Monday, September 21, 2015

Uncensored: Information Antics

By Vanessa Mallory Kotz

For the second year, the Martin Luther King Public Library celebrates freedom of expression during Banned Book Week. On Friday, September 25, from 7 to 10 p.m., the library is hosting a special fundraising event in conjunction with the opening of Uncensored: Information Antics, an all-media exhibition featuring the work of local artists. Each piece contemplates the data collection of information about private citizens by the government and corporate America and the implications of surveillance on the individual. The evening includes live music and special literary-themed cocktails created by mixologists from throughout the area.

Banned Books Week runs from September 27 to October 3; it highlights the value of free and open access to information. The festival brings together the entire book community –- librarians, booksellers, publishers, journalists, teachers and readers of all types –- in shared support of the freedom to seek and to express ideas, even those some consider unorthodox or unpopular.  By focusing on efforts across the country to remove or restrict access to books, Banned Books Week draws national attention to the harms of censorship. In Washington, 25 libraries are offering related programming for people of all ages. 

For Uncensored, Richard Reyes-Gavilan, executive director of the MLK library, stressed the importance of working with local artists during this important festival. “Part of our mission is to serve the underserved, and this includes the creative community,” he said.

Painter and library staff member Matthew Mann organized the exhibition in collaboration with Mary Early, curator at Hemphill Gallery, Karyn Miller, acting director and director of exhibitions at the Arlington Arts Center and Violet Mantell, program associate at Cultural D.C./Flashpoint Gallery. Works of art are located throughout the Great Hall and on the second level of the library.

Along the back wall of the Great Hall, a series of vivid photographs by Nate Larson and Marni Shindelman are, at first glance, reminiscent of the gas station images of Ed Ruscha or people-less versions of a Hopper city scene. These are everyday places looking hauntingly lonely. Larson and Shindelman used publicly embedded GPS information in Twitter updates to track the location of user posts and make photographs to mark the location in the real world. Each photo is paired with the originating text. In an artists’ statement, they explain, “Our act of making a photograph anchors and memorializes the ephemeral online data in the real world and probes the expectations of privacy surrounding social networks. “ Though a bit creepy in their intrusive nature, the series is not without humor. One photo documents a car repair shop along with the Tweet: “Cars are nothing but money pigs #hateit #waitingsucks #impoor.”

Two artists in the show, Brian Davis and Hasan Elahi explore the controversial secrecy of the National Security Administration’s collection of data on U.S. citizens. In Davis’ piece, also located in the Great Hall, Untiled, Reveal, the viewer becomes part of the artwork.  “You can only see it when you engage with it,” the artist admits. Against a black screen, the shadow of the viewer captured via video camera reveals both the interior of the library behind them, and the buildings of the NSA. This dichotomy of open access (the books in a public library) and restricted information (documents gathered by the government) is reconciled in the image of a private citizen, you, as you move and gesture to the camera. 

Elhai uses satellite images of the rooftops of the NSA complex in Maryland in combination with Morse code marks and the color bars of the national Emergency Alert System in his work Section 215. The title refers to the section in the Patriot Act that allows government officials to access data about the reading habits of public library patrons. The document has been translated into Morse code and overlaid onto large blown-up images of the NSA rooftops. The works of art are installed on doors along a hallway on the second level. Near Elhai’s doors are two site-specific works made by Fabiola Yurcisin. 

Yurcisin literally weaves outmoded forms of communication with sound. In a rarely found (working) phone booth, she has placed typewriter ribbon, VHS tape and cassette tape woven into patterns with a crochet hook.  The once-crucial forms of technology have been reduced to decorative elements. While “crocheting” the tape, she recorded the sound of the needles against the tape itself by mounting a contact mic to one of the hooks. “I work with a lot of residue,” she said. “I love capturing what’s left.”

During the evening opening reception, visitors are invited to see these works and many more while they enjoy cocktails developed by well-known mixologists. Inspired by a book of their choosing, each drink is beautifully crafted and thoughtfully imagined.  Duane Sylvestre, who currently works with Collectif 1806, wins the show. His “Sug Avery,” based on the unforgettable character from Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, is a lovely violet color (resulting from mixing hibiscus with pineapple juice) and crowned by a bouquet of flowers. The flavor is complex and unfolds over time with sweet, spicy, tart, bold and delicate notes, capturing the essence of the character beautifully.

Philip Greene offers homage to Hemingway. As the author of the cocktail recipe book, To Have and Have Another, and as a representative of Papa Pilar Rum, Hemingway’s own label, Greene knows his literature and his spirits. His dark and decadent creation will have you craving deep leather club chairs and a Cuban cigar.

The Martin Luther King Public Library is located at 901 G St., NW, Washington, D.C. Tickets for the opening reception of Uncensored: Information Antics are available for $50, or $250 for a host ticket. Proceeds benefit the D.C. Public Library. Reserve yours today at

In addition to those listed above, artists included in the exhibition are Free Space Collective, Workingman Collective, Nancy Daly, Nekisha Durrett, Evan Hume, Paul Shortt and Kelly Towels.  Mixologists joining Greene and Sylvestre are Adam Bernbach from 2 Birds 1 Stone, Phil Clark from Mockingbird Hill, Trevor Frye from Jack Rose, Chris Libby from Zaytinya, Chantal Tseng from Redeye Menus and beer is provided by D.C. Brau.

Image: Duane Sylvestre’s literary-themed cocktail, “Sug Avery,” photo by Vanessa Mallory Kotz

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