"Banned for Life": The Story of the National Portrait Gallery's iPad Activist
Controversy continues to build around the Smithsonian Institution's decision last week to cave in to conservative pressure and pull "A Fire in My Belly," a video work by the late artist David Wojnarowicz, from its place in the National Portrait Gallery's "Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture" exhibition. In the past few days, a solidarity campaign has come together, launched by artists, galleries, and major museums.
On Saturday, December 4, two activists were detained at the National Portrait Gallery while staging their own protest action. One, Mike Blasenstein, had been standing peacefully beside the entrance to the gallery containing the "Hide/Seek" show, displaying "A Fire in My Belly" on an iPad hung around his neck and holding a stack of fliers with text explaining his action. The second man, artist Mike Iacovone, filmed the action (his footage of the subsequent arrest is available online). Both were released — but only after being made to sign letters pledging not to return to Smithsonian Institution facilities.
Today, ARTINFO spoke with Blasenstein about the experience, why he decided to protest, and what Wojnarowicz means to him.
Why did you decide to go to the National Portrait Gallery with an iPad around your neck?
I just felt this is an important issue. I'm not really an artist or an activist, but when I heard that they took it down, it just seemed to send such a clear negative message. So I thought to myself, I would sendmy own message and bring this art back into the museum.
Tell me what happened.
Well, I first planned to show the video in the exhibition itself. But when I entered the gallery, I quickly realized that this wasn't going towork — there were more security guards than patrons in there. So then Iended up just outside the entrance to the show, playing the video around my neck and holding out these fliers about the controversy. The most discouraging thing about it was that the few people who came up and took the fliers, as soon as they did, security guards swarmed them, basically forcing them to give back the information.
I had come hoping to be at the National Portrait Gallery all day, just showing this work, but after seeing how many security guards were aroundI realized that it wasn't going to last long. After a few minutes, a security guard asked me to give him my iPad and the fliers, but I didn'tsay anything or move. When he understood I wasn't going to cooperate, he said, "I don't have time for this shit," and took them from me.
They told me to turn around and put my wrists together behind my back, but I figured, why should I help them detain me? This is what they call passive resistance, right? And I went limp. At the same time they were surrounding my friend Mike Iacovone, who was filming the whole thing, and handcuffing him. Then they took us both into a stairwell.