The beginning was innocent enough: a class assignment to photograph the rising and setting of the sun.
Yet instead of tracking sunlight for several weeks, the camera, strapped to a major Atlanta bridge, was blown up.
This case of mistaken identity over a Georgia State University student’s art project caused an unusually large commotion. Police blocked off a chunk of downtown Atlanta, including a busy highway, for two hours Monday while the bomb squad investigated.
But this is far from the first time student artwork has been mistaken as a dangerous device or drawn the attention of law enforcement. Most cases involve objects confused for bombs or actual fake explosives. Others use gory images or purposely outrageous behaviors.
Art is supposed to show the audience a new or different view of the world. So how do professors balance encouraging creative, original work that would accomplish that mission while also ensuring students don’t set off panic or end up with a police report?
As a general rule, Clara Lieu tells her students that self-harm and setting things on fire are off-limits, and if they want to do something outside of the classroom, she wants to know about it. Lieu is a professor at the Rhode Island School of Design and writes a blog about art and teaching art for The Huffington Post.
More important than those efforts, she said, is the emphasis she places throughout the semester on talking to students about the way people will react to their work, especially with sensitive or controversial topics.
“They have a responsibility as an artist to have an awareness of what they’re doing with their work,” Lieu said.
Student artists are inexperienced, still figuring out how best to get their message across. They often also live inside the bubble of a college campus, and it can be hard for them to distinguish between what may be inappropriate on and off campus.
Sometimes students make poor decisions, and other times people overreact, said DeWitt Godfrey, an art professor at Colgate University.
“But when you bring an object into the public that appears to be dangerous or doesn’t follow a conventional sense of what art is, anything can happen,” said Godfrey, president of the College Art Association.
The challenge with teaching a studio art course is that you don’t want to start out with a set of limits, Godfrey said.
Ideally, all forms of material and expression should be open to students. But projects displayed in a public setting that is not marked off as space for art can be risky because it’s impossible to know how the public will react.
“You can quickly lose control of whatever intention you have for that object,” he said, adding that’s particularly tricky territory for projects that don’t look like a traditional piece of art (such as a camera or a box, two common sources of police responses).
That’s why, like Lieu, Godfrey said it’s important to help students learn to consider possible reactions to their work. The purpose isn’t to limit student expression, but to make sure they’re prepared to deal with any consequences.
For example, there’s plenty of artistic precedent for nudity. An art student who wants to post nude self-portraits of herself may see it as a commentary on body image issues, Godfrey said. But is she prepared for how students in her classes outside of the protected environment of the studio will react?
In Atlanta, police said the student responsible for taping the camera to the bridge could face charges for reckless conduct, according to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. But in 2012, a student at a London college wasn’t arrested or otherwise punished after leaving a backpack designed to look like a bomb in an art installation.
Likewise, public reaction also varies. While the case did not concern a student project, authorities in Boston took flack in 2007 after mistaking LED signs of cartoon characters for explosive devices. The characters were part of a guerrilla marketing campaign for the movie version of Aqua Teen Hunger Force. But the public was less supportive in 2002, when an art student placed more than 30 black boxes with the word “fear” written on them at Union Square subway station in New York as a project. He was sentenced to community service.
Aside from art, police also have been called to investigate student film projects that were mistaken for real crime scenes.
All film schools have a protocol that requires students to get the proper permits from police if they’re going to use anything that resembles a gun or weapon in filming, said Robert Sabal, associate professor of film and dean of the School of the Arts at Emerson College.
Still, even when students follow those rules, a film scene can look suspicious to the public, as was the case last year when students at the University of Oregon were filming a fake robbery.
Sabal said professors tell students who are planning to film in a public location to take themselves outside of the project. In other words, if they were a passerby who didn’t know the scene was part of a film, would they be scared or worried? If so, then the scene somehow needs to take placed in a carefully controlled environment.
Film is certainly different than art, Sabal said. It’s a more collaborative process, where large production teams make it more likely that someone will point out faulty plans. Film also is more commercialized, and so there's usually less emphasis on political engagement or highlighting the ills of society, he said.
But for both film and art, the days of shrugging off projects as the misguided work of inexperienced students looking to make a statement are long over.
Society today is much less forgiving than it used to be, Sabal said. There’s no sense of humor and little room for error around anything that’s perceived as putting people in danger.
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