Despite student petition, N.Y. art college declines to remove "Dolphin Rape Cave" photo

NEW YORK — An image depicting men in dolphin costumes assaulting women in underwear — on display in a New York art college — has prompted a student-led petition calling for the administration to remove the photograph. After declining to remove the image, college officials held a forum Thursday to address concerns with the display.

The image called “Dolphin Rape Cave” depicts three men dressed in dolphin costumes and two women in bras and underwear in a staged scene of sexual assault. The image, called “Dolphin Rape Cave,” is part of a rotating display at the School of Visual Arts that went up Sept. 2 and is scheduled to be taken down today. It’s on a sixth-floor hall used for offices, classrooms and studio space, which is not open to the public.

“I think that the school’s guiding principle is to protect the freedom of expression while still maintaining its other obligations in terms of protecting students and upholding the law,” said Assistant Provost Emily Ross.

Nathaniel Shannon, an assistant studio manager at SVA and the photo’s artist, has other works in the hall in addition to different artists’ pieces.

SVA photography student Sarah Thomasson said she saw the photo on Saturday and started a petition asking the college to remove the photo.

Thomasson said she started the petition to remove the image because a majority — 60 percent — of SVA students are female, and she was thinking of sexual assault victims “who would be triggered by it.”

The photograph is a reference to the online videos, social media posts and Web pages that claim dolphins engage in sexual assaults with other dolphins and even people.

Shannon said the idea for the photo came from a past job as a bartender, where he would see male patrons harassing female bartenders. The artwork, he said, used the dolphin “as a metaphor for misogynistic date rape and the dangers, exploring the idea that there may be beasts lying beneath seemingly friendly faces.”

Members of the panel included Shannon, the chairman of the photography department, a photography faculty member and Assistant Provost Ross.

Michael Grant, a spokesman for SVA, said the college wanted the forum to include all views of people who want to participate. He expected questions and comments from the audience to be the majority of the forum.

Earlier in the week someone tore down the photo and another print of “Dolphin Rape Cave” went up in its place.

“It’s important to be able to express yourself,” Thomasson said, “but I feel like, if it’s victimizing or triggering students then it’s not really a safe environment for them to be in.”

Nina Baron, a visual and critical studies student, attended the forum. She said that censorship and rape on college campuses were among the topics discussed. The photography faculty member on the panel, Jessica Craig Martin, said that censorship is the opposite of what art should be, Baron said.

Baron said she didn’t have a problem with the art being displayed but wanted some sort of artist’s statement with the photo or email letting students know of the photo’s nature.

Contact SPLC staff writer Anna Schiffbauer by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 127.