Self-censorship exhibit invites public to look within 

An innovative art piece in the downtown library is challenging patrons to examine the ways in which they censor themselves — often out of fear that what they believe is not acceptable in society, business or government.

The piece, created by National Coalition against Censorship’s Svetlana Mintcheva, is a three-walled booth that invites anonymous "confessions" of times when people chose to censor themselves. Phrases such as "I bite my tongue a dozen times a day" pepper the sides of the booth.

Mintcheva’s "Exposing the Censor Within" booth was created in conjunction with Redwood City’s citywide reading of Ray Bradbury’s "Fahrenheit 451," about the book-burning movement that began in Nazi Germany and spread to America in the 1950s.

The piece has already received a good response, according to Rosalind Kutler, who organizes the annual reading program for the Redwood City Library. On opening night, dozens of people slipped into the booth to submit an anonymous card.

"It’s a private experience — you write on a card, slide it into a slot and it disappears. It’s anonymous, and yet in a public space," Kutler said.

Later, Mintcheva will create a "map" that categorizes the ways in which people control what they think and say. Although Mintcheva grew up in Bulgaria, where people could be jailed for speaking out, Americans often self-censor for financial or social reasons, she said.

"If you’re an artist and you know your work won’t be shown in a gallery if you paint certain things, you make what the market requires or you don’t eat," Mintcheva said. "It’s a tough choice."

Anonymous-yet-public confession has become a cultural phenomenon elsewhere in America, particularly on, a blog that has attracted more than 100,000 postcards from people confessing long-held secrets, according to Frank Warren, who runs the site.

"I think we all wear social masks, and while there are some secrets we keep from people, there are deeper ones we keep from ourselves," he said. "If you can write it down ... that might allow us to put aside the emotional defenses we put up."

Once people begin to examine the concept of self-censorship, they become much more aware of times in which they are restricting their own thoughts and feelings, according to Mintcheva.

"Self-regulating is something we all do," Redwood City Mayor Barbara Pierce said. "That, and the book, seem very timely; Ray Bradbury wrote it 50 years ago, but it’s still topical today."

Mintcheva will participate in a panel, "Intellectual Freedom," Thursday at 7:30 p.m. in the community room at the main library, 1004 Middlefield Road.

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Beth Winegarner

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