“Guerrilla Art” Taken Down from Campus and Destroyed
University commits to changing protocols on public art after throwing away senior thesis
After a flurry of events this week in which administrators tore down and threw away a student’s outdoor art installation and senior thesis, university officials have committed to taking a deeper look at the University of San Diego’s policies on public art.
The issue revolved around senior Jill Grant’s senior thesis, a photography project called “Caminamos La Linea / We Walk The Line.” For the project, She interviewed and photographed 20 people living and experiencing life in the land near the U.S.-Mexico border.
On March 12, as the shouts of Greek Week’s main event filled the Immaculata Courtyard, Grant and fifteen other students quietly fanned out across campus and began covering all of USD’s kiosks and the gates between Camino and Founders Halls with large prints of her photographs, mostly portraits of USD workers and students near the U.S.-Mexico border. Below the images were captions describing life at the border. One described the border as “Una Herida Abierta,” meaning an “open wound,” where the “third world grates against the first and bleeds.”
Just twenty minutes after Grant put up her installation, university officials in some areas began tearing it down. Administrators told Grant that the art had violated USD’s rules for signage, which require students to get permission before posting anything on campus. They then told her she could pick up her work in the Student Life Pavilion.
However, when she went there just two school days later, officials informed her that her project, worth hundreds of dollars in printing materials and the product of over 50 hours of labor, had been thrown in the trash.
That set the art department into a furor. The morning they learned that the project had been tossed, faculty in the department convened an emergency staff meeting with Grant. It lasted over two hours, and they determined to write a resolution to submit to the University Senate the next day.
The resolution, endorsed by College of Arts & Sciences Dean Noelle Norton along with the Provost’s office, would provide for a new committee to investigate and make recommendations for a new university policy governing public art created by students.
“One of the resolutions to this is that we need to ask the question of who establishes the protocols and [whether we] might have a better way to establish a protocol about student art on campus,” Norton said in an interview.
On March 19, just one day later, over 50 visitors flooded the chambers of the University Senate, and alumni and students representing organizations like the Basement Society, Associated Students, and the Center for Community, Awareness and Social Action voiced their support for Grant and her project. The Senate voted unanimously to approve the resolution, setting the stage for an ad hoc committee to be formed by the Senate.
Allison Wiese, an associate professor of sculpture in the art department, hoped that the committee could provide tangible changes to the visibility of USD’s art.
She said that USD’s art program underwent an external review last fall. Although it gave the art department good marks, the review noted a lack of visibility for art on USD’s campus.
“Contemporary art is neither produced, nor experienced, exclusively for galleries or museums,” Wiese said. “USD Students can’t practice making meaning as artists…if they can’t extend their work outside of the classroom and traditional gallery spaces.”
Grant says that was her exact goal with the project. She called it “Guerrilla Art,” which essentially puts up works in unexpected public places, intending to expose inconvenient truths to people who wouldn’t normally see it.
“In the fight for social justice you can’t follow all the rules that are laid out, because the rules that are laid out have created social injustice,” Grant said. “So you have to fight them.”
She said that intentions with the project were twofold: to raise awareness of the hardships faced by those living in the borderland, and to deconstruct what she called a perceived dichotomy between the U.S.-Mexico border.
Juliana Maxim, an associate art professor, agreed with the sentiment, stating that Grant’s style of “Guerrilla Art” deserves an important place on campus.
“By limiting art on campus to only a few designated spaces, we prevent both students and art faculty from engaging in [a] whole range of provocative but meaningful ways of thinking about art, about our campus, and about public space,” Maxim said in an email.
But Grant didn’t originally intend to break any rules with the project. Back in February, she requested a large empty spot in the hallway leading from the Student Life Pavilion to the University Center for her artwork. However, she was told by officials within University Design that the project could not go there because of construction of the new Torero Store. Instead, Mary Whelan, the executive director of University Design, suggested that she could post her project in either Aroma’s or a location in the Institute for Peace & Justice.
However, Grant said that those locations would not have given her project the exposure it needed. A major facet of her project, she said, was that the site and exposure of the piece is as integral to the project as the subject matter. And, she said, when she approached contractors in charge of the Torero Store expansion, they said that they were done with the wall in question in the UCs, and that they would have no problem with her posting the project there.
In a speech given at the senate meeting on Thursday, Grant said that she was never given reasonable rationale for why the space was not available.
Additionally, in an interview she said that the speed with which the university removed her artwork was indicative of a deeper irony – that USD’s visual campus may not be living up to its role as a Changemaker hub.
“I don’t really understand why they would take [the photographs] down so quickly,” Grant said. “I think it’s hypocritical of the administration to take it down so quickly when [the project is] obviously an effort to make change, and our school claims to be a Changemaker campus… But I don’t think our visual campus culture reflects this kind of Changemaking, or else this would’ve been able to happen.”
Nevertheless, Whelan said, university officials were given no notice that the art would be going up on kiosks and other undiscussed locations, and that the removal was purely procedural.
“I was surprised as anyone to find that the works were posted in this manner, especially since we had discussed alternative venues,” Whelan said. “Her installation covered over the postings of other students and organizations who followed our campus protocols for our kiosks and railings.
Whelan added that the type of tape used in hanging the photographs was against regulation and damaged the kiosks.
After her project was taken down, Grant was told that she could pick up her artwork in the Student Life Pavilion.
However, when she went there on the next Tuesday, officials informed her that they had tossed the prints.
Melissa Wagoner, the director of media relations at USD, said that the project was thrown away because it took up too much space.
“On Monday, Student Life had not heard from her,” Wagoner said in an email. “So late that evening, due to the large amount of space the artwork was taking up in student work space, [Student Life] chose to dispose of it. The artwork was severely damaged by the large amount of duct tape the student used to place the posters and photographs on the kiosks and on top of other posters.”
On Wednesday morning, when Dean Norton learned that Grant’s artwork was thrown out, she went to the emergency staff meeting of the art department. She and Carmen Vazquez, the vice president of student affairs, offered to compensate Grant in full for the destroyed art.
At the Senate meeting Grant said that she was thankful for Dean Norton, the provost’s office, and Student Affairs’ rapid response to the situation and for attempting to get a resolution passed within a week of the incident.
She hopes that, as the committee goes into the future, it will bring real change to the way that the university looks at public art.
“You can’t change the world unless you’re willing to look within yourself and your own community to make changes,” Grant said. “I think we need to do more work in that area to see if our campus culture reflects Change-making.”