Did a Serbian-Born Performance Artist Get a San Clemente High School Principal Fired?

Here's looking at you, Marina Abramovic.
Here's looking at you, Marina Abramovic.
Music Box Films

Did the Serbian-born "Grandmother of Performance Art" get a San Clemente High School principal fired without even knowing it?

As you might expect, there are several missing blanks to fill in before that can be answered, so let's look at this thing in chronological order.

In 2010, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York presented a retrospective of the work of Marina Abramovic, whose live art pieces often delve into sex, violence and identity. Abramovic, who is in her 60s, trained young artists to recreate many of the pieces from her younger days that require nudity. Abramovic was clothed for her own piece, The Artist is Present, which found her sitting in MoMA from opening to closing every day and allowing members of the public to sit across from her.

In the summer of 2012, HBO presented co-directors Matthew Akers and Jeff Dupre's documentary Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present, which followed the performance artist for a year as she prepared for what was billed as the biggest show of her illustrious career as well as scenes from the show itself. Reviews of the film were generally positive, with most knocks involving the inclusion of celebrities such as actor James Franco and illusionist David Blaine, who apparently shifted the focus away from the compelling Abramovic to themselves as they sat opposite of her.

Though they work in a profession that routinely finds them alone in the dark surrounded by strangers, most critics either did not think enough of the film's nudity of the young performance artists worth mentioning or they only referred to nekkidness briefly in passing. The New York Times' A.O. Scott did note the "television news reports hyperventilating about the presence of naked people at the museum," which was likely a reference to a scene involving an unimpressed Megyn Kelly of Fox News. But The Hollywood Reporter's John DeFore obviously could not get enough, observing "copious nudity never hurts."

One who would disagree, at least as it pertains to high school-age viewers, is teacher "Ms. Fox," who writes on StudentHandouts.com that the unrated film "is unsuitable for K-12 classroom viewing" and "most appropriate for home or theater viewing by a mature high school student strongly interested in the arts (with parental permission)."

Roderick Urquidi, a San Clemente High School teacher, obviously did not get Ms. Fox's memo. He showed Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present to his AP Art History students earlier this year, and when some of their parents found out they went apeshit.

On May 6, the Capistrano Unified School District announced that San Clemente High's principal Michael Halt would not finish the school year at the school nor would he return for the 2015-2016 school year.

Halt is a retired Marine who had been credited with creating a positive atmosphere on campus, so positive that some parents who had objected to Urquidi screening the Abramovic movie wrote to the San Clemente Times to report that rumors were circulating that the popular principal was removed due to the documentary presentation and, if true, the termination was unwarranted.

"The recent showing of the documentary film, The Artist is Present (released 2012) in the AP Art History class is simply the most recent episode in a pattern of questionable behavior demonstrated during school year by this teacher," write Jeff Wilhite, Trish Wilhite, Susan Bartow, Heather Brown, Tim Brown and Mark Eisele. "Investigations are pending by CUSD, and it is our hope that the outcome will be a classroom more focused on the scope, beauty and history of art and less focused on other issues.

"We also unequivocally voice our support of Principal Halt. When these concerns where elevated to him less than two weeks ago, we feel that he reacted appropriately and was engaged in ensuring it was handled correctly. He welcomed parents and students to address any concerns they had and meet with him personally--fully committed to transparency. Essentially, he showed why he has highly regarded by parents and students alike at SCHS and we are 100 percent confident that he would have manage this situation correctly, given the opportunity.

"Frankly, Principal Halt is the best thing to happen to SCHS in years, and losing him would set us back years as well as erode any momentum that has been gained since his arrival."

To be clear, the district's announcement of Halt's removal made no mention of the film, MoMa or Marina Abramovic.

""The District has rigorous standards for principals and other administrators as well as a fair and relevant system for evaluating their performance," the release states. "Principals or administrators who are not meeting the district's rigorous standards are provided assistance to improve their performance. ... The district does not take the decision to non-reelect administrators lightly. ... Due to the privacy interests of employees, we are unable to comment further regarding specific employees."

Harshly critical of the way Halt was removed is Capo Unified Trustee John Alpay, who essentially throws district Superintendent Kirsten Vital under the school bus in his own commentary about the matter, also in San Clemente Times. Alpay called Vital's move "a textbook example of gross negligence," pointing out that a lack of official communication regarding Halt's termination for almost six days "caused a great amount of unnecessary yet completely understandable discontent, confusion and anger."

The school board member goes on to say Vital should have allowed Halt to finish out the school year, that this was no way to treat a likable Marine and that the district should extend an invitation to the ex-employee to attend graduation ceremonies so the former principal can help send off his seniors.

But as one online commenter to Alpay's rant notes, the trustee was among those who voted to fire Halt.

Which just goes to show that someone has stiff competition when it comes to performance art.

Email: mcoker@ocweekly.com. Twitter: @MatthewTCoker. Follow OC Weekly on Twitter @ocweekly or on Facebook!

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