Burning books
Julia Farrington: Burning books
05 May 11

It was ironic that artist Xenofon Kavvadias’ show exploring the “limits of acceptability and the margins of legality under counter terrorism legislation” opened last night, as the world is still is reeling in shock at the mother of all counter-terrorist acts. The show takes as its subject what governments do (and have always done) in the name of security. Kavvadias has conducted five years of careful research into why some texts are deemed too dangerous to read and own.

In the exhibition you can leaf through books, all bound in blank white covers, that have been used as evidence to put people who have read or owned them behind bars. The show also includes seven books that you can’t read:  these are mounted in steel frames and one will be burnt at the end of each week of the show’s run. And there is one burnt book framed on the wall,  a chillingly — and unexpectedly beautiful — image.

The show was inspired by a February 2008 Appeal Court ruling that quashed the conviction of five young Muslim men; the men had been convicted under Section 57 of the Terrorism Act 2000 which makes it an offense to possess books or items useful to terrorists. Lord Chief Justice, Lord Phillips said at the ruling: “Section 57 must be interpreted in a way that requires there to be a direct connection between the object possessed and an act of terrorism.”

Kavvadias realised that he could read and, more importantly, own, literature as part of an art project that in other hands would be deemed illegal; he could easily prove that he didn’t have any terrorist intentions and so he was completely open with police about his plans from the start. And as art objects he could offer them back openly to public scrutiny, taking them out of the illegal password-protected zones of the internet. But he accepted the advice of lawyers and the police: that some books are too toxic for display, instead Kavvadias will burn them.

By Julia Farrington

Julia Farrington is an associate arts producer at Index on Censorship