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An Immersive Art Piece—That’s Not About Gaza—Was ‘Too Closely Aligned With the Current Conflict in Gaza’ for an NYC Art Space

Ugh, this art is too timely!

A piece of art relevant enough to pull the people who see it into a discussion of current events, while simultaneously guiding them to concepts beyond the current moment, sparking even deeper reflection—sounds like a curator's dream, right? When the object of reflection is Palestine, apparently, not so much. 

According to Sister Sylvester, real name Kathryn Hamilton, "The Eagle and the Tortoise" is an immersive art installation—with live sound and video elements that accompany audience members as they read a handmade book, about the Turkish genocide of its Kurdish population. Hamilton wrote the piece and co-designed the book between 2016 and 2019. But this year, New York City nonprofit Center for Book Arts declined to present it because it resonated too closely with the genocide in Gaza, according an email exchange posted by Hamilton.

"A few weeks ago we showed our work 'The Eagle and The Tortoise' in New York,'" Hamilton and her team wrote in an Instagram post on Sunday. "An art space that had planned to exhibit it later in the year has backed out…We share this because we stand against censorship and for a free Palestine." Then, Hamilton shared the (undated, name redacted) email, from a Center for Book Arts employee who said they saw an earlier performance of the piece at BRIC's Under the Radar Theatre Festival: "Unfortunately the subject may be too closely aligned with the current conflict in Gaza for us to present the performance at the moment—I feel very strongly that Center for Book Arts studios need to remain a resource for all," the email reads. "Sadly it is too easy for members of the public to misinterpret programming so close in theme and I wouldn't want to prevent someone from feeling comfortable using our studios," the CBA representative says, before vaguely promising to check back in with Hamilton later in the year and saying they "remain a supporter" of her work.

Obviously, this didn't go over well. "In your email you explain that you can no longer present this work, not because of statements calling for a ceasefire and a free Palestine, but because of the parallels between the war and the story we tell in our performance. With that you are silencing not only artists who stand against the war, but any work that may invite reflection, or comparison with it," Hamilton and her team wrote. They continued, "If institutions are afraid to program art that has resonance with our contemporary world, what are we left with?" Hamilton declined an interview request from Hell Gate for this story.

In response to Hamilton's post, Center for Book Arts—frankly—whiffed it. "Center for Book Arts engaged with the artist behind 'The Eagle and The Tortoise,' to clarify no agreement to exhibit this work—formal or informal—was ever made," reads a post on the nonprofit's Instagram page attached to a graphic that says, "We are listening and working on a format for dialogue with the community." (Center for Book Arts did not respond to a request for comment from Hell Gate.) The post continues, saying that "Center for Book Arts remains dedicated to empowering diverse artistic voices through the book arts" and holds "a firm stance against censorship of any kind," sentiments that many commenters were not totally buying. 

After that, the dominoes fell pretty quickly. CBA Union, which won its first contract in October 2022 and represents six CBA staff members, responded to Center for Book Arts's statement with an open letter asking for clarification on the decision to back out of programming the art piece and a statement from the nonprofit on Palestine. When reached for comment, they referred Hell Gate to this letter. "Free speech can never come from censorship," it says. "This performance could have engendered conversation and dialogue around war, and our connections to the radical roots of our field. Unfortunately that possibility seems to have been discarded." 

Another open letter, from "CBA Community Members Against Censorship and for a Free Palestine," is currently open for signatures and has a set of even firmer demands for Center for Book Arts: a statement from the nonprofit on Palestine, a re-extended invitation to "The Eagle and the Tortoise," and a commitment from CBA not to "censor artists for their expressions around Palestine" in the future. "We have been dismayed by the recent censorship of artists by arts institutions based on their support for the Palestinian people and stands against genocide, and we are disappointed that Center for Books Arts is resorting to censorship as well," this letter says. "Rather than seeing this performance and any response to it as an opportunity to have a dialogue around past, ongoing and current events, Center for Book Arts has instead chosen to silence artists who address the difficult topic of genocide in their work."

As of this writing, CBA has yet to offer any additional public response to its union members, community members, or Hamilton and the rest of the team behind "The Eagle and The Tortoise." The last thing on their Instagram page: a post about temporarily closing for yesterday's inclement weather, with the comments turned off.

Some links that are open for dialogue: 

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