Artist as Prisoner

Ed Bobb punched a few keys and went to jail. Where's the justice?

Sitting at a table surrounded by orange traffic cones on a brick-paved street in the Ybor City neighborhood of Tampa, Gustavo Matamoros is oblivious to the cars that occasionally rattle by. As he taps on his laptop's keyboard, a massive image of two cigars -- or perhaps one cigar burning from both ends -- is projected onto more than a dozen scrim fabric screens hung from an old building's brick archways. Four large hidden speakers cast disembodied sounds -- bird calls maybe, something akin to an electronic dog yelping, lobotomized chicken clucks -- that echo off the brick faades on the block.

Several passersby, elderly white tourists with digital cameras dangling from their necks and middle-age black women out for an evening on the town, stop to look and listen. One heavyset lady turns to her girlfriends and asks loudly: "This a haunted house?" The audience, a group of about twenty -- dotted with black frame glasses and artsy tattoos -- smoke cigarettes on the curb, chat quietly, and check cell phone screens. Some listen intently. A young man wearing a blue blazer pauses to take in the scene. He turns to someone leaning against a wall. "Is this art or something?" he asks with wry smile.

Noma Bliss
Noma Bliss

The sound technician for the day, Charles Taylor, admits he was puzzled when Matamoros contacted him about setting up the sound system. Generally he does only concerts, bigger shows with one or two channels of sound, nothing like the four-channel system Matamoros wanted. "I thought he was crazy when he first called me," Taylor says. "Art? Yeah, okay, whatever, dude." Then, looking around, Taylor adds, "Am I missing something? There's nobody here."

There is a limited but devoted following for sound art, Matamoros says after the performance. Because the South Florida scene is small compared to New York or other major cities, there is more freedom to invent, he explains in a thick Venezuelan accent. "What Ed does and what I do is Miami music, whether people know it or not. Cuban music is Cuban music, not Miami music."

Before his arrest, Bobb sometimes would show up an hour before a performance with nothing prepared, Matamoros explains. He would spend time at his computer thinking about how to tailor the sound to the space. In a recent video piece titled Mandala, Bobb interspersed rapid-fire images of single flowers with dull urban street scenes so that the flowers morphed into kaleidoscopic fireworks. Bobb often layered sounds and pop-culture flotsam such as TV commercials, newscasts, and religious programs. In his apartment-cum-studio he stored a massive archive of videotapes, DVDs, and CDs that included everything from mundane government meetings to ridiculous Japanese pop songs.

Matamoros says Bobb had never spoken with him about child pornography or the Totem and Taboo project, so he was puzzled by news of the charges against his longtime colleague. "I think he may have been naive, but I have a hard time believing there was any malice," Matamoros says. "For me, an artist is someone who investigates. There's the need for the artist to go into a subject equally as a scientist goes into a subject."

Bobb never goes into a subject hesitantly, Matamoros adds. "It's always about extending things. He's interested in the edge. It's not very interesting if you can go 200 miles per hour in a Ferrari. What would be interesting is if you could go 200 miles per hour on a Vespa."

Bobb's style didn't sit well with everyone. Zach Danesh, a 21-year-old artist, recalls taking an art survey class alongside Bobb at the New World School of the Arts. Bobb was studying for his master's -- he had taught film studies at Miami-Dade Community College until the degree was made mandatory for professors. "A lot of the other kids in class didn't like him," Danesh says. They thought he was pretentious, overly cynical, impossible to please.

On the other hand, Danesh admired Bobb's experience, knowledge, and generosity (Bobb cooked meals for Danesh when the young student was scraping for cash). And he was amused by the artist's daily "uniform" of geometric eyeglass frames, oversize collared shirts, straight-leg jeans, and Adidas sneakers. All the same, Bobb was difficult to understand. After a few drinks at a Miami Art Museum opening, Danesh recalls, Bobb turned to him and reflected on his long career. "He said there's no point to life," Danesh remembers. "It's just chaos, and art makes no sense of it. It's just something to occupy your time."

Bobb often speaks in riddles of a sort. But, says his fiancťe Salame, he can't be mistaken for a misanthrope or, as his trial might suggest to some, a pedophile. "He's very different from anyone you'll ever meet," Salame says. "He doesn't see the world in the same way." Of Bobb's Totem and Taboo project, she says, "He's picking up a rock and he's saying, Hey, look what's on this rock; look at it closely, all the disgusting things.' He's showing everyone the dark side of that garden path."

Twenty-five years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court placed child porn beyond First Amendment protection, stating that such material is "intrinsically related to the sexual abuse of children" and its prohibition a "legitimate reach" of the law. In the years since, sentences have grown more severe and judges less willing to hear defenses based on artistic expression, scholarly research, or journalism. "Possession of child pornography is illegal regardless of motive," says Rick Louis, spokesman for the Web-based Association of Sites Advocating Child Protection. "Even if someone seeks out and downloads [child porn] for the sole and specific purpose of reporting it to law enforcement, they are still breaking the law. Therefore anyone who pursues illegal material even for purposes of art or research should consider the terrible risk of being labeled a pedophile."

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