Performance Artist Censored and Banned on Ustream Because of Doll Nudity

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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