Trailer for the Video Art Exhibition at Gallery Z on Atwells Avenue, launching Thursday night and running through Nov. 28.
May, 1978: Journal arts writer Channing Gray after police raid the Private Parts art exhibit.
As the Electron Movers, Rhode Island's earliest video artists, launch a retrospective of their work and that of the next generation on 13 video screens at Gallery Z tonight, it must be noted that their place in Providence history was secured by a 1978 art show largely comprising 2-D photos and prints of "Private Parts" of the body.
The original group arose at RISD in the early '70s when the school purchased video equipment. By 1974, Laurie McDonald, Robert and Dorothy Jungels, Dennis Hlynsky and Alan Powell had founded the nonprofit Electron Movers: Research in the Electronic Arts, using grant money to buy equipment. They were soon joined by Ed Tannenbaum, and later by Larry Hyle, Randy Walters, and Philip Palombo. (Alan Powell's Electron Movers 1972 - 1980 details the genesis of the group..)
In 1978, as Rhode Island passed a tough new obscenity law aimed at Mafia businesses, Electron Movers and RISD student Les Wisner, as a senior project, mounted an international art exhibit called Private Parts:
"Private parts. Any size. Any medium. Any thing. Any one. Any private. Any part."
There was a buzz ahead of the show. I recall the opening that May 12 as mostly not embarrassing -- it was a pretty tame collection, especially by today's standards. It was art, not pornography, however shocking it might have been to our parents. But there was an edgy feel, with whispers that they expected the police.
Lorraine Hopkins, the Journal's arts writer at the time, wrote about the show, and art lovers of all ages climbed five flights of stairs to the Electron Movers' North Main Street loft to see what the fuss was all about.
On its fourth day, Providence Police raided the show, taking away 45 of the artworks as well as a collage of Polaroids some gallery-goers had taken of their own parts for two bits in a private booth.
City solicitor Ronald Glantz said, "The whole thing is absurd. The law is unconstitutional. We'd have to put shorts on half of the city's statues."
Laurie McDonald's video camera documented the raid. In her 11-minute short, which mixes that footage with local TV news reports of the raid, visitors challenge police, asking Lt. Paul Yacavone how he decides what to remove. The camera zooms in on fingers unfastening a photograph by Lee Wisner of a white rabbit attempting to mount a black chicken in a coop, to the amusement of witnesses.
Lawyers John Roney and Lynnette Labinger, who joined the ACLU in defending the artists, told Underground Rhode Island, a Brown University oral history project, in 2004 that they had to educate the court about erotic art, and about collage.
I remember (Chief Judge Raymond J. Pettine) said to us at one point, or maybe it was after the case. He said, "When I saw what was on those Greek vases" - we showed him a series of Greek vases - "and they told me that was art, well I said 'well if that's art, certainly this is art.' "
Before that, in court, Roney recalls,
The statute said that you could not depict intercourse between animals or humans and so the prosecutor in an attempt to cross-examine Les said "well look at this picture isn't this a picture of a rabbit having intercourse with a chicken?" And Les said, "well let me tell you what I see". He said, "I see a rabbit that looks to me like he would like to have intercourse with a chicken, but whether a rabbit can really have intercourse with a chicken is really beyond my knowledge." And the courtroom of course broke up. And the judge started to laugh. I mean it was a circus.
Another seizure, which police thought was a depiction of male genitalia, turned out to be a photo of a cactus.
After a five-day hearing, Judge Pettine ruled that Private Parts was not in violation of the law, that there was no evidence that "these works, taken as a whole, appeal to a prurient interest or portray sex in a patently offensive way."
The law was later ruled unconstitutional, the warrant defective, and the city settled with the artists for tens of thousands of dollars. (Some photos and drawings were ruined when they were carried out through the rain by police.)
You can see Laurie McDonald's 11-minute Private Parts at Thursday's launch from 6 to 9 p.m. at Gallery Z, 259 Atwells Avenue, along with works by Powell, Hlynsky, Palombo and some of the next generations to come out of the RISD video program: Richard Goulis, Mark Goodkin, Patrick Bergeon, Joshua Pearson and more. George Leonard aka. Elvis Sinatra performs with a virtual band.