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After Alleged Attack, Making Sense of a Chelsea Exhibition’s Murky Backing

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A photograph from the ‘Material Evidence’ exhibition partially cleaned up after being defaced. A leftist Ukrainian blog has identified the image as anti–Russian, raising questions about the nature of the original attack and the exhibition in which it took place. (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

On October 3rd, an assailant and two accomplices allegedly entered the cavernous gallery at 540 West 21st Street in Manhattan’s Chelsea district. What happened next, according to reports published here and in the New York Times, was an assault of the curator, Benjamin Hiller, with pepper spray, and the apparent partial defacing of the exhibition on view. The works in question depicted the Euromaidan protests in the Ukraine, to which half of the 12,000-square-foot space was given over. The other half documented the Syrian crisis.

The exhibition, which paired photojournalistic photographs with physical artifacts representing the varied detritus of war (e.g. a bombed out car, a rough-hewn chair), was called Material Evidence. As information began to surface about its pro-Russian content, starting with its wall text and website, Hyperallergic queried Hiller repeatedly about the exhibition’s opaque context. A post on Euromaidan Press, a leftist, pro-European integration website supportive of the Euromaidan movement, tied reported details surrounding the exhibition to a right-wing paper called Zhurnalistskaya Pravda and a network of pro-Russian content farms. Though elements of that account were, as Andy Cush writes in his thorough writeup of the controversy on Gawker, “speculatively” derived, the propagandistic tone of the exhibition’s online literature was undeniable — both in its general drawing of equivalency to the collapse of the Syrian state and its particular claims about the Ukrainian situation. From the Material Evidence website (sic throughout):

The evens of the last months in Ukraine have almost led to the dissolution of Ukraine as a sovereign country. … Bloody collisions on the «Maidan Independence Square» in Kiev resulted in an upsurge of nationalists-banderovtsy groups on the ground who where the main force behind the overthrow of the last president.

In a statement posted to Scribd two days ago, Hiller acknowledged the issues with these texts, writing that he “was brought on board to correct the ‘slogans’ used, change the captions and professionalize the whole project.” But by his own account, Hiller was brought on when the exhibition traveled to Berlin, where it ran from May to July of this year, well ahead of the exhibition’s New York run from September 21 to October 11.

The exhibition’s New York run was also a major financial undertaking, especially for a non-commercial project: according to online listings for the ArtBeam space, which is rentable for various events (the designer Prabal Gurung held his Fall/Winter 2014–15 show there), a monthlong lease goes for over $400,000. The exhibition ran for three weeks in New York, and although the cost of advertising the show on buses and subways is steep, it does not seem like these expenses would amount to the “millions” claimed by the Euromaidan website. Hiller told Hyperallergic in a statement that the advertising budget was $55,000 ($15,000 on bus ads and $40,000 on subway placements), but the source of the exhibition’s funding remains murky: no link to the claimed crowdfunding campaign was furnished upon our request, and no donors identified. Hiller’s assistant, whom he alluded to in our conversation, told Gawker’s Andy Cush that a “silent guy” had approached her and Hiller at the exhibition’s Berlin iteration to voice his appreciation, returning later with “a bag of cash.” Reached today by telephone, Joseph I. Cady, the broker responsible for ArtBeam, hastily excused himself when the subject of Material Evidence came up, citing a call on the other line. Repeated calls back were not returned.

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An advertisement for the ‘Material Evidence’ exhibition in the 14th Street subway station (photo by Hrag Vartanian/Hyperallergic)

At the gallery several hours after the alleged October 3 incident, Hyperallergic interviewed two contracted security guards, one of whom narrated the attack and showed me images on his phone. (At least four guards were on-site, but beyond that no exhibition personnel were present.) As was noted in the original story, when asked if they could be identified by their names or that of the major security firm on their uniforms, the guards declined, saying that they were not authorized to speak to the press. These details of the attack were independently corroborated in a phone interview with Hiller, the curator and alleged victim of the pepper spray assault. It’s worth noting that in their account of the Hyperallergic report, Euromaidan Press questioned the role played by the pamphlets (printed on a single sheet of paper) and bearing what appeared to be neo-Nazi iconography, referring to them as “unrelated printed pictures reported as neo-Nazi propaganda.”

Once posted online, the story attracted a deluge of commenters, many of them appearing to bear similarities to an internet commenting brigade that the Guardian has associated with the Kremlin’s propaganda efforts. In an exchange shortly after the article went live, Hiller mentioned the flurry of comments and asserted to Hyperallergic that the exhibition’s content was journalistically balanced:

Sorry that you have now to deal with all this rant comments under the article. I would close the comment section imho [in my humble opinion], as it will only feed the trolls on all sides (aka Pro Russian and Pro Ukraine). As I stated numerous times we even have an 18+ section at the Ukraine part which shows how the Pro Maidan activists got killed by the police, how Pro Maidan people got beaten up by the police and show another video which was done by the Pro Maidan movement and we will add for the Chicago exhibition new photos from the Pro Maidan point of view. So these radical people (again, on all sides) do not get the point we want to make and due to their ideological thinking and black and white thinking they will probably never get it …

We further queried Hiller about an account of the exhibition in the Kremlin-backed Russia Today (RT) linking the exhibition to backing from the publication Zhurnalistskaya Pravda and its editor Vladislav Shurigin, who has also been associated with a publication called Zavtra described by the US Department of State-backed Radio Free Europe as Russian “ultranationalist.” Hiller stated that the connection to state funding asserted both by RT and by Euromaidan Press was “wrong.” “We were never sponsored by the Russian state-government (we even had problems to show the exhibition in Moscow in the first place by the way … ) and we will never take any state money, regardless from which side,” Hiller wrote. He also claimed that the name of the domain registrar highlighted by Euromaidan Press as belonging to a Kremlin-aligned ballerina was not authentic, and that the website, arranged for by his assistant Lana Andreeva, “was constructed by a freelance IT programmer she knew from her times when she worked in the advertisement business.” Elements of the latter claim seem consistent with the registrar information for the exhibition’s other website, photomaterialevidence.com, which appears to have ties to a Spanish web consultancy (Estatiko Web S.L.) and a Russian-Spanish Canary Islands lifestyle magazine and VIP concierge service called Enjoy Canarias Magazine.

Spot news reporting requires making calculated judgments about whether or not an incident verifiably took place, and in this case the attack seemed to meet the burden of initial verification: corroboration from witnesses (the guards), physical inspection of damage, and the account of the victim. The aftermath of the scene itself seemed consistent with a bona fide attack: the damage, though clearly present, was largely cleaned up, a wall was repainted, and the propaganda flyers removed. If the attack was staged, as some, like this commenter on the Times site, have claimed, it does not seem that it was staged with the intent of generating maximum spectacle-value. And while Hiller told Hyperallergic (and the New York Times) that he called the police, he also told Hyperallergic that a police report would be filed the next morning, October 4. This does not appear to have been the case, and Hiller, who says he returned to Germany by October 7 (four days before the scheduled close of the exhibition), has not responded to a follow-up query about the status of the police report.

This situation of geopolitical antagonism messily spilling over to the world of culture is surprising but not unexpected, least of all in the ongoing hostilities between Putin’s Russia and the Ukraine.

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