Watching and Being Watched

UB Art Exhibitions and Law School Workshop Confront Issues of Privacy and Censorship in the Age of the Patriot Act

Release Date: September 10, 2004 This content is archived.


BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Concerns about privacy, surveillance and censorship are not new to the world stage. With the passage of the USA Patriot Act, however, members of the art and legal communities have begun to raise new questions about the chilling effect of government policy on artistic expression.

The University at Buffalo Art Gallery and UB Law School collaborate today in a unique way to discuss the impact of government policies on cultural production and personal privacy, and the art community's response to censorship.

Two exhibitions in the UB Art Gallery in the Center for the Arts -- "Arnold Mesches: The FBI Files," and the group exhibit "Shutters" -- provide a compelling backdrop for the workshop, "Government Policy, Cultural Production, Personal Privacy," to be held from 1-5:15 p.m. today in the UB Center for the Arts, hosted by UB's Baldy Center for Law & Social Policy.

"A consummate painter who juxtaposes images from history, memory and the contemporary media, Arnold Mesches always has challenged viewers to consider the world's inconsistencies in the past and present," said UB Art Gallery director Sandra Olsen. "Since this series was prompted by personal experience that required the artist's own legal action, it seemed natural and appropriate to examine and discuss these and related issues with our colleagues at the UB Law School."

Added Nils Olsen, dean of the UB Law School: "The UB Law School is proud to cosponsor with the UB Art Galleries a conference that will address the impact of governmental surveillance on cultural production and personal privacy, the availability of the Freedom of Information Act to provide the artist with a record of the surveillance and the response of the artist to censorship.

"While government surveillance of the arts has a long history in the United States, recent developments in technology and the heightened concern over terrorism have raised these issues in new and compelling settings."

For artist Arnold Mesches, the issue of government surveillance is central to his work. Through the 1966 Freedom of Information Act, he obtained a copy of his 700-page FBI file, which contains information collected by informants during the McCarthy era. Suspected of Communist activity, Mesches was investigated with the help of students, fellow artists, even a lover. Mixed media works containing copies of part of his FBI file are on view in the UB Art Gallery through Sept. 13.

In "Shutters," an exhibition opening in UB Art Gallery today and running through Nov. 23, artists like Niels Bonde from Copenhagen address the concept of contemporary surveillance in their art often by simultaneously placing the viewer in the role of watching while being watched. "The rules of the game are always more complicated than we think," explained Bonde.

"'Shutters' investigates how people inhabit a variety of domestic interiors by focusing on the act of watching," added UB Art Galley curator Sandra Firmin. "Both internal and external surveillance are certainly central to the exhibition, but voyeurism, the uncanny presence of something lurking and the pleasure derived from being seen also are integral to contemporary states of dwelling."

During the UB workshop, artists and experts in law and advocacy will look back on the events of Mesches' time and respond to the impact of current government policies on cultural production and personal privacy as illustrated by the artists in "Shutters."

The workshop's first panel, moderated by Firmin, will provide an historical discussion of the McCarthy era and ramifications of the Freedom of Information Act on the visual arts.

In the second panel, UB Law Professor George Kannar will moderate a discussion on contemporary threats to freedom of expression, focusing on the implications of the Patriot Act, censorship and trends in the age of the Internet.

Receptions for "Arnold Mesches: The FBI Files" and "Shutters" will be held after the workshop, from 5-7 p.m. at the UB Art Gallery.

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