Campus banner announces fictional new $20 million center
San Diego — A banner on campus at UC San Diego may have some people wondering if their school really was about to build a $20 million center devoted to the study of political prisoners.
It’s not, despite all the details on the banner near the Geisel Library. The school is, however, hosting an art exhibition about political prisoners and Guantanamo Bay at the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology, known on campus as the Calit2.
Artist Ian Paul, who collaborated with UC San Diego professor Ricardo Dominguez on the exhibit, said they were not trying to create a hoax with the banner and a press release that was issued last week.
“The point isn’t to trick people or deceive people,” he said. “It’s to increase that one moment of wonder that hopefully leads to the question of what’s possible.”
The sign and press release claimed a $20 million, 20,000-square-foot center called the Adnan Farhan Abd Al Latif Center for Critical Abolition Studies was scheduled to open in 2018.
Along with the center, named after a Yemeni man who died at Guantanamo Bay detention camp in Cuba in 2012, the press release also announced that UC San Diego was introducing a minor in prison abolition and a PhD program called “Post-national Justice and Aesthetics.”
One hint that it was all a ruse was in the announcement that the center “was made possible through a transinstitutional collaboration between UC San Diego, Artists Without Borders and the Guantanamo Bay Museum of Art and History.”
The museum doesn’t exist but was created by Paul and other artists in what he called “speculative fiction.”
“It’s meant to connote that it speculates on a difference kind of presence,” Paul said.
The website for the fictional online museum does look authentic and even includes advice for travel accommodations, along with the claim that regular flights to the local airport have been arranged from several major airports around the world.
In what probably is the biggest giveaway, the location of the museum is the “former” site of the Guantanamo Bay detention camp.
The prison on the U.S. base in Cuba still is open, which Paul said is largely the point of the exhibit.
“Guantanamo Bay operates in this weird paradox,” he said. “It’s believable that it has closed. (President Barack) Obama seems to be making many gestures that he’s going to close it by the end of his term. But there’s probably some ongoing fight that we’re not really aware of.”
Dominguez, the professor who made national news last year for assigning and joining students in nude performance art pieces, said he believes one reason the detention center is so hard to close is that it has existed for so long.
The exhibit includes a prison uniform with a Primo Levi poem about being a detention camp written on it and a video of people singing karaoke to “Eye of the Tiger,” “We are the Champions” and others songs.
Dominguez said that while the songs themselves are banal, they begin to take on a sinister element as they’re played over and over, as they reportedly were to cause distress in prisoners at Guantanamo Bay.
In another exhibit, a large document that shows redacted lines is projected along with the pained sounds of a prisoner being tortured. The blacked-out document represents the useless information that might be extracted during torture, he explained.
“Much of the artwork at the exhibition, I think, allows us briefly to be in that sort of contained opaque and highly charged space, to be both guard and guarded, which I think is a very powerful space to find oneself,” Dominguez said.
Paul said he has created similar exhibits at Brown University, the University of Pennsylvania and UC Berkeley. He has another show planned in San Francisco at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts and another at the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw, Poland.
Describing the fictional press release and banner on campus as a way of creating a “minor turbulence” that explores the intersection between possible and impossible, Paul said he did not think the promotion for the exhibition created any serious confusion on campus.
Doug Ramsey, director of communications for Calit2, said the gallery’s website does have a disclaimer about the exhibits being fictional works of art.
“Prof. Dominguez does not feel the need to explain this in his own communications, and did not want the disclaimer placed anywhere within the exhibit itself,” he wrote in an email.
The exhibit is in the Calit2 gallery on the first floor of Atkinson Hall, UC San Diego, and runs through March 11. The gallery is open 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday.