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Public Enema No. 2 

Bondage, fellatio, feces-swapping, and intimate cleansing at the S.F. Art Institute

Wednesday, Feb 23 2000
Jonathan Yegge, a 24-year-old scholar at the San Francisco Art Institute, is angry, anxious, resentful.

"If I have to not have sex on campus anymore, they'd better put that in the student handbook, and then we can decide whether that's an appropriate rule or not," says Yegge. "I mean, I'm on probation, and I can't have sex on campus, and anyone else can."

Yegge's plight, his mood, and his outlook are a small -- no, minuscule -- portion of the aftermath of a performance art piece he crafted three weeks ago for an art class in the school's New Genres department, led by sometimes-controversial professor Tony Labat.

Yegge asked for a volunteer from the class, got one, then took the young man aside into an empty room. Yegge handed the soon-to-be subject of his artwork a makeshift contract stating that the volunteer was agreeing to participate in a performance piece containing acts "including and up to a sexual or violent nature." The volunteer signed the contract.

Yegge led the volunteer out into a campus public area, in front of Labat's class and anyone else who happened by, and then ... well, maybe it's best to let Yegge explain.

"He was tied up. He had a blindfold and a gag, but he could see and talk through it. He had freedom of movement of his pelvis," Yegge says, by way of defending his piece. "I engaged in oral sex with him and he engaged in oral sex with me. I had given him an enema, and I had taken a shit and stuffed it in his ass. That goes on, he shits all over me, I shit in him. There was a security guard present. There was an instructor from the school present. It was videoed, and the piece was over."

But the piece wasn't over, really. In the world of performance art, a work may leave no physical artifact on the earth, so the audience is its canvas. During the days and weeks after Yegge's performance ended, his work has left brush strokes all over the small S.F. art world.

Not long after the piece was finished, the volunteer developed misgivings about what had happened to him.

"He was pissed off, as he should be," says Ryan Castaneda, a friend of the volunteer (whose name SF Weekly is not printing for obvious reasons). "He felt he was being violated. He just didn't think this was cool."

The volunteer complained. The school administration called Yegge in, put him on academic probation, and instituted the Yegge-specific no public sex on campus rule.

Administration officials held lengthy meetings with Yegge's instructor, Labat. Discussions focused on the dangerous nature of exchanging bodily fluids for art's sake. Implicit was the litigiously dangerous nature of allowing this to go on in a supervised classroom.

The volunteer's mother was rumored to be a judge, and it was feared the student might sue. The volunteer, contacted through friends, did not want to comment for this story. But students at the Art Institute, the Academy of Art College, and in the rest of the tightknit San Francisco artistic community were riveted by the incident. One student enrolled in Labat's class was said to be going so far as to plan her own performance piece protesting Yegge's piece.

"She was pretty upset by it," said a friend of Labat's student who witnessed the piece.

The Art Institute, meanwhile, seemed to scurry into a damage-control posture.

"None of us know anything about it," said a flush-faced employee at the school's cafe in response to a reporter's question.

And after hours of closed-door meetings with the Institute's administration, even Labat attempted to distance himself from the piece.

"It was plain bad art," says Labat. "This was irresponsible in any context. It made me wonder why anyone would want to do a story about it. Why would anyone be interested in anything as basic as that? Nobody should be interested in that." But Yegge says Labat did nothing to stop the piece while it was taking place. Yegge also says he ran the general premise of the piece by Labat before performing it. Labat declined to discuss the performance in detail.

From the most obvious perspective, Yegge's piece may indeed have been bad art. Yegge himself says the piece was hastily conceived.

"The whole piece was an edifiatory piece for the other performance artists. The teacher asked me to produce such a piece for him," Yegge says, a transfer student on scholarship. "This was something that's schlocky, quick, and just shows people what they are walking into before the add-drop period, before they can get out of there, or decide to stay. The easiest thing I could think of was this."

And Yegge's intellectual defense of his piece might -- might -- come across as a bit dilute.

"It's about Heidegger, Derrida -- all this stuff," he says. "It's about pushing the notion of gay sex, pushing the notion of consent, pushing the notion of what's legal. We are living in the era of AIDS. This is about his responsibility, my responsibility.

"During your tenure in this school you're required to read The Tears of Eros by Georges Bataille, where he discusses pain and the history of erotic art.

"You jump across time and you jump across eras. You might present this performance art, then the students might read Bataille and it might make sense. Or they might see this performance and then see Bataille."

Perhaps, or perhaps not.

But if one of performance art's central objectives is to get people thinking, the piece was a success.

The Art Institute administration has been forced to contemplate the risks inherent in its 20-year-role as a vortex of cutting-edge performance art. Students at the Institute, the Academy of Art College, and elsewhere are having conversations about the difference between creating out-there art and merely being an asshole. Labat has been confronted by an often-overlooked aspect of any professor's job -- looking after kids. And Yegge himself is now pondering a question artists of all types face: Is intellectual expression an end worth any means?

About The Author

Matt Smith


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