualifying the project ever inquired whether the artists had conceived a second stage to the initial surprise, or whether the participantsÕ own experience was seriously at stake in this gesture. If they had done so, they could have learned, for instance, that Anastas is very much aware of real attacks on civil liberties, having been born and raised in Palestine under Israeli Occupation. They could have also learned that GabriÕs Armenian heritage, among many other things, makes him particularly responsive to the effective censorship by the U.S. media of past and current abuses.

The generalized claim that this action comes from people who are only using politics as a means to get attention seems either misinformed, or entirely out of place. As a member of the collective 16 Beaver, I have worked with Anastas and Gabri for several years. They are both infatigable artists, activists, and cultural critics. With their constant support, 16 Beaver has pursued and engaged issues whose mention is, more often than not, entirely absent from New York art circuits. Together we have hosted events and organized actions in relation to the death penalty and the growing prison industry, the plight of undocumented immigrants, the sanctions against Iraq, the fight for Palestinian statehood and civil rights, hacktivism, Zapatismo, the situation of sex workers in NYC, and the history of artistsÕ opposition to U.S. Foreign Policy, to mention a few.

Rumor has been a basic component in the work of innumerable political and non-political artists from various generations. What seems to matter is whether the initial "fiction" provokes a relevant experience, and whether the appearance of "the truth" allows for a thoughtful continuation of the social exchange already put in motion. The speed with which the piece was able to instigate a response to The Homeland Security Cultural Bureau, and the strong moral tone of most of the attacks, seem quite telling and worthwhile pursuing in themselves. Spontaneous reactions like those produced in the early stage of this project, expose an eerie correspondence between the Bush rhetoric of good versus evil, and the self-righteous, assumed agreement among those who consider themselves on the left. It might be time to bring back that favorite line of Emma Goldman's: "If there's no dancing at your revolution, I am not coming."

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