Friday, May 23, 2014

The Winnipeg Public Library and Triggering Artwork

UPDATE: The Library's response below

In the public's interest, I am reproducing the comment form submission that I have sent to the Library in regards to Bruno Wojnicz's photo series "Angst" which appears, in my opinion, to glamorize violence against women. I plan to edit this page when I have received word back from the Library. The letter is as follows:


I wonder if somebody at the Library could provide information regarding the decision to display the "Angst" series of photographs by Bruno Wojnicz on the second floor. Considering that when I noticed them, an employee of the library immediately apologized and attempted to distance themselves from the display of the work.

I understand that Bruno Wojnicz is a local artist, and we should promote local artists. Yet, I'm quite disturbed by the series of photographs. Several of which appear to be high contrast, glossy images of models appearing to be beaten, bruised, and bloody. One particular caption provided with one of these photos reads, "I luv u so much."

The aesthetics used in the photos distance the subjects from the necessary realism required to make political commentary, in my opinion. Rather than an attempt to "bring awareness" to gendered violence through the medium of photography, the glossiness of the photos appears to be glamorizing the violence, and glamorizing the models for their status as victim.

I would like information on the selection process for this particular art display in order to understand the series of decisions that led to this.

I am very fortunate to not have been affected by gendered violence, but I know people who have, and considering how prominent gendered violence is, I wonder why the Library would condone such triggering material. How many people walked by this exhibit only to be reminded of the violence they've experienced? And for what purpose?

The Library is meant to be a safe space for all. Why in the world would you make it inhospitable for those seeking refuge from the gendered violence that occurs daily in the world?

On Tuesday, a few days after my initial complaint, I received a message from a Library employee, informing me that the exhibit had been taken down, and that further information was on the way. I am not reproducing this letter because its core message is easily summarized. However, a few hours after that, I received this letter from the Library.

Dear Mr. Montgomery

Thank you for taking the time to send in your comments regarding the display called “Angst” located on the second floor of the Millennium library in the Blankstein gallery. Artists must apply to display their work in any of the spaces at Winnipeg Public Library. Mr. Wojnicz did this, and his application to display his work was accepted. While staff recognized that the nature of this exhibit could be deemed controversial, Mr. Wojnicz had displayed his work at the Millennium library in the past, and there were no complaints or concerns about his work. He has also exhibited his work at local galleries, and “Angst” was recently displayed at one such gallery.

The library does provide all artists displaying their work with a copy of the library’s Regulations Governing the Use of Library Display Space which state that “the Library retains the right to preview all display materials before, during or after installation” and that “the library reserves the right to refuse displays or request the removal of display items it deems to be offensive to the general public”. In light of the concerns that have been raised, the library has reviewed the exhibit using its regulations and the decision has been made to have the display taken down early. This has now occurred.

The intent in allowing this exhibit to go on display was never to alienate women or glorify violence against women, but to provide a venue for a local artist to display his work. As a public space, the library does strive to make its facilities safe and welcoming for all, and were certainly concerned that this exhibit has caused library customers to feel otherwise. Though there is a place for art and the discussion that it inspires in public libraries, we do not want those who use the library to feel unwelcome or unsafe.

As a result of the concerns raised, we will also be reviewing the library’s Regulations Governing the Use of Library Display Space to determine whether the document and the library’s procedures for approving displays needs to be revised.

Again, thank you for taking the time to pass along your thoughts on this exhibit.

Your sincerely,
Gail Doherty
Administrative Coordinator of Central Library Services
Millennium Library
In my reply, I asked permission to reproduce this letter which was given in a subsequent reply.

My response to Gail's letter was recommendations, which I will summarize here:
1) An external addition to the application approval body, an addition trained in curatorial studies or related field that can help make better decisions beyond "it was in a gallery before"
2) The reiteration to this body that the gallery space and the Library space have different functions and are not interchangeable
3) Further exhibits should be presented alongside a statement from the Library explaining their approval of the application, ie further transparency

I also thanked the Library for their courteous response, their quick action, and their decades-long presence in the core Downtown area, a space welcoming and safe for all people. I hope this incident remains anomalous and I hope to never have to revisit this post again.

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