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Performance Artist Censored and Banned on Ustream Because of Doll Nudity

by Hrag Vartanian on December 12, 2011

On Sunday, performance artist Amber Hawk Swanson began her newest performance that was to feature the transformation of a life-sized sex doll of her likeness into a small replica of a bull orca. The performance may not sound out of the ordinary for veterans of the art world, but the artist, who was using the free Ustream livestreaming service, encountered an unexpected obstacle to her art. Two hours into her performance, the online broadcast stopped and viewers where provided with a message that clearly states that the broadcaster was “banned due to violating terms of service.”

Swanson was shocked by the message, and she was left scratching her head as to the more specific reason why this had happened. “I thoroughly read Ustream’s terms upon signing up for the service and did not understand my work to be in violation,” she says.

“After thoroughly cleaning my doll’s body with 99% rubbing alcohol — just as I began to slice into her silicone skin — my viewers informed me that their connections were interrupted,” she told me via email.

A view of Swanson's doll as broadcast on Ustream before her stream was banned. (screenshot from Vimeo, where she has posted the videos)

Brooklyn-based artist and academic administrator Lacie Garnes was watching Swanson’s performance live at home on her laptop when the livestream stopped Sunday evening. “I started watching the performance right as Amber began slicing the doll,” she says. “The life-size doll was suspended unclothed from a rack. Amber began cutting down the left side of the doll’s neck and down the left arm. She repeated this cut a few times as the ‘flesh’ material separated from the doll’s frame. She was able to separate the ‘flesh’ to about the elbow of the doll when the channel suddenly stopped. A warning message appeared that the content violated terms of service.”

Garnes can’t think of anything that should’ve caught a censor’s attention, unless, as she explain, “Ustream has a written policy about not using naked dolls in their user agreement.” In fact, Ustream says they do.

Swanson immediately reached out to Ustream in order to understand what had happened and she received an email explanation the following day from a support staff person, who explained:

Unfortunately, it does not matter that the doll is not a real nude person. We do not allow nudity of any kind to be broadcast on our site. This includes artistic works, medical streams, sex toys and silicone dolls. The fact that this doll is anatomically correct places it in the category of nudity and is a violation of our terms of service. Our site has an age limit of 13, so we cannot be as objective as one might hope. No warnings are given because it is expected that users understand these terms before broadcasting.

Ustream has not responded to Hyperallergic’s request for clarification.

The censorship is the latest in a continuing battle between the art community and online services that are policing behavior so that it adheres to their community guidelines. The fact that Swanson’s doll didn’t even have a human face at the time doesn’t seem to matter to the service.

Many people consider the internet a public space, even if it has been carved up by corporate entities, so an episode like Swanson’s should concern all of us who are confused by the line between public and private particularly on a lifecasting service that is working to blur that boundary.

Known as Amber Doll, the figure in Swanson’s performance was commissioned by the artist five years ago and it has since accompanied her to wedding receptionsroller-skating rinkstailgating partiestheme parks and adult industry conventions. Those trips and excursions have resulted in severe damage to the silicone flesh of the doll. The new performance involved her transforming the doll’s skin, PVC skeleto and steel-infused joints into a small replica of the bull orca, Tilikum, who lives in captivity at SeaWorld Orlando and has been involved in the deaths of three people.

Swanson is now forced to try other avenues to complete her project as the online comments from her performances are a crucial part of the work. “It is critical to the work as the original Amber Doll project included a large number of online responses about the artwork but also my body weight and appearance,” she says.

The artist has signed up for Livestream and on Monday she began performing there. She hopes the performance lives longer there. If Livestream doesn’t work, she says, she will keep trying other platforms until she finds the right one.

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  • http://www.postlinearity.com gregorylent

    sick … and i am referring to the ustream policy for dolls … but it’s probably the lawyers and not the management

  • http://ereid.net Elizabeth Reid

    Amber and Amber Doll wouldn’t be so poignant if the doll wasn’t eerily lifelike; that’s sort of the point, right? To get chills when tailgating bros start humping the doll’s face and lifting up her skirt. 

    So how the hell can anyone be upset that Ustream takes down a replica of a naked person? We can’t upload naked animated bodies, or pornography. That’s always been Ustream’s policy.

    The whole situation reads like this: a guest invites you over to into house and says “I have a 13-year-old kid, please no nudity” and you show up with a life-sized replica of an anatomically-correct sex doll and say “Oh, it’s not nudity, it’s just a doll.” Please.

    There is a very real fight against censorship, and when artists become so blindly outraged over things like this (which is not censorship), we end up hurting all the other situations where we really ARE being censored, for example, the recent incident at the National Portrait Gallery.

    • http://hragv.com Hrag Vartanian

      I think Ustream actually encourages blurring the boundaries of life and fiction as their whole raison d’etre but then pulls back when someone is trying to explore something new. In this case, I think it’s strange that the figure doesn’t really look so real without a face, which makes it peculiar. Also, there is nothing here that would be pulled off YouTube or television for that matter, so why are they policing this? Can a doll really be nude? Would you feel differently if it was a painting of a nude doll? Just questions I’m wondering.

  • http://ereid.net Elizabeth Reid

    Good questions. I think in the case of Swanson’s work, the doll being nude and therefore capable of being exposed is a very important piece of her project. I doubt I would have the same reaction watching people fondle the doll’s breasts at a wedding reception if I didn’t attribute a very human quality of nakedness.

    I think the Ustream policing is unfortunate but not unwarranted. It’s easier for them to institute a blanket “no nudity” policy instead of analyzing each instance on a case-by-case basis. I keep thinking about this godawful video I got linked to awhile ago called “Cashback” (http://www.dailymotion.com/video/xp4ea_cashback_shortfilms), which is one of the most offensive things I’ve ever watched and involves a clerk stopping time and undressing unsuspecting women. But I imagine the creators thought it was a wonderful piece of art about the beauty of the female form, and so I wonder: do we need to institute art police to make nudity on case-by-case basis viable? People that can identify the difference between work that deconstructs and thoughtfully questions nudity versus the misogynistic work that blatantly exploits nudity (particularly female)? Is it Ustreams’ job to make those judgment calls? Does it matter if a figure is a doll or not if the author is exploiting it in an offensive manner? If Swanson had been doing sexual things to the doll instead of dissecting it, even if it was a critique, do you think it would it be OK for Ustream to pull it then?

    Hard questions, I think.

    • http://hragv.com Hrag Vartanian

      I understand it’s hard for the service to deal with everything on a case by case basis but I would be curious why they doesn’t be interested in at least talking the creator and figuring out what’s going on. I think simulating sex would be more questionable but then again what would be the line? Humping? Though I think we’d all agree penetration would be highly questionable. Thanks for this discussion, Elizabeth.

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