On Tuesday afternoon, artist Xxavier Edward Carter was about five minutes into his performance “Sisyphus & The Myth of The New World,” part of the Satellite Art Show in Miami, when a beach patrol drove by and asked him to put his shorts on. Carter immediately complied and carried on with the piece, which involves batting rocks into the ocean to embody “an individual in the throes of a ceaseless effort.”
Minutes later, however, five Miami Beach police officers approached Carter and accused him of indecent exposure, according to the artist, who initially conceived of the work as a nude performance. As Carter explained the concept of the piece along with his gallerist, artist Krista Chalkley, additional law enforcement arrived on the scene; a video of the incident shows eight police and one public safety officer surrounding them at one point.
The artist says he was shocked by the number of police present and the escalation of the response, including repeated threats of criminal charges and jail time.
“At the point they arrived I was already clothed, as much as anyone on the beach was,” Carter said in an interview with Hyperallergic. “It was really intense. The first question was, ‘What are you doing here? What could happen if you hit someone with a rock?’ They said if anyone with a kid complained about it, they could hold me for endangering a child, for sexual misconduct, and I’d have a ten year sentence.”
An incident summary in a police report reviewed by Hyperallergic says a complaint of public nudity was received and mentions that the fair had not secured a performance permit, but does not list any of the alleged charges invoked by the officers. It concludes that “all parties complied and left the scene without further incident.” The Miami Beach Police Department (MBPD) has not replied to Hyperallergic’s request for comment.
Quinn Dukes, Satellite’s performance curator, says she was pulled aside and threatened with a five year sentence as well as a permitting fine of at least $1,000 for the fair.
“[Carter] was swarmed, there were at least 12 officers, it was completely excessive. I forgot that I was told to stay in one area and one of the officers reached for her taser when I started stepping forward,” Dukes told Hyperallergic. “The intensity of all the officers was pretty high, even though we were incredibly compliant, we listened, we explained. But the volume of police that they sent was very surprising to me.”
Two officers questioned the value of the performance, Dukes said, and “asked [Carter] aggressively multiple times how this could be art.”
“As a curator, I focus on performance and performance video projects, and I do it because there’s this conception of performance art as a spectacle and not holding value as a work of art,” she added. “It’s instances like this that reveal why the work we’re doing is so necessary.”
Carter had performed “Sisyphus & The Myth of The New World” twice before, on beaches in Sayulita, Mexico and San Francisco. He told Hyperallergic he has previously been approached by officers, but never forced to suspend the performance or have his props temporarily confiscated, as he did this week, much less confronted with potential criminal charges of increasing severity. When three helicopters flew overhead, Carter said, one of the officers told him they were “there for [him].”
“It was taken to such an extreme and out of my control so fast, it was a reminder that this is how it is,” he said. “From the beginning of them showing up at the beach, there was no way that I could de-escalate the situation.”
The experience was especially disturbing, the artist says, given the specific context of the work, which engages with power dynamics affecting Black and Brown individuals. The performance reimagines the myth of Sisyphus to reflect on the violent legacy of colonialism, combining sports references and the beach setting to evoke “the labor of people of color being exploited.”
On Carter’s website, the entire installation is for sale including props, video footage, and a copy of the MBPD police report. (The artist says he has featured official documents in his work before: for instance, as a requirement that he donate a work to Southern Methodist University after completing his MFA, he gave the school a sealed envelope filled with emails threatening to expel him for a performance that involved opening small cut scars throughout his body.)
During the confrontation on Tuesday, Dukes said, one officer suggested that the performance had been staged with the goal of provoking law enforcement and capturing it on camera — an accusation that appears to make light of recent instances in which video footage has exposed police misconduct, particularly against Black people.
“[He] was insinuating that we instigated this event, and anticipated the police coming to film it. He asked us, ‘Did you set this up for us to come?'” Dukes told Hyperallergic. “I told him, the people that are here filming are filming the performance. We did not anticipate you.” She was instructed to wait for a phone call regarding a potential fine for code violations.
“It’s disappointing that the response was so aggressive,” she continued. “Xxavier is a Black man and I unfortunately slightly anticipated that we may have some challenges, but not this.”