A still from Rebecca Goyette’s video My Snake Is Bigger Than Your Snake. (Contributed)
New London – The Lyman Allyn Art Museum removed a video containing sexual content from a recent exhibition, prompting a letter of complaint from an anti-censorship organization and a statement from the show’s outside organizer.
The video is by Brooklyn-based artist Rebecca Goyette and is titled My Snake Is Bigger Than Your Snake.
The work was part of a show hosted by Lyman Allyn but organized by New Haven-based Nasty Women Connecticut that aims to “remove elitism from our local art scene and empower all members of our community to engage in the making.” and experience of art. The exhibition is titled The Will to Change: Gathering as Practice.
Sam Quigley, director of Lyman Allyn, said: “As the artist pointed out,[the video]doesn’t conform to classic standards of pornography in that there’s no overt plot, it’s all this very kinky play with sexual encounters between the characters on the screen.”
In the first few days after the opening of the exhibition on June 18th, there were some complaints from visitors. Quigley was made aware of the video by an employee; He looked at it and decided it should be dismantled.
He said, “The artist explained that she was trying to be transgressive, and we (at Lyman Allyn) felt that she went a whole lot further than our audience could tolerate.”
Finally, Goyette drawings of characters from the video were placed at the location of the video, along with text from Nasty Women about what happened and a QR code that visitors could use to view the video if they chose.
Quigley’s other concern about Goyette’s “Snake” was that it was the only video in the exhibit, and he said, “Videos have a power of their own. In my opinion, it did a disservice to the other works on display nearby because of its impressive visual appeal.”
The show includes nudes and drawings. A notice posted outside the gallery reads: “This exhibition contains some images that are sexually explicit and some depictions of the naked body.”
Goyette said: “All my videos have the same idea. I have people who play in costumes, and the costumes have the genitals hand-stitched as a soft sculpture on the outside.”
The reason she’s doing this, she said, is “to explore the psychology of sexuality rather than being something real. So it’s a lot of improvisation – these improvisations (in which) I’m really talking about consensus culture and how we interact as communities around the idea of sexuality. It’s really about getting these issues out in the open rather than having them in some secret place. I think this is important right now because we are at a time when our reproductive rights are being erased and threatened and body autonomy is threatened for other communities, except for those with wombs…
“My work attempts to break secrecy. It’s trying to find a way to have conversations about human sexuality that are healthy and that we can explore as an issue.”
After Lyman Allyn took down “Snake,” Goyette turned to the National Coalition Against Censorship, as she had when two of her other videos, titled “Masshole Love” and “Crustacean Temptation,” were at a solo show in South with similar ones Problems faced Korea.
The organization sent a letter to Quigley protesting the removal of Goyette’s video at the Lyman Allyn.
The letter began: “As a coalition of organizations committed to the First Amendment right to freedom of expression, including freedom of artistic expression, we were deeply concerned to learn that the Lyman Allyn Art Museum in New London has removed a video work from a host exhibition because it “disturbed the audience” and was deemed “unsuitable for children” by the museum. This act of censorship violates the museum’s obligations to its audience, as well as to the artists on display and the curatorial collectives it works with.”
Serious issues, camp feeling
Goyette explained the inspiration for the “Snake” video: She sold her childhood home after her father died. The man who showed up to buy it wore a t-shirt that read, “My snake is bigger than your snake.”
“I do these lobster dramas, and I carried a lobster purse that I was going to return the bill in on a Greyhound bus. So I thought that was a faceoff,” she said.
“Then it became a really hallucinatory, wild, surrealistic film… based on the duel between Lobster Queen and Snake Man.”
Also in the short film: The father is brought back to life by his beloved dog. The Virgin Mary gives birth in the living room. The goddess Fortuna, the Roman goddess of fate, knocks down Snake Man.
“Every frame of my film — I sew my own costumes, I create the sets, every color I choose, so it’s like a visual painting,” said Goyette, who noted that she studied painting at RISD.
“I use a camp feel. It’s very playful and humorous, although I address fairly serious issues.”
structure of the exhibition
Quigley said that Nasty Women Connecticut originally wanted each artist to come to the museum to install their own work. Jane LeGrow, Lyman Allyn’s registrar and exhibition manager, noted how difficult that would be. So, he said, it was the job of LeGrow and Lyman Allyn curator Tanya Pohrt to “install 65 artworks practically overnight. … Jane basically hung the video on the wall, plugged it in, saw it work, and then moved on. She didn’t sit and review all the work.”
Open Call versus Judged
There is disagreement between Lyman Allyn and Nasty Women as to whether the collective told the museum well in advance that the exhibition would be an open call for anyone to submit a piece, not a juried exhibition.
Luciano Quagliato McClure, founding organizer of Nasty Women Connecticut, said she and Sarah Fritkey, the other Nasty Women Connecticut partner, have had numerous previous Zoom meetings with several Lyman Allyn representatives to talk about the exhibition, although Quigley didn’t take part attended.
In a statement on Nasty Women Connecticut’s website, the group wrote that through discussions, Lyman Allyn “accepted the responsibility and risk of hosting a show that was and will remain unjuried, uncurated and inclusive of all submissions.” Knowing that the exhibition contained content that explored the depths of our complex identities and the experience of what it is like to live in a body, we received permission from the museum to include all submissions we received, with the Restriction that we should include a content information sign at the main entrance.”
Quigley said it was late in the process when a museum employee was told the exhibit was juried and curated.
“This show has radically changed from what we envisioned to what it has become. It was originally intended to be a curated show by Nasty Women. Then it turned into an unjuried call for proposals. The Nasty Women Collective deliberately made no curatorial decision. And that put us in a dilemma because we didn’t want to appear to be changing the ground rules when they had. Then it turned out we had a completely unjudged third party show under our roof. We were initially ready to roll with it. But when this particular Rebecca Goyette piece was installed and turned on, I and everyone else here realized that this presented a very big challenge for the audience, which we are actively seeking.”
By that he means families, especially in summer. For the past two years, the museum has received government funding that allows free entry for children.
After the show opened, Quigley intervened.
The Lyman Allyn told the Nasty Women group that they were taking down the Goyette piece.
“They didn’t come up to us and talk and say, ‘We’re working with you. How do we do that?’ I think that was the disappointment,” Quagliato McClure said.
However, the Nasty Women requested a meeting. The eventual outcome was that all sides agreed to post the QR code in the gallery along with the Nasty Women statement and a still image of the video.
Quagliato McClure said, “This is less about the work that was censored. It’s more about why the censorship happened. What happens when missions are not aligned? And why is certain media censored? … I think the challenge is that one work is censored, well what about all the other works in the exhibition?”
She said the pieces on the show are challenging, but “I think that’s always been art.”
Quigley, meanwhile, said: “I feel like we made mistakes, but we’re learning from them.”
Show continues to Conn College
After the exhibition at the Lyman Allyn closes on August 12, it will move to Connecticut College, where Quagliato McClure is an associate professor. It will be a new installation with the same works including Goyettes.
She said the decision to bring the show to Conn College from September 6 to October 21 was made before the Goyette situation surfaced.
Quagliato McClure said this could lead to a conversation with Conn students and staff “in a way we hoped would have happened at the museum.”