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BESHT Show Turns the Museum of Art Into a Free Speech Zone

The project room at the Pomona College Museum of Art has come alive during the latter half of this semester with the voices of students, professors, artists and more during the installation of The Bureau of Experimental Speech and Holy Theses (BESHT), an experiment in public address and free speech.

Since November 1, the room has been open during museum hours to anyone with something to say. Organized by artist Adam Overton, BESHT has featured readings, the Diction-for-Dollars Open Mic events which offer $1 per minute of oratory bravery at the BESHT podium, class projects, poetry, soliloquies, wordplay, a guided meditation marathon, many collaborations with local artists, and more.

The final Diction-for-Dollars Open Mic event will take place at 7 p.m. during Art After Hours on Thursday, December 6, as well as a celebration of the “exceptional oratory work” wherein participants will receive honorary ToastMasters of the Fine Arts degree.

“Adam Overton and Tanya Rubbak developed The Bureau of Experimental Speech and Holy Theses (BESHT) to explore what happens when people gather in a space where free speech is encouraged and ideas of public address are approached in unconventional ways,” writes Project Series Curator Rebecca McGrew in the fifth edition of a special BESHT newsletter produced during the installation. “Essentially a zone of experimentation, BESHT provided a platform to address broad notions of how one defines what constitutes ‘speech.’”

The Diction-for-Dollars Open Mic perhaps best exemplifies the Wild West-natured openness of the space.  Students and community members have offered historic lectures, stories from their lives, improv comedy, journal entries, a wedding toast from 2009, poetry, readings from the Bible and other books, and a $1 one-minute appearance from a toddler.

“Many things about the show surprised me, and I think that was the point in some ways,” says McGrew. “I like surprises, but they can be good and bad, risky and fun, frustrating and satisfying. For me personally, the biggest surprises were the Diction-for-Dollars events and who showed up. There certainly were, and probably will be this week, some very personal and poignant ‘speeches.’”

Classes and student groups have also utilized the space. “The BESHT project has been a tremendous success in terms of participation and reaching new audiences,” says McGrew. “We probably have had more faculty bring their courses into the museum than for other exhibitions.”

Faculty from Pomona, Pitzer and Scripps have utilized the space for several types of projects. Associate Professor of Art Mark Allen’s Junior/Senior Art Seminar worked with Overton on the presentation of a series of experimental talks in the Toastmaster style (YouTube link). Lecturer Margaret Kemp brought in her Voice for Actor students to do exercises exploring sound and meaning in experimental language. Jonathan Lethem, professor of creative writing, invited writer Bruce Wagner to the space where they gave readings from each other’s and their own work. Faculty from Pitzer and Scripps also brought classes to the space to hear artist talks and to present class projects.

5C student groups, including Out Loud, Advocates for Survivors of Sexual Abuse, and Late-Night Stand-Up Comedy have also used the space. KSPC broadcast live for five hours on December 1, featuring archival programs from KSPC’s history, DJ sets and a live radio drama.

The reach of free speech activity extends beyond the four walls of the gallery. A weekly newspaper, conceptualized with and designed by artist Tanya Rubbak, takes the proceedings and puts them in print. Video from the podium – even when no one is there – is being streamed online on Ustream. Particular events have been published to YouTube, and BESHT has active Facebook and Twitter accounts.

Overton considers Ustream to be “like a mine shaft where you can let down a bucket of water,” according to an article by Hannah Pivo ‘14, curatorial assistant at the Museum, in the fifth newsletter. She writes that this online connection to “the world beyond the project’s physical location works both as a means of wider broadcasting and as a feedback loop, with the potential to alter what goes on in the space itself simply due to the participants’ awareness of the larger internet audience.”

A description of Overton’s artistic practice is hard to pin down as his many projects cover a broad range of practices, ideas and subjects. Pivo writs that he can be described as a performer, writer, composer, facilitator and collaborator, and that some themes do emerge from his work: “A fascination with language, body, spirituality, and experimentation… [and] a careful balance between sincerity and irreverence.” One past work was the 2010 Dream-In at the Hammer Museum where participants attended experimental dream workshops and were “gently woken at dawn and asked to describe their dreams.” His text scores (open-ended instructions for performances) can be found on, an online “wiki-repository for scores for contemporary experimental performance.”

BESHT complements the exhibition John Cage: Zen Ox-Herding Pictures in its unique focus on collaborative practices and experimental strategies. John Cage was well known for performing his lectures, many of which were composed using chance procedures.

Both exhibitions continue through Sunday, December 16. Use of the BESHT space may be reserved ahead of time at; otherwise, use of the space is first come, first served. The Pomona College Museum of Art is located at 333 N. College Ave., Claremont, and is open from 12 to 5, Tuesday through Sunday. For more information, call (909) 621-8283 or visit