Censorship, “Obscene Art,” and Trigger Warnings: The Thought-Provoking New Film Lyric by Jess Irish
Guest post by MFA student Julia Lynn Rubin
Last Thursday, I attended the debut screening of Jess Irish’s animated film lyric, The Phantasmagoria of Offense. Presented as a collage of images, the “male version” of Phantasmagoria (Jess tells me she will be making a female version) touches on the dangers of image suppression of the male body, as well as cultural anxieties surrounding the expressions of vulnerability, homosexual desire, or questioning of the dominant paradigm.
Needless to say, I was left with with a number of pressing questions for Jess, including: Is there such a thing as “obscene art?”
“Legally, I’ll defer to the Supreme Court on this (Miller vs California), which stated that something obscene cannot have any literary, artistic or scientific value; it’s an oxymoron,” Jess said after I posed the question to her. “I myself have been very offended by various works, but I strive to look for the artist’s intention. All of this gets complicated quickly, which is why we need civilized dialog and critique, not censorship, which too often comes by way of omission or self-censorship.”
Jess, an MFA in Creative Writing alumna and full-time faculty member at Parsons, has become increasingly interested in the national conversation surrounding trigger warnings.
“As an educator in the visual arts, I’ve been following the national conversation around ‘trigger warnings’ etc. with an increasing sense of unease,” Jess said. “When I was assigned to write a lyric essay for Mark Bibbins’ poetry workshop, I decided to put these together as a creative conversation, from a progressive’s point of view. Because the text itself is all about images, it made sense to transform it into a visual format, though I wanted to do this is a more playful, non-traditional way.”
Her striking short film—which was inspired by Walter Benjamin’s Arcades project, and features voice-over work from a host of fellow NYC artists—explores the dangers of image suppression, both artistically and politically. The film, and by extension, Jess, posits that “censorship is not an abstraction; it has a body count.”
“Trigger warnings were initially used in online discussion boards describing sexual assault and/or eating disorders, so as not further re-traumatize the reader,” Jess said. “Today I see this as a default ‘liability waiver’ applied to just about anything.”
Jess recalled several times when students offered her verbal trigger warnings before showing her artistic representations of their own, including a vaguely nude female body, and and audio tape in which the person interviewed uses the word “transvestite.”
“In both examples, the disclaimer was offered to excuse them from taking responsibility for their choices,” Jess said. “Where I think trigger warnings are patently dangerous is when they are seen as expected or required in a classroom. Attempting to create bureaucratic guidelines for what it is or isn’t offense is a fool’s errand; our culture is too complex and varied. That said, I am very much in favor of respectful classroom environments and broader contexts in which to understand any artwork—potentially offensive or not.”
Jess also discussed with me what she hopes viewers will take away from the film, which is now available online for everyone to view and share.
“My intention as an artist is always to make someone think twice before dismissing something,” said Jess. “Many years ago I did a project on the inflatable balloons you see on car dealerships and the like—again, wanting to contextualize them in the larger cultural imaginary (in that case, of inflatable architecture). I had so many people come up to me and say “Oh, I keep seeing these everywhere now, in a completely different way.’ For me, that’s a small and huge success.”
Jess Irish is an artist, designer and writer living and working between the Catskills & NYC. She’s is a full-time faculty in the School of Art, Media & Technology at Parsons, The New School for Design, and recently received her second MFA (poetry) from The New School’s Creative Writing program. Her work in new media has screened and exhibited nationally and internationally and has been featured in media such as Art Forum, METROPOLIS, RES, and Artweek magazines, as well as various international journals. She has received project funding by the Creative Capital Foundation and was one of four artists to be supported by California Arts Council in its first round of individual grants for digital media.
Julia Lynn Rubin is currently pursuing her MFA in Writing for Children & Young Adults at The New School. Her fiction has appeared in publications such as the North American Review, Sierra Nevada Review, and Dewpoint. Follow her on Twitter @julialynnrubin.