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Posted at 2:22 PM ET, 12/ 6/2010

Protestors banned from Smithsonian after playing video on iPad

By Blake Gopnik

On Sunday at around 1 pm, 37-year-old Washingtonian Mike Blasenstein hung an iPad around his neck, held some flyers in his hands -- and promptly got banned, or so he believes, from the Smithsonian Institution.

That iPad was playing a video called "A Fire in My Belly," by the artist David Wojnarowicz, who died of AIDS in 1992 and Blasenstein was standing at the National Portrait Gallery, just outside the entrance to a gay-themed exhibition called "Hide/Seek."

The same video had been in the show until last Tuesday, when pressure from Republican members of Congress and certain religious groups (the four-minute clip included 11 seconds of ants crawling on a crucifix), got the museum to remove it post-haste.

Blasenstein says his flyers -- which he was holding, he says, but not passing out -- described the censored piece and explained his reasons for attempting to show it once again. Blasenstein had decided to be a "human exhibit," he said, speaking by phone on Monday. "Exhibits have little texts attached to them."
Label or no, he didn't last long as a work of art.

Within minutes Smithsonian security guards had asked him to leave the building and to hand over his iPad and flyers, he says. When he refused, he allowed himself to go limp ("I figured I shouldn't help them") and was carried and dragged to a nearby stairwell for processing. (Local artist Michael Dax Iacovone, a standout in the recent FotoWeek DC, was handcuffed and detained, apparently for videotaping Blasenstein's act. It's not clear, however, that Iacovone was doing anything wrong: Taping is allowed in the Portrait Gallery's public spaces, and the two were not inside the exhibition proper, where photography is forbidden.)

According to Blasenstein, Smithsonian security discussed what they should accuse him of (he says he heard them mention a charge of "trespassing,") then called Washington municipal police. The two groups of officers held a "confab" outside the stairwell, says Blasenstein, and the city police then offered the two protesters the choice of being arrested or signing a form agreeing to a ban from Smithsonian buildings. (Or at least that is what Blasenstein remembers being asked to sign: Police refused to give him a copy of the document. )

Blasenstein and Iacovone chose to sign the forms and be banned -- for life, or so the officers suggested, they say. Blasenstein says his goal was to get back on the street as soon as possible, so as to plan further actions to protest the removal of Wojnarowicz's video. "I didn't see any further advantage to getting arrested, as opposed to being banned," he says.

Smithsonian spokeperson Linda St. Thomas says that the banning was entirely the business of the DC police. Smithsonian security officers, she says, have no authority to issue such a ban. She believes the protesters' offence was leafletting, which is banned in Smithsonian buildings, and often becomes an issue when political protests on the Mall spill over into its museums: "It doesn't matteir what the cause is, you just can't bother our visitors that way."
St. Thomas admits, however, it's not clear that Blasenstein was guilty even of leafletting: "You're not supposed to hand [leaflets] out, but you can walk in carrying them," she says. (The video shot by Iacovone, and now widely available on the Web, seems to confirm that Blasenstein was entirely passive. In a later email, St.Thomas wrote that "Standing with a pile of fliers ... is still considered distributing literature/fliers in the museums and is not permitted. As for wearing an iPad showing a video---although we have no written policy on this -- it is the equivalent of displaying or carrying a sign, placard or banner which is prohibited in any Smithsonian museum.")
St. Thomas says, that Blasenstein's "ban" is only for the National Portrait Gallery building rather than the whole Smithsonian. (The handwritten police forms of which she supplied copies of are a bit ambiguous on that point. Blasenstein's does not list the offense, and does not specify the duration of the ban. Iacovone, written-up on a slightly different form, is accused of "disorderly conduct" and is explicitely banned for only one year. ) St. Thomas also notes that the ban is more symbolic than practical: "Clearly we won't enforce it -- we couldn't ... our security is just looking at bags at the door. It's not up to our security to screen visitors."

Blasenstein says his goal wasn't to be "disorderly," but merely to give exhibition visitors a second chance to see the video that had been removed. "I was hoping to just be able to stand there until closing," he says. He also says he wasn't surprised at the outcome. "That's what security people do," he says, "they lock down disorder."

As for the ban, which he intends to fight, Blasenstein says that it won't have a huge effect on his life. It will keep him from returning to the portrait gallery ("it's one of my favorite museums") and to "Hide/Seek," as he'd very much hoped to do -- he only got a few minutes in the show before his protest began and he was ejected. But otherwise, as someone who works as a Web master for a non-profit, Blasenstein wasn't a particularly regular visitor to the Smithsonian's institutions. "I'm glad I went to the zoo a few months ago and saw the pandas, because I'm not going to have a chance now."

Frankly, the whole business sounds like the product of over-enthusiastic work on the part of security and police officers, under little supervision on a Sunday afternoon. The gallery's administrators can't be looking for more negative publicity in the local arts community. As an art critic, I also realize that something has to be done to keep visitors from introducing "wearable video art" of their choosing into any exhibition where they think it might fit. If nothing else, however, Smithsonian authorities should do everything in their power to get whatever ban there is reversed. Where are they going to find another two visitors so dedicated to the integrity of the institution's shows that they'll risk arrest to restore it?

By Blake Gopnik  | December 6, 2010; 2:22 PM ET
Categories:  Blake Gopnik  
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Mr Gopnik:

Please keep following this story. The hate-mongers are looking to infect every corner of civil society with their lies, fear-mongering and prejudice.

That the Smithsonian is cheerfully going along with them makes it just as contemptible.

The comments by the spokesperson are classic weasel: gosh we have no idea or control over any of this. Your comment at the end is - on the other hand - priceless:

"Where are they going to find another two visitors so dedicated to the integrity of the institution's shows that they'll risk arrest to restore it?"

Posted by: ryanvb | December 13, 2010 12:39 AM | Report abuse

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