Street artists hold protest performance at MOCA's Geffen Contemporary
Censorship or sensitivity? The debate rages on.
A crew of street and graffiti artists, together with a handful of war veterans, gathered Monday night in the dark, empty parking lot of MOCA's Geffen Contemporary in Little Tokyo to stage a guerrilla protest performance against the museum's director, Jeffrey Deitch. Cloaked in knit caps and heavy wool scarves in the cold night air, the 20 or so self-described art activists huddled near the museum's expansive north wall, projecting laser graffiti out of the back seat of a silver VW Passat with a laptop perched precariously on the roof of the car.
The group of artists -- which included respected Chicano artist/Vietnam War veteran Leo Limon as well as Joey Krebs a.k.a. The Phantom Street Artist -- took turns tagging the museum wall using a handmade laser graffiti gun created for the event by artist/computer programmer Todd Moyer. A specially designed computer program animated the light-graffiti so that it looked like dripping paint as it hit the wall.
The MOCA wall has been blank since Deitch had Italian street artist Blu's antiwar mural whitewashed from it in early December. Deitch had commissioned Blu to paint the mural; but after it was completed, Deitch became concerned that its provocative imagery of coffins draped in dollar bills would be offensive to some in the neighborhood as it was adjacent to a Veterans Affairs hospital and a war memorial to Japanese American soldiers. The incident sparked heated, and sharply divided, opinions that continue to rattle many in the art community.
"All of us political poster artists have been a little outraged," said artist Karen Fiorito. "It shows how corporations and private institutions can control the dialogue in the public forum."
One by one, the artists took aim and shot their messages onto MOCA's exterior -- drippy, handwritten, illuminated scrawl: "Dump Deitch." "Give us back our walls!" "War is over?" "Peace Now!" The group meticulously documented the event, with plans to upload photos and video clips to Facebook and YouTube within days.
Carol Wells, founder and executive director of the Center for the Study of Political Graphics, was on hand to document the protest as well. She said she considers Deitch's actions as censorship. "Outrageous is the first word that comes to mind," she said. "I think he was absolutely wrong. He was trying to do an edgy exhibit, hires an artist known to be edgy. Pushing the boundaries is the very definition of a street artist –- so what did he expect?"
Vietnam War veteran Michael Lindley, president of the L.A. chapter of Veterans for Peace, showed up to support the street art crew. Lindley said he wasn't offended by Blu's mural but that that wasn't the point. "It may be offensive to some people, but we have the freedom to know, freedom of speech. As veterans, that's what we fight for, that's what we died for," he said. "Our government tells us we’re fighting for our freedoms. Yet they take our own freedoms away from us in our own country."
The climax of the laser light show came about an hour in, when the protesters projected a photo of Blu's mural back onto its wall of origin. Then they superimposed the word "censorship" in red across the image. A round of hooting and whistling followed.
The ultimate irony, said Krebs, is that "[Deitch] lit a fire to the work that's been deemed unacceptable."
So what, exactly, does this impassioned group hope to accomplish with the elaborate laser graffiti protest? "It’s really just about making a statement. About coming out to support Blu and freedom of speech," said artist John Carr. "If it keeps the conversation going, that's great. But we've already achieved what we set out to do."
-- Deborah Vankin
Photos: 1) A street artist prepares the projector. 2) Street artists and war veterans document the protest; 3) A light display; 4) An artist with a laser gun; 5) Another light display; 6) A photo of Blu's mural superimposed onto the exterior of MOCA's Geffen Contemporary. Credit: Deborah Vankin