Sunday, March 30, 2014


NCAD SU XXX-Mas Ball Image-Gate
By Jim Ricks
30 March 2014

So there was this ‘something’ that happened up at NCAD in December, and it’s worth having a second look at. It is the kind of thing that one may say ‘I’m over it’.  But, a number of interesting and important issues: politics, semiotics, feminism, pornography, power, all immediately come to mind.

I was reflecting on Panti Bliss’s speech at the Abbey Theatre, and the simple and invaluable point she makes. Even an openly homosexual, cross-dressing male has caught herself censoring her own thoughts, and the actions of others because they were ‘too gay’. For we are all a product of a homophobic culture, one that is deeply rooted in our upbringings. We all are homophobic.

I would like to extend this to something else. Sexism. And so too we are all guilty of sexism. It is part of our culture, a legacy we inherit, participate in, and are guilty of. Both women and men alike. To others, to ourselves.

It has been correctly pointed out that one cannot assign labels to activities that one does not directly experience. The seed of this point is valuable, because we can never quite know what someone else experiences; their pain; their discomfort.

Something like sexism is so pervasive and even indoctrinated, we all slip into it. For me this is not an excuse, and certainly not something to succumb to, but a fact to be aware of and correct; change upon reflection. The question for me becomes one of not how do we behave perfectly, self censor or take higher ground, but of how we can identify and correct our mistakes.

Interestingly, in the last few years, I feel a new feminism is on the rise. It is a feminism espoused by the likes of Beyoncé and Molly Soda. A successful woman, comfortable with her sexuality (and being sexy), who also has good fortune, power, or popularity, can still advocate for the equality of women. Pro-choice campaigns, particularly after the death of Savita Halappanavar in Galway in 2012, have spurned many forward towards being active and vocal. I think it is a very interesting and exciting time.

This past December an incident originated at the National College of Art and Design, Ireland’s preeminent art college. Its scope ended up reaching well beyond the college and students, becoming an important discussion about feminism and artists in a broader community. As an outsider to the college, I have been reluctant to comment on it, cautious not to fan the flames, seeming preachy or not knowing my place. Ultimately, I have decided to raise a few points that have not been put forth strongly enough and that I think are worthwhile. My aim is not to re-open old wounds but to get beyond the initial emotions and examine the issues in a little more detail.

Like most colleges, NCAD has a Students’ Union (SU). It is safe to say generally college Students' Unions are the representative body and voice for students. Originating, in the 1960’s, as a form of political representation via the struggles to advance and update these institutions, they work as a negotiator with the academic institution itself in communicating with the student body. Normally they are open to all students, are funded through a percentage of tuition plus their own fundraising, and they work on campus issues, charitable campaigns and, of course, social events.

The incident of which I speak began with the NCAD Students Union’s advertisement for a Christmas Ball. On December 6th, 2013, as the holidays approached, The NCAD SU prepared for their ‘Christmas Ball’. The December 19th ball was billed as the ‘XXX-Mas Ball’. Their press release reads:

Ho Ho Ho and merry XXX-Mas.

Oh we know its been a long, hard, year and you've all been very very naughty so lets end it with one hell of a bang.

Get your stockings up, your baubles hung, and your tinsel out, this is going to be a blingalicious festive spectacle the likes of which you'll never have seen before, lets hope this will be more eventful than Jolly Old Saint Nick coming down your chimney, going into your room sack in hand and emptying it all over the place...”

Questions of taste abound.

Indeed, it is arguably quite offensive to frame a campus event designed for the benefit of the entire student body in terms of the sex industry. Using puerile double entendres is a bit crude, a little ‘teen film’, and not that, err... creative (IMO). But it is really the ‘conversation’, very much fueled by contemporary modes of information exchange, i.e. Facebook, et al, that ensued that is the point of contention (more on that later.)

The image used to promote the, at this point unnamed ball (the image only advertised the college), was an illustration in the manner of a neon sign. Glowing lines depicted a busty, naked women straddling a campus landmark: an old whiskey still. The figure revealed oversized breasts with exposed nipples, wearing only knee-high stiletto boots and a Santa hat. Cartoon ‘quiver lines’ let us know she is in motion; ‘grinding’ that whiskey still. Besides the neon body, the graphic also exposed a male-centredness towards the college itself. Both in the use of the campus ‘erection’ as the source of her affections and in that the overt sexualisation of a female was used to market the college. To go further, the chosen visual language was clear, it is that of an American strip club. Neon signs advertising sexual satisfaction, titalisation for the cost of a few bucks.

A stream of comments followed. A female student declared the image was in bad taste and another that it was not representative of the college student demographics. Most astonishing was what happened next. A series of flippant, derailing, offensive, and downright stupid provocations followed, mostly from male students, frequently containing imagery in equally bad taste (penises, swastikas, etc.). Of course, this was challenged in a very balanced way by a number of the college’s women, and a few men. But it became clear a bigger issue was arising: the lack of SU response and the aggressive reaction that erupted.

In one comment, Eimear Van Der Waals gets to the point when she wrote:

It's really really important though, if someone is genuinely offended by something, for example if someone feels like some aspects of the sexual objectification of women has had a negative effect on their life, that they can register this offence with out being subjected to the aggressive response that Karl and the people who have liked his comment have made.”

But the controversy brewed and escalated. And still the image remained posted and the SU remained quiet. That was the biggest problem.

T-shirt design by Mark Foran

In addition, some rebuttals and taunts from the anti-feminist camp cited a previous year’s SU t-shirt design that featured two crudely drawn (think Neckface or Beavis and Butthead) nude men masturbating, one on the other's lap. This reference was well off topic as a) there was no protest about said design (and therefore no need to respond to it). And b) it was not pornographic. It was crudely and comically drawn, not for arousal or referring to the ‘adult entertainment’ industries, but presumably instead for shock value.

Along the same lines were comments like Cyan Ryan’s response concluding:

...I just would't call this "Inappropriate and degrading" or think that much into things but yes a male version will keep it fair

Which I’m certain it wouldn’t. Simply asserting a personal opinion does not trump or negate someone else’s. Unless you’re like a dictator or a monarch or something. This basic balancing act does not address the twofold core issue here: a) That someone’s grievance is not being addressed by an elected body designated to represent them. And b) that it is ahistorical and ignores the political and economic facts of injustice and imbalance. Isolating the issue in a vacuum, ignoring the legacy of historical disadvantage. A racist caricature of a black person is not suddenly okay if you then produce a racist caricature of a white person.

Not so the prevailing wisdom in the SU. In keeping with the above line of thought, they unveiled a second XXX-Mas Ball graphic: a male version. A seated muscular figure with his hand around a large smokestack in the place of his penis. *ahem*. A very favourable representation of his manhood as it were.

It struck my as a real dick slap in the face. Not only does it not solve the issues of the original design being unwanted, non-representative, imposed; the increasingly abusive discourse on Facebook about it; the SU inaction, but it also reflects another male agenda. That of sexual power. Tellingly, this version clearly stated the puntastic name of the event and not solely the college’s name. A subtle addition.

A third graphic appeared, directly referring this time to the exterior signage of a strip club or XXX cinema prevalent in red light districts. A cursory Google search for “strip club neon” revealed nearly identical images to this and the first one. A fourth, final image contained a selection of four XXX related designs, including the first one.

When asked about the controversy, neither the college nor the SU responded to our requests for comment. However, Eleanor White, co-founder of the NCAD Feminist Society, spoke openly about the incident and elucidates a number of productive points. Her statement is here in full:

Regarding the whole ‘NCAD SU XXX-Mas Ball Image-Gate’ incident and being an actual woman within the college, I found it a bit bizarre that imagery like this was used in a college that is 60% female, and while I personally didn't find it offensive I could see how people could. And maybe the only reason I didn't find the imagery offensive is because in our society we are so used to seeing such imagery constantly.

What really offended me was certain Lads (in and not in the college) telling women over what they can and can't be offended over. And telling women to “fuck off”, and of course the NCAD SU not bothering to deal with the troll fest on our official page.

Cause Swastikas and dick pics being posted gives such a great impression of NCAD. When I called the SU out over this they used the whole ‘no to censorship’ babble which I found ironic considering the dick pics and swastikas and of course the personal insults to women who raised their concerns over what was happening. ’Cause freedom of speech totes means this is like acceptable.

I’ve told the NCAD SU personally that this could have been nipped in the bud so easily and with 4000+ friends on Facebook they're going to need moderation, and how our SU page should be a safe space for those raising concerns and that the SU needs to obviously represent. This is PR 101 and while we're now ok on personal terms I feel so let down by them and of course certain people with the student body. I’ve had people come up to me and say “I used to think feminism was cool but not anymore”, and I’ve been accused of being a ‘feminazi’, which is just so infuriating to me, cause I’m like all for ethnic genocide, ugh.

Overall I feel quite disappointed and upset by all of this and I’m so annoyed with certain people within my college (ie DE LADS) shouting down anyone with an opposing opinion to them. 
And the fact that a number of boyos have approached me telling me that they agree with me, but due to the fact they're friends with these idiots they feel they can't call them out, cause hey even though they are men, they can’t be really be seen as having opinions that are not of the typical lad norm.

I’ve had had enough testosterone for a lifetime thanks to this and you would think in a college that is predominantly woman dominated I wouldn't have this problem but alas I do.”

So why is this important to me, a non-student, a non-NCAD alum? Because I am a thinking individual and artist in Dublin. And by extension involved with the greater arts scene. I am also politically involved, i.e. my practice and life are engaged with the issues that surround me in my professional and geographic community, and I hope my actions and choices make them better. As artists, we are shapers of culture. To remain on the sidelines would be an error on my part.

I would argue that it is my/our job to criticise this simplistic thinking, this sexist advertising, the repugnant debate that followed and to fight for principles like justice and equality. I would argue it is our job to challenge everyone of these assumptions, these culturally inherited prejudices and their behaviour and attempts to enforce them. And in the very least I expect artists to be compassionate to other people. If we are not, then what are we doing? Are we just providers of propaganda, inspirers of advertisements, complicit in the problems capitalism creates or cannot solve? If we cannot ask ourselves and answer, “What do we stand for?” then there is a problem. And the bigger problem can only be dealt with by being better equipped to correct it, nay, fight it. And better organised, and more stubborn in our resolve to make a positive change.

So the issue boils down to, as I understand it, and I’m willing to be corrected on this, is that many, not all, women feel they do not have the power of how they are defined as humans. That they are consistently and vociferously being defined in the public eye as objects for the sexual gratification of men. And not much more. This is not against sex, but against the narrowing control of identity. More so, it is essentially about power and who has the power to define themselves. In this case as complete humans.

Kerry Guinnane succinctly summarized :

Heya! It is not the position of men to tell women what they should or should not be offended by esp. in relation to sexual objectification. Ok? Ok tnx.”

A sound principle that can be applied across the entire scope of Intersectionality.

The NCAD issue really struck a nerve with a number of students and with myself because, as I mentioned, it is the type of interaction that noxiously ignites on the internet. Women are regularly the targets of shameless trolling online. One of many examples is Lindsay Bottos, a photographer from Baltimore, who says:

...I get tons of anonymous messages like this every day and while this isn’t unique to women, the content of the messages and the frequency in which I get them are definitely related to my gender. I almost exclusively get them after I post selfies. The authority people feel they have to share their opinion on my appearance is something myself and many other girls online deal with daily.”

See one of her projects here: The likes of aforementioned Molly Soda handles her trolling on a regular basis, but always with her characteristic sass.

Ok, so this years NCAD elected representatives were a bit blind or insensitive. Or was it something else? Frank Wasser, Former President of the NCAD Students' Union, surmises:

NCAD SU this year are scumbags.”

Clearly opinions on the matter are strong.

Stepping back a bit, as image makers, thinkers, possibly intellectuals, and students, what exactly is the artists role, or rather, responsibility?

In the case of the NCAD SU and the XXX-Mas Ball, it comes down to a question of ethics that becomes increasingly highlighted as the initial ‘error’ was ignored and compounded. There was no retraction. They made a single post that apologised for people taking offense. WTF? They were sorry people got offended, not for offending people. Nor for letting a very visible online forum become a safe place for misogynistic trolling. So the response of the NCAD SU is tantamount to saying “Stop bothering me” or even “Piss off”; that what they did needed no correction; that they were not responsible for any wrong doing.

This, the initial non-response, the ‘we’ve still ignored the original argument’ response embodied in the other graphics, and the final re-inclusion of the image strike me as mean-spirited, retaliatory, a test of the resolve of those opposed. And it all relates directly to power. It also relates directly to politics and the lack of. It can be interpreted that the SU not only doesn’t view itself as an entity of representative democracy working on behalf of those that put them ‘in office’ nor do they see any responsibility in shaping ‘best content’, creating a ‘safe space’, let alone forum, for all members of their community.

And just on that basic ‘being a decent human being’ level, and this is directed at everyone and no one in particular, if someone tells you openly they are uncomfortable or offended, why would you do anything other than try to correct your mistake? How about starting with a little respect.