Last week, Marc Brandl, executive director of the rave culture harm reduction organization DanceSafe was feeling pretty pleased. After months of back and forth with one of America's most prestigious art institutions, some of DanceSafe's harm reduction materials were slated to appear in an exhibit at New York City's Museum of Modern Art (MOMA).
According to MOMA, the SAFE exhibit "features a carefully selected array of more than 300 contemporary design objects and prototypes from all over the world designed for a variety of reasons: to protect body and mind from dangerous or stressful circumstances; respond to emergency situations; ensure clarity of information; and provide a sense of comfort and security. The objects displayed in the exhibition address the spectrum of human fears and worries, from the most exceptional to the most mundane, from the dread of earthquakes and terrorist attacks to fear of darkness and loneliness."
This week, after seeing the exhibit, Brandl and DanceSafe were singing a different tune. Most of the DanceSafe materials were not in the exhibition. Of all the materials DanceSafe provided to the museum, the only item to make it into the show was a postcard on the dangers of hearing loss. To add insult to injury, the exhibit also distorted DanceSafe's drug education and harm reduction mission statement, making the group appear as if it were devoted to sonic harm reduction, not reducing the harms of drug use under prohibition.
"We had been in contact with them since March, when the approached us asking if they could use our cards for an exhibit, and we signed an agreement to that effect," Brandl told DRCNet. "I even made a last minute phone call last week, and they assured us everything was all set. We didn't have any indication that our materials had been cut; all they said was that everything was ready to go," he said.
"But when we got to the opening, all they had on display was our card about hearing protection and they described us as an organization that works at parties to help people with their hearing and to get home safely -- there was no mention at all of drugs," Brandl said. "Now, hearing safety and getting people home safely is in our mission statement, but 95% of our mission is drug-related harm reduction, as in drug education and pill testing at concerts."
At the MOMA exhibit, DanceSafe was described as "a not-for-profit organization targeting the rave and nightclub community encouraging protecting hearing loss and getting home safely."
That's not quite how DanceSafe sees itself. According to the group's mission statement, available on its web site, "DanceSafe is a nonprofit, harm reduction organization promoting health and safety within the rave and nightclub community... We train our volunteers to be health educators and drug abuse prevention counselors within their own communities, utilizing the principles and methods of harm reduction and popular education. Our volunteers staff harm reduction booths at raves, nightclubs and other dance events where they provide information on drugs, safer sex, and other health and safety issues concerning the electronic dance community (like driving home safely and protecting one's hearing). We also provide adulterant screening or pill testing services for ecstasy users... Our information and services are directed primarily towards non-addicted, recreational drug users. Non-addicted drug users are an under-served population within the harm reduction movement, despite the fact that they comprise the vast majority of drug users in our society. While many organizations exist that provide services to drug-dependent individuals, few groups address the needs of the majority of non-addicted, recreational users. We hope to fill this gap..."
Brandl and other DanceSafe members suspect that MOMA pulled the drug information cards and adulterant testing kit because the museum did not want to step into the controversial territory of making drug use safer, but that suspicion remains unconfirmed.
"The first thing that popped into my mind when I saw the exhibit was the drug war strikes again," said Brandl. "I am sorry to see drug war politics creep into a modern art museum that is cutting edge and supposedly above such things."
Paola Antonelli, MOMA curator of architecture and design and the person in charge of the exhibit, didn't provide any confirmation of Brandl's thesis in her relatively non-responsive response to a DRCNet query about the matter. "DanceSafe was selected for SAFE is because we are in awe of their approach to safety by means of harm reduction," she said in an e-mail. "We feel that the strategy and the way it is realized with design are admirable and valuable. We are proud to have them in the exhibition."
As for the missing drug-related materials, all Antonelli would say was, "Very often, when the installation happens, the original checklist gets revised and works might be dropped. Other works in the exhibition were similarly sacrificed. I am sorry that they have felt misrepresented. Our intention was quite the opposite, giving wide visibility to a company that is doing a lot of good."
Antonelli has not responded to a second DRCNet query requesting clarification about whether concern about promoting safer drug use was a factor in the decision to not use the drug information cards or testing kit.
DanceSafe is not just complaining; the group's New York City chapter met Wednesday night to plot strategy. "We have not made a final decision about what to do about this, but it's possible we may distribute some of our information cards that were not included outside of the MOMA or to people going in," said Allison McKim, who along with Sarah Hill is co-director of DanceSafe NYC. "I was talking to national director Marc Brandl about some strategies to get some media attention. I suspect in the next few days we will probably distribute in or near the MOMA itself," she told DRCNet. "We will also encourage our members and friends to complain to MOMA about this."
For McKim, too, MOMA's decisions on the DanceSafe materials were mystifying. "I'm very surprised in part because when they are doing an exhibit about design approaches to dealing with risk, it seems like it would be very appropriate for tackling issues like drug use," she observed.
For whatever reasons, MOMA chose differently.