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Calgary venue tells artist to remove poster listing names of trans murder victims

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Arts Commons is doubling down after being accused of censorship for removing a public art installation that was meant to draw attention to the issues transgender people face.

The New Gallery said in a meeting with the venue on Tuesday they were told they had two business days to remove an art installation, consisting of a poster listing the names of transgender victims of violence and three TV screens, from their window gallery in a downtown Calgary Plus-15 walkway.

The now-blank TV screens were part of a video installation that was taken down by Arts Commons after the venue said it had received complaints about nudity and profanity — neither of which are displayed on the poster.

'There's no cursing, there's no nudity'

"I was pretty shocked," said The New Gallery's director Su Ying Strang. 

"The fact that they wanted to take away the remaining component, the censorship in general, I don't think is fair. But at the end of the day, the rest of the work … a poster of names commemorating these individuals. There's no cursing, there's no nudity. I don't understand."

The installation was supposed to run until Sept. 28. 

Instead, Arts Commons — which owns the window space that The New Gallery curates — sent the gallery a letter on Aug. 29 saying the piece would have to be edited to remove the objectionable content, or it would be taken down.

Arts Commons also offered artist Beck Gilmer-Osborne one night in a private venue to showcase the work, instead of in a public gallery. And now, the entirety of the work will be removed.

The piece, in The New Gallery's space in Arts Commons' Plus-15 walkway, has been turned off. (CBC)

Gilmer-Osborne declined the offer for a single night in a private venue, and criticized the venue for "censoring" work that was meant to have a public impact. 

Arts Commons is a civic partner, and the agency said that with children travelling through the public space during the day, the material was not appropriate.

Arts Commons and The New Gallery met Tuesday in an attempt to come to an agreement over the situation.

Strang said The New Gallery suggested compromises, including screening the video only in evenings or putting up a QR code and link to the website so people could be redirected to view the work online.

"They weren't interested … as they said 'facilitating the request to further criticize them,'" Strang said. 

Decision was not taken lightly: Arts Commons

Arts Commons said the request isn't a criticism of the piece itself and the decision was not taken lightly.

"We think it carries a valuable message and has been created with love and care. This was simply not the appropriate venue for the piece," the venue said in an emailed statement.

It said the request to take the poster and TV screens down, and the refusal to allow The New Gallery to post a link to the artwork, is because it would prefer to host a different piece of art in the space.

Arts Commons also reiterated that the original video broke its programming agreement with the gallery, something Strang questions.

"I don't believe this restriction is always applied equitably," Strang said, stating that the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council allows scenes of unsexualized nudity on daytime television as well as some curse words, and that she has heard other pieces of nude art have been freely displayed in Arts Commons.

There are seven to eight profane words displayed in the piece, and a three-second, blurry clip is shown of a nude woman standing on a beach at night while wearing a prosthetic penis.

"The idea that this work is not suitable for a highly public venue, I think, is fairly ridiculous because the whole point of this exhibition is to make trans issues visible and to help spur some change within mainstream media. That's why this is integral."

Artist Beck Gilmer-Osborne says they were given a choice of editing their video art installation or the piece would be turned off, after Arts Commons said it received complaints about nudity and profanity. (Beck Gilmer-Osborne)

The window gallery is one of nine Arts Commons has provided for free to local artist-run groups to use since 1992. 

While Arts Commons owns the spaces, each gallery curates its own content.

This is the second time Arts Commons has been criticized for "censoring" a transgender artist, after the venue put up a wall in front of one of the Plus-15 window galleries in 2006. 

The New Gallery said its main gallery is under renovations, so it's unable to move the work from the Plus-15 gallery to the larger venue. 

But it's looking for other options to host the artwork and is hoping in the meantime people will view it online on its website.

"I encourage anyone who may find the work challenging to talk about it, talk with your family about it, talk to your friends about it, talk to us about it," Strang said.

"I think that's one of the really exciting things art does is it creates an opportunity to connect and to learn something new."

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Guidelines on Arts Programs Facing Cuts

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With many institutions cutting or considering cutting humanities and arts programs and resources, the College Art Association has released guidelines for addressing substantive changes to art, art history or design programs. The guidelines pertain to the elimination or merger of undergraduate or graduate programs and related degrees or museums, and the removal of more than 10 percent of a fine art library’s or museum’s or collection’s holdings to another, generally inaccessible location. “Faced with the possibility of a proposed change to a visual arts unit, library or discontinuance of degrees, faculty and staff should engage in focused discussion with stakeholders and institutional leadership,” such as by expertly advocating for the resources in a nonadversarial manner, the guidelines say.

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How can the arts serve social awareness and activism?

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Ruhama is the NGO supporting women affected by prostitution and sex trafficking in Ireland. The organisation is also member of a network, CAP International, of 28 similar frontline organisations in 20 countries across the globe. Our work is at the coal face in responding to the damage caused by commercial sexual exploitation, a trade which includes the prostitution of minors – an estimated 10 million children worldwide . From Delhi to Montreal and Mexico City to Dublin we and our colleagues value the contribution the arts can offer for both awareness raising of this issue and as a mechanism for survivor healing and activism.

At this #MeToo moment in time in Ireland we are starting to truly interrogate some of the social issues that assist in creating optimal conditions for the commercial sexual exploitation of women and girls. Issues of: early sexualisation, grooming, harassment, gender inequality, bodily autonomy, male entitlement, and the demand for the purchase of sex which drives the sex trade.

Consider a child, alone and helpless, subjected to the worst sexual violations imaginable. Most of us flinch from doing so because it is almost too hard to bear – a self-protective reflex as the mind recoils. We see in our mind’s eye the face of children in our own lives whom we love, and repel the image because the pain is too much to bear. Innocence should be protected not destroyed. It is a challenge to discuss things that are almost too abhorrent to conceive of. But if there is the possibility that they might be occurring right next door to us we have a social responsibility to do so.

Art can be a vehicle for us to transcend the boundaries of what we currently know or think, and act as a tool for us to interrogate our current beliefs, critically examine our world and our role and responsibilities as occupants within it. Works of fiction based on factual realities can be more comfortable vehicles than raw truth, to stimulate and challenge us to start conversations, investigate and take action for change.

In 2015 I was approached by author Lisa Harding, who asked me to read her novel Harvesting. The book tells the intertwining stories of two girls, Moldovan Nico and Irish Sammy, whose lives collide when they are both sex trafficked in Ireland. Lisa wanted to make sure she was handling the fictitious subject matter responsibly in her wish to give voice to the experiences of the real victims she had encountered, and to raise awareness of their plight.

When I sat down to read the manuscript I prepared to clinically assess the content for credible representation, based against the true stories Ruhama had encountered in Ireland, as well as our global awareness of the targeting and exploitation of vulnerable girls into prostitution. Ruhama has met girls similar to both Nico and Sammy. Girls like Sammy who were badly neglected, even if outwardly living in comfort and affluence, and groomed by boyfriends who prepped them for prostitution by breaking down their boundaries through exposure to pornography and sexual abuse. Girls like Nico whose own families commodified and sold them in the context of deprivation, poverty and the social devaluing of the girl child. We have also met and supported countless adult women whose first experience of prostitution was as a minor but who – in the blink of an eye – turned 18 and were somehow transformed from child victims into apparently “consenting adults”, as though the imprint of their exploitation was magically erased.

I assessed the trajectories of Nico and Sammy into well-concealed brothels and private “gentlemen’s parties” and I knew there was nothing fictional in this. At the same time, I also became completely engrossed in a beautiful story of unlikely friendship, solidarity and sacrifice which created a paradoxical reading experience – simultaneously heartbreaking and heartwarming.

As social activists calling for the reduction of commercial sexual exploitation of both children and adults alike, we know that a primary step in any strategy for social change is to raise awareness. An important part of driving social change is getting people to think about their own ideals, emotions or opinions towards a particular issue. If the problem is not accepted as reality in society as a whole then there will be no movement for change. Art, through its many media, can act as a catalyst by drawing attention to the challenges society’s most vulnerable face in ways that will connect with the audience on an emotional level – the place where beliefs and attitudes are formed and changed. Using a deft touch, art can stimulate empathy. When an empathic connection with the most marginalised and their experience is created, there is the potential to generate positive change.

Art can also mobilise and empower the most vulnerable members of society themselves. Many survivors of sexual exploitation have found their own voice through creative expression. In Ruhama women have variously used poetry, photography, theatre and painting to express themselves, share their experiences and raise awareness.

A beautifully crafted, painful story can be elevated to the level of activism when it creates a springboard for important social conversations on the cause and consequence of sex trafficking. Harvesting can be one of these stories.
Sarah Benson is CEO of the Dublin-based NGO Ruhama. Find out more at ruhama.ie

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After Grief and Defiance, Arts Help Process 2015 Paris Attacks

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After Grief and Defiance, Arts Help Process 2015 Paris Attacks

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A ceremony Tuesday outside the town hall of the 11th arrondissement in Paris commemorates the third anniversary of the Nov. 13 attacks. CreditCreditChristophe Ena/Associated Press

PARIS — Three years to the day after he lived through the worst terrorist attack in France’s modern history, Fred Dewilde and other survivors, neighbors and families of victims gathered on Tuesday for a subdued commemoration in the area of Paris hardest hit by the violence.

“We don’t really know each other, but we do understand each other and we’re here for one another,” said Mr. Dewilde, 51, who was at the Bataclan concert hall on Nov. 13, 2015, and attended the memorial held in a square nearby, where the crowd released balloons into the sky. “We’re all citizens of the 13th.”

That day, like Tuesday, dawned clear and warm for November, but after night fell, suicide bombers attacked France’s largest stadium, armed men shot randomly at busy sidewalk bars and cafes, and three gunmen attacked the crowded Bataclan with Kalashnikov rifles; all told, they killed 130 people and wounded nearly 500.

For France, especially for the Paris area, the initial sense of horror gave way to an outpouring of grief, then public defiance. But enough time has passed that many of those who lived through the attacks — like Mr. Dewilde, a medical illustrator turned graphic novelist — have moved on to processing the trauma through writing, film and the arts.

A spate of books, graphic novels, documentaries and exhibitions has emerged, as artists and their audiences try to capture and understand that terrible day.

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A commemorative plaque outside the Bataclan concert hall with names of victims from the attack. Scores were killed there during a concert by the American band Eagles of Death Metal.CreditChristophe Ena/Associated Press

“It is the media, the history books, the artistic works, the graphic novels that circulate widely that are going to help in the construction of a collective memory,” said Denis Peschanski, a historian at the National Center for Scientific Research in France. He is a co-leader of a project that uses the events of Nov. 13 to study how the memory of trauma changes over time.

“Memory is a puzzle,” Mr. Peschanski said. After a traumatic event, whether people were in immediate danger or just watching on television, they instinctively want to “find the pieces of a puzzle,” he said.

Creative works are now filling in some of those gaps.

They are personal, but also trace aspects of the attacks that many people will recognize — a body of art that also serves as shared testimony. In addition to the therapeutic value they have for victims and witnesses, the artistic endeavors, many of them open to interpretation, can help others understand what they and their society are going through.

The documentary film “November 13: Attack on Paris,” which was released on Netflix in June, immerses the viewer in the overwhelming event, showing the trauma to individuals, to a neighborhood and to Paris, but it also shows how ordinary people could and did survive it.

Catherine Bertrand, who returned to the Bataclan on Tuesday for a ceremony for survivors and families, is one of those who lived through the massacre and was moved to express her experience artistically. Her graphic novel “Chronicles of a Survivor” tells of her struggle with post-traumatic stress, depicting it as a crushing black ball, far larger than she is, that waits for her when she wakes up in the morning and weighs her down, day after day.

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Gédéon Naudet, left, and his brother Jules made a documentary film on the Nov. 13 attacks. The brothers also made a film on the Sept. 11 attacks in New York.CreditStephane De Sakutin/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The ball brings nightmares, erases her memory of how to do her work and makes her cry easily. She feels distant from friends and family.

She learns about her condition and accepts that she needs help, and gradually, the immense ball shrinks. By the book’s end, she can hold it in her hand and says: “One day I will manage to throw that ball away and free myself.”

Even people who experienced traumas unrelated to the Paris attacks have told her they found solace in her work, she said.

“A father told me that he had lost his son and that after that he had cut himself off from those close to him because they did not understand,” said Ms. Bertrand, 38. “When he read my book it made him feel so good that he wrote to thank me. This is my most beautiful success.”

While ambitious ideas for tributes to the victims have been met with skepticism, even scorn — including a proposal by the American artist Jeff Koons to install a colorful sculpture representing a bouquet of tulips, and a government plan to dedicate a “museum-memorial” — more personal creations have flourished.

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Some of the books published after the Paris attacks.CreditClockwise from top left: Flammarion; La Martinière; Heliopoles; Seuil.

“With my book, I wanted to lay one little brick that I thought may help rebuild the wall destroyed by this tragedy,” said Aristide Barraud, 29, the author of “But Don’t Sink,” one of several memoirs written by survivors.

Mr. Barraud, a former professional rugby player, was shot three times as he shielded his sister with his body. He nearly died, suffering injuries so severe that he was forced to end his playing career.

For him, writing the book was a way to cope with the trauma, and to fill the void left by his sport.

Like Ms. Bertrand, Mr. Dewilde, 51, was moved to use illustration to express his struggles. One of his two graphic novels about the attack, “The Bite,” illustrated with finely drawn pen-and-ink sketches, is as much a parable of transcending fear and hatred as it is a memoir.

He depicts his emotions in “The Bite” as a black stain on his arm that spreads and morphs into a serpent, and portrays the Bataclan killers as skeletons. The stain feeds on each of the successive terrorist attacks that touched France over the following year, including the killing of a priest and the use of a truck to mow down scores of pedestrians in Nice on Bastille Day 2016.

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Paramedics helping the wounded outside the Bataclan concert hall on Nov. 13, 2015.CreditPierre Terdjman for The New York Times

At the book’s end, Mr. Dewilde’s character vanquishes the dark stain and malevolent serpent, finding that he has the strength to leave them behind.

While no one work can contain an event as vast as the Paris attacks, the documentary “November 13: Attack on Paris” by the award-winning filmmakers Jules and Gédéon Naudet manages to capture the day in its alternating normality, horror and heroism.

As Paris natives who had made a documentary about the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, they were drawn to do the same for Paris.

Their Nov. 13 documentary relies on eyewitnesses — victims who survived, firefighters, police officers and government officials, including the president at the time, François Hollande. They obtained contemporary footage from a television crew traveling with some of the firefighters who responded, and from the offices of the emergency dispatchers.

The result is a remarkable three-part account that opens with the kind of postcard images of sunrise over Paris that are beloved by morning news shows, and moves through the day and night, intersplicing interviews with 42 people who were there.

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“Mon Bataclan” is a graphic novel by Fred Dewilde.CreditBertrand Guay/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The main point is not to forget either the good or the bad, or to become too emotionally distant from what happened, Gédéon Naudet said.

In New York, “firefighters, family, friends, the people who survived, they are extraordinary, their basic response was positive in the sense that they did not want to let what happened to them destroy them,” he said. “It was the same spirit in Paris.”

The Naudet brothers were in Manhattan on Sept. 11, 2001, so their cameras captured the disaster as it unfolded.

“In 9/11 you were there because we were there,” said Jules Naudet. They did not witness the Paris attacks, but wanted the same immediacy, so they asked those they interviewed to speak in the first person and in the present tense.

“Here we wanted to recreate the same thing but without the images, with only being in the people’s heads,” Jules Naudet said.

The Naudet brothers decided to show not only the horror and destruction of terrorism, but also the resilience they discovered in those who are touched by terrorism.

“None of the survivors talk about hatred, revenge, and killing,” Gédéon Naudet said. “You have a choice: You go the dark way or you go the way with light.”

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