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[vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]Name of Art Work: Isis Threaten Sylvania
Date: August – September 2015
Venue: The Mall Galleries as part of Passion for Freedom’s September exhibition of artworks exploring ideas of Freedom
Brief description of the artwork/project: ‘Isis Threaten Sylvania’ is a satirical series of light box tableaux, using the children’s toys ‘Sylvanian Families’. The toys are featured at picnics, on the beach and at school, threatened by more of the toy animals dressed up as members of Isis in the background. They had previously been exhibited without incident at ART15 global art fair. Passion for Freedom, who, since 2009, have mounted an annual competition and exhibition celebrating freedom of expression, hired the Mall Gallery for the exhibition.[/vc_column_text][vc_single_image image=”106736″ img_size=”full” add_caption=”yes”][vc_custom_heading text=”Why was it challenged?” font_container=”tag:h3|text_align:left” use_theme_fonts=”yes”][vc_row_inner][vc_column_inner width=”1/2″][vc_single_image image=”106735″ img_size=”full” add_caption=”yes”][/vc_column_inner][vc_column_inner width=”1/2″][vc_column_text]The police identify “serious concerns” regarding the “potentially inflammatory content” of Mimsy’s work and outline a number of security measures that need to be taken. The curators asked for more information about these concerns, especially if they relate to any threat to Mimsy herself. No more information was given by the police. In a meeting with Passion for Freedom, gallery management tells the curators Passion for Freedom that Mimsy’s work is not real art; also that Tasleem Mulhall’s ‘Stoned’ is one of several works being reviewed by the gallery to establish whether or not it is appropriate.
Mall Galleries specify that the additional police security will carry costs to be charged to the artist and would amount to £6000 per day – or £36000 for the week. Passion for Freedom are also reminded that, contractually, whether or not they want to pay for the police to provide security, the Mall Galleries has the right to withdraw from the contract if they feel artworks are inappropriate.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column_inner][/vc_row_inner][vc_custom_heading text=”What action was taken?” font_container=”tag:h3|text_align:left” use_theme_fonts=”yes”][vc_column_text]Passion for Freedom decide that, as they cannot afford the additional costs, they will not include Isis Threaten Sylvania in their exhibition. The curators issued the following statement to the gallery: “Taking into consideration the fact that if MIMSY’s artwork is going to be exhibited at Mall galleries, Passion for Freedom will be billed £6000 per day for providing security to all staff and public throughout the opening time (£36000 per week) and the paragraph 4.a. in our contract (the right of the gallery to request an artwork/s to be removed if necessary) unfortunately we are unable to show this artwork.” The gallery still requests that there is some additional security, the costs of which are charged to Passion for Freedom. The removal of the artwork receives some criticism in the media. [/vc_column_text][vc_custom_heading text=”What happened next?” font_container=”tag:h3|text_align:left” use_theme_fonts=”yes”][vc_column_text]Mimsy and Passion for Freedom organisers print 5000 copies of cards with an image of Mimsy’s work and an explanation of the situation. They call this: “Entartete Kunst” which means “Degenerate Art”, and refers to the Nazi treatment of art that was not in the service of the Nazi propaganda machine. They distribute these to the guests leaving the gallery. They also place an advert in Standpoint Magazine, informing the public what had happened. Neither the police nor the gallery took any further action. One year later Channel 4 holds a pop-up exhibition of ISIS Threaten Sylvannia hosted by Trevor Phillips at Gillett Square in Dalston. There were no incidents.[/vc_column_text][vc_custom_heading text=”Refections” font_container=”tag:h3|text_align:left” use_theme_fonts=”yes”][vc_column_text]In an interview with Agnieszka Kolek, in the lead up to Passion for Freedom’s 2018 show, Julia Farrington asked how the experiences of 2015 impacted on how her approach to this year’s exhibition.
The commitment and the conviction are still there. But we are not clear where we stand, because there is no clear definition of what is appropriate or what is inflammatory. It is a shifting ground. In the past, we created the space to fully exhibit work that had been censored elsewhere by a curator or a gallery owner. Now we are in the situation where the state, through the arm of the police, imposes this pre-emptive self-censorship on you. Since the censorship incident, we cannot guarantee artists that they will be able to exhibit/perform during a festival talking about freedom. Over the years there has been a number of artists who requested to be exhibited under pseudonyms (as often their lives are threatened in the UK or back in their home countries). Can we guarantee that the police will not arrest them? Until now, we could guarantee it to them. Since 2015 we are not sure that is the case. My approach is not to have any preconceived idea of how it will go with the police this time. We will still try to be open and have a dialogue in the belief that the police are still there to protect us and it is still a democratic country. I will be honest – we are also treating it as a kind of testing ground. Let’s see if this is still a democratic country or is it just on paper?
The artistic community in the United States and Australia is shocked by the police’s censorious attitude to arts in London. There are groups of people who decided to open Passion for Freedom branch offices in New York and Sydney to ensure that British censorship is being exposed. And in case freedom is completely extinguished in the UK they can continue the important work to give artists the platform to exhibit their works and debate important issues in our societies. And if we discover that there is even less freedom than in 2015, we are considering moving this exhibition to Poland because there is more freedom there. This is on the cards, we are already discussing it.
Passion for Freedom took place at Royal Opera Arcade Gallery & La Galleria Pall Mall, London October 2018.
Miriam Elia aka ‘Mimsy’
Claire Armistead of the Guardian had been writing about the ‘lady bird thing’ [the ‘Peter and Jane go to the Gallery’ written with her brother Ezra, which earned them a legal letter from Penguin “for breach of copyright”]. She asked me if I was doing anything else. So I told her how my piece ‘ISIS threaten Sylvannia’ had been removed from the ‘Passion from Freedom’ exhibition – I showed her the police letters and images of the Sylvannia piece. She wanted to write about it and asked if she could and if she should use my name. I was a bit scared actually. I didn’t make it with any idea that it would impact in anyway, and I knew what had happened to Agnieszka [survivor of the terrorist attack in Copenhagen]. I was planning a family at the time, so I said ‘let’s just keep quiet about it – I’ll call myself Mim or something’. But it’s a good job that I did, because it went viral, and all the newspapers were talking about it, the BBC was talking about it and it was on Russian news. I thought it was hilarious. But what you think is funny, someone else will kill you for it, doesn’t mean you’re not going to do it. Nobody knew it was me except perhaps my mum and a handful of people. It was only because I had a connection with someone in the media that it came out at all – this sort of thing is probably happening a lot and you just get on with it.
But at the same time I felt the work hadn’t really been finished. I am not happy with a piece of work that only exists virtually or in the news. I made a book out of it and it into an artwork. People were sharing it they didn’t know it was me. Then there was this Channel 4 thing. They showed it in a pop up gallery. Trevor Philips was really behind it and he asked people who came in to the gallery if they thought this was offensive and everyone said they thought it was really funny.
It’s odd that the police can get involved isn’t it? It means that the people who are threatening you are winning. [The police] are cowards, they should be standing up for the people taking the mickey, and they say no no no but you’re triggering them. That was what was scary, the idea that now you have no protection. If you want to do this then on your own head be it. That’s a really bad sign.
You’re not allowed to cause offence. It’s so demented. I think offence is part of freedom, not killing people, or inciting people to violence but taking the piss out of each other is normal.
I am anti-identity politics.My latest book is ‘Piggy Goes to University’. This pig that is guilt tripped into thinking that he is the reason that everything is wrong in the world and that’s the basis of his moral compass – pig privilege it’s a huge send up of identity politics. This pig is motivated by this need for a completely kind world, where no one offends anyone. It’s basically animal farm but brought up to date in the university campus, he ends up assaulting everybody and shutting everybody down, bullying people basically, based on what they look like. Identity politics is an ideology, it’s like a religion, it doesn’t make sense. It’s totalitarian and it’s time they come under attack as in satire, not censorship. It’s a huge power.
I was in the Synogogue for Yom Kippur and the Rabbi said that this was the opportunity for apologising for your sins – so if you have hurt someone, or offended them this is the chance to say sorry. So I put my hand up and said it says in the prayer book to apologise for killing someone, or stealing. My job is to be a satirist. Am I meant to apologise for satirising stuff – we go to the gallery might offend conceptual artists and they might cry – grow up!! The message is stop making satire or any kind of parody – politics is going into religion into everything. He couldn’t answer- and everyone was shocked at what I said. England is so good for its history of satire and poking fun at things, to lose this just for all this ideological pap.[/vc_column_text][three_column_post title=”Case studies” full_width_heading=”true” category_id=”15471″][/vc_column][/vc_row]
[vc_row][vc_column][vc_single_image image=”97113″ img_size=”full” add_caption=”yes”][vc_column_text]In September 2016, I received an email from Javaad Alipoor, artistic director of Northern Lines Bradford, who wrote to Index on Censorship to discuss plans for his new play, The Believers Are But Brothers, which explores the radicalisation of young Muslim men and the legal limits of freedom of expression.
Index was particularly keen to work with Alipoor on this issue because two art works dealing with radicalisation, had recently fallen foul of censorship: In September 2015, the artist Mimsy’s satirical installation ISIS threaten Sylvannia had been removed from the Passion for Freedom exhibition at the Mall Gallery on the advice of a police officer who believed that the work was potentially inflammatory. In August the same year, the newly commissioned work Homegrown by Nadia Latif and Omar El-Khairy, which also addressed radicalisation, had been cancelled by the National Youth Theatre for reasons which remain obscure.
In May 2017, a few months before the play premiered at the 2017 Edinburgh Festival, “Effects” (The Enthronement) by MA student James Oberhelm which was to include a video monitor playing two propaganda videos issued by Isis in 2014, was removed from the degree show at Glasgow School of Art.
It seemed possible that Alipoor’s important new play might suffer a similar fate.
However, The Believers Are But Brothers bucked this trend. A work in progress performance was held at the Oval House in London and West Yorkshire Playhouse and it went on to win a Scotsman Fringe First Award, meeting with considerable critical acclaim.
What steps did Alipoor and Luke Emery, producer of the piece, take to ensure the play had the best chance of steering clear of an emerging trend for police and others in authority, to foreclose on artwork that engages with one of the most contentious issues of contemporary UK politics? Here, in their own words, they talk about their process.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_custom_heading text=”Javaad Alipoor:” font_container=”tag:h3|text_align:left” use_theme_fonts=”yes”][vc_column_text]
I originally wanted to make a show about ISIS brides. I found out these young women who had gone to the Islamic state and married jihadis had twitter accounts, so I started following and engaging with them. What struck me was the register of their propaganda. One tweeted out this picture of a guy I called Game of Thrones Jihadi. He’s ripped. He’s got this vest on, pecks, scar-bitten, a big gun. The slogan around him was words to the effect – ‘Sisters what kind of a man do you want? Some boring guy who works in an office, or this brother who will die for you’. There was always this offer – fuck this grey, boring England and come and live in a Hollywood film. What the white narrative wanted to do was take agency away from these women who had done these awful thing because they had been tricked into it. But actually an offer is being made. You get some power when you go. At the height of the Islamic State almost all the women’s Sharia policing department in the capital in Raba was made up of European Muslims. You get to push other women around.
When I started looking into it I realised that it’s not my show to make and I ended looking at the similar narrative for men which goes: there is a certain type of young Muslim man for whom the complex identity of being a Muslim in the west is too much. So he withdraws to this black and white world. But all the serious work on this suggests the opposite; journalists like Martin Chulov does this really well. And if you do your own research and engage with these people, the way they use social media to try and get the message out, is very similar. It’s not ‘come to something simple’, but ‘come to something more exciting’. So again, facetiously – there were two lads from Plymouth who were killed in a drone strike in ISIS controlled Syria and the headline in The Star was something like ‘What could make these two lads who worked in a phone shop in Plymouth go off to join the Islamic State?’ The clue’s in the question!
So this became a show about young men – fantasy, religion, technology; and about the way masculinity has changed since the 1970s. I think there is a bunch of us who are alright with the fact that women and sexual minorities have more rights, and a bunch who fucking aren’t on board with that at all. And some of the ways that that works out is culturally inflected, whether you want to talk about the alt right, or ISIS, or Hindutva in India. Obviously the Muslim identity is part of that; but it isn’t saying there is a problem with Muslim young men, there is a problem with young men. Let’s get at that.
In the show [the audience] get sent some screen grabs of an issue of Dabiq, the ISIS’ in-house theoretical journal, which explains the grey zone theory how it is going to collapse and you are going to have to decide. Most of the ISIS propaganda in the show is projected. Whereas you get more Four Chan stuff on WhatsApp to work dramaturgically. We were uncertain about sending the audience a link to Four Chan. As soon as you go on Four Chan there’s kiddy porn and rape videos. There are two inter-related questions – one is – can I send that to someone and the other is should I? Part of the instinct is as a theatre maker – if you are going to walk up to the bell you should ring the bell. But it does then open up that ethical thing. Some of the edits we show are taken from ISIS videos where they glorify murdering people. We never show people being killed in the show, but you are never sure how far we will go and I think that tension works and we were able to be quite playful. The character I’m playing says – well I would have sent you that but I am not sure I can.
The research process is interesting to the extent that it’s that grey area of legality again. I read a blog called Jihadology – you’d worry about the guy who runs it, alongside a bunch of free and pay-for services. Are you a spook? I read a lot of Dabiq magazine – really beautiful, crisp design, intellectually utterly vapid. You can’t imagine anyone serious being persuaded by them. But you can imagine people being inspired by them. Extremist materials that glorifies terrorism, as these things clearly do, come under the Prevention of Terrorism Act. So the question is how does the white person with power look at you. How much is racialised and ‘classed’? Is it ‘stroppy Muslim with these horrible things on their phone’ things’ – guilty until proved innocent or is it actually ‘he’s an artist and intellectual thinking about these? It’s not unrelated to other types of criminalisation. If they pick you up with half an ounce of weed –– if you are mixed race and you come from a shit Northern town, you are a career criminal; if you’re from Oxford that’s a completely different kettle of fish. Because of this show, because the Guardian liked it, it’s bought me a bit more cultural capital.
What was interesting is that no-one was talking about Muslim sensitivity with this show.
The support that Index was giving me and the conversation with Luke was much more about white and police sensitivity. I knew about Homegrown and that soft censorship of a certain sort of white liberal; if there is any talk about police or terrorism, then that liberal space just collapses in on you. This is potentially a more serious thing.
My strategy preparing for the risks I was taking was to two-fold. One was to work with Index, because that felt like it was a conversation that was making people confident. The discussion with the barristers [brokered by Index] really marked a turning point in how we were talking about the problems. We’d got ourselves into this place of worse possible scenario – what’s the defence? Coming out of that meeting we saw it was more likely to be a bit of pressure from the police or the local authority, following a complaint from a panicked, overworked cultural institution, and then that caving in on itself. It was important to have a toolkit for disarming that panic in the first instance. If someone is worried, then let’s talk about it, we can discuss it. Practically, it is about disarming that subtle form of censorship, it’s a proactive way to increase the kinds of things that people of colour are allowed to talk about, and the kinds of conversations we’re allowed into. But more important, it was knowing where the networks of support are, where the allies are, where the people are who do know. If the shit really hits the fan, I am two phone calls away from someone who can help. [/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column width=”1/4″][vc_icon icon_fontawesome=”fa fa-quote-left” color=”black” background_style=”rounded” size=”xl” align=”right”][/vc_column][vc_column width=”3/4″][vc_column_text]
[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]The other – comes out of who I am. I grew up in Bradford in the 1990s to early 2000s and the relationship with the police was horrendous, resulting in, among other things, three riots in five years. I am not one of nature’s fans of policing. I know a lot more about the first generation of Prevent because I was working for an organisation which made a decision to take that money, that not a little soul-searching was involved in, taking what was said at the time about autonomy from security services at face value. Post-coloniality has always been part of who I am. I’m quite a big believer of making sure that if there are people of colour in the room, they are the people who decide what the legitimate bounds of discussion lie. So there is a way of talking about the show, being really bold about what the show really is with the people who are co-commissioning, co-producing.
There is a political struggle, macho word struggle, who gets to say what and where. You can’t back away with this going on. There is a whole discourse and politics of risk how the industry theatre works that we need to shift. We take risks all the time, but the way we are willing to do it is mega-racialised. We lionise risks that are about white people and white canon and white artists; but where risks attached to black, colour, Muslim, are too difficult or too hard to take. I overheard some relatively sensible liberal people describing the appointment of Kwame Kwei-Armah [as artistic director of the Young Vic] as a bold move. I thought it’s a good move. Here is an internationally successful guy, running an internationally successful theatre.
More and more I am trying to say this to historically white institutions and the white people in positions of power who run them – just look at yourselves and your policy. Are you willing to overhaul how you racialise risk, to really open up in that way? If so, go back to your office and decide if you are going to start reading text and saying how many people in this play could be of colour, rather than saying this character is Chinese so go off to find a Chinese actor. There is a black and Asian middle class and they do not spend their money with these big historically white institutions, that’s your problem. In London you have a whole scene of BME theatre makers who are little more politically engaged and a little bit more industry savvy and there is a feeling of being a part of an international movement. We don’t have the concentration of those kind of people in the north necessarily.
I sit down with people running our regional producing houses in their big spaces where they feel the financial pressure and go ‘name three writers of colour who feel solid enough for your main house’. Much less than the fingers of one hand are the artistic directors who could name you 3 writers of colour who feel solid enough. August Wilson, Tarrell Alvin McCraney, Lorraine Hansbury these are big Afro-American names, but risk is attached to them in a way that, for instance an [Arthur] Miller, that no-one’s heard of, isn’t. The unknown Miller is a risk these buildings are ready to take.
Racialisation of risk cuts all the way through what we do in the cultural industries determining which risks are you willing to take. What does that mean? That some people get to do the talking and some people don’t. And that is for the me the link with censorship. It is a social model of censorship, more than that liberal historical thing – a social relation that empowers some people and massively disempowers others. It is censorship of omission rather than commission. What we are doing is censoring a whole bunch of voices that don’t fit in to the accepted narrative.
Some of the mainstream stuff gets its hands on it – like Four Lions – The State was a great example of it – but in a world where everything is a bit Homeland that’s the easy story of what trying to disrupt that narrative might mean. The right wing cliché that we really need to have this conversation about the problem Muslim community and radicalisation doesn’t take account of the fact that you have that conversation every fucking day in every fucking newspaper. It’s literally true that Muslims are a minority in this country and people of colour are a minority in a lot of advanced countries, but the flip of that is, because of the way racialisation works, we dominate news. So it is really important to work with artists who are stepping up to that.
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Our first conversations were purely practical about timing, funding, did we want to go to Edinburgh etc. But when I got to know Javaad and got into the meat of the text of what Javaad was looking at and what he revealed to me about his research activities, that certainly flagged concern. Initially I put up a barrier. It was as much as it was about protecting him as it was everybody who would be working on the project with us. Then, when he told me more about his relationship with the police and the Prevent team there were definitely tensions and previous history with the West Yorkshire Police. So these things were red flags to me. Not only were we in a difficult position because of what he had already done, but who he was as Muslim, left-wing activist and a vocal critic of Prevent and the UK police service.
With regards to his research approach, when we did, later on, talk about about it, I drew on my previous, activist background. I certainly have been spied on by Special Branch, and I would be very surprised if Javaad hasn’t, and in those environments you have to be super, super careful about how you communicate with other people in the movements. If we were talking about anything particularly sensitive we did it in person not by email, and in noisy outdoor places, where it is much harder to record people’s conversations. We used secure, encrypted video calling; we would leave our phones in other rooms so no-one could open up our lines through our phones. Perhaps we were a little bit overzealous, but initially the subject matter made me quite nervous, so I didn’t want to take any chances for him, or myself as the producer.
None of the things that Javaad and I did together were illegal. But whenever we were in the rehearsal room or we were talking about it, or Javaad was working off the reference material with some of the creatives, I would say: we are not asking you to research this, you don’t have to look at these things online, it is up to you, but we are not instructing you. There were a couple of points during the making of the show that I had to shut stuff down. One of them was Javaad wanted to show a video of a beheading. Initially he wanted to show it as an obvious clip and then as a subliminal piece of video. Subliminal footage, as far as I’m aware, is illegal, full stop. So I had to put a stop to that. So we had that conversation regularly about why I was doing that.
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[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]Javaad and Kirsty (co-director) both wanted to send the audience a link to the website FourChan which features heavily in the piece. It is one of the most god awful places on the internet. Child pornography, revenge porn is posted, hate speech, racist cartoons. I vetoed that being included in the show because it would have taken us to the fringes of the Obscene Publications Act (OPA). And they said: but it’s on the internet. But there are lots of things that [are illegal] on the internet. If you put that on a WhatsApp group on someone’s phone in a way that is documented you could definitely be accused of breaching the OPA.
We always knew because of Javaad’s status as a Muslim, someone half Iranian, half English, he is already in a sensitive category for possible persecution, imprisonment or spurious legal charges. That was a big influence across the whole process. It was really interesting as a producer to make those considerations in a way that I don’t think I have ever have done for a white performer. We had to find the balance based on our own work and other work that has been shut down here and elsewhere in the world and make a judgement call. It was a bit of a leap into the unknown.
As a producer, a lot of what I do on a day to day basis is fairly stressful judgement calls. We talked a lot to the solicitors about Javaad’s previous history with the West Yorkshire Police, where there was the potential political and personal axe to grind and whether or to go to them up front about the show and pre-empt any intervention. This would mean us having to go and have a sit down with the police and say everything is fine, it’s just a theatre show. And because we just performing for two nights on a campus in a fairly under the radar fashion, it was much less of a risk just to do the play than reach out to the police and get their antenna up and then potentially to walk into a whole series of conversations that could have got very messy and complicated.
To a certain extent I felt that Index was balancing out some of the caution that we were getting from the [pro-bono] legal advice from solicitors. I think Javaad would say for sure that we were being over-cautious, but from my perspective the lessons I have learnt from people doing more activist focussed work, what some people might say is illegal activity, they can get caught out because they are not careful about how they talk about what they are doing. For me the worse possible scenario would be Javaad being put in prison, or even just getting arrested or hit with a legal bill, those were all factors that we would have no way of dealing with because our funding could never hope to stretch to legal fees. So that was the worse-case scenario. My job as producer working with artists is to be thinking not only about plan a, b, c, but worse-case scenario a, b, c and try and head them off before you get to them.
The inherent challenge for us around making work that is genuinely risk-taking in terms of the subject matter and its research activity is the funding implications of needing a legal team to work with us. Something in the long term that we will certainly be thinking about for work that is going to cause potential controversy, is if we need to partner with somewhere like a national theatre institution that has a legal team on a retainer with the ability to help us answer those questions, rather than it just being me and Javaad. Certainly when you are working independently or in a small company wanting to do risk-taking or controversial work, you should make allowances for legal consultation, but the costs are way beyond the scope of the average ACE grant.
It has been hugely positive experience. Less because of the political things we have learnt – but we have found that there is a huge appetite for this kind of work in the UK, the popularity of the show in Edinburgh speaks to that. And it translates nationally and internationally; it looks like we will tour internationally with this piece. I think the reason why this particular show is so successful is there is dearth of this kind of work being made on UK stages. People have been saying to us all the time about the show that it is all about things that they knew existed, but that they don’t want to have to look at. They know that there is real darkness on the internet and this show allows them to go into that world in ways that they wouldn’t otherwise have access to. Javaad is learning how to research something so he can take people into a world that they only see through a white perspective generally.
Asked how politically engaged work that is controversial and risks censorship could be better supported and so increase the number of producers interested in working in this area, Emery suggests the following:
– we need more face to face workshop opportunities or the opportunity to talk about the work itself. There are a lot of ‘how-to’ guides and video information, but face to face with experts and peers would be more useful.
– Having a lawyer available pro-bono to the process would be invaluable. Talking to the Barristers and the solicitor during the development of ‘The Brothers’ really enriched our understanding. We need advice on how we go through our own process and undertake our research with a good understanding of the legal framework we are operating in.
– A network of producers who want to take risk or who are doing politically charged work, to meet regularly for peer support.[/vc_column_text][three_column_post title=”Case studies” full_width_heading=”true” category_id=”15471″][/vc_column][/vc_row]
Julia Farrington, associate arts producer at Index on Censorship, author of Index’s Art and the Law case studies and campaigns and events manager at Belarus Free Theatre, will discuss art and censorship at Hackney Wick at the independent bar and creative space Grow.
From the cancellation of performances like Exhibit B and Mimsy’s artwork Isis Threaten Sylvania to the role law can and should play in supporting the arts, this is an opportunity to get involved in a stimulating discussion within the creative community.
Grow is a space for music, art, conversation and community where everyone is welcome and there will be a range of drinks and snacks on sale to help fuel the conversation, with all proceeds going to support the venue.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]
The following was presented at No Boundaries: A Symposium on the Role of Arts and Culture. Video of Julia Farrington and the day’s other speakers is available on the No Boundaries site.
Child Protection: PDF | web
Counter Terrorism: PDF | web
Obscene Publications: PDF | web
Public Order: PDF | web
Race and Religion: PDF | web
Art and the Law home page
• Behud – Beyond Belief
• Julia Farrington: Pre-emptive censorship by the police is a clear infringement of civil liberties
Reports and related information
What Next? Meeting Ethical and Reputational Challenges
|These information packs have been produced by Vivarta in partnership with Index on Censorship and Bindmans LLP.
The packs have been made possible by generous pro-bono support from lawyers at Bindmans LLP, Clifford Chance, Doughty Street Chambers, Matrix Chambers and Brick Court.
Supported using public funding by Arts Council England
In 1972, Michael Scammell, the first editor of Index on Censorship magazine, wrote in the launch issue: “Freedom of expression is not self-perpetuating but needs to be maintained by the constant vigilance of those who care about it.”
We obviously haven’t been very vigilant here in the UK.
As we heard last week, when the artist Mimsy’s work Isis Threaten Sylvania was removed from the Passion for Freedom exhibition at the Mall Galleries, London, artistic freedom of expression was put up for sale at £36,000.
And disturbing though it is, the news is a gift to those who have been concerned about the direction policing of politically or socially challenging art was taking. Now the situation is crystal clear and marks an alarming new approach to the policing of controversial art.
In last week’s case, the police were concerned about the “potentially inflammatory content” of Mimsy’s work, so they gave the organisers a classic Hobson’s Choice: if they went ahead with their plans to display it, they would have to pay the police £36,000 to cover the cost of security for the six-day show.
The police took the view that a perfectly legal piece of art, which had already been displayed without incident earlier in the year, was inflammatory. And in the balance of things as they stand, this opinion outweighs the right of the artist to express him or herself, the organisation’s right to present provocative political art, the audience to view it and those that protest against it, the right to say how much they hate it.
If this goes unchallenged, it will set a very dangerous precedent for foreclosing any work that the police don’t approve of.
But going against police advice is tough. In Index’s information pack on Public Order – part of a series of booklets looking at laws that impact on what is sayable in the arts, we ask the question: “What happens if police advise you not to continue with presenting a piece of work because they have unspecified concerns about public safety – and yet tell you it is your choice and they can only advise you?”
The answer is that in principle, in law, you are free to proceed.
But it goes on to talk about duties the organisation has to their employees and members of the public present on their premises, which fall under licencing and other obligations.
But the point is no one has taken this to the courts, so it hasn’t been tried and tested.
As it stands — and in the heat of a crisis when these decisions are mostly reached — police advice is a Hobson’s Choice in pretty much every case.
This latest example of policing comes hot foot after revelations in the summer that the police were involved in, though allegedly not directly responsible for, the cancellation of Homegrown.
And it is only a year since Exhibit B at the Vaults in London and the Israeli hip-hop opera The City in Edinburgh were cancelled on the advice of the police following protests outside both venues.
Way back in 2004 the theatre world was shocked when protest led to the closure of Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti’s play – Behzti following police advice. Gurpreet says that what shocked her most at the time, was how the politicians didn’t take the closure as an opportunity to challenge the police decision, defend her right, and promote the importance of freedom of expression.
Six years later, the Coventry police wanted £10,000 per night to guarantee the safety of the premier production of Gurpreet’s subsequent play Behud at the Belgrade Theatre, which was her creative response to having her play cancelled in Birmingham; and which, because of the playwright’s history of attracting controversy, was treated by the police as a public order issue from day one of the production.
When faced with the police’s bill, Hamish Glen, artistic director of the Belgrade wrote to the police and said it was a fiscal impossibility for the theatre to pay up, and would amount to de facto censorship of Gurpreet’s voice for a second time. They came back asking for £5,000 per night instead which got the same response from Hamish – and finally they waived the fee and the show went ahead without incident.
In investigating this for a case study I wrote, I asked how the police had come up with the figure, and the answer was that it was assessed by the same criteria for special police services at a football match or a music festival. There is no guidance on policing a not-for-profit arts organisation dealing with fundamental rights – it is not on the police radar.
Writing a case study on the policing of the picketing of Exhibit B by Boycott the Human Zoo earlier this year also gave a series of interesting insights
Only one police officer from British Transport Police – The Vaults are under Waterloo Station and therefore under BTP jurisdiction – and two Community Police Officers attended the demonstration of 200 people – so it was obviously not considered a priority, despite the fact that social and print media made it clear that the production was very divisive and both the Boycott and the Barbican had talked to the police.
When, as the protest escalated and extra police arrived, the officer who took charge, talked to Sara Myers, the organiser of the Boycott, asking what was going on – they seemed not to know anything about it. He asked Sara what she wanted. She said she wanted the Barbican to close the show, and she told him that they intended to picket each of the five performances if they did not. The officer’s response was this is much ado about nothing – we haven’t got the resources to police this – we have to be out fighting serious crime.
So The Heckler’s Veto was seen to be working in London and in Edinburgh, just as it had worked in Birmingham ten years previously. When faced with a noisy demonstration, the police showed that they would take the path of least resistance and advise closure of whatever was provoking the protest.
And now a year later, with the removal of Isis Threaten Sylvania, we have seen a shift from the police advising closure following protest, to the police contributing indirectly or directly to the decision to remove work to avoid protest.
This is pre-emptive censorship by the police and represents a major shift in policing and is a clear infringement of civil liberties. It threatens the arts as a space for public debate about the politics of the world we live in.
Though of course because of the paradox of censorship, it actually has the opposite effect, it has amplified the work and many, many more people will be talking about that work because of the police’s move to close it. That doesn’t lessen the sting of the police’s new boldness and the trajectory they seem to be on with this latest act of censorship.
But let’s look at it from the police’s point of view. They are facing massive cuts themselves. George Osbourne’s latest figures indicate at the lowest end – a 25% cut on top of previous rounds. There are fewer police officers on the streets than at any time since the 1970s.
There is no guidance about policing of artistic freedom of expression, compared to pages of guidance on managing protest which stresses on every page the right to protest. When it comes to artistic cases it is left to professional judgement. I have spoken to several senior police officers about this and they will admit that mistakes have been made, but there have never been any consequences for these mistakes, so they remain quite blithe about them. And the bottom line with the police is always public safety.
They also, I believe, feel they have jurisdiction over certain volatile and socially sensitive areas of society where they have duties to prevent crime and to maintain law and order and have community cohesion responsibilities. So when artists venture into this territory with work that may cause offence, their reaction is to simply remove the provocation.
We also now have elected police commissioners who have political agendas – where inevitably policing unpopular, minority voices is going to come low on their agenda – however brilliant they may be, or however important they might be to the fundamental tenets of a liberal democracy.
And this has never been challenged. There has never been any judicial review of the policing of artistic freedom of expression. Judicial Review is the recourse that any arts organisation has when faced with what they consider to be inadequate or unfair policing. Actions by the police are subject to review by the courts for a number of reasons, including for instance if the police failed to consider alternatives to closure, or Article 10 rights generally.
We can and should expect more of the police. Tamsin Allen – senior partner at Bindmans states in an article she wrote for the case study of Behud: “The police have an obligation to fulfil their core duties – those are now enhanced by their duties under the Human Rights Act not to act incompatibly with the European Convention on Human Rights. The convention imposes both a qualified obligation not to interfere with the exercise of the right to freedom of expression and protest and a positive obligation to take appropriate steps to protect those rights. This may change if the Human Rights Act is abolished.”
And we are talking here about legal expression. We do not see artists going to court in the UK – the last major case in this country was Lady Chatterly in the 60s; the Oz Trial, the publishers of the poem The Love That Dares to Speak its Name in the 70s; and the lesser known case of the Human Earrings in 1989, being amongst the very few other cases.
It is also worth pointing out what is obvious – that nearly all the artworks that have been foreclosed by the police over the past few years deal with race and or religion and, Exhibit B notwithstanding, the majority of contemporary cases of contested art are by artists from black and ethnic minorities. This only emphasises the fact that freedom of expression is a biased affair in the UK and I believe will remain so while our society and our culture are not equal.
Acknowledging that, I would add to what Michael Scammell said – the space for freedom of expression has to be more than just maintained – it has to be enlarged and extended.
And as an urgent part of that, we have to challenge this culture of policing, this policing of culture.
The climate is not set fair for promoting the importance of artistic freedom of expression – the political climate is set against human rights. Policing as we have seen with absolute clarity this week in the case of Mimsy’s work, is subject to the prevailing laissez faire of the market place.
In late 2013, I asked Keir Starmer, former director of public prosecutions at the Crown Prosecution Service, if he felt there was a need for police guidance in the area of art and offence and he said emphatically yes. He said he thought it was going to be an increasingly major policing issue over the coming years. He was right.
We have to open up discussion at the highest level with police and the prosecution service, if we are to safeguard the space for freedom of expression in the arts, especially where it relates to political art. The climate might not be conducive, but it has not been tried before, systematically – it is uncharted – let’s go there.