Guest Blog by Molly Hankwitz: Illegality Shapes Public Space

Molly Hankwitz is an organizer, curator, scholar, editor, new media artist and designer currently exhibiting in  I Am Crime: Art on the Edge of Law (now–April 19). In this Molly she reacts to the concept of the exhibition and makes a case for culture that offends to have its place.

I Am Crime: Art on the Edge of Law is a curious exhibition, touching the raw nerve of today’s precarious economy and trends towards deep cultural corruption and everlasting social control.

This show looks at how artists have committed crimes (LSD possession), how artists have been persecuted as “criminal” (Steve Kurtz), and how artists deliberately choose to or accidentally break the law in being artists. Of these, accidental lawbreaking took me most by surprise. An artist decides to fantasize himself as Batman, paints his car, buys some flashing lights from Amazon.com, and heads out onto the freeway. Before he knows it, he’s under arrest in the State of California for putting flashing lights on the exterior of his vehicle and possibly, “impersonating a policeman.” How come we can’t just be spontaneous? How does social control and law hinder creativity? Should art have a space reserved for its reflection and revolutionary potential outside the law?

I don’t think most artists ever question whether they are breaking the law, or if they do, it’s because they know they are! Then they have to figure out how to save their ass.  Unfortunately, what this exhibit tends to refer to is the degree to which public space, and even the space of the mind, in terms of what we are being made to think, what we can think, and what we want to think, is being shaped by legality and illegality. What can we do? What can’t we do? What are we afraid to do?

The worst of it, in this country, has often been the role of the police, a population not particularly known for their knowledge of art. Ignorance is usually the greatest offender in so-called art crimes. Cases across the States –respected professor and photographer searched and arrested for possessing a benign naked photo of her own child fueling state lawmakers around pornography laws, or War on Terror media hype feeding the investigations of Kurtz, graffiti artists being shot in the back as intruders and famous African American professors being arrested for breaking and entering their own home… This is all much different than accidentally getting a parking ticket while performing. Or is it? Perhaps lines are being blurred between where police should end their investigations and where those investigations should begin. As Occupy pointed out, the top 1% seems to get off scott free.  That disturbs. At some point culture must have its space—that’s what curators do—even if that culture offends. How else can art be understood? Be listened to? How can new forms emerge without being misunderstood.

If art isn’t only to feed taste, but to be critical and political, it needs to test boundaries. In this case, I Am Crime: Art on the Edge of Law, asks that question: where does art begin and crime end or crime begin and art end? A good question for this age of occupation.

About the author of this post:
Molly Hankwitz is an organizer, curator, scholar, editor, new media artist and designer. Her body of work spans several years spent teaching and living in Australian universities. Other work involves her recently completed doctoral thesis on wireless cities and personal technologies. The more recent elements involve Hankwitz’s long time engagement with San Francisco’s underground and experimental film community, especially Other Cinema and Artists’ Television Access.

Pictured: Installation shot of I Am Crime: Art on the Edge of Law by Bryan Hewitt