School of Visual Arts MFA student Marc Bradley Johnson was all set to debut his final piece, titled Take This Sperm and Be Free of Me, before health concerns thwarted everything he'd worked so hard for. First, Johnson accessed his materials. Then he set up a refrigerator at SVA's Visual Arts Gallery in Chelsea, loaded it with 68 vials of his own semen, and put up a Craigslist ad alerting the public that anyone could walk in and take a part of him home. It was about "creation, parenting, desire, masculinity, fantasy, and reality," he said. But his liberal Manhattan art school just saw dangerous waste.
"I've been working on this for months," Johnson told Daily Intelligencer, "Somewhat ironically — it's just masturbating and calling it artwork." He said his professors were well aware and that he'd shown the work multiple times in class critiques. "This isn't unprecedented," he said. "There is plenty of bio-hazardous work in the art world."
When the issue of safety was first raised by SVA's assistant director of student galleries, Richard Brooks, Johnson even agreed to microwave the vials. "You can only microwave for eight seconds before it bubbles over the container," Johnson said. "The semen is dead. The swimmers are not swimming. While I try to do absurd things, I'm not interested in doing reckless things."
The piece debuted without incident at the group show "Split Ends" last Friday, but the next morning Johnson received an e-mail from John DeLuca, the school's director of environmental health and safety. "A considerable issue has come up surrounding your piece," DeLuca wrote, noting that "the distribution of human tissue, or in this case your sperm cells, whether dead or alive is not permitted by the law outside of a medically directed facility" and "in checking with a biomedical scientist I was informed that there is no way to ensure the sperm samples would be 100 percent free of pathogens." He added, "In order to protect the public and comply with all appropriate regulations we will need to secure the refrigerator until I can arrange to have the sperm samples disposed of as hazardous biowaste."
The vials were sealed, labeled, and placed in Brooks's office until a waste-management firm could arrange a pickup. Johnson, who was raised Mormon and attended undergrad at BYU ("where figure drawing classes models wore bikinis or speedos") immediately claimed censorship. "I am happy that he had to sit with 68 vials of my cum in his presence," he said.
After days of wrangling with Johnson, who threatened to go to the media, the university called off the professional disposal. "Although it is regrettable that the artwork had to be modified after going on display, and better communication was called for in planning the exhibition, it is incumbent on any responsible exhibition venue to consider the law and public safety," said SVA in a statement, citing New York Public Health Code 10 NYCRR 52-8, "laws governing the collection, storage and distribution of human reproductive tissue." Michael Grant, the school's director of communication, said the removal was cancelled after Johnson "agreed that the vials and refrigerator would be sealed and the vials would not be available for visitors to take away."
But the artist still isn't happy: "Mostly I'm disheartened, disappointed, and distraught that SVA has decided that avoiding a highly unlikely potential lawsuit is more important than the merit of my ideas — ideas that have already been condoned and fostered by SVA," he wrote the school.
"I've basically missed half of my thesis show," said an audibly agitated Johnson, who was given back the sealed box of his "work." The big reception at the gallery is tonight. The piece, in its altered form, now comes with a memo attached:
This refrigerator contained 68 vials of fresh semen harvested by the artist. The public was free to take the vials. The School of Visual Arts quarantined and sealed the vials in the box now in the refrigerator, labeled ‘bio hazardous waste.’
SVA sees the creative potential of the artist as a health hazard and deemed too unsafe to be taken by the public.