Freedom of expression vs workplace harassment: that's the issue currently being debated between Capilano University and George Rammell, and it has the public engaged in a fierce debate about the arts in our community.
At the heart of the debate is a sculpture by Rammell, called Blathering on in Krisendom, which depicts University President Kris Bulcroft as a ventriloquist dummy wearing a skull-and-crossbones gown, holding a poodle, and wrapped in an American flag. Rammell sees the sculpture as a political statement. "I see the Administration’s illegal seizure as part of their ongoing assumption that they can ignore the basic rights of employees and ignore their responsibilities to consult," he said in a news release. "The BC Supreme Court ruled in favor of our faculty’s position that the university violated the University Act in making unilateral cuts to Programs. These art programs carry a legacy across the country and will be impossible to replace.”
But according to Jane Shackell, chair of the university’s Board of Governors, the sculpture had been used “in a manner amounting to workplace harassment of an individual employee, intended to belittle and humiliate the president.” This isn't the first time the University has complained about the sculpture, which was created with the financial support of Rammell's Faculty Association. Rammell said that last May President Bulcroft held a public forum, addressing the concerns on which the statue was based, where she denounced the effigy as sexist, misogynist bullying.
“Our university is committed to the open and vigorous discourse that is essential in an academic community, the inherent value of artistic expression, and the rights to free speech and protest that all Canadians enjoy. No one wants Capilano to be a place where art is arbitrarily removed or censored,” a statement from Shackell read. But “we must also be mindful of the university’s obligations to cultivate and protect a respectful workplace in which personal harassment and bullying are prohibited.”
Making the issue more complex is the University's decision to seize the sculpture rather than ask for its removal, compounded by a lack of information. Rammell arrived at the University on May 7 to find the work missing from the sculpture garden, and assumed it had been stolen - he went so far as to contact campus security about the theft. When he did, he was shocked to be told that the Administration had ordered its removal. “I called the RCMP to report the theft. The officer arrived and he said he had been talking to Administration: they had asked him if they would be liable if they destroyed the sculpture," Rammell said.
Capilano has since backed down on their threat to destroy the work of art, but are still holding it hostage to Rammell's good behaviour - they will return the sculpture, they said, on the caveat that Rammell promise not to display it on the campus again - an offer that he says still amounts to censorship.