Arts Desk

Banned in D.C.: Activists Detained at National Portrait Gallery, Banned From Smithsonian

National Portrait Gallery Protest from Michael Dax Iacovone on Vimeo.

Two activists were detained by police on Saturday at the National Portrait Gallery after showing David Wojnarowicz's A Fire in My Belly on an iPad inside the museum. Both activists were ejected and subsequently banned for life from any Smithsonian Institution facility.

D.C. residents Mike Blasenstein, 37, and Mike Iacovone, 35, displayed the Wojnarowicz video at the entrance of "Hide/Seek," the exhibit from which Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution Wayne Clough had the piece removed last week. Guards at the National Portrait Gallery approached Blasenstein and Iacovone a little after 1:00 p.m. on Saturday, about 10 minutes after the two kicked off their guerrilla tablet exhibition.

According to Blasenstein, National Portrait Gallery security guards interrupted their demonstration and called Metropolitan Police Department officers, who detained them.

"My whole goal was to get that art back out," said Blasenstein. Facing the prospect of arrest, he said that he and Iacovone ultimately opted to cooperate with police. "I could get arrested, but they've already taken the art away from the people a second time. I just want to get back to work on this."

Police made Blasenstein and Iacovone sign forms acknowledging that if they ever set foot on Smithsonian property again, they would be arrested. The officers would not give Blasenstein or Iacovone copies of these forms, according to Blasenstein. He said that an MPD officer cited D.C. code (section 22, chapter 33) governing trespassing in banning the two from the Smithsonian for life.

A public information officer for MPD could not confirm Blasenstein's account of the incident and said that MPD systems were down throughout the entire District police department today.

"The security officers asked them to leave and they refused," at which point security called MPD, said National Portrait Gallery spokesperson Bethany Bentley. She said the NPG has no input on citations, so the banning would be solely the call of MPD.

Blasenstein and Iacovone's demonstration is the latest in a series of actions and screenings aimed at protesting the Smithsonian's decision to censor a video in a GLBT exhibit following complaints broadcast by conservative media. Blasenstein said that he was inspired to take the work back to the museum after reading that Transformer would no longer be screening the work after Saturday afternoon.

UPDATE: Read the police barring notices here.

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  • P.J. Orvetti

    Can MPD just declare such a ban? Doesn't that require a judge?

    How do they enforce that?

  • Adrian Parsons

    Keep it coming.

  • Don Russell

    Outrageous. Time for artists to ban the Smithsonian.

  • Alison Curtis

    I suggest everyone call the MPD and inquire as to what authority they have to ban people like this- (202) 727-4383.

  • Rick Rosendall

    How idiotically heavy-handed of the Portrait Gallery security guards and MPD officers. I applaud Blasenstein and Iacovone for their innovative action, which clearly threatened nothing and nobody. Telling museumgoers they cannot take one of the demonstrators' flyers? What comes over people who are given little bits of authority, that they could insist on being so gratuitously obnoxious? Easy prediction: this will not be the end of the matter, and will only help the protesters expand their protest.

  • Yenta

    Let's ban free speech!

    The guards cannot issue a lifetime ban and The National Portrait Gallery brought the demonstration down upon itself by banning the art work. I hope the people come back and picket outside. The guards can't stop that.

    Anytime some group gets a bee in its bonnet about some art work, the end result is that it gets more publicity. They never learn.

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  • esquire

    How can I get a copy? I'll go to the NPG this week and play it on my Droid X.

  • Chris

    Here is the video that they shot.

  • VK

    I'm more entertained by the fact that MPD could not confirm or deny this because their systems are down. Ha!

  • realdc

    I think people should keep going into the exhibition. Friends of mine (who don't have iPads) pinned the pink protest mask picture to their purses before walking into the museum to see the show, which they were then told to remove by the guards.

    It is totally fucked up how repressive they're being in a place where freedom of expression by American artists is supposed to be celebrated. I wish the administrative and curatorial staff would host a walk-out instead of just taking this sitting down.

  • DAR

    First, I disagree with the methods used to influence the removal of the item. My support for this ends there. So anyone should be allowed to hand out fliers at the gallery? The gallery doesn't allow protests inside...period. The two "ultimately opted to cooperate with police" after "The security officers asked them to leave and they refused," until they were faced with arrest. So they were given an opportunity to leave without ANY incident...THE PROTESTORS escalated it to the point where they were showing themselves to be a public nuisance....not the MPD and not the SI. They could hav estepped outside on the street and done the same thing, but they opted to stay inside and ignore the SI security and MPD. Good job MPD and Smithsonian for keeping the gallery free of protestors and free for people to go and enjoy art.

  • DG

    @DAR - Enjoy the art that keeps getting removed because it offends some kooky conservatives?

  • DAR

    @ DG - Read my first 14 words of my posting above.

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  • Matthew

    How tragic. I personally find this video deeply unpleasant and very hard to watch. But hey, isn't art, good and viable art, supposed to evoke emotions?. Whoever said it had to be comfy emotions?

    There are a lot of those same conservatives (which is no longer a word that accurately describes these people, the new inquisition is more like it) many of them likely would remove images of the holocaust as well, denial of truth being their favorite pastime in far more areas than is appropriate for this comment.

    We are moving toward a new dark age where information is rationed out by the oligarchy to an ill informed public deliberately moved to acts of stupidity by the $$$ interests controlling them. Too much throughout history this hideous form of evil masquerades as religion, making it all the more dangerous, leading to even greater cruelty and harm to the world.

    Was it Hemingway who said "When Fascism comes to America it will be wrapped in a flag and carrying a cross!" whoever said it, it was too prophetic for comfort.

    Protest must be long and strong or we may not recover from the evil this time as they will have far too many tools at their disposable.

    @ people like DAR... Freedom matters. Protocol does not.

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  • ariel

    China , anyone ??????

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