Abdessemed Exhibition Closed Under Threats of Violence

March 30, 2008 · Print This Article

San Francisco Art Institute has canceled closed the controversial Abdessemed exhibition as well as the public forum. The exhibition was curated by Hou Hanru, who was interviewed by us in Episode 129.

From the SFAI Website:

In response to a series of violent threats by animal-rights extremists, the San Francisco Art Institute announced today that the public discussion on Adel Abdessemed’s exhibition Don’t Trust Me, scheduled for Monday, 31 March, has been canceled. For the same reasons, the exhibition itself, which was temporarily suspended on Wednesday, 26 March, has now been permanently closed.

“We unconditionally repudiate these threats against SFAI,” stated President Chris Bratton: “My first concern is with the safety and security of SFAI’s students, faculty, staff, and their families, as well as members of the public that regularly visit the campus. In light of the violent threats by extremists against this institution, we are unfortunately forced to cancel any public discussion or display regarding this artwork.”

Soon after it opened, the Abdessemed exhibition became the subject of an orchestrated campaign by a number of animal-rights groups, including Animal Liberation Front (ALF), In Defense of Animals (IDA), and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). One result of this campaign was a parallel onslaught of explicit death threats and threats of sexual violence against SFAI staff members and their families. The swift escalation from controversy to credible threats has regrettably forced SFAI to make a decision unprecedented in its 137-year history.

“Though we’ve decided to take this action,” continued President Bratton, “SFAI stands behind the exhibition as an instance of a long-standing and serious commitment, on SFAI’s part, to reflection on, and free and open discussion of, contemporary global art and culture. As an institution, we take seriously our responsibility to encourage and promote such dialogue.”

“The artist,” continued President Bratton, “participated in an already-existing circuit of food production in a rural community in Mexico. The animals were raised for food, purchased, and professionally slaughtered. In fact, what causes the controversy is that Abdessemed, an artist, entered this exchange, filmed it, and exhibited it.”

“Here, then, is a case where highly local assumptions about how things are produced have come to inform how the world itself is seen. In general, consumption in the US is fueled by things produced out of sight and from far away. In many cultures, particularly those of the global south including Mexico, the killing of animals for food is often direct and present, not concealed from sight as is the case of industrialized food production here. This distinction is certainly relevant to Don’t Trust Me. Admittedly, this is an uncomfortable confrontation for some, but is nevertheless a real condition not only for animals, but also for the people whose lives are bound up with them. Simply stated, it is an outrage that threats of violence have, in this case, succeeded in derailing a public debate on issues that are critical to our everyday lives.”

The press release can be found here.

24 thoughts on “Abdessemed Exhibition Closed Under Threats of Violence”

  1. Richard says:

    Boy do I feel conflicted on this, the work sounds (I haven’t seen it) like it was designed solely to be upsetting, which seems fairly amateur-hour, but I am mortified that someone had to close an art show under threat.

  2. Tony Fitzpatrick says:

    its easy — once they kill or maim– it isn’t art anymore — it’s something else

  3. David Roth says:

    Sorta’ adds new meaning to the term meathead…

    It really seems like there’s a piece missing here. Are the animal rights activists claiming that the show somehow glamorizes animal slaughter? It seems to me, on first reading at least, that such a show would likely engender sympathy for the animals more than anything.

    It’s weird to me that these extreme animal rights people actually threaten physical violence on other people. Isn’t their central point that animals should be afforded the same rights as humans? I’m not saying I agree with it, being a meat-eating leather-wearer, but are they actually saying that it’s ok to harm humans, but not animals? Sorry but that seems…odd.

    The esthetic value of the show is another issue of course, and it really does sound like a cheap shot at spectacle.

  4. David Roth says:

    “and a large video installation that features the artist hanging from a helicopter while trying to draw Gericault’s Raft Of The Medusa (1818).”

    well no wonder they’re pissed off.

  5. Richard says:

    Hell, I’m a vegatarian, my question is was this work recording the slaughter of animals that was taking place (you should all check out the Sue Coe book about slaughterhouses) or was the artist causing the deaths?

    If the artist was causing the deaths either directly or through facilitation I think that is crossing a line, but also is simply art trying to shock which these days is almost always lazy and bad. Duchamp’s fountain it isn’t.

    The interesting thing here is that if it was a documentary about the slaughter of animals portraying that slaughter and the facts surrounding it, I suspect the ALF would support it instead of decrying it. I’ve seen videos trying to present a position against the slaughter of animals and they are essentially showing the same thing as (again I haven’t seen them, nor honestly do I want to) as these videos. Its interesting that the facilitation is the real issue here.

  6. Richard says:

    I have to say Raft of the Medusa is one of my favorite paintings ever and this idea sounds so goofy I might have protested this one.

  7. David Roth says:

    “The interesting thing here is that if it was a documentary about the slaughter of animals portraying that slaughter and the facts surrounding it, I suspect the ALF would support it instead of decrying it.”

    That was my point exactly.

    ““The artist,” continued President Bratton, “participated in an already-existing circuit of food production in a rural community in Mexico. The animals were raised for food, purchased, and professionally slaughtered. In fact, what causes the controversy is that Abdessemed, an artist, entered this exchange, filmed it, and exhibited it.””

    pretty much settles it.

  8. Richard says:

    Simply a PR problem then?

  9. Brian says:

    I’m afraid I have to disagree with Tony on this one. The deaths do not make this work not art- the issues are unrelated. There has been a lot of local press on this that has been off the mark. They’ve been doing polls along the lines of “Is this wrong or is this Art?”, conflating the ideas of ethics/morals and the definition of art. It can be immoral and art, or moral and not art, or any combination thereof. What bothers me is that this pushes the idea in the popular media that contemporary art is some sort of excuse for “artists” to do anything without any criticality, ethics or morals. It makes us all look like a bunch of selfish navel gazing wankers.

    Oh, and the hypocrisy of the threats drive me nuts. To threaten violence (and sexualized violence at that!) in response is an eye-for-eye fundamentalism that is to common in bay area radical lefty politics.

  10. Brian says:

    This also sucks because the public debate is fundamentally flawed. Because the show had to close, people are making judgments about works they haven’t actually seen. Myself included- it closed so fast I didn’t have a chance to make it over there.

  11. Marc says:

    Brian beat me to a response to Tony, but I agree. And generally am a bit confused as to why this “art/not art” debate is relevant. I also have concern with Richard’s “shock” dialog. What seems truly lazy and easy is to pigeonhole all work that makes you morally uncomfortable with the mass-media-sanctioned label of “shock art”

    Thanks David for bring up that last quote. I think that gets to it. A lot of the outrage seems to come from people who aren’t sure how these images were produced, where they came from, etc. And, as someone who did see the show, I can tell you that it wasn’t hard to figure out how the footage was produced, there was an abundance of contextual information.But being in San Francisco, I don’t think a lot of the folks had familiarity with how animals are killed for food in other parts of the world.

  12. David Roth says:

    I’m trying to come up with an example where content alone “makes it art.”

    Nothing so far.

    Brian – you made my point precisely regarding the radical animal rights people. While I tend to be not-so-staunch on the subject, I have laughed when a friend of mine has said “I have no problem saying that I’m better than a fucking cow.”

    Setting the hierarchy of life forms aside for a minute, the violent responses remind me a little of someone who gets pissed when you mention racism, as if it’s there but we’re not supposed to talk about it.

    Carnivorism: the love that dare not speak it’s name.

    It all makes me wonder if those who are threatening violence had even seen the show.

  13. duncan. says:


    “What seems truly lazy and easy is to pigeonhole all work that makes you morally uncomfortable with the mass-media-sanctioned label of ‘shock art'”

    I will give you that Richard’s comment are dismissive and that might seem to be lazy but… It is “shock art,” and isn’t that where the debate about whether it is “art or not” begins? It was made to shock us. And made to create this (or another) kind of controversy. The thing that really interests me is that the debate forces a confrontation with our beliefs about the role, function and task of art and the museum with in our culture? And in that discussion’s fall out we also get to retread the debate about the power, function, and propagandist nature of images.

    I really like that they shut the show down, not because I agree with the idiots who screamed out in protest but because those 3000 letters and treats are some meager proof that art and artists still participate in mass culture. The other side is, of course, it is totally heart breaking that art which reads to most of us as ridiculously didactic and overtly left is still so obscure to the general public/students/faculty that outrage and treats of violence are their only possible reaction. It is hugely problematic to the left, that we are in such deep disarray that we can no longer recognize our friends. But that is another story.

    I also want to side with Richard and say that it would have been awesome if we could have protested the “and a large video installation that features the artist hanging from a helicopter while trying to draw Gericault’s Raft Of The Medusa (1818)” instead. That sounds awful.

  14. David Roth says:

    “while trying to draw Gericault’s Raft Of The Medusa (1818)” instead. That sounds awful.”

    agreed, but I would like to see the guy attempt to paint it on a raft in high seas.

    or not.

  15. Tony Fitzpatrick says:

    I don’t at all agree with the nuts who made threats and forced the closing of this ….. but the ‘snuff’ nature of this work is truly ugly …. maybe it is art , you theoretical guys are more equipped for this than I am …. the suffering of animals held up to public curiosity is not something I want anything to do with… it’s ugly, inhuman, and overwhelmingly sad– even if it is art.

  16. Christopher says:

    Sorry for being late to the discussion here (just now got out of NYC and back to a computer) but I side on the “getting tired of shock”. I remember a piece making the rounds in pre-1998(it was Asian and I sadly can not recall the duo of artists) where these two guys took a heifer into a room painted entirely white with some red/black Kanji-esque text on walls where they proceeded to tear and eviscerate the animal in the space as a performance only to have a red room at the end and some pieces left over. At that time I thought the same thing as I do now which is, even if your goal is to bring awareness it is vastly overshadowed by the act itself and there are better ways.

    In defense of the act of killing in art though and to tie in Richards mentioning of Sue Coe above. I meet her and had dinner with her in 1999 and she likes to show/promote (in addition to her work in Entertainment Weekly for star trek) the animal rights videos where you see the behind the scenes of the commercial breading grounds which are in essence snuff films since you are watching either humans kill animals or worse yet animals kill other animals and even themselves. Many of these videos are promoted as artworks and I would not exclude them solely on the criteria of animal death.

    The real issue I had is that the Gallery knew before they promoted this work what it was and watched the films at least once (if not then my disdain grows ever so much more). Knowing what they had they chose to put their reputation on the line and back this work. The jaded real world part of me believes they thought more of the energized press it would get them as opposed to possible social benefit of the work’s message but either way they went for it knowing this was going to not be taken well. Then they decided to back down.

    Like the art, don’t like the art, don’t want to call it art I don’t care, if you roll the dice and start a feud see it through and back it up or don’t start it. To me it feels like they wanted a ready made controversy and didn’t want to get hit to hard for it but just enough to get press and when they saw the cost get to high they folded.

    Now we the art community are stuck with not seeing the work and having to explain it in our local communities on their behalf with only theory and no solid visuals to lean on. Either way it is dumb and makes us look bad to the general public with no benefit?

  17. M S Brandl says:

    Tony’s right — whatever it is, it is sad and ugy. Christopher’s post sums up my thoughts better than I could! Remember to separate categorical questions from evaluative ones. Something can (still) be ‘art’ and be BAD art. In short, this was sad, ugly,self-serving, bad art.

  18. Marc says:

    Given that I am at this gallery quite a bit, I thought I should write a bit about what I know. I can tell you that their goal was not to get energized press or present a ready-made controversy. That’s just plainly not their mode of logic. The gallery has been completely misunderstood. As a space it has a record of showing highly engaged political work, and in no way is casual about its processes or critical thought. It has a history too of presenting work in SF of non-western artists, often work that is mobilized by cultural difference. I think its important to note that the work was shown before, in France, and did not result in such controversy.
    What bothers me the most about the situation is that it’s made evident that we live in a city where political correctness in whatever extremist form it comes in choose to be both ignorant and to bully a cultural venue into self-censorship.

  19. Christopher says:

    Excellent, good to know Marc. Then could they tell us what exactly they saw in the work that merited showing in their space? This would be a great episode interview to hear their side and details of the account.

    Why exactly did they fold the show beyond the stated death & sex threats? What did the artist have to say about it? What did they think the response was going to be? Given that San Fransisco and France/Mexico are so different.

    I always have great respect for anyone sticking their neck out in the arts since more times then not you get hit more then rewarded but I still don’t see the issue positively from their point of view. This is what BaS was made for and your interview skills would be perfect for this.

    That being said the ALF, PETA & IDA groups have long been on my list of tasteless and more damaging to their cause then their opponents. This is yet just one more case to pile with the rest. Could they not have exported this show off of a campus onto a local gallery that was willing to make a stand of this if the parties involved believed in it so?

  20. Marc says:

    Yeah, Brian and I have talked about this, and I think it’s possible. However, right now, things need to settle a bit. In the meantime, if you are interested in what the merit of the work was In regard to closing the show, you may want to contact the gallery. I’m sure they’ve got stacks and stacks of all the text they wrote and had published just laying around since so few people saw the show. Unfortunately, erasure has set in, and last time I checked, everything has been taken off their website.
    I think its fair to say that the threats – which were not only directed to the SF Gallery, but apparently to Zwirner in NY – were reason enough to close the show though. Also, in regard to moving the show, two points, I think you’d be hard-pressed to find another space in the city and these shows costs thousands of dollars to produce, it’s not just a stack of monitors, all the works together, i don’t know, it’s not really a “pick up and go” operation…

  21. duncan. says:


    What has been the reaction of the arts community in SF? Clearly they can not be as alarmist.

    Not that I think “snuff films,” regardless of what is being killed, are OK but I do think that there is more to this. This was essentially arty documentary footage presenting a jarring and upsetting kind of cultural difference but it cruelty is up for debate when you see those peta films of chickens in the states. It seems like not great work but it doesn’t seem like it should have inspired this level of pull back.

    What are the ramifications locally? What do community members feel about this? How is the curator thinking about it?


  22. niki says:

    Marc, thank you so much for speaking clearly about SFAI’s perspective and history. It is a necessary voice in a very unbalanced and misrespresented discussion.

    I found this discussion because I was looking a little deeper into the underlying story behind this controversy. As a human and made from the same stuff that everything in our universe is made of, I appreciate the ability for anyone in any community to expose the truth. If PETA, IDA, etc. want to be part of a larger community of those of us that care about all life, I hope they learn from this experience that violence, in any form, is not the way to unify and educate. I hope they find the strength to meditate on ways to get their point across without hurting other communities also trying to do good.

  23. niki says:

    I too am a regular visitor to the SFAI galleries and am an alum. I understand and support the motivations SFAI had when they scheduled this show. I also try to set an example in my daily life and choices and it gives me strength to know that SFAI continues daily in its efforts to provide an example for the local and global community. I am saddened by the fact that as a caring institution, SFAI was forced into its only option in this potentially violent situation – they protected the community that they felt was at risk of harm. (A good friend of mine that works there received TWELVE death threats) I again, have nothing but respect for the choice they made. The scam that the animal rights activists concocted for their self serving reasons highlighted again the necessity for a place like SFAI. A place that teaches and expects one to think. I am proud to call myself a part of this community.

    I hope next time PETA sends a thank you card to SFAI and death threats to the capitalists that could give a crap whether any of us live or die, all for the sake of their precious dollars.

  24. Patrick II says:

    Not to raise the issue again, but thought it was very much worth pointing out that one of the groups involved in the e-mail campaign, and probably the threats of violence, against SFAI has admitted responsibility for setting fires at two professors’ homes in Santa Cruz. Yeah, you read that right: one of the groups that was definitely after SFAI has actually admitted torching the homes of two UC Santa Cruz professors. The UCSC professors were involved in animal research. One professor was home with his wife and two children, and he’s on crutches now as a result of the injuries he sustained in escaping the blaze.

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