When I received an email telling me my final project for Immersion in the Arts: Living In Culture, a freshman residential program housed in Burbank, had been censored, I was somewhere between mildly annoyed and considerably flattered. Along with my partners, Christine Kazanchian, Oscar Lee, and Leilani Reyes (all ’18) I felt a little transgressive, which is silly but totally sincere. We were assigned to create a project which incorporated elements of both gravity and levity, and had planned to create a shrine-like installation based on the way we mythologize people around us: our crushes, role models, professors, and friends. We shared a Google form with friends, collecting their personal experiences with mythologizing others. However, some of the anonymous responses proved to be threatening, using graphic details to describe stories of obsessing over exes (It might be creepy that I bought a bottle of the perfume she always wore just so I can smell it whenever I want…), lusting after professors (I admire his diction and his dick-tion), and stalking rock stars on the internet (I found his birth certificate and his home address). Lecturer Dr. Kim Beil recommended our group change paths fairly early in the process, warning us that our project could prove uncomfortable for all involved. Because we had enough time to change course, and the complaints of the ITALIC staff were entirely understandable, the censorship wasn’t too upsetting. However, not everyone had a similar experience.
Perhaps the most extreme example is that of Amy Chen, ’18, whose project, #NoFilter, was censored only about 24 hours before the due date. Amy’s project was a stream-of-consciousness text piece, which she composed over two weeks, one hour at a time. At the end of the two weeks, she had composed 24 hours of unfiltered language, her every thought transcribed onto dozens of pages. The end of these two weeks left her with an incredibly intimate and personal finished project — and an email telling her she would have to censor her project of any profanities and names of other students before the next day, as if finals week wasn’t stressful enough. In an ironic twist, the permanent marker Amy used to censor her words was not entirely opaque — her act of censorship in fact added intrigue to her work. Students and professors squinted to see past the marker, making for the most striking visual of the afternoon exhibit.
Amy’s situation was not unique. Gabe Haro, ’18, planned an installation called Killing Fuck, which was at the last moment adjusted to Killing F*ck — enough said. ITALIC students were understandably confused by these changes. It’s not as if any of us has never heard a curse word before. In fact, we hear them in ITALIC all the time. What angers me the most is the clear disconnect between the art the program shows us, and the art the program asks of us. The censorship of projects like mine, in which participants submitted some truly troubling responses about specific students and faculty members, is completely understandable, but in light of the curriculum and aims of ITALIC, the erasure of profanity was unexpected. In our exploration of many media, we have been confronted with challenging, often profane art, from the poetry of Amiri Baraka (“Fuck poems and they are bullshit…”) to the neo-burlesque dances of the mid-2000s (including a video in which a dancer pulled a picture of George W. Bush out of her vagina). If the faculty are allowed to teach this material, elevating it as high art, why shouldn’t they encourage their students to produce the same sorts of challenging work, work that breaks the rules and has the audacity to offend? Of course, the line between provocative and obscene can be hard to define, but ITALIC students deserved to be a larger part of this conversation.
Unfortunately, the discussion around objectionable content occurred far too late. On the day of our final presentations, after learning of the mild uproar the censorship caused, ITALIC professor Janice Ross held a “town hall meeting” to answer questions. However, the debate over expression seemed to raise more questions than anybody could answer. From what I could understand, the final word seemed to be that according to the university, profanity could be censored if it was repeated to an extent that could be seen as upsetting to some viewers. Steve Rathje, ’18 suggested posting trigger warnings outside the locations where “objectionable” projects would be shown, a solution most people seemed to accept. This solution still doesn’t provide an answer as to why the professors allowed themselves to bend the rules in showing content that certainly abounds in profanity. Institutional rules and red tape are impossible to avoid, but consistency in these rules’ enforcement is necessary to prevent the kind of clusterf*ck ITALIC encountered.