In response to the censorship of Burn It Down: Communications of Resistance

In response to the censorship of Burn It Down: Communications of Resistance

We are speaking as members of Florida Prisoner Solidarity (FPS). We are a group of community members that are both local and statewide, incarcerated and free, students/alumni of UF and those with no affiliation. In the Fall of 2022 we were invited by 4Most Gallery to create a new iteration of a show that debuted at 4Most in 2019 and received praise from the city. The show has had several iterations in Tampa and Orlando, and on March 10, 2023 4Most hosted the opening reception of Burn It Down: Communications of Resistance. Unfortunately, that was the only evening the show was open to the public. The following Tuesday we were told that the banners hanging on the gallery, as part of our show, were taken down by UF without our consent or knowledge. They were an integral part of the work and central to the theme (and title) of the show. We do not stand for this censorship.

How and why did this happen?

According to UF, the media contacted them asking questions about the banners that were hanging on the outside of 4Most Gallery. One option would be to direct the media inquiry to the artists (FPS) to answer these questions. Instead, UF decided to kowtow to the proto-fascist online newspaper, The Alachua Chronicle, and a mysterious request to UFPD to take the banners down. This was done within hours and UF did not contact us (the artists) until after the violent act of censorship occurred. We use the word violence here with the explicit intent of highlighting the institutional repression of a part of its own body, transgressing its own sacred mission to provide sanctuary for free thought and expression, and reifying the violence of the state once again.  This is worth noting, especially as UF has already this year hosted what the government of the United States would refer to as an “illegal immigrant” white supremacist on a speaking tour, in contrast, protecting his profane right to spew hatred.  

UF offered several explanations for this action that seemed to change based on what was convenient for their narrative at the time. At first the claim was a media inquiry. Then it was a call to UFPD. Then it was the problem that hanging banners could be mis-read as a message endorsed by the University. This is particularly confusing, as the banners were painted bed sheets hung on a building that has served as a gallery for over 10 years. The windows to the gallery were intentionally not blocked off so that people passing on the street could see that the space was an art show. There is lettering on all sides of the building that reads “4Most Gallery.” There were two flyers advertising the art show hanging in the windows of the building. If there were any questions as to the messaging of the banners coming from UF vs. an artist using a gallery, that is an issue related to building design, not to the artwork. It is hard to understand why the artwork had to be “modified.” Finally, UF landed on their issue that the installation of the banners was unsafe for those installing them (after they had already been installed).

We also want to highlight the imbalance of power between the artists and the institution. There was no contract between the gallery and the artists. Without a contract, we were in an extremely vulnerable position, you could say, powerless. We seek redress for an apparent lack of policy or implementation of said policy when it comes to making contractual obligations clear with its participating partners, and especially artists. There were no guidelines about the use of the space of the gallery, which led us to the understanding that all space was available for use. It was only after UF removed our banners that they approached us for a conversation. UF requested for us to come to negotiate the banner situation after they had already removed them. We requested they put the banners back as a gesture of good faith. We were told that the infrastructure to put the banners back would only be available to us over the summer… yet they somehow had the infrastructure to take the banners down. All conversation past this was rendered futile.

All of the institutional communications that were taking place within the art school happened without students or FPS membership aware of such communications. Grad students had to ask for these communications to be shared broadly. 4Most’s own website states that it “featur[es] a variety of artworks from the University of Florida and the local Gainesville community.” Their instagram boasts: “Bridging UF with the Gainesville art community.” But UF was not concerned about any communication until it learned that grad students and alumni were involved.

The community is not the priority for UF. The police and the university’s donors are its priority. It is of the greatest dissonance to read a statement that says “We stand by to help students, faculty, and invited artists navigate those challenges in the context of UF” while, in reality, the institution only supports the different bodies of local police, Nazis, white supremacists, and other jailors. As a result of this censorship, we made the choice to close the gallery for re-construction, until the closing reception on March 29.

On the morning of Tuesday, March 28th, the 4Most Gallery which housed our art exhibit was vandalized. We were informed that four rocks had been thrown through the glass windows. Two rooms were targeted, one containing the show and an adjacent space for gallery business. A reporter from the Independent Florida Alligator insinuated during an interview at our closing reception that they had received an anonymous tip that the artists had staged an attack on the show in an attempt to get “clout” for social media as a means to bring more attention to the show. 

We are familiar with these defamatory tactics routinely used by the state to criminalize and damage the public image of groups fighting for social justice and radical change. We find it despicable to suggest that we sabotaged this exhibition of prisoner artwork.

There is a clear trend of hate-fueled vandalism occurring in the city of Gainesville. Within the year, multiple murals advocating for diverse social justice causes have been defaced; locations like the Institute of Black Culture, the Pride Center, and Planned Parenthood have been vandalized. Antisemitic flyers have been distributed targeting Jewish communities in town. In the tradition of politically motivated hate culture, when fascists gain political power, violence and vandalism increase against marginalized communities and those who would resist their oppressors.

UF’s political censorship culminated with inviting police-affiliated “security” to the closing reception without consent of the curator or the artists. The core mission of FPS is the abolition of police and prisons, so this intrusion was not only an insult to our members and our audience but also unworked the intention we set for our art show.

When the state owns the gallery, there is no such thing as free speech in art.