Friday, December 4, 2009

You're Invited: Opening Sunday Dec 6th Noon-5pm

Opening: The John Slade Ely House Center for Contemporary Art
51 Trumbull Street, New Haven CT

Directions from RI: Take 95S to New Haven. Exit on I-91N and take exit #3 for Trumbull St. At end of exit ramp, go straight on Trumbull St toward Yale. The gallery is up about a block and a half on your right, after Orange and Lincoln but before Whitney.

From NYC: Take MetroNorth from Grand Central to New Haven.

Exhibition Press & Reviews

Allison Hoffman, "Memory Blocks" Tablet Magazine (4 Dec. 2009).

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Installation Shots

Video - Historic Synagogues of New Haven: The First Century, 1856-1956

Please contact me about the 18 min looping video (2009) used in the installation:

The Historic Video archive loop is here.

Cultural Heritage Artists Project Exhibition Catalogue (CHAP No. 1)

The 2009 exhibition catalogue, designed by Jeanne Criscola, is available here.

Here is the poster and e-vite:

Artist's Statement & Bio

Off-Road: The GPS Guide to Cultural Tourism in New Haven’s Yale Hospital, Oak Street Connector and Historic Orchard Street Synagogue Area (2009)

Nancy Austin

Artist Statement: 
How can the expanding field of cultural tourism be used by contemporary artists to initiate historically grounded conversations about, for example, religious tolerance in America? My project is a prototype for artist-driven content circulated via new cultural tourism sites. My first video is about documentation and facts. “Historic Synagogues of New Haven: The First Century, 1856-1956” is a looping video showing every known exterior, street-level view of New Haven’s historic synagogues. To date, I have only found about 50 surviving (mostly photographic) views recording the existence of these twenty synagogues representing a century of Jewish religious architecture in New Haven. How can it be that not only the synagogues themselves are gone, but also the visual record of their history is lost as well? My second video is a prototype for a different kind of cultural tourism experience. It contextualizes the Orchard St Shul as the lone-surviving synagogue of the still-controversial urban renewal efforts of the 1950s and 1960s and the semi-aborted Oak St. Highway Connector. This was a massive demolition project that demolished three other synagogues right away, dispersed the strong Jewish presence that supported the shops and other synagogues in the area, and transformed the surrounding neighborhood fabric forever. This devastation can be documented literally, and also more conceptually. In my video tour, I am both using and subverting a popular GPS drawing application for personal GPS travel diaries. Thus, if my first video is about the politics of archival photo documentation as the foundation for historical memory, then my second video should be seen as a cautionary tale about detached storytelling. For this exhibition installation, at a suitable distance from my altar of video screens, I have created a surrogate experience for the viewer to hop on an exercise bike and become, for the moment, a cultural tourist generating GPS data – shadows of facts as though we are all back in Plato’s cave. This is the dialectic and dialogue, and there is no quick answer to the question: “what do you know when you know a fact?” 

Nancy Austin is an interdisciplinary design historian and artist who has taught at Yale, RISD, and WPI.  She is an expert on the sites and circulation of culture in the modern period, and the history of the museum from the Renaissance to Museum 3.0. Her studio, Austin Alchemy – writing, research, design, partners on art-driven projects that bridge historical scholarship, an expanded notion of cultural tourism as an opportunity for public discourse, site-specific installations, and the critical exploration of new locative media.

Cultural Tourism & Alternative Histories

Since the late 1980s, the National Endowment for the Arts has been funding Cultural Tourism. Current NEA initiatives include Challenge America and Share Your Heritage. As artists continue to explore non-museum venues for site-specific work that can engage various communities, I would suggest that Cultural Tourism is a local, hybrid, sustainable space that should be imaginatively explored. Already, this more pluralistic view of what counts as "Cultural Tourism" has given birth to alternative approaches to telling local stories, or what counts as a history. Links to these initiatives will be posted here.
Gozaic - connecting through places that matter
Cultural Heritage Tourism

NCAC Censorship Charge

May 12, 2016 update: the National Council Against Censorship (NCAC) still has the CHAP exhibition condemned for censorship on its website. 

See here: (posted November 25, 2009)

NCAC's rush to judgment was self-justified by "facts" presented by one side without ever - to this day - allowing the CHAP collective to present their facts that narrate a quite different story.  

In 2016 it is time to acknowledge how the 2009 CHAP collective was a forward looking example of the kind of collaborative, cross-partnership, community projects that have become familiar now. Historically speaking, Kamler represents the last gasp of the heroic male artist coming in to have his way as the "famous" genius outsider, and who actually had to resort to calling the organizer -- a highly respected, new media pioneering woman -- "not an artist". 

Jan-Feb 2011 censorship update: 

Re: the NCAC special session at CAA with Svetlana Mintcheva and Richard Kamler entitled, "Policing the Sacred: Art, Censorship, and the Politics of Faith. Chaired by Eleanor Heartney.

There is a shocking lack of transparency in the upcoming national College Art Association (CAA) panel where Richard Kamler will be speaking about "Policing the Sacred". Unlike almost every other CAA panel that is put together through an open call for participation, this one was "grandfathered in" privately as an NCAC-sponsored panel. No one from the condemned CHAP artists collective was notified about this panel, or asked to be a balancing respondent.

Backstory: The Cultural Heritage Artists Project of the Orchard Street Shul was a site-specific group exhibition organized by over 30 artists volunteering their time and effort and working together from the spring of 2009 until January 2010. 

The call for participation read: "The project is not a simple exhibition of existing work; you must make new work responding to the environment, history, or architecture of the Orchard Street Shul [the struggling, oldest surviving synagogue in New Haven.] ... Artists are expected to visit the Orchard Street Shul to experience the presence of the site and neighborhood...

(If you are accepted) you will have several months to complete your contribution to the project .... In keeping with the intention of celebrating heritage and cultural diversity, we ask that all work produced for this project maintain respect for the synagogue as the spiritual home of an ongoing segment of New Haven's Jewish Community, and as the legacy of past generations."

In the fall of 2009, the Artistic Committee, of which I was a member, was accused of censorship in a complaint brought by Joyce Burstein and Richard Kamler.  In a troubling rush to judgment, the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC) issued a Press Release condemning the Artistic Committee and the CHAP exhibition, and posted it to their website. CHAP was given no opportunity to respond to the charges made by Burstein and Kamler, and to this day, has been denied access to the complaint, a hearing to present internal emails and other evidence, or any semblance of due process. 

The NCAC refuses to document or amend their claims that, for example: "The organizers demanded the removal or modification of the tablecloth, even after being repeatedly assured that religious scholars agreed that the installation did not violate any religious taboo. Their concern, as they explained to NCAC, was that the piece 'might offend somebody'."

NCAC's publicly issued charges against CHAP are not true. NCAC refused to hear our position or allow us to put on the record our well-documented narrative of an unfolding tragedy that was hijacked for publicity.

Censorship is a serious issue, and the CHAP-Shul exhibition did not engage in censorship.

Richard Kamler, was not commissioned to make work for an art exhibition, but applied to and was accepted into the CHAP project on the Shul. Kamler is a San Francisco-based artist who made one short visit to the New Haven site in spring 2009, and simply did not follow through on the community engagement necessary to realize his planned dialogues between the mostly elderly members of the Shul and their Muslim neighbors. I appreciate that he was far away and busy, but charging the collective with censorship does undo the fact that he never followed through on the community engagement component that was central to his project. His was a drone strike executed from a safe distance.

Kamler's proposal to exhibit a tablecloth of interwoven strips of cut-up pages of scripture from the Torah and Koran was met with a range of responses within CHAP. One Catholic artist did ask Kamler why, in light of the call for participation that "all work produced for this project maintain respect for the synagogue as the spiritual home of an ongoing segment of New Haven's Jewish Community" -- why would he try to "offend the very community we are trying to bring together?" 

The range of opinion among the CHAP artists committee was broad, and we engaged in dialogue for over a month. Trying to communicate with Kamler was difficult, and his incredibly dismissive, paternalistic attitude did not help. 

As for the question of sacrilege raised by observant participating Orthodox Jewish artists and members of the Shul, Richard Kamler offered this in a November 14, 2009 email: "and for all your info. The Qua'rn is not THE Qua'rn unless 50% is in Arabic. My copy is 33% Arabic, 33% transliteration and 33% English." This was the artist we dealt with as he stood behind his piece as being all about peace and community engagement; Kamler behaved like a bully. Sadly, the National Coalition Against Censorship proudly championed him as a famous artist and CHAP was dismissed as a provincial and not up to understanding the issues we had to struggle with to reach a collective decision and bring this Shul project to the public. Tragically, the NCAC made its determination of the facts - and publicly released them in a press release on November 25, 2009 (still on their website in May 2016) without every allowing we, the accused, to present our case. 

Finally, in a self-serving move as this train wreck moved towards only lose/lose options, Joyce Burstein sent out repeated calls for all of the CHAP artists to abandon the main organizer, and move the exhibition over to one she would run. Not one artist took her up on this. But clearly she got the ear (behind closed doors) of the NCAC. To the best of my knowledge, Richard Kamler has not exhibited his work and planned Community Conversation among his own religious neighbors, or in a purely secular art exhibition, as I believe he said he would.

Richard Kamler's appointment to a CAA panel on censorship is a ripe case study in hegemony today. Compare the partisan NCAC defense of Kamler against CHAP and the NCAC kid-glove approach to power player Jeffrey Deitch, at LA-MOCA in Dec. 2010. How to dialogue in the age of Shock and Awe.

In response to the NCAC Press Release, I immediately wrote this request for dialogue:

From the Independent Post:

Perhaps censorship is the new scarlet letter? I would have hoped that a National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC) press release wouldn’t have been quite so loose with the truth. Or condemn so flippantly.

From the beginning, the Orchard St. Shul Cultural Heritage Artists Project was defined as a site-specific project. For his required site visit, Richard Kamler, a famous artist, popped in from San Francisco last spring for a quick stop at the New Haven site, and never followed through on developing more than a generic piece dealing with Jews and Muslims everywhere or anywhere. All of the more than thirty other artists from all over the country spent months learning about and engaging with the history of this sole surviving urban synagogue in New Haven, in a state that did not legally grant religious freedom to Jews until 1843. Of course Kamler’s idea of a community dialogue between the Orchard Street Shul and the mosque “right around the corner” is great. But then Richard Kamler would have had to follow through and make contact with these two communities. It would have required face time and engagement so that his proposed conversation, if he could have negotiated it, would have been more than a self-serving spectacle with the respective congregations functioning as something more than props in his performance. Kamler simply did not do the legwork to realize the possibilities he laid out for his piece.

But Kamler 
has been very strategic in out-sourcing this work to two groups. First, the CHAP committee of mostly women artists, volunteering hundreds of hours to prototype a new model of site-specific, historically-engaged art installations in a hybrid space that is part art world, part public history activism, part conservative religious community memorial. And secondly, now the media is completing his work for him.

I admired the book “Censoring Culture”, by the NCAC’s Svetlana Mintcheva and Robert Atkins, and appreciated the thoughtful questioning there on the gray zones of censorship, on the power of hegemony, and on self-censorship. What does the very air we breathe allow or discourage? Every project will have a boundary, and contemporary art will be hindered if every artist-run group exhibition has to worry now that some man is going to sit at the boundary and do his work by pulling out the censorship card. These are important times with much to be done. In this instance I believe the NCAC itself has become hegemonic and missed the point of this whole experimental exhibition, done on a shoestring by real people who tried in every way to find a win/win solution. Perhaps it would be relevant to put on record Richard Kamler’s verbatim email responses to the various women in the committee attempting dialogue, and start to put some flesh on the reductive claims the NCAC makes that the organizers “censored” Kamler’s work out of a “fear of offending”.

To conclude, I would ask that the NCAC document the statement in their press release of November 20, 2009 that the organizers were “repeatedly assured that religious scholars agreed that the installation did not violate any religious taboos.” I have been on the inside of this debate, and nothing could be further from the truth. Please document your claim. It is worrisome to see an organization like the NCAC rush to judgment in defense of Richard Kamler, and in the process massage this situation into a simplistic sound byte, “proven” with half-truths or outright false statements. 

Finally, it is alarming to hear NCAC suggest that if the “committee wanted to reduce the possibility of disagreement and ambiguity, perhaps it should have simply organized a show of archival photographs rather than an art exhibition.” Does NCAC really have such a simplistic view of how historical evidence gets meaning? We can start that dialogue with a look at Eroll Morris’s recent documentary, “Standard Operating Procedure”, about the meaning of the archival photographs at Abu Ghraib.

I stand by this upcoming exhibition at the John Slade Ely House for Contemporary Art in New Haven.

Nancy Austin, PhD
Participating Artist

From the Register Posts: 
Richard Kamler wrote on Nov 30, 2009 12:57 PM:
" Curious, but also understandable, that Ms.Rubin, while not an artist and showing little understading [sic] of art processes,
missed the point of "right around the corner-the common ground" of honoring, challenging and offering opportunities to the local communities to engage in serious dialogues..something that was the intention of my piece before it was censored. "

Nancy Austin wrote on Nov 30, 2009 4:22 PM:

" Over 30 artists managed to work together to realize this upcoming exhibition and companion catalogue. It is unfortunate that Richard Kamler cannot be more respectful of the woman organizing this. Cynthia Rubin is an accomplished artist with a thirty-year exhibition record.

Everyone else in this group exhibition managed to put aside their “it’s all about me” ego and follow through on good intentions to finish their own work. This conflict is about ego, not censorship.

Why have there been so few women artists in the record? In part, because men have been allowed to deny that women artists are right here. "

The National Coalition Against Censorship 

screenshot from NCAC website May2016

Censorship of a Work Involving the Koran and the Torah Guts New Haven Art Exhibition 

"Art by its very nature is open to multiple interpretations, and therefore even the most seemingly innocuous material may generate controversy," Mintcheva said. "If the Orchard Street Shul Cultural Heritage Artists Project committee wanted to reduce the possibility of disagreement and ambiguity, perhaps it should have simply organized a show of archival photographs rather than an art exhibition."

The New Haven Independent (November 24, 2009 and comments)
The New Haven Register (November 25, 2009 and comments) 

Feb. 1 2011 update from Rome about the CAA panel where Kamler is offered a platform to be heard:
At 7am EST on Monday Jan 31st, I sent an email to College Art Association (CAA) requesting that the NCAC panel be taped. I have chaired and participated in CAA panels in the past and this is not an unusual request. In the late afternoon, at 4:18pm,  I heard back from CAA that my request was denied. This email exchange is posted below for the record. 

Meanwhile. In the interim. During the day. At 4pm, Svetlana Mintcheva of the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC) posted a new blog entry on the NCAC website about the upcoming CAA panel, introducing some new language to use in this discussion. I am sorry I cannot attend, or hear a tape recording - a simple enough request in this day and age. 

In her blog post from Jan 31st, Mintcheva continues to prefer the gentle word "interwoven" to describe Richard Kamler's proposed piece for the CHAP-Shul project that included a tablecloth made from sliced pages of the Torah and Koran and illustrated here.  If Kamler's goal was to engage in community conversations, then a good place to start would have been for Kamler to take the lead and begin a constructive dialogue with artists from the synagogue participating in our collective Cultural Heritage Artists Project. Kamler could have engaged with other members of our collective directly, and addressed their reality that a special "waste" basket is kept next to the photocopy machine so that unused xerox copies of the Torah could be given a proper religious burial. Instead, Kamler found it easier and tactical to accuse the group of censorship. The social construction of the modern (male) artist who defiantly chooses not to be part of a collective attempt (by mostly women) to break new ground is the topic at hand. Not an inflammatory charge of censorship by the NCAC, an American institution that appears to operate with no checks and balances in place to reign in its condemning power. Isn't it time for someone to watch the watchdog? 

One of the many fall-outs from his use of the inflammatory censorship card is that so much discussion and energy continues to be diverted to talking all about "Kamler", and not about the serious issue of how well-meaning urban planners, sure they were right, demolished the New Haven neighborhood that had once been home to a dozen synagogues, only one of which survives today. This story of power from above enacted on a neighborhood was one of the driving forces for the CHAP-Shul project. When does this conversation get the attention it deserves?  For more information on some of the issues that originally drove the CHAP-Shul project, see the links here:

And here:

On Jan 31st at 7am I wrote to CAA with this request:

Please tape the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC) panel on "Policing the Sacred" that CAA is sponsoring at the upcoming CAA centennial conference. The panel is scheduled for Wednesday February 9 from 12:30-2pm in Sutton Parlor Center, 2nd floor of the NY Hilton. 

I am concerned that this CAA sponsored panel may be providing another national platform for the NCAC and Richard Kamler to continue their libelous attack on the 2009/10 CHAP-Shul exhibition. Since 2009, the NCAC has consistently refused to provide CHAP with access to the original complaint or the right to present a defense at a "trial". As a long standing CAA member, I take issue with the way this NCAC panel of speakers was grandfathered in to the CAA conference, denying an equal access opportunity for any member of the Cultural Heritage Artists Project (CHAP) to be a respondent. 

I am on a research trip at the American Academy in Rome, and cannot attend CAA this year. But, I intend to continue to track the NCAC's rush to judgement in defense of Richard Kamler, and NCAC's refusal to dialogue with any of the dozens of other CHAP-Shul project participating artists. Clearly, this will make an important case study of how hegemony is working in the art world c.2010, and thus, this upcoming panel deserves careful documentation. This is especially true since CAA is offering its imprimatur for this NCAC session that was not the result of an open call. 

I am dismayed that CAA has chosen to sponsor this NCAC panel, where Richard Kamler will be offered a national platform and CHAP will likely continue to be publicly accused, misrepresented, and condemned with no due process. Please tape this session so that we may accurately respond to what is said.

Please see my blog documenting the original NCAC rush to judgement: 

Nancy Austin, CHAP project blog, Off-Road

I would appreciate you forwarding this email to the Session Chair, Eleanor Heartney. 
Thank you.

At 4:18pm I received this response, in big bold letters:

Dear Dr. Austin:

Thank you for contacting me about this matter.  I must deny your request and point out the following:

1) CAA does not involve itself in the content of panels that are presented by recognized affiliated societies and allied organizations;
2) these groups are themselves responsible for the content of the panels and the selection of speakers;
3) CAA does not endorse the content of these panels;
4) the panel chair and all the participants must agree to have a session recorded;
5) attendance at these panels is open to the public and free.


Emmanuel Lemakis

Emmanuel Lemakis
Director of Programs
College Art Association
275 Seventh Avenue
New York, N.Y. 10001
Tel. 212 691-1051
Fax 212 627-2381

Note: When the CAA session I chaired years ago was taped, CAA made the request on behalf of a CAA member, and I consented. What procedure could I possibly follow to obtain the permission of the NCAC panel Chair to have had this panel taped? For the record, CHAP members did request Eleanor Heartney's email address from CAA and were denied.

Feb 1, 2011 continued: 
It is time to demand transparency from the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC) if it is to carry the banner of democratic free speech. Please release the original censorship complaint and relevant companion documents. Clarify how many closed-door meetings were had with whom. CHAP has nothing to hide and can document each attempt made to engage Joyce Burstein, Richard Kamler and Svetlana Mintcheva of NCAC, and now CAA,  in dialogue. Where is the Wikileaks on closed door proceedings of the complaining artists, CAA, and NCAC?

The original, detailed, CHAP rebuttal to the NCAC Press Release can be found here and here.

The National Coalition Against Censorship's Annual Report with Richard Kamler's "Right Around the Corner" on the cover is here.