Passion for Freedom: “There is always someone who wants to take freedom away”

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_single_image image=”97076″ img_size=”full” add_caption=”yes”][vc_column_text]Agnieszka Kolek is curator and co-founder of Passion for Freedom, an annual competition exhibition of by artists facing censorship worldwide. In February 2015, Kolek survived the terrorist attack in Copenhagen, targeting the panel discussion she appeared in alongside Swedish artist Lars Vilks. Later that year in London, the Passion for Freedom 2015 exhibition at Mall Galleries, London, hit the headlines when a work Isis Threaten Sylvania by Mimsy was removed by the curators on the advice of the police. They had no choice because they couldn’t pay the £36,000 demanded by the police to guarantee security of the exhibition.

JF: How does your experience of the Danish police compare to the British police?

AK: The panel discussion — Art, Blasphemy and Freedom of Speech — was organised by the Lars Vilks Committee with the full support of the police. This was only a month after the Charlie Hebdo attack, but there was no question that the discussion should go ahead. There were two plain-clothed police officers, two uniformed police and then two special service officers responsible for Lars, who has 24-hour police protection. Police checked bags as the audience came in. When the attack happened — the Danish filmmaker Finn Nørgaard, one of the guests, was shot outside the venue and died on the pavement — the two special service officers took Lars to safety. We know that after an attack on freedom of speech the next target is Jews – it happened with Charlie Hebdo and it happened in Copenhagen when the same gunman attacked a bat mitzvah party in the evening, killing the security guard. Danes feel very bad that they didn’t anticipate this pattern and there was a lot of blaming of the police for this, but they did their best considering the circumstances. I think there has to be more legal power give to the police to extinguish the sources of the extremism, and its results. When you already have flames it is harder to put it, instead you have to prevent the fire from starting.

In London in 2015 it was very different. The police wanted to determine what artworks could go on show, and even the artistic value of exhibited works, showing an indirect form of censorship claiming it was “for your own good – security”. Police intelligence identified “serious concerns” regarding the “potentially inflammatory content” of Mimsy’s work and for this reason “advised” us to remove the work or pay protection money at £6,000 a day. We were completely shocked. Out of all the works in the exhibition, we would never have thought that they would pick this one out. We asked for more information about the “serious concerns”, especially because we wanted to know if there was a threat to Mimsy herself. They didn’t give us any more information. They wanted to place blame on the festival or its artists for causing problems, rather than protecting the space for art to show the suffering of people around the world and the lack of freedom to openly discuss it. While we tried to fundraise for our own protection, we were threatened with more works being withdrawn. Art cannot be controlled by the police – not in London, which for hundreds of years is a symbol of democracy and freedom. Not in the creative capital of Europe where artists flock from all over the world.

JF: But in Copenhagen two people lost their lives – you could have lost yours. How do you reconcile the loss of life with the pursuit of freedom?

AK: It is not easy to answer as I am not treating others’ and my own life lightly. Behind each individual there is a unique person, unique life story and to cut it short for the supposedly abstract ideal of free speech and expression might seem reckless. It is not. Again and again we learn how giving concessions to those who want to restrict freedoms of speech allows the darkness not only to enter our home but also our hearts. Not resisting it at early stages causes our societies to change beyond recognition.

I was invited to the Copenhagen event way ahead, so after the Charlie Hebdo attack, the chair got in touch with me to say she would understand in view of the heightened security risk, if I chose not to come. So I thought long and hard about it and said I will have to die someday, and I know I will look back at that this moment and I will remember the choice I made and it will be important.

Passion for Freedom is a very effective tool for assessing how much freedom there is in society. Artists cannot be easily controlled. In their inner core they are idealists. We stand with them giving them space and time to express themselves. Freedom will prevail despite political and corporate pressure to censor and restrict open debate. We are its guardians.

JF: How have the experiences of 2015 impacted on how you approach this year’s exhibition?

AK: 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.

JF: Do you think Passion for Freedom exhibition represents a security risk?

AK: The way it is being framed in the media it looks like we are troublemakers and we are asking for it. I see it another way – we are representing the majority of society that wants to ask questions, to solve problems and to move forward together. Instead of giving in to a minority that wants to use violence and threats as a way to push forward their own agenda.  I think it is in the interests of any society to make sure there is the space for difficult conversations because it moves away from creating the situation where the only way to solve problems is violence. You need to allow people to have this space and art is a wonderful tool to do that, without falling for propaganda, or just favouring one way of looking at things over another.  Here you can have different voices, at different volumes, and different issues at play.

JF: The 2015 terror attack in Copenhagen targeted Swedish artist Lars Vilks and those who support him. Why do you think it is important for an artist to be free to deliberately insult and offend people’s religious beliefs? 

AK: The world is a much more complex place than the newspaper headlines would like us to believe. Lars Vilks was invited to participate in an art exhibition on the theme “The Dog in Art” that was to be held in the small town of Tällerud in Värmland. Vilks submitted three pen and ink drawings on A4 paper depicting Muhammad as a roundabout dog. At this time, Vilks was already participating with drawings of Muhammad in another exhibition in Vestfossen, Norway, on the theme “Oh, My God”. Vilks has stated that his original intention with the drawings was to “examine the political correctness within the boundaries of the art community”. It is not a secret that Sweden is known for vehemently criticising the United States and Israel, whereas political Islam and its influence on non-Muslim communities are rarely questioned.

Artists practising various forms of art, whether poetry, drama, drawing or film, have been challenging those who hold power for millennia.

Few kings, warlords or dictators allowed criticism or satire of themselves. The blasphemy laws were in place not to protect God but those who claimed to be his only representatives on earth. Nowadays, the same seems to be disguised in the cloak of hurt feelings and delicate egos. Artists are idealistic visionaries. They cannot hold themselves back pretending that they are blind to what is in front of their eyes. Lack of open discussion stifles our development as societies. Fear of reprisal and death cripples the human spirit. Those who cower under the whip hoping to appease and remove the threat are actually risking the fate of a slave and subordinating to dehumanised serfdom their true nature – that of a free man.

JF: Why do you have this passion for freedom?

AK: Behind the Iron Curtain we naively believed that not only was the West this Land of Milk and Honey of material goods, we were also certain that there was freedom here, that people would value and protect it. So moving here, first you discover that everything is not so perfect materially, but then the bigger eye-opener is that there is always someone who wants to take freedom away and if you don’t stand up tall in society this threat is always present. I don’t think you can continue just exercising freedom of speech without appreciating what it has brought to us over the long years when previous generations were fighting for it, and though it is not ideal, the state we are in is much better than it used to be.[/vc_column_text][vc_row_inner][vc_column_inner width=”1/4″][vc_single_image image=”103159″ img_size=”full”][/vc_column_inner][vc_column_inner width=”3/4″][vc_column_text]

Passion for Freedom Art Festival

10th-anniversary edition, 1 – 12 October 2018, London

The Royal Opera Arcade Gallery & La Galleria Pall Mall

Royal Opera Arcade, 5b Pall Mall, London SW1Y 4UY

The 10th-anniversary edition of internationally renowned Passion for Freedom Art Festival will open in London on 1 – 12 October 2018 at its new location – the Royal Opera Arcade Gallery & La Galleria Pall Mall. The exhibition showcases uncensored art from around the world, promoting human rights, highlighting injustice and celebrating artistic freedom.

Passion for Freedom was founded in 2008 and over the past ten years grew into an international network of artists, journalists, filmmakers and activists striving to celebrate and protect freedom of expression. We have displayed more than 600 artworks from 55 countries, including China, Iran and Venezuela.

The competition attracts much worldwide attention. This year, we received more than 200 submissions out of which we will exhibit over 50 shortlisted artists. From Venezuela to Turkey to the United Kingdom, those artists ceaselessly expose the restraints on freedom of speech, expression, and information in their countries. Altogether, we will display 100 such artworks during the festival. Passion for Freedom covers painting, photography, sculpture, performance, video, as well as authors, filmmakers and journalists.

Competitors will be judged by a prestigious selection panel. Winners will be announced on the 6th of October at the Gala Award Night.

This year’s judges are:

Andrew Stahl (United Kingdom)

Francisco Laranjo (Portugal)

Gary Hill (USA)

Lee Weinberg, PhD (Israel)

Mehdi-Georges Lahlou (Belgium)

Miriam Elia (United Kingdom)

Mychael Barratt PRE (Canada/United Kingdom)

This year we are thrilled to announce a Special Theo Van Gogh Award awarded in honour of his courage and contributions to freedom of expression.

Furthermore, we have invited a select group of special guest artists to display their latest works.

Passion for Freedom 2018 Guest Artists are:

Agata Strzalka (Poland)

Andreea Medar (Romania)

Emma Elliott (United Kingdom)

Jana Zimova (Czech Republic/Germany)

Mimsy (United Kingdom)

Öncü Hrant Gültekin (Turkey/Germany)

Oscar Olivares (Venezuela)

[/vc_column_text][/vc_column_inner][/vc_row_inner][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_basic_grid post_type=”post” max_items=”12″ style=”load-more” items_per_page=”4″ element_width=”6″ grid_id=”vc_gid:1539249597657-189331c4-e1af-0″ taxonomies=”15471, 8884″][/vc_column][/vc_row]

Julia Farrington: Tackling self-censorship in the arts community


Child Protection: PDF | web

Counter Terrorism: PDF | web

Obscene Publications: PDF | web

Public Order: PDF | web

Race and Religion: PDF | web

Case studies

Behud – Beyond Belief
Can We Talk About This?
Exhibit B
“The law is no less conceptual than fine art”
The Siege
Spiritual America 2014


Julia Farrington: Pre-emptive censorship by the police is a clear infringement of civil liberties
Julia Farrington: The arts, the law and freedom of speech
Ceciel Brouwer: Between art and exploitation
Tamsin Allen: Charging for police protection of the arts
Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti: On Behzti
Daniel McClean: Testing artistic freedom of expression in UK courts

Reports and related information

WN-Ethics14-140What Next? Meeting Ethical and Reputational Challenges

Read the full report here or download in PDFTaking the offensive: Defending artistic freedom of expression in the UK (Also available as PDF)

Beyond Belief190x210Beyond belief: theatre, freedom of expression and public order – a case study

UN report on the right to artistic expression and creation
Behzti case study by Ben Payne
freeDimensional Resources for artists
Artlaw Legal resource for visual artists
NCAC Best practices for managing controversy
artsfreedom News and information about artistic freedom of expression

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

Julia Farrington, associate arts producer, Index on Censorship, participated in the Theatre UK 2016 conference on 12 May 2016. This is an adapted version of her presentation. 

In January 2013 I organised a conference called Taking the Offensive for Index on Censorship, in partnership with the Free Word Centre and Southbank Centre. The conference was held to debate the growth of self-censorship in contemporary culture, the social, political and legal challenges to artistic freedom of expression and the sources of these new challenges.

The report from the conference concluded that censorship and self-censorship are significant influences in the arts, creating a complex picture of the different ways society controls expression. Institutional self-censorship, which many acknowledged suppresses creativity and ideas, was openly discussed for the first time.

Lack of understanding and knowledge about rights and responsibilities relating to freedom of expression, worries about legal action, police intervention and loss of funding, health and safety regulations, concern about provoking negative media and social media reaction, and public protests are all causing cultural institutions to be overly cautious.

One speaker at Taking the Offensive suggested that we are fostering a culture where “art is not for debate, controversy and disagreement, but it is to please”.

There is above all, unequal access to exercising the right to artistic freedom of expression, with artists from black and minority ethnic encountering additional obstacles.

Many felt that far greater trust, transparency and honesty about the challenges being faced need to be developed across the sector; dilemmas should be recast as a necessary part of the creative process, to be shared and openly discussed, rather than something to keep behind closed doors. This will make it possible for organisations to come together when there is a crisis, rather than standing back and withholding support: “if we collectively don’t feel confident about the dilemmas we face how can we move on with the public?”

I think there have been significant changes in the three years since the conference and, whilst I think the same challenges persist, there have been some really positive moves to tackle self-censorship within the sector.  The growth of What Next? has created precisely the platform to debate and discuss the pressures, dilemmas and controversies that the conference identified. What Next? has produced guidance on navigating some of these issues and is developing more resources on how organisations can support each other when work is contested.

Index on Censorship responded to the clear call from the conference for the need for guidance about legal rights and responsibilities if we are to create a space where artists are free to take on complex issues that may be disturbing, divisive, shocking or offensive.

We have published information packs around five areas of law that impact on what is sayable in the arts: Public Order, Race and Religion, Counter Terrorism, Child Protection and Obscene Publications. They are available on the website under our campaign Art and Offence. These have been well received by the sector and read by CPS and police and we are developing a programme of training which will, if all goes well, include working with senior police officers.

At the same time, pressures from outside the sector have intensified.

The role of the police in managing the public space when controversial art leads to protest has come into sharp relief over the past two-three years where they have repeatedly “advised” venues to remove or cancel work that has caused protest or may cause protest.

I did a case study on the policing of the picket of Exhibit B at the Barbican in London which is available on the Index website; and in the same year, the Israeli hip hop opera the City was closed in Edinburgh on the advice of the police.

More worryingly the police “advice” has also led to the foreclosing of work that is potentially inflammatory – as in Isis Threaten Sylvannia an art installation by Mimsy, that was removed from an exhibition called Passion for Freedom from the Mall Gallery last year.

With the removal of Isis Threaten Sylvania, we see 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.

In this case freedom of expression was actually given a price — set at £7,200 per day for the five days of the exhibition — the price set by the police for their services to guarantee public safety.

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’s right to view it;
  • and those that protest against it, the right to say how much they hate it, including when that means that they want the art removed.

This new chapter in the policing of controversial art sets alarm bells ringing and represents a very dangerous precedent for foreclosing any work that the police don’t approve of.

But going against police advice is problematic.

In Index’s information pack on Public Order we asked our legal adviser, working pro bono, questions that many artists and arts managers are concerned about:

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 artist would in principle be free to continue with the work. It would be advisable, however, to ensure that the reasons held by the police were understood. It may also be prudent to take professional advice…

And then what responsibilities for safety do employers have to staff and the public in relation to continuing with an artwork that has been contested by the police?
An organisation also has duties to their employees and members of the public on their premises. These duties may extend to making an organisation liable in the event of injury to a person resulting from the unlawful act of a third party if, for example, that unlawful act was plainly foreseeable – in other words the police have given their warning.

What are the options for an arts organisation to challenge police advice at the time of the protest itself?
If the organisation believes that it has grounds to challenge police directions to avoid a breach of the peace, it can seek to take legal action on an urgent basis. Realistically…legal action will not be determined until some time later and until it is determined by the courts, the organisation and/or its members or employees would risk arrest if they do not comply with police directions.

So – what starts out as police advice which implies genuine choice, on closer inspection transforms into a Hobson’s Choice where failure to follow that advice could lead to arrest.

On this evidence, both self-censorship and direct censorship are the undesirable outcomes of this as yet unchallenged area of policing.

But the Crown Prosecution Service has read and approved the packs and our law packs are in the system with the police.

The ideal policing scenario is to keep the space open for both the challenging political art and the protest it provokes. Both are about freedom of expression, what we have to avoid is the heckler’s veto prevailing.

Going back to other recent examples of censorship — questions remain about the role of the police in the decision to cancel Homegrown the National Youth Theatre production of a play about the radicalisation of young Muslims by writer Omar El-Khairy and director Nadia Latif. This was followed earlier this year by the presentation, without incident, of Another World: Losing our Children to Islamic State at the National Theatre, play on similar themes by Gillian Slovo and Nicolas Kent.

I mention Another World because it is important to state the obvious, that all the work that has been contested by the police and been cancelled, relates to work about race and religion and the majority of artists involved in work that has been foreclosed are from black and minority ethnic communities.

Looking through the lens of freedom of expression, each case of censorship gives a valuable opportunity to view a specific snapshot of relationships within society and to analyse the power dynamics operating there, both directly around the censored work — whose voices are and aren’t being heard in the work itself, and in the field and context in which the work is taking place and again looking at who is in control, who decides what voices are heard. I don’t have time here to go into an analysis of each case, but what emerges is that freedom of expression is, as it stands, a biased affair in the UK and I believe will remain so while our society and our culture are not equal.

As well as these new cases of censorship that we have seen since the 2013 conference, we have also seen new government policy, legislation and regulations which place increasingly explicit controls on what we can say and have a chilling effect on many areas of expression and communication, and interaction with government.

Many campaigners and charities see the Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015 as designed to deter charities from intervening in judicial reviews — the most important legal channel we have to call authorities to account; the Investigatory Powers Bill, better known as the Snoopers’ Charter gives the surveillance state more powers; the Prevent Strategy requires us to police each other – surveillance and policing our neighbours — two nasty authoritarian tactics, and most recently the anti-advocacy clause would effectively ban organisations from using government funds for lobbying — stifling dissent. It was due to come into law on 1 May but the consultation period was extended and it might be kicked into the long grass.

The government has made it clear that it wants us to see ourselves predominantly if not exclusively as businesses and in response we have successfully made the case that the arts contribute massively to the economy.

But we know we are so much more. The arts are a vital, at best magnificent and effective player in civil society — especially when you define civil society as “a community of citizens linked by common interests and collective activity”.

With our core values and freedoms under attack, the arts and other civil society bodies are responding. The discussion about the role of the artist in taking on the big issues in society — from climate change to the refugee crisis — has, from where I stand, definitely intensified and gone up the agenda over the past three years, both here and internationally, as the pressure on our freedoms and values also intensifies domestically and internationally.

To fully participate in society and to create art that calls power to account, we need to continue to identify, analyse and tackle the causes of self-censorship within the sector, and stand together to enter into dialogue with the various agents of control that we identify in the process.

Art can help us imagine and bring about a more equal and just future.