Artist as Prisoner
A dozen inmates wait patiently in hard plastic chairs arranged in tight rows. They fix their stares on the steel double doors that occasionally bang open to admit a new face, usually a lawyer with a heavy briefcase. The visitation center lobby at the federal prison in downtown Miami hums with the idle conversations of prisoners in do-rags and shaggy beards. Their voices are muffled by the room's carpeting. Forearm tattoos and forest green jumpsuits seem to bleed together under the powerful fluorescent light.
A middle-age white man sits upright yet relaxed, alone in the front row. His gray hair is carefully parted around a bald spot, his glasses folded in a breast pocket. He smiles faintly, nods, and offers a half-wave with his right hand. This is Edward Bobb.
A squat, bald guard with clanging gold bracelets leads Bobb to a small anteroom furnished with bolted-down tables and chairs. Shortly after taking a seat, the Miami Gardens man starts sipping vending machine coffee and, unprompted, begins a steady flood of commentary. Rubbing his stubbly chin, he holds forth on creativity, mythology, Dada pioneer Marcel Duchamp, beat novelist William Burroughs, the musique concrte movement, and the bullet to the gut that forever altered his perception of the world.
"It was my mitzvah," he says, using the Hebrew term for good deed.
In the cold light, Bobb's skin looks sallow, his eyes deep-set. Wrinkles and red splotches climb from his chin to his forehead. He pauses frequently to consider a question or concept. Occasionally he reaches for the paper coffee cup as though it might offer an answer. "Every day, every moment is a creative outlet," he says, even in prison. Then, weighing his words, he adds, "But I don't want to be cavalier about it.... I'm just an artist."
Indeed Bobb is an internationally known avant-garde sound and video artist who, during the past decade, has been called "one of Miami's foremost experimental musicians" by the Miami Herald, "the father of Miami's experimental scene" by Spanish journalist Vidal Romero, and an "aural terrorist" by this newspaper.
The man once known as Needle, Twonky, and Johnny Zhivago is now known as prisoner number 66046-004. Since February, the closest Bobb, age 52, has come to video art are the occasional Hollywood movies -- like Happy Feet -- shown on the three television sets in his cell block's common area.
Bobb was convicted this past February of illegally downloading thousands of images of child pornography. But in fact his crime was nothing more than what he has done for decades -- push the bounds of artistic expression. Depending on the sentence a judge is scheduled to hand down June 1, the day after this newspaper is printed, Bobb might spend the rest of his life in jail -- leaving behind a disabled son, a gravely ill fiancée, and elderly parents.
The case has left some in the local art community bewildered.
"He doesn't seem like he's harmful in any way," says Bobb's onetime fellow art class student Paul Gaeta. "Images? I mean we're polluted by images every day from every angle. Especially with how violent we are as a culture, to throw a man in jail for looking at images?"
When she has the strength to sit up in her queen-size four-poster bed, Rebecca Salame either talks on one of the several phones scattered around her room or types letters on her laptop. From the second floor of her townhouse in rural New Jersey, she can look out on a small garden, but she rarely ventures outside or downstairs; she's too weak from chemotherapy to handle the staircase alone. Dozens of DVD movies -- a gift from Edward Bobb -- are her main source of entertainment. The two have known each other for more than two decades. They are engaged. Days before Bobb's arrest this past August 25, Salame was diagnosed with a rare form of lymphoma. A strip of hair on her scalp -- the only wisps left after chemo -- looks like a Mohawk, and her fingernails only recently grew back. She wears a mask when friends visit and recently developed shingles on her eyes, making it increasingly difficult to type up the letters she has been sending to colleagues and friends of Bobb's, asking them to petition the court on his behalf.
The phone rings frequently and e-mails pour in from all over the world, Salame says. People want to know how she's holding up. They want to know about Bobb.
The two met in Miami 23 years ago and began dating a few months later. The relationship ended when Salame decided she wanted a more stable life than Bobb could offer at the time. It was rekindled in 2000, after Salame's husband left. While the right time for a wedding never presented itself, Bobb and Salame have been engaged dozens of times, by Salame's count. "It's a running joke we have. He's given me a lot of rings. I have a collection."
Edward Charles Bobb was born in Evansville, Indiana, in 1954 and moved to South Florida the following year when his father Louis, a World War II submariner and executive at the Sherwin-Williams paint company, was transferred here. The family at first rented a place on Flagler Street and 57th Avenue, a few blocks from a community of Seminole Indians and their small tourist village.
Florida's Turnpike and the Palmetto Expressway had yet to be built, and I-95 was just an idea. Within a few years, the Bobbs moved into a three-bedroom ranch house in the Norwood area, now Miami Gardens. It was sleepy and safe. "You could leave your house without locking the door," Bobb's mother, Polly, says. She remembers her son's youth as happy and peaceful.
Bobb went to Norwood middle and high schools, where he played saxophone and edited the school newspaper's feature section despite his dyslexia. He admired gonzo journalist Hunter Thompson -- who was just making it big around then -- and reveled in art classes.
As a teenager during the height of the Vietnam era, Bobb presented his mother with a silkscreen image of yellowish slats against a brown background. He called it Cages. Polly, a devout Episcopalian and member of an evangelical group called Daughters of the King, was bothered by the work. She assumed it related to prisoners of war, but Bobb offered no explanation. "I said, Why can't you do a tree with a stream by it?'" she remembered recently.
The prim, bifocal-wearing 78-year-old, who has lived in the same ranch house for 50 years, admits she hoped her son would outgrow art. Instead he delved deeper into the creative depths, splicing film images and experimenting with sound frequencies his mother found hard to appreciate. "It would be difficult for me," she says, "but the Beatles were difficult for me."
It wasn't only Polly who was puzzled. Surrounded by an aura of meditative intensity, Edward was seen as eccentric and somewhat distant by many who knew him. "You can just sense a lot of mystery to him," says James Garcia, a sound artist who worked with Bobb in later years. "He's a mental person. He's very into dissecting things."
On his own after a one-year stint at Miami-Dade Community College, he began to move within Miami's burgeoning, off-the-radar avant-garde art scene in the late Seventies and early Eighties. He exhibited and performed at the Center of Contemporary Art (now the Museum of Contemporary Art) in North Miami, the Art and Culture Center of Hollywood, and galleries all over town.
He met Mary Deaton, who did clerical work, and they had a son, Xeno, in 1978. There were complications during the birth, and the boy was born mentally disabled. Two years later they wed. They rented several apartments in different parts of the city and lived a bohemian existence.
Edward made a name for himself with small electro-punk outfits -- the Happiness Boys, the Neutronics, and Early Warning System -- he formed with like-minded musicians. Among their influences, they cited African rhythms, rock, free jazz, and composers such as Stockhausen. Bobb used his computer as an instrument, manipulating channels of sound and accompanying bass lines. There were processed horns, synthesizers, kalimbas, and marimbas. Anything was worth exploring, from playing an album cover through a turntable needle to video feedback.
In 1983 a magazine called Boston Rock described the Happiness Boys, one of Bobb's more sustained projects, as a "demented team" that played "psychotically contorted" music. "They maim delicacy with decay, calm with tense anger," the reviewer wrote.
"It was pretty outrageous," recalls Steve Malagodi, former host of New Music Miami on erstwhile radio station WLRN-FM (91.3). "It was fast. It was loud. It was very high-tech for the time."
The Happiness Boys were incendiary live, pushing club and art gallery listeners to the brink, says Malagodi. "Frankly if they were interested in response, they were interested in outrage." Audiences occasionally threw things at Bobb, but more often they walked out.
Those who stuck around were part of a small, close-knit experimental art scene, says Mary Luft, founder of Tigertail Productions. Tigertail's inaugural performance series in 1984 featured the Happiness Boys playing to about 200 people on an old concrete soundstage downtown. "Vodka was free, and orange juice was a dollar," Luft says with a laugh.
Bobb was a mainstay on the scene, always ready with a new band set, sound art project, or video piece. He composed and played silent film scores for Alliance Cinemas. He was a DJ at Cameo nightclub on South Beach and pioneered an early form of turntable scratching, altering the surface of records with sandpaper and using needle drops for percussion.
"I think when Edward did a show, he didn't give a fuck, says Miami drum 'n' bass DJ Otto Von Schirach. "He was like, Bring the madness -- who cares about money.'"
Bobb came across as pretentious and aloof to some, wise and enigmatic to others. Marilyn Gottlieb Roberts, organizer of the Miami Ways Music Festival, later the New Music America Festival, recalls her first impression: "He had a kind of innocence that young kids have, but he wasn't immature."
In 1983 Bobb was featured on National Public Radio's Meet the Composer series, and things were looking up. But by the end of the decade, his relationship with Mary had deteriorated. In 1987 they divorced. A judge gave primary custody of Xeno to the artist, according to court records. Part of the reason, Salame says, was that Xeno had been found with bruises likely inflicted by Mary's boyfriend. Mary did not return calls from New Times.
As Xeno's primary caregiver, Bobb was devoted and energetic in engaging his son, according to acquaintances. The two went on field trips, devised inventive games, and worked on art projects together, including several videos -- an ironic fact given what Bobb would be accused of years later. "He did a heroic job [with his son]," Gottlieb Roberts says.
About to go onstage at a sold-out club in Tokyo's Shibuya district, Bobb and Otto Von Schirach looked to each other for last-minute inspiration. As hundreds sat patiently on the concrete floor, waiting for the performance to begin, Schirach, then age 24, asked Bobb how he should warm up the crowd.
"Get on the mike and talk like Satan," Bobb shot back.
Schirach was momentarily stunned but took the command for what it was -- another cryptic piece of a puzzle. Bobb was ready to delve into new worlds and bring along the audience -- willing or not. "Everyone said, guard the mixer -- it's going to get brutal," Schirach recalls. "The sound man was scared."
That was 2001. Around the same time, Bobb began experimenting with the work that would ultimately land him in court. After watching a 60 Minutes program about a halfway house for abused girls, he began thinking about a project that might explore the unspeakable act of incest. He had been reading Freud's Totem and Taboo, and began to imagine an art piece combining the two concepts.
He would examine the subtle, commonplace exploitation of child sexuality -- stick-thin, pubescent-looking underwear models and teenage sex symbols. He would also delve into the shadowy underworld of child pornography. It began with a few Google searches and led to the download of 3500 sexually explicit images, including 50 movie files, onto his home computer.
Unbeknownst to him, Bobb was being watched. In June 2005 the FBI in Oklahoma received information that the Website for the Great Plains Child Resource and Referral Center, a child-care advocacy group, had been hacked. Someone had set up a portal to a massive cache of child pornography. Although investigators couldn't determine who posted the images, they traced thousands of downloads from the site to apartment 801 in the Olympia Building on Flagler Street and Second Avenue.
This past August 4, FBI agents entered the converted Twenties-era office building, which also houses the Olympia Theater. They knocked on the yellowish-white door of the eighth-floor apartment and presented the startled tenant with a search warrant. The agents seized two Apple PowerBook laptops, two external hard drives, and a CPU tower. They returned three weeks later to arrest the tenant: Edward Bobb.
He had no criminal record at the time and had never been sued, according to county court records and a background search through the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. None of the sixteen friends and acquaintances of Bobb's questioned for this story ever suspected him of molesting or behaving improperly around a child.
Bobb was released within hours on a $150,000 bond. His parents put up their house as collateral. The artist surrendered his passport and was forbidden access to computers and cell phones. He agreed to undergo counseling and avoid all contact with minors, including his fianc'e's teenage daughter, Elissa, who considers Bobb her second father.
Soon after his arrest, Bobb hired attorneys Jonathan Schwartz and Brittney Horstman. Schwartz is a world traveler and Kabbalah acolyte, a fast-talking foil to the younger and more easygoing Horstman.
Because a 2006 federal law makes all viewing of child pornography illegal, except by a trial jury or under a federal agent's supervision, Horstman had to drive to an FBI office in North Miami to view the downloads from Bobb's computer. She sat in front of a monitor in a cubicle for three or four hours a day over several days. An agent working nearby kept tabs on Horstman's visits and escorted her on bathroom trips.
There were images of prepubescent children being pinned down and penetrated, along with happy-looking photographs of kids playing at the beach. There were nude portraits and images of oral sex with a six-month-old infant. In one photo series, a four-year-old was forced to perform oral sex on a man. "I had never seen anything close to it," Horstman says. "When someone says child pornography, I guess I had a picture [in my mind], but I didn't really know."
The images would have become something completely different in the Totem and Taboo project, according to Bobb. He is adamant that no image would have been recognizable as child pornography. (In fact government prosecutors acknowledged during the trial that investigators found on Bobb's computers altered images of child pornography fitting the artist's description of "video painting.") Bobb says he had envisioned multiple channels of video on twelve monitors. There would be strobe lighting and audio from the 60 Minutes show that featured one girl describing how her stepbrothers had tried to rape her. The audio would trigger melodic tones, making something horrific vaguely pleasant.
One monitor would feature speeding images -- child porn altered, faded, turned, and layered so as to be unidentifiable -- while two other monitors would flash file names. "This became a journey into the abyss," he says. "To me, this was documentation. These are just images that are there. I didn't think about repercussions. It's confusing to me that art and freedom of expression is not a defense, or that any particular defense is not a defense."
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.
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 fiancée 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."
That label has stalked more than a few artists in the years since the Supreme Court's landmark ruling on child pornography. In one prominent case, FBI agents in 1990 raided the San Francisco studio of internationally acclaimed photographer Jock Sturges, seizing equipment, negatives, and photographs he had taken of nudist families. Sturges was never indicted, but he ran up a hefty legal bill during the fifteen-month investigation. Grand juries in Alabama and Tennessee did, however, indict Barnes & Noble on child pornography and obscene materials counts for selling Sturges's book Radiant Identities. The chain reached a deal with Tennessee authorities to display the book in blinder racks above children's eye level. The Alabama case was dismissed on a technicality.
In another oft-cited case, Detroit police raided the house of Marilyn Zimmerman, a photography professor at Wayne State University. They had been tipped off by a janitor claiming that a contact sheet containing images of Zimmerman's three-year-old daughter in the bathtub "looked like porn" to him. The prosecutor's investigation ended after a nationwide response from colleagues, curators, and scholars attested to Zimmerman's significance as an American artist and educator, and to the historical context for works of art that have shown nudes, including children.
Perhaps the most famous recent case involved Pete Townshend, guitarist for British supergroup The Who. Townshend's arrest in January 2003 came after he admitted downloading child porn while researching a memoir about his own abuse as a juvenile. He was cleared four months later, following a lengthy police investigation by Scotland Yard, although his name remained on a national sex offender register. A year ago on his Website, www.petetownshend-whohe.blogspot.com, Townshend wrote, "On the issue of child abuse, the climate in the press, the police, and in government in the UK at the moment is one of a witch hunt."
In the United States, child pornography is defined under federal law as the visual depiction of minors "engaged in a sex act" or the "lascivious depictions of [a minor's] genitals." In the past few years, thousands of Americans have been tried in child pornography cases. The level and intensity of the prosecutions reflects society's "growing anxiety" about child abuse and more frequent news stories about sexual predators, according to Marjorie Heins, founder and director of the Free Expression Policy Project at New York University's Brennan Center for Justice. "It becomes very hard to have a coherent conversation about it without temperatures rising."
In Miami, U.S. Attorney Alex Acosta has made clear his intention to prioritize the prosecution of pornographers. Meeting with FBI supervisors in 2005, the then-interim U.S. Attorney surprised some by placing smut of all kinds toward the top of his enforcement list.
Soon after Bobb's arrest, his lawyers began pondering a defense based on freedom of expression. They felt it might apply in this case because of his long, law-abiding history in the community and his boundary-testing experimentation. They repeatedly mentioned his artistic work during plea negotiations. "Edward Bobb is not the person this law was created for," Horstman says. "His purpose was not to harm anybody, but actually to create more of a social awareness about the issue."
Unimpressed, government prosecutors filed a motion in January to prohibit the defense. "Moreover, whether defendant identifies his avant-garde use of child pornography ... simply has no legal significance on his culpability," the motion stated. "[The artist defense] would improperly allow defendant to turn the trial into a symposium on the First Amendment."
Judge Ursula Ungaro-Benages agreed, forcing Horstman and Schwartz to argue instead that evidence did not show beyond a shadow of a doubt that Bobb had actually downloaded the images. Maybe his son, Xeno, had done it, they suggested to the jury.
The trial, which began February 12, lasted four days. Assistant U.S. Attorney Norman Hemming insisted on showing the jury some of the most disturbing images recovered from Bobb's computers. The prosecution also called a half-dozen witnesses, including the FBI agents who searched Bobb's computers and arrested him. There was also an official from the Oklahoma children's group that unwittingly hosted child pornography on its Website, as well as someone from Bobb's Internet service provider.
Schwartz and Horstman called no witnesses. "Who would we call?" Horstman says. "Unless there's someone who's going to say, Yeah, it's my child pornography,' which is unlikely." The trial's final day stretched into the evening on Valentine's Day. Horstman sensed a growing impatience as she made her closing argument. "I remember thinking all these women and men are wanting to get home for their Valentine's Day."
The jury took only an hour and a half to reach a verdict. Tomorrow Judge Ungaro-Benages will decide Bobb's sentence. Federal guidelines mandate a minimum of five years in prison.
While most of Bobb's friends and colleagues support him, they've also struggled to understand. Some wonder how well they actually knew the artist.
"The whole thing is extremely uncomfortable," says Charles Recher, who taught film studies with Bobb at MDCC. He speaks deliberately between frequent pauses, saying "you know" in almost every other sentence. "He always worked with images from the culture, transforming images."
Recher says he hadn't seen Bobb much in recent years. He hadn't heard anything about child porn. Although Recher wrote a letter to the court about Bobb's upstanding character and his contributions to the Miami arts community, he admits, "There are still a lot of things about it that I don't understand."
Stephanie Garcia, a fellow student of Bobb's at the New World school, says she can't begin to understand the case either. It seems another inexplicable piece of an unusual puzzle. "He's like this 18-year-old stuck in a 50-year-old's body," Garcia says of her soft-spoken classmate.
"To think of him as a geeky pornographer is just unthinkable," says Marilyn Gottlieb Roberts. "He just doesn't seem creepy. He doesn't seem damaged."
Some are too disturbed by the charges to speak about the case. Responses like that of Kevin Arrow, chief registrar at Miami's Museum of Contemporary Art, are typical. "I'd prefer that you just cross me off the list and move to the next name," Arrow says when asked about Bobb.
It's not surprising that Bobb's case makes some uncomfortable, says Gustavo Matamoros. "The importance of artists in a community is that they're people whose job is to challenge."
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