Center for Book Arts Backs Out of Performance, Drawing Criticism

Artists and cultural workers are calling out the Center for Book Arts (CBA) in New York City for allegedly withdrawing an invitation to exhibit an artwork because of perceived parallels to Israel’s ongoing attacks on the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

The public outcry began in response to an Instagram post by multimedia artist Sister Sylvester, also known as Kathryn Hamilton, claiming CBA backed out of presenting her work, “The Eagle and The Tortoise” (2020/2022/2024). The Instagram post included screenshots of an email correspondence between Sister Sylvester and an unnamed CBA worker who, after seeing the piece at its January showing at BRIC’s Artist Studio, felt that “the subject may be too closely aligned with the current conflict in Gaza.”

CBA has not responded to Hyperallergic’s repeated requests for comment. In response to Sister Sylvester’s post, CBA said in a statement that the organization is “listening and working on a format for dialogue with the community” and claiming that “no agreement to exhibit this work — formal or informal — was ever made.” (edited) 

Following the release of the artists’ post and CBA’s response, at least 175 artists, visitors, donors, former employees and interns, and teachers affiliated with the organization are petitioning its leadership to re-invite the artists to present the installation. On February 11, unionized CBA staff also released a statement calling on management to provide more information and clarification on the nonprofit’s free speech policies.

“The Eagle and the Tortoise” artists shared screenshots of emails from an unnamed CBA staffer. (post via @sistersylvester and @marinday on Instagram)

“The Eagle and The Tortoise” is a live sound and video installation consisting of a collective reading of a hand-made book following the story of a Turkish student named Deniz as she moves between leftist organizing to armed militarism and political imprisonment, eventually serving as a proxy soldier for an American conflict. Incorporating both bird’s-eye and tortoise-eye views that chronicle Turkey’s changing landscape, the multimedia reading is a comprehensive recounting of the Turkish government’s war on the Kurdish people. After premiering in January 2020 at New York City’s National Sawdust, the work was shown at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam in 2022 and presented at BRIC’s Artist Studio in Brooklyn.

Sister Sylvester told Hyperallergic that she had an initial conversation with CBA leadership on October 6, after the organization had expressed interest in presenting another installation work by her and her team titled “Constantinopoliad” (2023). During that exchange, Sister Sylvester suggested “The Eagle and The Tortoise” because it required less technical equipment and would fit better in CBA’s space. On October 9, the artist emailed CBA leadership asking if the nonprofit was interested in exhibiting the work in mid-January; on October 16, CBA replied that they would “love to host” and proposed a Zoom call, as confirmed in emails reviewed by Hyperallergic.

Though the artists found another venue for a January showing, CBA expressed interest in showing it in late summer, Sister Sylvester said.

But the subject matter, “so close in theme” to the ongoing attacks on Palestine, raised concerns for the organization, said the CBA staffer whose name is redacted in the screenshots of the email posted by Sister Sylvester. The email explained that “Center for Book Arts studios need to remain a resource to all,” citing “the need for free speech and the free distribution of ideas.” Audience members could potentially “misinterpret” the piece and become uncomfortable, the staffer said.

“Perhaps we can check in again later in the year,” the email concludes. “I remain a supporter of your work and hope to present something in the future.” 

Sister Sylvester and her team members told Hyperallergic they have not heard from CBA leadership since first releasing the screenshotted emails, beyond the public statement the organization issued on its Instagram page.

“The email from CBA states clearly that a work will not be shown because of parallels with what is happening in Gaza, and gives as a reason the ‘comfort’ of people using the space,” Sister Sylvester and other artists who worked on “The Eagle and The Tortoise” told Hyperallergic in a joint message.

“This is part of a larger pattern of intimidation and censorship of those who speak up for Palestine,” the artists continued. “We are living in a country that is funding the bombs that are dropping on Gaza. Discussion around this cannot be suppressed in the name of comfort.” 

Sarah Nicholls, a member of CBA’s union, told Hyperallergic that unionized staff are “upset, disappointed, and saddened to see the Center caught up in this” and they hope to hear from leadership soon.

“The community at CBA includes incredible artists and activists and I have full faith that they will hold the institution to account,” said “The Eagle and The Tortoise” team. “Their work is a reminder that institutions are more than the people who lead them.”

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