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Clinton Fein: News and Articles

Coverage, Reviews, Articles

Select articles, news coverage and books from a plethora of publications covering Clinton Fein's career as a technologist, activist, artist and speaker.

As an activist, with a Supreme Court victory over the Attorney General of the United States, Fein garnered international attention, including The New York Times, CNN and The Wall Street Journal.

Fein’s thought-provoking and controversial work as an artist caught the attention of prestigious educational institutions, including Harvard University, which recognized its socio-political relevance and ability to provoke crucial conversations about human rights, morality, and the boundaries of artistic expression.

Torture Exhibition Coverage

A very different reckoning of photography’s role in delivering the truth is offered by Clinton Fein, who repurposed photographic appropriation to make a series of works based on the pictures of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib that came to public attention in April 2004. A South African-born, San Francisco-based First Amendment activist, Fein hired models to reenact the notorious compositions (detainees piled in a human pyramid, forced to simulate fellatio, handcuffed to beds and bars in extreme positions), illuminated the tableaux vivants with penumbral and strangely intimate lighting, and displayed the enlarged pictures as high-quality chromogenic prints mounted on panel. (The originals and the reenactments can be com- pared at

Fein’s counterfeits are not intended to reprise tired debates about originality and authorship. Unlike Sherrie Levine, who rephotographed Walker Evans’s Depression-era images, or Thomas Ruff, whose enlargements of Internet images preserve and accentuate the flaws of screen grabs, Fein seized upon despicable amateur images, which unexpectedly had acquired public notoriety and probative value, and re-presented them in enhanced, painterly terms. His invocation of old- master painting, far from summoning up Christian martyrdom as do the Abu Ghraib canvases of Fernando Botero, delivers us to the dark threshold of inhumanity conjured by Goya.

A free speech watchdog, Fein also observed that when the soldiers’ snapshots were picked up on the Web and disseminated by establishment news sources, online and in print, the genitals of the nude prisoners were blurred (as genitals are when the news media reproduce garden-variety pornographic images). That concession to good taste, Fein contends, served to downplay the sexual sadism and degradation inherent in the forms of abuse devised for the occasion, qualities he sought to restore to the situations when he pictured them. He further notes that the original Abu Ghraib pictures were themselves staged, with body pyramids topped off and thumbs-up signs flashed with an awareness the camera’s presence and appetite. Curious about the moral proximity between witnessing and instigating, Fein set out to see if he might understand (he says that he did) something of the “mindset” of the abuser by assuming the role of photographer in the reenactment. In the end, and once again in contrast with Botero’s canvases, Fein’s photographs are about the torturers – the photographers among us – and not the victims.

It was 1968. On February 2 the New York Times printed a photograph by Eddie Adams on its front page, four columns wide. The image showed General Loan, a South Vietnamese general, executing a Vietcong suspect in civilian clothes. It was strikingly beautiful, the background in soft focus, the foreground displaying Loan’s flexed forearm and his devil-horn tufts of hair. Americans were also struck by its simplicity: this was war boiled down to two men and an execution, no complex maneuvers or military jargon. Harry McPherson, a speech-writer for President Johnson, saw the image and observed: “You got a sense of the awfulness, the endlessness, of the war and, though it sounds naive, the unethical quality of a war in which a prisoner is shot at point-blank range. I put aside the confidential cables. I was more persuaded by the tube and by the newspapers. I was fed up with the optimism that seemed to flow without stopping from Saigon.” This photograph, a frozen moment, seemed to stop the endless flow. And its impact was remarkable: after the image was reprinted across the world, public opinion polls showed the greatest single shift ever recorded by Gallup. Between February and March, doves jumped from 25 to 40 per cent, and hawks dwindled from 60 to 40 per cent.

Fast-forward four years, to 1972. Nick Ut’s image of Kim Phuc fleeing her village after an accidental napalm bombing appeared in every American newspaper on June 9, a day after Ut shot the image. Like Adams’ image, Ut’s was beautiful, with a full contrast of blacks and whites and a soft focus smoky backdrop. It had elements of Greek tragedy: the face of the young boy on the left of the image is shaped like the mask of Greek tragic drama. And it resonated with familiar Christian iconography as well, for Phuc is stretched out as though crucified.

The image didn’t stop American pilots dropping napalm on Iraqi troops during the 2003 advance on Baghdad. But it did shift public opinion on the Vietnam War.

Fast-forward again, to 2004. In April, 60 Minutes II released digital photographs taken by U.S. prison guards at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. The images were printed on April 30 by the New Yorker. But this time the images quickly faded from the national scene. Unlike the Vietnam images, they were easily swept aside. This difference in impact wasn’t due to a difference in intent: Eddie Adams regretted destroying Loan’s reputation with his 1968 photograph, explaining in an interview that the image was never meant to do what it did. Adams’ image just took on a life of its own within the antiwar movement, beyond the photographer’s intention. The Abu Ghraib images, however, failed to find that new life and be taken up as protest material. Squinting at the images in newspapers and online, it was hard not to wonder if this low impact was partly due to their low quality; they were perhaps too grainy, too badly lit, too drained of color, too flattened, too muted. A far cry from the great images of the Vietnam war, these images were simply forgettable.

One last fast-forward, this time to 2007. In January Clinton Fein offered his own versions of the Abu Ghraib images: large-scale, hyper-detailed, dramatically-lit and uncensored recreations of the torture scenes that rival the visual explosions of the Vietnam War. There are, of course, numerous ways to respond to Fein’s exhibition. The viewer could feel like it revictimizes the prisoners within a pornography of violence, or that it forces a painful identification with the guards (those white faces staring back like a mirror-image for visitors), or that it offers a mourning ritual and a rummaging through the dark drawers of history’s closet-a history that America forgot so quickly in 2004. Perhaps the exhibition does all these things. But it is also an act of patriotic dissent. After all, as Fein once said to me: “dissent is the most powerful tool America has, and ensuring its protection is the most patriotic thing an American can do.” And in re-photographing the Abu Ghraib images, Fein entered a tradition of dissent that extends way beyond the Vietnam images-a tradition that, from Tom Paine to Tupac, has asked America to be America.

Like Fein and the Vietnam photographers, artists within the protest tradition have combined aesthetics and ideologies. Offering a poetics of engagement, the protest tradition has made form central to political protest. “For me this is better propaganda than it would be if it were not aesthetically enjoyable,” said Glenway Wescott of Walker Evans’ photographs in 1938, going on to further explain the importance of form to protest-“It is because I enjoy looking that I go on looking until the pity and the shame are impressed upon me, unforgettably.” Looking at Fein’s photographs, this is exactly what comes to mind: I enjoy looking and so I go on looking until the pity and the shame are impressed upon me, unforgettably.

Fein is even more deeply rooted with in the protest tradition through his use of appropriation. Audre Lorde once declared that “the master’s tools can never dismantle the master’s house.” But there is a long tradition of doing exactly that: for centuries, American artists have appropriated images, ideas, and language for their protest. The abolitionists used technical diagrams of slave ships to protest slavery. James Allen recontextualized photographs that were originally taken to celebrate lynchings for his exhibition Without Sanctuary (2000). Anti-lynching protest writers stole the rhetoric and imagery of Christianity from lynch mobs: creating figures of black Christs, writers like W.E.B. Du Bois and Langston Hughes met white supremacists in their own performance space. And Ida B. Wells fashioned her anti-lynching protest pamphlets from material generated by lynchers themselves: she quoted white newspapers at length, explaining that “out of their own mouths shall the murderers be condemned.”

Transforming the Abu Ghraib images for his own shockingly beautiful purposes, Fein makes his art a similarly appropriate process.

Another aspect of Fein’s art that roots him in the protest tradition is his use of shock value. For example, Abel Meeropol, who wrote the lyrics for Billie Holiday’s lynching anthem “Strange Fruit” (1939), once observed that Holiday’s voice could “jolt the audience out of its complacency anywhere.” Equally, the poet John Balaban explained in a recent interview that his early poems about Vietnam were meant to “shock and sicken” his American audience, and the novelist Tim O’Brien notes that the shock-value in his work “awakens the reader, and shatters the abstract language of war.” O’Brien adds: “So many images of war don’t endure for the reader-it’s the effect of a TV clip followed by a Cheerios ad. But my fiction asks readers not to shirk or look away.” And John Steinbeck once claimed to have done his “damndest to rip a reader’s nerves to rags,” with The Grapes of Wrath (1939). The breast-feeding tableau in Steinbeck’s novel is intended to shock, as are the meat-packing scenes in Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (1906), James Agee’s descriptions of masturbation in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941), and the suicide scene in Rebecca Harding Davis’s novella Life in the Iron Mills (1861). Critiquing our culture of fear, and the Bush administration’s “Shock and Awe” military policy, Fein’s art is similarly calculated to shock-to inspire outrage, agitation, and a desire to reach for change.

Beyond his politics of form, use of appropriated material, and employment of shock value, Fein is located within the protest tradition still further. His exhibition uses the device of the embedded artist to suggest artistic empathy. Fein appears in the exhibition himself as a prison guard, looming from the walls just Walker Evans’ shadow loomed over dustbowl migrants from behind the camera in 1930s Alabama. The decision to include himself within “Torture” summons a vision of the empathetically engaged artist, reminding us that protest artists have often worked with empathy as well as shock value-have suggested sharing another’s suffering in order to help end it. Some imagined themselves as their subjects, often painfully so: the early twentieth-century photographer Lewis Hine said he needed “spiritual antiseptic” to survive, and Upton Sinclair described the “tears and anguish” that went into his novel The Jungle. Others asked the reader to become the subject: James Agee noted that he wrote repetitiously because he wanted the reader of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men to experience for themselves the boredom of tenant farmers’ work.

Yet Fein’s work goes beyond this empathetic engagement. He features as a prison guard in this exhibition, and so emphasizes the dark side of engaged art-a troubling relationship between artist and subject. This dark side lurks throughout the protest tradition. For example, when Eddie Adams photographed General Loan in 1968, Loan treated the execution as a performance. He led the prisoner towards journalists, as though, without these witnesses present, he might not have bothered to pull the trigger. Watching and witnessing here provoked and defined an execution, and this complicated the morality of looking. Equally sinister is the fact that lynchings were a lucrative business for photographers, who would regularly document them. Some were even delayed until a photographer arrived, and mob, audience, and police officials regularly posed with the corpses. Many images were sent as postcards through the mail to participants’ friends and relatives, often with the sender’s face marked and a note to the effect of: “This is the barbeque we had last night. My picture is to the left with a cross over it. Your son, Joe.”

Like Loan’s execution and America’s lynchings, the acts recorded in the original Abu Ghraib images look like performances for the camera’s eye, as though the greatest shame of all was to have the moment documented for an audience, for posterity. And by including himself within the exhibition, Fein engages head-on this question of the photographer’s presence at scenes of violence. Perhaps the artist is as sinister a figure as the original prison guard. Perhaps Fein enjoyed making violence as beautiful as this, and now asks us to enjoy it-asks us to take as much pleasure in these scenes as the original prison guards, with their grins and gestures. Perhaps Fein’s camera, which demanded of his models full nudity and physical exhaustion, is as aggressive as the prison guard’s club.

Making his camera a weapon of torture, Fein again echoes a tradition in the protest tradition: that of imagining words as weapons, pens as swords, cameras as guns. Richard Wright imagined “using words as a weapon, using them as one would use a club.” Amiri Baraka depicted words as daggers, fists, and poison gas in his poem “Black Art” (1966). James Agee called the camera a gun, Jacob Riis said he photographed the poor like a “war correspondent,” and for years Woody Guthrie had a sign on his guitar that read, “This Machine Kills Fascists.” In 1970, the Black Panther Party member Emory Douglas told artists to “take up their paints and brushes in one hand and their gun in the other,” adding: “all of the Fascist American empire must be blown up in our pictures.” Part of this tradition, Fein’s appropriation of the master’s tools transforms those tools into weapons that violently dismantle the master’s house, shock us into questioning the role of the photographer as a witness, and ask us to question our own role as new witnesses to these scenes.

One final aspect of Fein’s exhibition that locates him with the protest tradition is his strategy, quite simply, of remembering. In 2007 he remembers the early part of the Iraq War by re-photographing its images. It is an act reminiscent of the late twentieth-century photographers who found and re-photographed Walker Evans’ Alabama sharecroppers from the 1930s, and it is in the tradition of all protest artists who revise protest texts and images from an earlier time. To cite just one example, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) was used as a model by Edward Bellamy and Upton Sinclair, as a negative spur by James Baldwin and Carl Wittman, and was eventually transformed by Bill T. Jones in a 1990s ballet. It is as though Stowe’s novel needed corrective dialogue with other protest artists to make it whole.

In re-photographing Abu Ghraib, then, Fein enters a long tradition of intellectual bricolage. He salvages pieces of America’s past, and makes them new and whole. It is as though he takes the rubble of history and builds a theater space for a new performance-becoming a new Angel of History. As Tony Kushner observed in a recent interview, alluding to Walter Benjamin’s famous “Angel of History”: “you have to be constantly looking back at the rubble of history. The most dangerous thing is to become set upon some notion of the future that isn’t rooted in the bleakest, most terrifying idea of what’s piled up behind you.” Fein stares directly into the rubble, sees what is piled up behind us, decides that art can be made from what America has left, and invites a move from cultural haunting to social action-as though looking back might move America forward.

Zoe Trodd is a member of the Tutorial Board in History and Literature. Harvard University.

Art in America Cover December 2007Clinton Fein currently exhibits horrifying high-resolution C-prints depicting (through carefully staged reenactments) the torture of prisoners by the American military at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. For some time Fein’s political images have been immersed in controversy and dissent. A native of South Africa, he left that country, with its harsh climate of censorship during apartheid, for the U.S., hoping to find truly free expression. Becoming aware of deep flaws in the application of the First Amendment of the Constitution, he filed suit against Attorney General Janet Reno in 1997, seeking declarative and injunctive relief from the provisions of the Communications Decency Act. The suit made its way to the Supreme Court, and Fein won the case. He insists on the fundamental right to annoy and created a Web site in pursuit of that end, maintaining that indecency is one of the most effective tools to counter public apathy.

In a 2004 exhibition at Toomey Tourell he exhibited a striking image, Who Would Jesus Torture?, depicting George W. Bush on the Cross, an American flag wrapped around a phallic missile emerging from his loincloth. Derisive images, also digitally manipulated, of Rumsfeld, Cheney, Wolfowitz and company, as well as of Pfc. Lynndie England, poster girl for the Abu Ghraib outrages, are also included in this picture. The printing company Fein had hired to produce the digital image ultimately refused to release it and threatened to sue the artist for defamation. In the end, Fein managed to come up with an alternate printer willing to produce the image in time for his exhibition.

The recent show, titled “Torture,” consisted of staged and manipulated photographic images. Fein felt that the low resolution of the pictures taken by the GIs participating in the Abu Ghraib abuses – the images that later appeared in the press – had the effect of muting and veiling the actual horror of the scenes depicted. Only sharp, high-resolution images, he concluded, could convey the full impact of the humiliating atrocities and show what the corrupt leaders of a supposedly civilized nation routinely endorsed.

The Columbian artist Fernando Botero was so deeply shocked by the spectacle of Abu Ghraib that, instead of his ebullient images, he produced a suite of over 100 provocative paintings and drawings [see A.i.A., Jan. ’07]. Other artists — Richard Serra, Gerald Laing, Jenny Holzer and Paul McCarthy among them – have taken the disgrace of Abu Ghraib as subject matter for their art. But it was Fein’s notion that a full reenactment of the terrifying poses into which prisoners were forced was in order. After all, the original photographs were themselves staged, intended as trophy images, much like those by-now familiar photographs of lynchings in the American South, images crowded with the smiling faces of all who had come to see. So Fein re-created, for instance, the picture of Pfc. England holding a naked prisoner by a leash while pointing to his genitals. Another re-created photo shows a naked detainee made to masturbate another prisoner. Sadomasochistic sexuality, which is implied in the original snapshots, is stressed in Fein’s prints. The artist is well aware of America’s fascination with sex and violence, attested to by much of the current fare in movies and TV.

The hooded prisoner with the electric wires tied to his hands has become the unofficial logo of the present war in Iraq. For the 2004 election, Serra made a poster of this image, and it has also been restaged by Fein. So has the picture of the human pyramid of naked men, an image to which the artist has given the title Rank and Defile (2007). In addition to the photographs that simulated the original snapshots, there were also two entirely fictional C-prints in the show. Crucifiction 1 and 2 (2007), for example, are the artist’s imagined views of what it is like to collapse under extreme physical abuse.

Torture of detainees or their rendition to countries with even more abusive torture regimens has become semi-legal under the Bush administration. Fein reminds us, however, that these practices can never be anything less than intolerable. Otherwise, the real war is already lost.

By Peter Selz
Art in America 

Fein’s ‘Torture’ at Toomey-Tourell: Anyone prepared to experience whiplash from changes in the terms of art over the past half century should go directly from Hackett-Friedman’s show to Toomey-Tourell, where South African-born Clinton Fein presents “Torture.”

Fein’s ‘Torture’ at Toomey-Tourell: Anyone prepared to experience whiplash from changes in the terms of art over the past half century should go directly from Hackett-Friedman’s show to Toomey-Tourell, where South African-born Clinton Fein presents “Torture.”

Several contemporary artists have tried to evoke the grotesqueries of war: Leon Golub (1922-2004), in his imaginary portraits of mercenaries, and more recently Fernando Botero, in a series of paintings and drawings reinterpreting the torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, near Baghdad. Some of the Boteros will come to UC Berkeley later this month.

But no one else has reached the peculiar extremes to which Fein goes. Using hired models, he re-enacted and photographed scenes of cruelty that were recorded in the notorious unofficial photographs of “detainee abuse” at Abu Ghraib. Fein presents these images as giant panel-mounted chromogenic prints.

To viewers who remember the Abu Ghraib images, Fein’s pieces will look both grimly familiar and oddly aestheticized. Two are his inventions.

Encountering them in an art gallery provokes tangled responses: outrage that someone would advance his own ambitions through the degradations the Abu Ghraib photos record; perverse temptation by the opportunity to study the mise-en-scene of the original pictures, safe in the knowledge of seeing simulations; despair that history has again diverted the resources of art away from pleasure and contemplation to bleak and urgent critical functions; and, finally, the recognition that, after all the barriers between art and life come down, nothing insulates our enjoyment of the arts against toxic pollution from our knowledge of real events.

How far should simulation in art go? Will we next have to ponder a re-enactment of, say, Saddam Hussein’s execution, or even Daniel Pearl’s, merely because these images can be found on the Internet, and because they symbolize the degeneration of American foreign policy?

Do Fein’s provocations really differ in spirit from the policy wonks who contrived punitive sanctions on the Iraqi populace for failure to unseat their ruler? Is the tepid American public reaction to official torture and lawlessness a sign of moral weakness? Of learned helplessness? Of both?

The absence of text in Fein’s new work — he often relies on it heavily — leaves space in a viewer’s mind for recall of the administration’s weasel words misnaming and justifying torture.

By bringing into the art setting simulated images of some of the Abu Ghraib horrors, Fein forces thoughtful viewers to reflect on our — American culture’s — proven taste for simulated violence. Prosperous First World citizens seldom confront real violence, but we welcome depictions of violence with alarming frequency and enthusiasm.

How long can we go on — collectively and individually — exciting ourselves with pictured violence before only the excitement matters to us? Can we call this pattern anything but pornographic?

Fein’s work, despite its debatable standing as art, or maybe because of it, takes us to this level of reflection, whether we want to go there or not.

The Horror of Torture, Reinterpreted through Art
By Kenneth Baker

Kenneth Baker has been art critic for the San Francisco Chronicle since 1985. A native of the Boston area, he served as art critic for the Boston Phoenix between 1972 and 1985.

He has contributed on a freelance basis to art magazines internationally and was a contributing editor of Artforum from 1985 through 1992. He continues to review fiction and nonfiction books for The Chronicle, in addition to reporting on all aspects of the visual arts regionally and, on occasion, nationally and internationally.

When first reports emerged about the Abu Ghraib abuses, as well as graphic pictures of American military personnel in the act of torturing the prisoners, the world fell under the spell of instant shock, disgust and horror.

Even more shocking was the discovery that these acts were committed by personnel of the 372nd Military Police Company, CIA officers, and contractors involved in the war and occupation of Iraq.

The shots depict both victims and torturers posing for the camera. There’s a naked man kneeling in front of another man as if performing oral sex. A naked man on a leash held by a female American soldier. Naked men in chains. Naked men stacked up in a pile, and others include forced masturbation. Whether the sexual acts were performed or simulated, the prisoners were forced to perform as pornographic “actors.” The resulting political scandal damaged the credibility and public image of the United States and its allies in the prosecution of ongoing military operations in war-torn Iraq.

As they first appeared on the Internet, the torture images of Iraqi prisoners were crude, many unmistakably pornographic in intent, and easily dismissed because of their poor quality. The spectacle of Abu Ghraib revealed disturbing truths about American politics, sexuality and morality.

In contrast, Clinton Fein’s staged and digitally manipulated photographic images of the Torture series are deliberate, choreographed to bring back to the center of public discourse the shameful events of Abu Ghraib. The added high resolution of the photos elevates the experience to an artistic high and brings many issues into a sharp focus. Through Torture, Fein memorializes the Bush legacy of a Post 9/11 world so openly and shamelessly practiced.

The South African Bay Area resident is an accomplished artist and a recognized persona that has become a phenomenon of the virtual space and a voice to reckon with on the cultural landscape. After 10 years of prolific output (, Fein is synonymous with controversial art and digging deep into what the average American citizen or the mainstream would like to forget, ignore, deny or simply bypass. In undertaking the Torture series, Fein has once become our conscience, a moral agent.

Torture is not the brainchild of Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld. Sadly, it has a long history that has been exhaustively documented in best-seller books, declassified documents, CIA training manuals, court records, and special commission reports. The embrace of torture by US officials long predates the Bush Administration and has, in fact, been integral to US foreign policy since the Vietnam War.

As a commentator of the Bush Administration’s doing and undoing (Numb & Number 2004), Fein has taken the matter into his hands and commits the despicable acts of torture on 9 panels of C-Type chromogenic prints.

Fein doesn’t simply restage the happenings of Abu Ghraib’s correctional facility; he picks the news bytes by reproducing the scenes and disturbs our reality and complacency. A series of staged and digitally manipulated photographic images recreate the infamous torture scenes from Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, transforming the diffuse, muted, and low-resolution images into large-scale, vivid, powerful, and frightening reproductions.

In Torture, Fein takes us beyond his trademark graphic editorialization and Photoshop montages to digitized, staged and human-scale photographic panels to confront the ugly reality the Bush administration does not want us to see, and to which the mainstream pays so little attention. Where mainstream media leaves off, Fein unabashedly recreates a visceral experience of profound effect. He forces us to look, reexamine and question the ugliness of war and the government’s highest-ranking officials who are complicit in these atrocious acts.

The Torture series, in its entirety, is best appreciated when considering the artist’s intent. Present-day reality is layered with a rich history as far-reaching as the Civil War. Fein’s Torture must be viewed in a larger context that goes beyond the power play of “a few bad apples” and the pornographic impressions these snapshots gave us when they first surfaced.

Each image alludes to a historic aspect of American history and the unresolved issues that can be traced to the civil war, racism, bigotry, and sexism. Each image is well-researched and documented, strategically titled, and each pixel counts for its special effects to create a mood and evoke a subtle nuance.

Rank and Defile (1 & 2) are clearly a reference to an officer who abuses his power and as a result defiles the honor of those who serve and betray the country they represent. Rank and Defile (1 & 2) recreates an unmistaken Goyesque mood to evoke the memory of Goya’s powerful and disturbing scenes of the brutal guerrilla war in the Peninsular War, scenes of horror, brutality, torture and the savagery of war.

Snapshot Heard ‘Round the World refers to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Concord Hymn, 1837 and relates to the start of the American Revolutionary War:

By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled;
Here once the embattled farmers stood;
And fired the shot heard ’round the world.

In the Information Age, the silhouette of Satar Jabar, a prisoner at Abu Ghraib, has become an instant icon of the abuse scandal. Jabar was hooded, positioned on a box, and had wires attached to both hands and his penis and was told that he would be electrocuted if he fell off.

The image of this event was one of the most prominent to be featured in the media coverage of the scandal and frequently reappeared as a symbol of the torture and abuse. It became the most recognizable image worldwide, forcing the administration to reconsider policies and treatment of prisoners.

Basic Restraining, perhaps, cynically questions the basic training the men and women receive when they report to duty. Once again, this image belittles and humiliates the prisoner by restraining him to a bunk bed while he is stripped of clothes and his face disguised by a pair of ladies’ underwear.

Crucifiction (1 & 2) are not based on actual scenes from Abu Ghraib but on Fein’s reaction to his own observations of his restaging. One might wish the recreated images were fiction; however, these are reminders of the long history of torture that has its origins in the Roman Empire and has been part of every war. One can’t help but think of the confrontation between West and East, Christendom and Islam. The clash of civilizations is real and has been intensified since 9/11 and the occupation of Iraq by American forces.

Number Ten, in military speak, is the ultimate humiliation inflicted on the enemy. Here prisoners are ordered to face each other naked with the intent of violating the Islamic tradition of personal privacy. In this case, the officer is oblivious to such traditions and makes a mockery of such observance without realizing the damaging consequences of such irresponsible acts.
What’s so disturbing is not just violence but sexual violation — what is more, it’s sexual violation staged and captured on camera, made into a spectacle readily available for future and expanded viewing. On a scale of one to ten, this act is inflicting the highest grade of torture, for the violation borders on the sanctity of culture and religion.

In Downfall one senses the bankrupted morality of the Abu Ghraib command. It truly marks a watershed and a turning point in the “war against terrorism.”

In Trophy, the presence of the “onlooker” or “perpetrator” is so deliberate in his intent to humiliate and show us the helpless prisoner, his “trophy.” How disgraceful! Is the “Trophy” all the US military has to show the world? Is this in the country’s best interest? Does this represent our finest moment?

The whole experience of torture is so beyond our comprehension that it compelled Fein to place himself as a servicemember and penetrate the mindset of the perpetrators — an attempt to explore the pathology behind their acts and, in a sense, present the entire exhibition as his own trophy.

The whole Abu Ghraib fiasco is self-incriminating and stupid by all practical standards. Except that the idea of recording the acts of torture was, to a significant extent, the inspiration to commit them. Haven’t we seen this phenomenon before when the Nazis kept meticulous records of medical experiments, the Jewish loot of personal possessions and murder as a final solution?

In the Torture series, Fein succeeds in eliciting voyeurism and a morbid fascination with torture and points to humanity’s exploitative and dark side. He provokes all our senses to make us uneasy and question the practice of torture policies of this government. Torture is not just a concept; it’s a despicable act that achieves so little in advancing the US moral authority in the world or winning the war on terror. Thus the question is, is it ever justifiable?

The pictures originally circulated about Abu Ghraib prisoners reek of fraternity house hazing and gang initiation rituals. They encode racial hatred and fetishistic allusions to slavery and tell us that torture is not the mere application of pain to the task of extracting information.

Fein chooses to go the extra mile to give these crude snapshots an infusion of artistic expression, and by doing so, reminds us that art has another function and that it is not always about pretty and soothing pictures one finds in reverential museums and galleries and that great art can be unsettling.

The vision of Americans that emerges from Fein’s carefully crafted, nine-panel Abu Ghraib installation pierces into the heart of the scandal. Fein wants us to grasp the magnitude of a spectacle that stripped prisoners of their human dignity. The mocking of religion and treating prisoners of war as subhumans have become the face of America that won’t be forgotten by the estimated 1.6 million Muslims around the world.

In Torture, Fein has synthesized this unwieldy cache of evidence, producing an indispensable and riveting account of the Abu Ghraib nightmare. The compelling imagery fitted to human scale is in our face and deliberately provokes a visceral reaction, a moral stand, and perhaps a national discourse that might and can change the course. Can we let go of the belief that art can change the moral focus of our world?

In undertaking the Torture series, Fein joins the artistic giants like Francesco Goya and Pablo Picasso, who resorted to their artistic prowess to express the horrors of wars. Fein channels his artistic reservoir of explosive energy into a digital camera to expose the dark side of the first 21st-century war and its demoralizing and abhorrent effects. In a culture obsessed with violence, as indicative in Mel Gibson’s recent movies such as The Passion of Christ and Apocalypto, Fein’s Torture series, refashioned in an artistic rendition, warrants a serious look.

As much as Clinton Fein’s photographs in his show at Toomey-Tourell (49 Geary St, San Francisco) are about torture and politics, they are more captivatingly about reversing what we see imbedded in the images. Certainly Fein is drawing viewers into a political debate on the abuse of prisoners in the Iraqi prison, Abu Ghraib, by re-presenting those now infamous images first published in April 2004. However, by re-photographing them with stylized, hyper-real clarity Fein is giving the viewer permission to look at what was shunned in the originals: the details and the psychology revealed in them.

Fein furthers the idea that evidence of this atrocity is not only worth preserving (as the original captor-perpetrators did with their snapshots) but that it is also worth re-examining. Whether from image fatigue or short attention spans, Americans seem to have moved passed the initial horror invoked by the images three years ago. What Fein has effectively done is employ photography to critique the role of the original photographs. Whereas the original images were grainy and fuzzy, Fein’s images are sharp and precise, begging the question: which is more real? The viewer is left wondering.

Number Ten, Fein’s re-staged version of a simulated sex act among hooded detainees elevates the sexualized undercurrent of torture by offering for inspection each detail in a way the original grainy and blurred photographs did not.

His use of stylized, dramatic lighting indeed amps up these perversions to bring that agenda to the forefront and draws our attention directly to it. He has intentionally conflated aesthetic experience with shocking imagery. One could argue that Fein has aestheticized the grotesque with this approach. One could also argue that he simply intended to present an uncensored version. However, his intention is as blurred as his images are sharp. After all, he did include fictionalized re-staged scenes in this exhibition. While these photographs are well realized, their presentation is not as carefully crafted as the images themselves. There are a few fairly obvious cut marks and some buckling and this, unfortunately, interferes with Fein’s well crafted aesthetic.

That said, there are many thought provoking questions raised by this exhibition and San Francisco is fortunate to have an ambitious gallery willing to mount it. Among those questions: is Clinton Fein appalled by the images he re-presents? Is he investigating the abuse of power? Is he dignifying the grotesque, making it allowable to view? In his statement, he addresses many issues in terms of using art as a social tool, however his images seem more layered with multiple meanings than he lets on. He leaves questions dangling, which is far more titillating than if he would have offered concrete answers.

Clinton Fein usually comes across as a political art guerrilla, putting images of elected officials and controversial figures in digitally manipulated, uncompromising positions (Rudy Giuliani in a urine-filled glass, President Bush on a crucifix, Saddam Hussein as an “I Want You” Uncle Sam), which immeditely freaks everybody out — especially the government. (His company’s Web site,, features a fine chronicle of the dust-ups.) But the photos from the Abu Ghraib prison scandal gave him all he needed for his latest exhibit, “Torture.”

There are no loaded juxtapositions and no funny, morbid slogans, merely a faithful representation of the shocking photographs, blown up to mammoth size, which can leave you staggering about the gallery over the horror of it all.

His images, though, aren’t copies, and therein lies Fein’s fascinating take on the subject — the artist recreated the torture scenes using models. He stripped them naked, piled them into pyramids, smeared them with fluids (bodily?), and had them perform the same degrading acts as the prisoners. The resulting photographs are stylized, detailed, and enhanced by “fashion-photography lighting”; they carry, intentionally, a touch of the erotic (in contrast to the originals, Fein left the genitals exposed, giving a more thorough perspective to the scandal).

Fein is a natural at art that provokes and outrages, but he’s charted a new, compelling course with “Torture.”

Artist and provocateur Clinton Fein has been making incendiary political art for years (and setting legal precedent — he successfully sued Janet Reno in 1997 over applying indecency laws to Internet content) but nothing, he says, prepared him for making his current photo show, “Torture.”

He re-created the now familiar scenes of torture from Abu Ghraib prison. Seven of the images are based on photographs, and two are of scenes Fein imagined taking place. It was a jolting experience for the models and the artist. “In order to restage those images, you have to get in the mind-set of the people who were doing the torture,” Fein says. “People don’t fall into a pyramid, especially with hoods over their heads. The whole thing has been a learning process. After the first shoot, I felt physically sick. It was grueling and the place we were shooting in was grimy. It wasn’t a comfortable experience at all.”

Fein got the idea for the project after being interviewed by a researcher at Harvard University who was working on a book. She suggested that one reason Americans weren’t more disturbed by the Abu Ghraib scandal was that the images weren’t clear enough. They were taken by camera phone and reproduced at a low resolution.

“I thought about it. I gave a lot of other reasons why the images didn’t have the same impact as those from Vietnam — the 24-hour news cycle, for instance — but I thought that maybe if you saw them small, you don’t actually have to think about what they represent or what is really going on.”

So Fein made huge, high-resolution shots. As he worked, he found the process increasingly interesting. He filmed some of his models talking about how they felt about participating in torture scenes, which will be shown Saturday at an artist’s talk and posted on his Web site, In one shot, he even inserted himself in the frame.

“In one image from Abu Ghraib, the torturer is standing there with a smirk on his face. I did re- enact that one, and I put myself in it, since in many ways, it was the role I was playing,” he says. “It’s called ‘Trophy.’

“In many ways, all of these shots are like trophy shots, like images of lynchings in the South. It was another big realization I had that only came during the shoot, that all the images were staged as mine are. All of them draw on the concept of a trophy shot.”

Fein says that he became increasingly desensitized to the images he was creating as he staged more and more shoots, but he didn’t lose all sense of the horror. Both he and his models found themselves involved in the physicality of the situation — they complained of hurt knees, of the unpleasant weight of human bodies in the pyramid scenes — and that lesson isn’t lost on those who view the large-scale photographs either.

Like Stanley Milgram’s infamous Stanford Prison Experiment, in which college boys transformed themselves into warring prisoners and wardens with breathtaking speed, Fein’s photographs speak to the darker impulses of human nature, the power of context in determining behavior. There’s a lot of evidence that the Abu Ghraib soldiers were filling roles designed for them by their superiors.

But however repugnant a viewer might find Fein’s images, it’s important to understand the dimensions of torture. Although Fein has dealt with Abu Ghraib in previous shows, he says it’s a timely subject. “We have a new Congress being sworn in,” he says, “and this show is a reminder that if we do surge or accelerate military action in Iraq, we have to deal with what’s already happened. … We need policies to remedy that. If America is going to have any moral credibility, we have to look at what we’ve already done.”

Through Jan. 30. Artist-lead talk 6:30 p.m. Sat. Toomey-Tourell Gallery, 49 Geary St., S.F.

The Bigger Picture:’Torture’: Photographer restages infamous images from Abu Ghraib for new gallery show
By Reyhan Harmanci
January 11, 2007

Clinton Fein makes “art” out of Abu Ghraib. But this quick walk through hell is not so much about Abu Ghraib, nor about America’s insane megalomaniacal imprimatur, nor about dredging up yesterday’s news. It’s mainly about what happens to those friends and acquaintances of Fein who consent to help him re-enact these infamous episodes. You might think that since they know what they were getting into, it’s no big deal… or is it? If you’re not sure, Fein’s got some video you might wanna check out.

Suppose someone asked you to participate in such an exercise? Would you? Do you think it would be easy? And how about the original Iraqi unfortunates? How do you think they felt? How do you think they feel today? They had no choice, no inkling, no clue whether they’d be alive one moment and dead the next. Pick of First Thursday.

Clinton Fein – Torture
By Alan Bamburger

On January 4, 2007, at the Toomey Tourell Gallery in San Francisco, California, the latest exhibition by Clinton Fein, a controversial South African-born visual artist and writer, will be inaugurated.

It is already predicted that it will “reopen the wounds of Abu Ghraib.” Are those wounds closed for those who went through the terrifying prison established in Iraq by the American invaders, for the families of those victims, or for Humanity, which demands justice?

This is a group of photographic images—those taken by the torturing guards as part of their aberrant conduct—now digitally manipulated to transform them into works of artistic creation and, above all, denunciation, to the point that the press release states that they are “an impressive and challenging exploration of America’s approach to torture under the Bush administration.”

The alternative site Raw Story comments that it is through the diffuse, muted, and low-resolution transformation of the images that “vivid, strong, and terrifying reproductions” are achieved.

The works will be exhibited under the name “Torture,” it could not be any other, as the euphemism of mistreatment used by official statements and the press is not admissible when it is the infamous reality that the United States brought not only to Abu Ghraib. Those scenes of physical and psychological torture occurred equally or similarly in the concentration camp set up in the illegally occupied Guantanamo Naval Base, in other prisons in Iraq, in the Bagram prison (Afghanistan), and in the CIA’s secret prisons located in who knows how many truly dark places on the planet…

This is not the first time that Clinton Fein has ignited controversy, nor is it the first time he has addressed the issue of Abu Ghraib, which also has another pictorial display in the works of Colombian artist Fernando Botero. Fein focuses on the choreography and sexualization of torture, according to comments, as he has worked with images of naked prisoners forced into uncomfortable positions, compelled to simulate degrading and humiliating sexual acts. He delves into and exposes the dark side of a war detested, to which American citizens were led under deception, and in which tens of thousands of Iraqis have already been massacred.

The shock that Abu Ghraib represented in the consciousness of many, when the photos were published in April 2004, finds a necessary echo in “Torture” by Clinton Fein because it is essential for the wave of indignation to grow, powerful and systematically, to sweep away those who conceived, organized, and ordered the execution of the war against Iraq.

Images of Torture by US Military Featured at California Art Gallery
By Juana Carrasco Martin
Periodico 26, Cuba,
January 3, 2007

Numb and Number Exhibition Coverage

A lot of Clinton Fein’s political art looks facile, even puerile, to those who see only its inflammatory side, not that he really cares.

People can test their own tolerance for what he does in his show of digital prints, “Numb and Number,” at Toomey Tourell Gallery in San Francisco (through Nov. 13).

“I can’t help doing these things,” Fein, 39, said in a conversation at the gallery. “If I couldn’t express these feelings … I don’t know what. I’d be a very unhappy, knotted, gnarled person … though I don’t always subscribe to the sentiments in the pieces. Sometimes I just do them to put a question out there.”

Consider the image in his show titled “The Unbearable Likeness of Being.” In it, that phrase runs across a black and white image of President Bush waving, with Adolf Hitler behind him, arm upraised in a disagreeably similar salute.

Many viewers will simply take this for a glib and historically irrelevant visual simile.

But those who know the work of John Heartfield (1891-1968), one of Fein’s artist heroes, will catch the unmistakable echo of one of Heartfield’s most famous photomontages, “Millions Stand Behind Me.”

In Heartfield’s original, Hitler stands in the foreground with hand upraised in a half-wave, half-salute, the source picture having been taken at a mass rally.

From behind, a fat cat reaches down to slip a sheaf of banknotes into Hitler’s open hand. Heartfield suggested that the millions behind Hitler that mattered were not people but the backing of German financiers and industrialists.

Fein’s image, similar in design to Heartfield’s down to their common use of black and white, makes a parallel suggestion about Bush’s true constituency.

Fein also adapted his title from Milan Kundera’s 1980 novel “The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” a fictive memoir of Cold War-era Czechoslovakia, thus darkening his implication further with anxiety about America edging toward an Eastern Bloc social condition by its willing surrender of civil liberties since Sept. 11.

A native of South Africa who lives in San Francisco, Fein became an American citizen only 10 years ago. He did it partly to secure the protection of the First Amendment when he produced a CD-ROM of “Conduct Unbecoming,” the expose of gays’ mistreatment by the military that Chronicle reporter Randy Shilts (1951-1994) completed not long before he died of AIDS.

“I figured the U.S. military was going to have issues with what I had done,” Fein said, “so it was best to become an American citizen first. Part of my decision was based on the First Amendment, on the value of what that freedom is.”

But “there have been lawsuits ever since” he began making political art, Fein said.

He has been sued, or threatened with legal action, by the New York Times, the Gap, Ziff Davis and numerous other businesses and individuals whose images, logos or advertising content he has used.

“But I always do a bit of homework before I do a piece,” Fein said. So when the Gap protested a piece he made associating the company with Monica Lewinsky, he had proof at hand that her famous semen-sullied blue dress was a Gap item.

Right now, Fein finds himself in the unusual state of having no legal action pending against him or on his behalf, though he is still considering suing a Palo Alto printer for reneging at the last minute on its contract to produce several incendiary digital prints for his current show.

Fein has prevailed in court before.

“I sued Janet Reno over a provision of the Communications Decency Act,” he said. “It made a felony of transmission over the Internet of any indecent material with the intention to annoy someone.”

For an artist with a Web site called devoted to political and other provocations, this was no small matter.

“My questions were, ‘Indecent according to whom?’ and ‘Annoying according to whom?,’ ” Fein said. ” Because you could argue that legislation so badly crafted could be both indecent and annoying.”

Fein dabbled in legal studies while getting a degree in industrial psychology at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, which Teresa Heinz Kerry also attended. But because it would have qualified him to practice only in South Africa, “there was no point in getting a law degree there, if you intended to leave, as I did,” Fein said.

After living in New York briefly after his graduation, Fein became for several years assistant to the president of Orion Pictures in Hollywood, “a job for which nothing could have prepared me,” he said.

But he had tasted enough of legal theory to live unafraid of litigation. When his case against the U.S. Justice Department reached the Supreme Court, it agreed “in a convoluted and rather tortured ruling … that indecent communications, even if intended to annoy, are and should be protected by the Constitution.”

The government’s framing of its case ironically ended up enhancing constitutional protection of the material he puts on his Web site.

“It will be interesting to see how some of this stuff plays overseas,” Fein said, as he is negotiating gallery shows in Europe and elsewhere.

“Certainly swastika images would be an issue in Germany,” he said, pointing to a piece called “Phoenix Rising,” in which he has redrawn the World Trade Center towers into an architectural swastika.

Another piece that inserts the face of neoconservative war planner Paul Wolfowitz into a Nazi-era anti-Semitic poster could also pose problems.

Many viewers must wonder whether such low-blow assaults have caused Fein to disown any of his past work.

“Not so far,” he said. “I sound a bit like George Bush, saying I’ve never made any mistakes. I’m sure I have. But have I ever regretted a piece? Yeah, maybe, when people completely haven’t got something or have taken the wrong message from it.”

But astonishment at the hypocrisy of politics and popular and media responses to it keep him fired up. So does the sense that the chicanery of power so often betrays the legal and moral promise of the Constitution. “It’s there from the moment you become a citizen” Fein said. “You put your hand on your heart and swear to defend the Constitution — swear before God, which is unconstitutional — to protect the Constitution against enemies foreign and domestic.” He sees himself doing just that in his attacks on the Bush administration’s lethal deceit.

One of the least scabrous but hardest to take pieces in his show lays the words “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness” over a grid of photographs from various sources documenting Iraqi war casualties. Each image represents 1, 000 victims, according to credible independent estimates of the Iraq war’s human cost to those it was meant to liberate.

Though “Life, Liberty…” hurts to contemplate, some of Fein’s pieces can spark a smirk irrespective of the viewer’s politics, just by their graphic resourcefulness. The nine panels of “Osama Bin Hussein” (2003) morph the face of Osama bin Laden into that of Saddam Hussein, above the advice to “connect the dots that expose fabrications rather than fabricating connections.” The work just took on new currency with the release of another videotaped message from bin Laden.

“It’s the hypocrisy that find I so distasteful and that inspires venom,” Fein said. “And it’s not just the Bush administration, though they’ve given me lots of fodder. I was equally critical of the Clinton administration and if Kerry wins, I’ve got lots to say about him as well.”

Here in the Bay Area, where artists’ involvement in politics is a venerable tradition, activity this election season has ranged from auctions in the South Bay to more overtly political shows like Enrique Chagoya’s new anti-Bush drawings at the Paule Anglim Gallery in San Francisco and a sculpture at the Yerba Buena Arts Center encouraging people to vote.

And it’s not just here.

In Tempe, the Arizona State University Art Museum caused a stir with its current show of political art, “Democracy in America: Political Satire Then and Now.”

In Portland, an artists’ cooperative created 25,000 paper place mats documenting “corporate and political malfeasance” that it is distributing to roadside diners around the country before Election Day.

Across the country, some of the nation’s most prominent artists — Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and Richard Serra, to name a few — have been creating limited-edition prints to help a national independent political committee raise money for a get-out-the-vote push.

A current show by another artist-activist, Clinton Fein, called “Numb and Number” at the Toomey-Tourell gallery in San Francisco features digital montages that take off viciously against the current administration. Fein was briefly hobbled when a printing service in Palo Alto objected to some of the images it was printing for him and refused to release them. (Fein was forced to go elsewhere for the printing work.)

Read full article here.

South African artist Clinton Fein’s scalding “Numb & Number” show at the Toomey Tourell Gallery features grim photographs of the war dead and wounded in Iraq, a depiction of Bush as a crucified Christ with a warhead sprouting from his loincloth and a lettered screed on one work about a “crude, pathetic, ugly thief who is propped up by his Daddy’s oil interests.” The leader of the free world, as Fein reviles him with unchecked, ad hominem poison, is in “a Jimmy Beam-induced, unfortunately non-fatal, pretzel-choking, ‘with us or against us’ paradigm.”

George W. Bush has never been viewed as a particularly keen supporter of the arts. But in the buildup to the Nov. 2 election, he’s set off a veritable boom in theater, music, visual and conceptual art, dance and stand- up comedy. Countless artists have been galvanized by the current administration’s record and the prospects of a second Bush administration, and they’re not shy about speaking up.

In the teeth of a campaign that both sides are determined to stage manage, audiences are getting one jolt after another of brash, reckless and sometimes subtly incisive art. It may smack of easy target practice, almost all of it aimed from left to right. But there are also forces at work here that collectively animate and enlarge us as the election day denouement approaches. The arts bring the swirling, subconscious currents of politics and passion to the surface.

Read full article here.



Artist Clinton Fein is becoming immune to death threats. “Probably the first time I got one, I reacted,” Fein says. “But I decided that the person who’s sending me a death threat is just venting- and if I worry about anyone, it’s the person who isn’t sending me a death threat.”

What’s Fein’s sin?

Clinton Fein - Surface MagazinePolitically confrontational art that aggressively makes use of emotionally charged imagery, like the juxtaposition of the Nazi symbolism and the shape of the World Trade Centers in “Phoenix Rising” (above). “If you look at some of George Bush’s rhetoric, it’s similar to what Hitler was saying in the 1930s,” Fein says. “The point was: Let’s not allow for a false sense of security to enable fascism. It’s not as if [the Nazi connection] was there before [the attacks]- it was meant to represent what was coming up from the rubble [of the destroyed towers].”

As Fein prepares for a show at San Francisco’s Toomey Tourell Gallery in October, he’s casting an apprehensive eye to the upcoming U.S. elections. “I think that in reality, from an artistic standpoint, if George Bush wins, it’s fantastic because I’ll have another four years of horror to work with,” the 39-year- old artist says. “But to deal with the damage that he could do? Honestly, I think I’d rather just give up art.”

No Mister Nice Guy art at Toomey Turrell, just pure blunt force trauma. Clinton Fein’s imagery may go as far beyond the line as any in expressing sentiments about the current world situation, and about the United States, the War in Iraq, and the Bush administration in particular. If you want to see complete and total venom conveyed through art, see “Numb and Number” and visit Fein’s seditious brainchild, This is the type of stuff that buckets you a first class trip to oblivion in many parts of the world, but not here in America, The Land of the Free. No matter how bad things get, we still have the right to say what we want. And we have this too: VOTE.

Read full article here.

“This is one of the most widely published images of the day,” Fein told The Chronicle by phone. “For that to be the reason [Zazzle] refused to release it is beyond me.”

The second contested image shows George W. Bush on the cross, sporting a missile erection, beneath the words “Who Would Jesus Torture?”

“They said they didn’t want their name associated with my images,” Fein said of Zazzle. “And I said the only way that would happen is if they refused to print it. They said, ‘Is that a threat?’ and I said, ‘No, it’s an unequivocal promise.’ “

Matt Wilsey, speaking for Zazzle, told The Chronicle by phone, “We’re an e-commerce site where we don’t see the images until they’re printed. Clinton had uploaded some images to our site and after we printed them, we notified him that two of them violated our guidelines, and we issued a credit and destroyed them.”

The company’s publishing guidelines have been in place since its founding in 1999, Wilsey said, and take into account the fact that “We have people from 6 years old to 96 years old visiting out site, so we tried to come up (with) guidelines that would make it welcoming to all people.

“We obviously understand Clinton’s frustration because we don’t shy away from messages that are political or anti-Bush,” Wilsey said, as long as they respect certain boundaries. “We understand that Clinton wants to stir the pot, but we don’t want to be making money off that kind of content.”

Fein has fought bigger battles, he said, “but it’s not the role of a printer to decide things like this.”

He managed to get prints made elsewhere at the last minute, at the cost of some inconsistencies in presentation, so visitors to his show can decide the matter for themselves.

2 of Clinton Fein’s political works run afoul of his printer’s policies
By Kenneth Baker, The San Francisco Chronicle
November 2, 2004

ALKHOBAR, 11 January 2005 — The Internet was thought by many to be the greatest hope for unfettered freedom of expression globally.

However, controversial political artist Clinton Fein discovered that censorship is alive and well — even online. The December 2004 issue of ME Printer Magazine tells the tale of a printing service, based in Palo Alto, California, that refused to release two images it reproduced for a show of political art at a San Francisco art gallery. Zazzle executives said the images violated company policy against depicting torture and the disparagement of religion, among other restrictions.

The images were part of a show titled, “Numb & Number” which was held at the Toomey Tourell Gallery. One of the prohibited images showed a flag which contained multiple reproductions of the now infamous silhouette of a hooded Abu Ghraib prisoner standing on a tin container, holding wires. The second banned print featured US President Bush’s face superimposed on a crucified figure.

Zazzle’s main business is to print and sell reproductions of artwork over the Internet. Zazzle management claimed that they didn’t actually see Fein’s images until they were printed. The company said its publishing guidelines take into account that viewers from six to 96 years old visit the site, so it must be welcoming to all. The company said they don’t shy away from printing political or anti-Bush images but that Fein’s work was not compatible with the corporate guidelines established in 1999.

Zazzle agreed that the Abu Ghraib picture had been published many times elsewhere. However, they still believed that it represented human torture. Zazzle management insisted that the prints violated the site’s user agreement on the grounds of being both offensive to religious believers and excessively violent. While the user agreement is usually specific to those who publish images on the Zazzle website, Matt Wilsey, director, Business Development, Zazzle, said the agreement also applies to cases such as Fein’s where the customer is using Zazzle exclusively as a private printing service. Wilsey said the company had refused to print other controversial images, including those of Jews in German concentration camps and the Japanese Americans in US internment camps. He added that being associated with pictures such as Fein’s was at odds with the image the company wanted to project and that it was not obligated to print the pictures.

While Fein has fought and won battles concerning freedom of expression in the US courts, on this occasion time was not on his side. He was forced to have the pictures printed elsewhere due to the imminent opening of the show. “From a constitutional standpoint there’s not an issue, but from a corporate censorship standpoint it’s an enormous issue,” Fein said the day before his exhibition’s opening.

It is fair to mention here that the Kingdom’s Internet authority has blocked local access to, the site of which Fein is Webmaster and some ISPs have on their blacklist of SPAM websites. Additionally, this newspaper, as a family publication, is unable to reproduce some of Fein’s images including the Bush graphic rejected by Zazzle.

That said, it should be noted that it was possible to locate Fein’s “Numb & Number” images through local ISP access. Fein’s pictures weren’t pretty and some were very hard hitting, but they were worth a second look. Whether an individual found agreement with Fein’s images or not would of course be a matter of personal interpretation. What is a fact the world over is that even in this Internet Age, freedom of the press is for those who actually own one.

Corporate Policy Leads To Political Censorship
By Molouk Y. Ba-Isa, Arab News
11 January, 2005

Instead of avoiding publicity, Fein ensured that is exactly what Zazzle got – particularly negative. The artist brought into question the ethical nature of Zazzle’s actions and the problems that arise when printers exercise editorial control. As Fein said, ‘It’s unfortunate that a printing service felt it was more important to apply a bizarre, inconsistently applied standard to an image that nobody ever would have associated with them anyway.’

Ironically one of the very images Zazzle destroyed was recently reviewed and printed in the New York Times, and the image of the Abu Ghraib torture victim has already been widely disseminated by the international media.

While Zazzle has previously printed controversial imagery, their decision here was made more problematic by the fact that Fein had not granted the company permission to use the images, attach their name to the work or release information about the work – essentially ensuring they would avoid any association.

Zazzle has previously printed a reproduction of a Library of Congress photograph of hanging hooded bodies of the four conspirators who assassinated Abraham Lincoln, but cited its position as a licensee to Disney as the reasoning behind destroying Fein’s images.

Fein has not decided if he will take legal action in this case, but has been quoted as saying, ‘I don’t know what kind of statement such business practices make about academic freedom and thought in a democracy, but when a company associates itself with major brands and institutions it must be very careful about the corporate image they present and the consistency of the positions they take.’

The exhibition is on view at the Tommey-Tourell Gallery until November 13. If you happen to be in the Bay area have a look and let ArtThrob know what you think about the decision by Zazzle to destroy.

Artist and advocate Clinton Fein has his controversial images destroyed prior to exhibition
by Kresta Tyler Johnson, ArtThrob
November 4, 2004

The first of the two images is of an American flag with the now infamous hooded figure of an Abu Ghurayb prisoner substituted for the stars. The second features President Bush’s face superimposed on Jesus’ on the cross. Over the Christ figure are the words, “Who Would Jesus Torture?” and, “From the Industrial Moral Military God Complex.” That image also contains a missile positioned as a phallus.

Matt Wilsey, director of business development for Zazzle, said the company’s guidelines, which are posted on its Web site (, prohibit depictions of “excessive violence” and “derogatory references about religion” among other restrictions. Zazzle’s primary business is to print and sell reproductions on the Internet. It allows customers to post their images there for resale and a small commission.

Wilsey acknowledged that the guidelines are primarily intended for those who publish images on the Zazzle Web site, but said they also apply to cases like Fein’s where the customer is using Zazzle exclusively as a private printing service. He said being associated with images such as Fein’s is at odds with the image the company wants to project and that it was not obligated to print them.

But Fein has cried censorship and speculated that the printer doesn’t want to offend the Hoover Institution, a conservative think tank located at Stanford and a major partner of Zazzle, which publishes posters from the Hoover collection via the firm’s Web site. He said the public never would have known who had done the printing had they not made an issue of it.

Even if another printer can complete work on the withheld images in time for the opening, Fein said, the work probably wouldn’t look exactly like the work Zazzle did. He said he intended to post a notice on the gallery wall to explain what happened.

Fein, a native of South Africa who has said he moved to the United States for its protections of free speech, is no stranger to censorship controversies. It was Fein who created, a provocative political Web site, in response to the passage of the 1997 Communications Decency Act, which made it illegal to send communications over the Internet that are “indecent” with “intent to annoy.”

Fein lost a subsequent bid to overturn the act by suing then-Attorney General Janet Reno, but the suit did manage to get the statute redefined so that offensive and annoying communications remain a form of protected speech online.

“I know this stuff is in your face,” Fein said. “That’s the point. My philosophy is you need to stir people from apathy. In my opinion, political statements in art should not be sugar-coated.”

Print shop refuses to release political images
By Jack Fisher, Mercury News
October 6, 2004

Matt Wilsey, director of business development at Zazzle, said company guidelines ban images of excessive violence as well as derogatory references to religion. Fein’s flag image “contains the image of torture,” while the other image is “offensive to Christians,” he said.

Fein created, a provocative political website, protesting the 1997 Communications Decency Act that made it illegal to send Internet communication that is “indecent” or has “intent to annoy.” He sued Reno to overturn the act but lost. The statute, however, was redefined: Annoying communication remains protected speech online.

Printer rebels at artist’s imagery
By Louise Roug, Los Angeles Times
October 13, 2004, a Palo Alto, Calif., online printing service, on Monday declined to release two of 10 prints Fein submitted last week. The prints in question criticize the treatment of Iraqi prisoners by the U.S. military.

The company made its decision after determining the prints violated the site’s user agreement on the grounds of being both offensive to religious believers–in this case Christians–and excessively violent.

“The reason our QA staff decided to prevent distribution is that we have very clear guidelines, and we don’t want to produce images of torture,” said Zazzle vice president of business development Matt Wilsey. “We don’t have a problem with political messages, but even if (the picture from Abu Graib) is iconic, it does represent humans torturing each other.”

One of the images in question pictures an American flag whose stripes are replaced with the text of a U.S. military report on the abuse by U.S. soldiers of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Graib, and whose stars are replaced by the image of a hooded prisoner standing on a small box and holding up wires.

Another shows a crucified President Bush and asks, “Who would Jesus torture?”

Wilsey said the company had refused to print other controversial images, including those of Jews in German concentration camps and the Japanese Americans in U.S. internment camps. He said Zazzle “occasionally” took heat for those decisions from clients like Fein.

Zazzle, incorporated in 1999 but not launched until last year, is one of a handful of online print shops tapping a market of artists, political candidates and activists, merchants and ordinary consumers who want the convenience of on-demand printing services and the potential to set up individual online stores hawking printed products.

Fein said he is still weighing his options with respect to Wednesday’s exhibition opening and is considering legal action against Zazzle on breach-of-contract grounds.

While Zazzle’s name is not attached to Fein’s prints, the company said it is working to build its brand as a “family Web site.” The company is a Disney licensee and maintains a ratings system to cordon off certain kinds of content displayed and sold on its site.

“We wish Clinton the best of luck and support his right to express his message,” Wilsey said. “We just don’t want to produce it.” Webmaster says war art censored
By Paul Festa
CNET, San Francisco
October 18, 2004

Seeing Peace Billboard Project Coverage

The art installation kicked-off on this Memorial Day with a bus tour of the works.

In San Francisco’s urban landscape, it can be hard to distinguish art from advertisement or otherwise.

A billboard at Broadway and Montgomery confused some European tourists.

“You’re walking around in the adult area and then you see this image and at first, is it like part of a kinky show or something?” said Jeroen Geuens.

It is not. It is part of a ten-billboard project inspired by San Francisco artist and University of San Francisco professor Richard Kamler.

A bus tour of the works kicked-off the month-long installation.

Kamler asked ten artists from ten countries; including himself, what does peace look like? The question grew out of one of his long-held core beliefs.

“The role of art really was powerful to engage and transform society. I really believe that I know it sounds grandiose but I really believe that,” said Richard Jamler.

Wanda Sabir signed-up for the tour because she wanted to think about peace on this Memorial Day otherwise spent remembering war-dead.

“Yeah to do something different on a day that’s so sad,” said Sabir.

South African photographer Clinton Fein says he tried to imagine what peace would look like for someone being tortured — his billboard is a re-enactment from Abu-Graib.

“The bleak conclusion I came to, unless you’re dead or unconscious you can’t really see peace. Our reality precludes that,” said Fein.

Kamler’s work is on ninth at Judah. Jennie Douglass and Josh Farr pondered the four windows while waiting for the bus.

“I have no idea what it means. I’m glad it’s not an advertisement,” said Kamler.

Kamler says the open window looking out on empty space invites us all to imagine for ourselves what peace looks like.

SF Billboards Display Peace Messages
ABC News

USF professor of visual arts Richard Kamler has organized a unique public art show called the Seeing Peace Billboard Project, composed of his and nine other international artists’ visions of peace.

Beginning today, the art works aren’t confined behind the walls of a museum but will be on billboards scattered throughout San Francisco neighborhoods through June 22.

Artists from Cuba, El Salvador, Iran, Israel, Japan, Puerto Rico, South Africa, Tibet, Ukraine and the U.S. created pieces specifically for the Billboard Project, part of an ongoing initiative seeking to bring the artists’ imagination to the table of the General Assembly of the United Nations.

Much of the artwork is provocative. Images include a swaddled baby in a gunsight and a dirty tank split in half by white lilies.

The art is intended to engage the community in dialog around peace, says Kamler.

“Imagine, if you will, that Picasso had painted ‘Guernica’ before the bombs fell on Guernica,” he said. “Might it have been different? We believe art can be proactive.”

The billboards are located at Divisadero and O’Farrell streets; Cesar Chavez and Evans streets; Mission and 17th streets; Mission and Sixth streets; 22nd Avenue and Irving Street; Masonic Avenue and Fulton Street; Valencia Street and Duboce Avenue; Broadway and Montgomery Street; and Judah Street and Ninth Avenue.

Billboards project reveals provocative visions of peace
San Francisco Examiner

In commemoration of the third anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, artist-activist Richard Kamler discusses his visionary initiative “Seeing Peace, Artists Collaborate with the United Nations.”

Asking what would have happened had Picasso painted Guernica before the bombs fell, Kamler and his collaborators are working with the U.N. to create an event for International Peace Day (September 21) in 2005.

One artist from each U.N. member nation will attend a special session of the General Assembly devoted to art and peace.

An accompanying exhibition is planned for San Francisco.

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

Ten artists from 10 member states of the United Nations are currently sharing their vision of peace on billboards throughout the city as part of the Billboards for Peace project.

Billboards for Peace was shepherded into the city by Richard Kamler, an artist and University of San Francisco professor. He asked the international collection of artists to “imagine what peace looks like from their own unique cultural perspective,” Kamler explained before a bus tour launched the exhibit Monday, May 26.

The project was developed with financial support from Peace Development Fund and USF. Clear Channel Outdoor and CBS also provided funding for the Billboards for Peace. Kamler described working with the corporations on a peace project as “complicated,” but also noted that CBS owns 85 percent of the outdoor advertising space in San Francisco.

Taken as a whole, the 10 billboards are a sharp rebuke of war and violence, featuring slogans like “Can I tolerate intolerance?” “Warning,” and “Imagine Peace.”

Individually, however, some of the art is puzzlingly abstract. The billboard at the intersection of Hayes and Divisadero, for example, shows a rosebud evolving into a flower.

“It took me a long time … I’m representing Iran, which has so much political baggage,” said Taraneh Hemami, the Iranian artist who designed the billboard.

The unfolding rose is a symbol frequently seen in Persian art, Hemami explained. A blood drop transfiguring into a rosebud was also featured prominently in posters throughout Iran in the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, a symbol of remembrance for those who died in the conflict, she explained.

Others are striking evocations of familiar images. Clinton Fein, a South African artist, San Francisco resident, and gay man, chose a photo that recreated the horrors of Abu Ghraib at the corner of Montgomery and Broadway. Fein’s recent series of photos based on images from Abu Ghraib, called “Torture,” was shown nationally and internationally in 2007.

A shirtless man cuffed to a prison bed fills Fein’s billboard. A pair of bloody women’s underwear covers his head. The concrete walls show the shadow of bars and are cast in red.

“The world we live in is too toxic,” Fein said of his decision to show a violent image rather than a vision of peace. “Peace as a concept for me is something that we strive for. Whether or not we’ll see it I don’t know.”

An image between the grit of Fein’s work and beauty of Hemami’s rose was displayed on a billboard on Duboce and Valencia. Rafael Trelles, a Puerto Rican artist, reproduced an image of a tank broken in half and sprouting a bouquet of flowers next to the words “Imagine Peace.”

Trelles’s billboard reproduced an image that he originally created with a stencil and a high-pressure hose on the side of an Army storage facility in Vieques. The tank was carved into the grime of the building.

He said that he intended the billboard to “inform about the colonial status of my own country.”

Members of the public constituted the majority of people on the bus tour, taking pictures of the billboards along with the press.

“I think it’s nice to think that the [peace] billboards will be next to Grand Theft Auto billboards,” said Conner Cole, 23, a member of the public who signed up for the tour. “It’s something to balance things out.”

The billboards will remain up until June 22.

Billboards bring peace message to city streets
By Heather Tirado Gilligan
Bay Area Reporter
May 28, 2008 Exhibition Coverage

Pope John Paul smiles from the wrapper of Fein’s “Holier Than Thou” condoms, perforated to insure birth-control failure.

“Justice for Just Us” reads the caption of an image in which George W. Bush and Donald Rumsfeld emerge from the open hatch of a tank that has just blasted the Supreme Court building.

As art, Fein’s work may not rise very high, but as political comedy, his digital fabrications, at their best, have few rivals.

Enron and its political friends have certainly done their part to expand Fein’s audience.

Thiebaud’s fascinating study of de Kooning
By Kenneth Baker, San Francisco Chronicle
January 28, 2002

His commentary is current, brash and to the point. His latest depiction has President Bush and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld riding a tank into a fiery Supreme Court Building with “Justice Just For Us” emblazoned underneath.

“When media and politicians are your subject matter, there is no shortage of material, in terms of stupid and shocking,” he said. “But pure shock value is easy. What is beyond the shock value, that is more of a challenge.”

And Fein’s hits have come close to home.

He came out in support of local activists Michael Petrelis and David Pasquarelli, who are fighting what they term the AIDS establishment, immediately after their arrest in November. The controversial activists are being held on $1.1 million bail on felony counts of criminal harassment, threats and conspiracy.

The South African native was disturbed that District Attorney Terrence Hallinan called their acts terrorism — charges which include harassing phone calls, faxes and e-mails to Chronicle reporters, public health officials and AIDS researchers. Court papers, however, also refer to a bomb threat.

In classic style, Fein came out in support of the activists with an e-postcard, which protested the excessive bail, using war imagery and the statement: “What are you going to do about it?”

“Regardless of their methodology, the backlash is detrimental to anyone,” he said of what many call Petrelis and Pasquarelli’s abusive scare tactics. And anyone is fair game in Fein’s e-art free-speech statements, from politicians and corporations to the media.

“The Chronicle is very guilty of suppressing free speech,” Fein said. “Not once have they said, we support (the free speech rights of) Petrelis and Pasquarelli.”

Fein has been to court twice to defend his First Amendment rights, and both times he won affirmation of his right to annoy.

His 1997 suit challenged the Communications Decency Act, which previously made it a felony to use the Internet to send communications that were “obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy or indecent” when the intent was to “annoy, abuse, threaten or harass” another person. The court found that the First Amendment protected Fein’s right to send indecent communications that were intended, quite clearly, to annoy.

Two years later, government investigators wanted Fein to hand over the identity of someone who had sent an e-postcard with an explicitly sexual and violent message.

Fein refused to give up the sender and was taken to court. The investigators eventually backed off and he kept the sender’s identity protected.

Free-speech advocates such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) defend Fein’s right to say what he wants and to help others express their First Amendment rights as well.

“The First Amendment allows (people) to say impolite and rude things and there is a place for that,” said Lee Tien, EFF spokesman. “Public discourse is not always polite and civil.”

Fein’s in-your-face political statements have gotten him plenty of nasty notes, and even death threats. But his Web site clearly spells out his aversion to threats of physical harassment and promises to hand over to law enforcement anyone who tries to “spoil our free speech party.”

“Even if it’s some renegade authoritarian dictatorship that might crucify your stupid a– if they catch you.”

And if that pisses you off as well, he’ll be glad to know that you are annoyed.

Out to Annoy
By Tanya Pampalone, San Francisco Examiner
February 3, 2002 Lawsuit Coverage

The publishers of the appropriately named Web site filed suit on Thursday In Federal district court in San Francisco against Attorney General Janet Reno, arguing that a little-known provision of the Communications Decency Act would criminalize online communication that is both “indecent” and meant to “annoy” the recipient of the message.

The one-year-old law, lawyers say, could unjustly punish indelicate or blunt opinion mongers if they send their messages by a telecommunications device. The law calls for hefty fines and up to two years in a federal prison.

“It is a historic right of Americans to speak their minds bluntly and coarsely and, if necessary, with the view of annoying people,” said J. Michael Traynor, a lawyer in the case. “Sometimes politicians don’t respond to a one-time quiet message. Sometimes people feel they need to get in their face a little bit.”

Pamela Mendels, The New York Times

A company that allows people to anonymously send profanity-filled e-mail messages to government officials wants a panel of federal judges to issue an injunction against part of the 1996 Communications Decency Act.

Lawyers for the Delaware-based company, ApolloMedia, which runs the “” Internet site, urged the panel of two federal trial judges and one appellate judge to prohibit enforcement of the law.

The panel took no immediate action following an hourlong hearing Monday.

A portion of the act makes it a felony to transmit language that is “lewd, lascivious, filthy or indecent, with intent to annoy, abuse threaten or harass another person.”

The plaintiff’s lawyer, William Turner, claimed the statute is unconstitutional and vague. Since the “” Web site includes an interactive feature that enables Internet users to send nude images and profanity-laced e-mail to government officials, managers of the company “take a deep breath” every time their Internet site is used, he said.

Read the full article at New York Times

ApolloMedia was challenging a portion of the law that sought to bring a federal statute banning harassing or obscene phone calls into the digital age. The provision outlaws the use of a “telecommunications device” to transmit comments that are “obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy or indecent” when the intent is “to annoy, abuse, threaten or harass another person.”

ApolloMedia did not object to the bans on obscenity, harassment, abuse or threats, but argued that, given its wording, the law would also criminalize online communication that is both “indecent” and meant to “annoy.” Since enables visitors to send unvarnished opinions to political and other figures in the news, the company was concerned that its activities would be banned by the statute.

The company filed suit in United States District Court for the Northern District of California in San Francisco early last year.

In a divided opinion handed down late Wednesday, however, the court refused to issue an injunction blocking the law. Two of the three judges on the special panel said that despite the use of the word “indecent” in the law, the statute really proscribes only obscenity, which, unlike indecent speech, receives no First Amendment protection.

“In light of prior case law and statutory history, it is ‘fairly possible’ to read [the statute] as applying only to ‘obscene’ communications,” Judge Maxine M. Chesney, of the United States District Court, and Judge Michael Daly Hawkins, of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, wrote. “So construed, the provision would clearly survive constitutional challenge.”

Pamela Mendels, New York Times

Unlike other snotty purveyors of irritation such as Suck or Spy, though, Fein’s expletive-laced rantings have an oddly earnest ideological passion behind them. See, is largely a response to a provision in the Communications Decency Act that makes it illegal to send communications over the Internet that are “indecent” with “intent to annoy.” Though the “indecent” part has been struck down by the Supreme Court, the “annoy” provision still stands. Theoretically, Fein could face two years in prison and a substantial fine for his unpleasantness, though he has thus far emerged unscathed from his legal wrangling with Janet Reno.

“Bill Clinton and Congress passed a law recently making it a felony to annoy them! Of all the fucking nerve,” says the site. “Supported, no less, by a whole bunch of folk who, in our opinion, are fucking indecent and annoying themselves–to say the least. So now it’s payback time.”

“It’s fundamentally about freedom of expression, about language and communication,” Fein says about the site. “ is a deliberately provocative, over-the-top, in-your-face articulation of the stupidity of the legislation that spawned its name and of the political process that allowed it to happen. It’s not simply a satire or a parody.

“Fundamentally it’s a vitally important communications tool. It really allows communications that are anonymous and directed toward people who are socially accountable for legislation. In a democracy, or at least a place that defines itself as a democracy, how can the people that we elect to represent us tell us how we should or should not communicate with them?”

Since postcards from can be sent anonymously, visitors can irritate without braving the law as Fein has done. People have sent Bill Clinton pictures of a flipping-off finger with the message “Fuck you, from Hillary,” says Fein. They can also send “annoy libs”–form letters interspersed with scroll boxes providing menus of insults and arguments–to public figures ranging from Phyllis Schlafly to the ACLU. Users can choose epithets from “religious zealots” to “liberal fuckheads.”

“We’re not asking for a constitutionally protected right to threaten people, harass them or abuse them, but to annoy them,” says Fein. “Jesse Helms annoys me. Isn’t it fair that I can annoy him back?”

Cover Story from the January 1998 Edition of The Metropolitan

“… a controversial Web site that includes such features as “Heckle” which lets visitors send anonymous (and expletive-filled) e-mail to politicians and other public figures.”

Thomas Weber, Wall Street Journal


“On Wednesday, a three-judge federal panel handed down a divided ruling to ApolloMedia. The court found that the right to communicate indecent material with intent to annoy over the Internet is constitutionally protected. “

– Reuters


“Ironically, Fein noted that the ruling protects Ken Starr, the independent prosecutor whose sexually explicit allegations of U.S. President Clinton’s misconduct with a White House intern have been posted on the Internet. “

— Elinor Mills, CNN


“…eerily reminiscent of A Clockwork Orange — images of political leaders alternate with pornographic shots of body parts, racial slurs, American flags, flowers, and profanity. The visual barrage (probably) won’t send you into seizures like all those cartoon-loving Japanese kids, but it might irritate you enough to make you stick around and count how many clicks it takes to be offended.”

Stephanie Saulmon, New York Magazine


“The more umbrageous among us may not click past Annoy’s home page, primed as it is for publicity with repeat-looped images of a wide range of uncovered private parts and brazen racial epithets. That would be a shame. The site is worthy of exploration for its irreverent use of interactivity, and there are also other kinds of provocative material here — in particular, cogent essays on media and social issues that are as edgy as anything on the Internet.”

Web Citations, The Atlantic Monthly


“On Wednesday, a three-judge federal panel handed down a divided ruling to ApolloMedia. The court found that the right to communicate indecent material with intent to annoy over the Internet is constitutionally protected.”

Heidi Kriz Wired News


A quick glance at the main home page of shows that the the company is reveling in its victory, with an assortment of terms and photographs that would likely annoy most people, and might possibly induce sudden-death embolisms in others.”

— Robert MacMillan, Newsbytes News Network


“Dirty Dancing: A federal court panel agreed with the Clinton administration that a law banning email sent with an “intent ot annoy” applies only to obscenity and not to “indecent” material. The ruling pleased Clinton Fein, Web site developer.”

The Hollywood Reporter


“Attorney General Janet Reno said she didn’t intend to use the law against the type of material sent on sites like “” But Fein said the Justice Department refused to make a written promise, which in any event wouldn’t have been binding on future administrations. He said the ruling fills that gap.”

San Jose Mercury News


“If ‘flaming’ is the favorite sport of the online world, is a high-octane flame-thrower on a mission.…offering an online service that delivers scathing, anonymous postcards to public figures, and dishes up corrosive commentary and graphics hammering every hot-button issue from abortion to Zionism.”

Steve Silberman, Wired News


“Watch out Newt, Bill and all the other politicos ripe for a verbal tomato in the kisser. The folks at a new Web site are practicing their pitches. And they’re going to court to protect their rights to ready, aim and hit the send button.”

Pamela Mendels, The New York Times


“, a Web site design to irk backers of the Communications Decency Act, lost a First Amendment court challenge last week, thanks to a part of that act which was not struck down as unconstitutional. The court ruled that was protected under the First Amendment for “indecent” speech, but not for anything deemed “obscene” under California law.”

The Filter: Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School


“One of the site’s features was a series of e-mail messages that could be sent to government and other public officials…But the ruling did create a potential set of legal conflicts with the 1997 Supreme Court CDA decision. “

— John Borland, Tech Web, CMP Media


“The publishers of the scorching commentary site say they can keep raising eyebrows without fear of prosecution under a federal court ruling today. “

— Courtney Macavinta CNET


“Harmful to Minors:”It is our constitutional right to annoy politicians and public figures that we ourselves are annoyed by.” -Clinton Fein, publisher of, a Web site that makes its name by mailing electronic postcards with slogans such as, ‘Pornography is good for you.’ “

— Computer Currents


“‘The Internet is too crucial for our future to be governed by criminal legislation that is numbingly confusing to the average person. I am relieved that the government cannot prosecute for the content we’ve published to date, and for which the Justice Department had reserved the right to do following a ruling. Right now, Kenn Starr should kiss my ass.’ – Clinton D. Fein, president of ApolloMedia Corporation, publishers of”

The Filter: Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School


“ revels in vulgarity, including scatological references, pictures of genitals, and George Carlin’s “seven dirty words.” Which would seem to put it somewhere in the vicinity of that mysterious territory known as indecency.”

Jacob Sullum, Reason Magazine


“The US Supreme Court decision legitimizing free speech online was not quite a death blow to the Communications Decency Act (CDA). The Supreme Court struck down just one provision of that legislation prohibiting “communication which is… indecent, with intent to annoy….” The backers of, appropriately, are going after this part of the Act, arguing that Americans have a constitutional right to send “indecent” messages to “annoy” others. Oddly, they have a good case – precedent says expressions of opinion can’t be regulated based solely on content.”

Netsurfer Digest


“The ransom-letter layout and labelmaker fonts on are like a call to battle stations, but many of the texts – including the polymorphously perturbing “annoy libs,” with a menu of targets including Senator Jesse Helms – are as witty as they are angry. “

Steve Silberman, Hotwired’s Netizen


“Clinton Fein, president of ApolloMedia, says that “in the wake of the issues raised in the Paula Jones sexual harassment suit and the emergence of the Internet as an increasingly fundamental business tool, it is imperative that we weigh speech issues in the workplace with careful consideration and reasoned analysis.” Fein told free! that “the Aguilar decision, if allowed to stand, will continue to establish a huge chilling effect on speech.”

David Hudson, Free: The First Amendment Center


“…if simply being annoying were a crime, Pat Robertson would be serving a triple life sentence. At least is an equal-opportunity irritant, offering a range of profane and vulgar postcards with something to offend everyone.”

— Jonathan Gregg, Time


“The publishers of…have chosen a form of protest that should be illegal…Their web site provides a huge collection of offensive words and images. That, as far as I’m concerned, falls squarely within the limits of free expression. Then, however, they step over a significant line by offering a service by which you can have a vulgar and offensive message sent to any e-mail address.”

Online with George Cottay


“He is taking risks, however. With every e-mail sent through that someone considers ‘indecent’ and ‘annoying’ Fein is committing a felony, punishable by two years in prison and six-figure fines. (The precise penalties are still uncertain.)”

— Phyllis Orrick and Susan Rasky, License to Annoy, Weekly World Web & SF Weekly


“These cards are not for the faint of heart.

Besides space on the cards for personalized messages, many also carry profanities and nudity mingled with political themes and carry messages that attack conservative and liberal philosophies and personalities alike.”

The San Francisco Chronicle


Art of Engagement

Art of Engagement: Visual Politics in California and Beyond by Peter Selz

Born in Johannesburg, where he witnessed the effects of apartheid, Fein studied industrial psychology before moving to Los Angeles in the mid-1980s and later settling in San Francisco.

His art ranges over a variety of political issues, from urban blight to the masochistic and homoerotic implications of life in the military to the ongoing “war on terror” and erosion of American civil liberties.

A 2004 exhibit in San Francisco was explicitly intended to make viewers aware of the “nightmarish rollbacks of the Constitution by an Administration that has done more to kill civil liberties than Osama bin Laden could ever have wished for in his wettest dreams.”

Figures of Speech

Figures of Speech by William Turner

Clinton Fein and the ACLU

Clinton Fein felt betrayed. He thought he had been promised freedom of expression. Instead he got the Communications Decency Act.

Born in South AfricaFein grew up under Apartheid. As he graduated from the University of Witwatersrand, he was interested in journalism. But the South Africa of the time was not a promising environment for young journalists. Under the repressive censorship regime, one could be imprisoned for quoting Nelson Mandela, who was then in prison for revolutionary activities. 

Fein emigrated to the United States, studied for citizenship, learned all about the Constitution, and was naturalized in 1994. When he took the oath, he was bemused by the seeming contradiction in having to swear to God …

Fein resists the idea that “art and literature exist in a vacuum, and particularly that text is obligated to evoke pleasure.” Critiquing a culture of fear and the Bush administration’s “Shock and Awe” military policy, his art is calculated to shock.

Technology is his weapon: he digitally alters images and subversively collages fragments, so that Condoleezza Rice becomes Marie Antoinette, Bin Laden the Statue of Liberty.

The performance art of his continually published images parallel and challenge an amnesiac 24-hour news cycle, and he notes that the internet best accommodates contemporary protest: although anti- war protestors didn’t manage to stop the Iraq war, the Internet allowed them to mobilize huge demonstrations.

Clinton Fein’s exhibition, Torture, which opened at Toomey Tourell Gallery in San Francisco in January 2007 was a shocking and defiant exploration of America’s approach to torture under the Bush administration. 

A series of staged and digitally manipulated photographic images recreate the infamous torture scenes from Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, transforming the diffuse, muted and low-resolution images into large-scale, vivid, powerful and frightening reproductions. 

On January 30, 1997, Clinton Fein launched, simultaneously filing a federal court action seeking declaratory and injunctive relief challenging the provisions of the Communications Decency Act (CDA) of 1996 that criminalized any “indecent” computer communication intended to “annoy” another person. 

Much of the content on was deliberately provocative and very often, somewhat crass, mocking the pretensions and piety of politicians and media alike. 

The CDA’s assault on the First Amendment could not be countered with subtleties. So began a prolonged court battle against Janet Reno and the Clinton Administration that was finally determined by the Supreme Court of the United States of America.

Fein became the first South African born activist to challenge the United States government before the Supreme Court.

Days before the release of Conduct Unbecoming, the Navy attempted to bar the use of a 1972 recruiting poster featuring the first African American used in a recruiting campaign. Servicemember Ed Graves had been discharged from the Navy a few years later for being gay. Refusing to allow the “Don’t Tell” provision of the new policy relating to gays and lesbians in the armed forces to extend to civilians as well, Clinton Fein, President of ApolloMedia, refused to pull the image.

ApolloMedia, represented by Michael Traynor at Cooley Godward, effectively established the de facto acknowledgment that First Amendment protections must be extended to CD-ROM publishers and, in so doing, helped shape the legal foundations for defining the content of interactive digital media.