NY Art School Boxes Student Sperm Project

The recent rather heavy-handed treatment of Marc Bradley Johnson’s MFA thesis project at New York’s School of Visual Art (SVA) raises some interesting concerns—especially for an institution that aims to play a leadership role in the bio-art movement.

originalJohnson’s project consists of a refrigerator containing 68 vials of his sperm arranged on a grid. The artist originally intended to give away his semen to any interested member of the public.

But SVA, concerned that New York law prohibits the distribution of human tissue outside of a medical facility, confiscated the fridge and planned to dispose of the vials. However, upon further consideration, administrators returned the work to the exhibition but quarantined and sealed the vials in a box labeled ‘bio hazardous waste.’

Were administrators overreacting? Perhaps they were too embarrassed by the work’s content, and the scale tipped over fear of additional complaints that it violated health standards? And what does the bumbling about—to dispose or not to dispose, etc.—say about this institution, which  recently launched a bio art lab?

The law that SVA cites as justifying its actions is one that governs reproductive tissue 600px-Piero_Manzoni_Artist's_shitbanks, not art work. The “hazardous” vials (containing microwaved dead sperm ) weren’t  offered for their reproductive potential but as a commentary on the value (or lack of value) of artistic activity and what counts as such activity,  similar  to Pierro Manzoni’s cans of “Artist’s shit” produced a half century ago in 1961.

SVA should have kept Johnson’s work intact but perhaps sealed the fridge and not allow anyone to remove the vials. Adding a bio hazardous waste box didn’t do much for safety— but it did change the very look and message of the piece.

This new message—that bio matter is above all hazardous waste—really interests me, as it poses a threat that, if perhaps someone doesn’t like a piece of bio art, they can always potentially claim it “hazardous.”

As SVA’s own bio art program page explains, “coming to the fore in the early 1990s, bio art is … an international movement with practitioners in such regions as Europe, the U.S., Russia, Asia, Australia and the Americas.” It goes on to describe the sub-genres of bio art as dealing with “molecular and cellular genetics, transgenically altered living matter, reproductive technologies and neurosciences” and including “artists employing biological matter itself as their medium, including processes such as tissue engineering, plant breeding, transgenics and ecological reclamation.”

Certainly, art containing biological materials may raise health concern issues, but shouldn’t an art institution, in this case  a pioneer in bio art, work to carve out a space for such practices rather than submit an artist’s work to laws that don’t apply—and to an over-cautiousness that defies common sense?


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One Response to NY Art School Boxes Student Sperm Project

  1. any mouse says:

    Just a couple of things you should know about this case:
    -I doubt that it was a case of administrators being “embarrassed” as the rest of the exhibition contains pornographic videos, and imagery
    -As quoted in a different article the decision to call into question the legality of the piece only came up when the artist advertised to the public that the semen would be distributed for free (which the administration only found out about in the days leading up to the opening of the exhibition). If it was to have remained in the fridge it probably never would have come up
    -The bio art program has very strict parameters about what you can do and specifically where you can do it (in a contained area within the department) to meet health and safety codes
    -the sperm was put in the box when it was assumed that it had to be destroyed by the dept of health and safety
    -it was the artist’s decision to leave the sperm in the box, not take the vials out as they originally were, inside the sealed fridge
    -what may seem like over cautiousness to some may seem like common sense to others (I’m guessing the schools lawyers) SVA is after all a private, for-profit art school and thus wary of opening itself up to legal action of any kind
    -the idea that the school should have known exactly how to handle the situation as soon as it arose is pretty disingenuous. There are an infinite variety of possible materials that could be shown as art, and the idea that there should be policy in place to dictate the procedures on every possible material and the way in which it could be exhibited seems a bit unfair.

    It may be de-facto censorship that came about because of an unfortunate set of circumstances but I highly doubt that an institution like SVA would intentionally censor its student’s work (again judging by the rest of the work in the show it doesn’t seem to be the case) in any way. But as an institution, in this case open to the public they do have to be careful to follow the law and be mindful of liability issues. The fact that they see those issues as more important than the free display of the student’s work as originally intended (to be distributed) is another issue, one that I suspect you would find at most private art schools in the US. To me this speaks to the much larger problem of the institutionalism of the art world, not censorship.

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