Q&A: Censorship – Louise Clements
Q&A Censorship Extra
Before we publish the last round of Q&A on the subject of censorship, here is an extended response from the British producer and festival director Louise Clements. What she has to say is interesting not simply in terms of censorship and the balance of decision-making involved, but also in relation to collective creation and action.
As before, the three questions posed by CDC were:
- Have you ever been censored?
- Can you give an example of justified censorship?
- If you ruled the world… how would the issues that lead to censorship be addressed?
Louise Clements is Artistic Director of QUAD visual arts and media centre in Derby, UK, which encompasses galleries, an independent cinema, artist studios, digital and physical production spaces and a mediatheque. Ms Clements is also the Co-Founder and Director of the FORMAT International Photography Festival. She writes for a number of international art publications and was named one of the world’s Top 40 creatives in the European Review of Photography.
Have you ever been censored?
I have worked in various cities in the UK. In my experience, as public programmers we are censored all the time. Sometimes soft censorship and self-censorship happens subconsciously, but often it is a deliberate decision we make. This is especially true in curating, when you consider which artist to feature or not, their work and ideas, how they will be received by audiences and stakeholders, how you initiate conflict or soften it. Sometimes we aim to challenge people with what we program, at other times we avoid it, and we also consider how it will be received by peers or funders.
It is fascinating to me when and why we do this self-censoring, and the times when we are in some way or another forced to be more cautious as a consequence of an authority or other body directly preventing a given communication or presentation. In my experience in the UK, most censorship of art or artistic expression has been through the control of street photographers by police, or of performance artists and photographers by security guards in commercial zones. Added to this is sensitivity over the depiction of children in art, and funder or stakeholder cautiousness over sexually explicit works. Censorship often has a direct relationship to the fear of losing local voters, or to the economic impact of disrupting shoppers, as much as any supposed response to the threat of terrorism.
When I worked on an exhibition of prints by Tracy Emin, a representative of a local city council (a funder of the gallery) came to inspect the show prior to the exhibition preview. The representative was there to check the ‘suitability’ of the exhibits before we could launch to the public. They took issue with certain images depicting masturbation and a naked girl vomiting into a WC, and we had to stand our ground and directly reason why, in the context of contemporary cultural expression and in relation to the wider body of works, the drawings should remain in the show. Fortunately none of the works was removed.
On another occasion, while considering a different exhibition, the same council representative asked for photographs to be removed. The work featured images of graves, one of which (innocently) included a piece of child’s underwear.
A more dramatic example of censorship occurred in 2003. I had co-curated the Stop Shopping Roadshow with Ange Taggart and My Dad’s Strip Club which featured a performer called the Reverend Billy who we invited to for a ‘mobile-phone opera’ in Derby. The Reverend is a charismatic evangelical performance artist whose gospel is anti-consumerism; of putting an end to the ‘pestilence of needless consumption’. It’s a difficult message for the streets of Derby, but a captivating one.
His other campaigns have featured a trolley go-slow in Asda [UK supermarket chain] stores, an address to McDonald’s workers – ‘Quit! We’ll find you better jobs’ – and the Grape Escape, which involved dropping grapes through his pockets onto the supermarket aisles. Someone once sued Wal-Mart for slipping on a grape and Billy hopes to increase legal claims made against supermarkets.
He calls his campaigns ‘consumption awareness rituals’ rather than ‘anti-capitalist protests’, which he has learnt quickly gets you silenced.
For his performance in Derby we created a procession through the streets. The Reverend, a Pied Piper of Progressive Thinking, attracted a congregation, both loyal and fascinated. His destination: the Disney store. As if appearing to foretell of the Second Coming, the Reverend was preceded by a mobile-phone opera: a group of local performers equipped with mobiles was already in the shop holding one-sided conversations, each monologue was a publicly audible crisis of conscience about the hours of labour endured by the third-world children who make some of the items on sale. When Reverend Billy entered, all eyes fixed on this man in a white suit holding court amid a display of Finding Nemo toys.
Reverend Billy delivered a blistering sermon about sweatshop labour and the moral price each purchaser has paid. The store erupted in spontaneous applause from the very people he was condemning. Having given their inner conflict a voice, they felt liberated from their desires, he had saved them from being cast into the pit of eternal shopping.
But, regrettably, as with all prophets, Reverend Billy was doubted. The staff turned the in-store television sets to full capacity and attempted to overwhelm his oratory with Toy Story at full volume. Soon the sound of sirens was to be heard, and it was deemed necessary for three uniformed police officers to subdue the artist with handcuffs.
The charge? A breach of the peace, disturbing a dull Saturday afternoon, disrupting the shopping ritual.
Outside on the streets Reverend Billy was greeted by onlookers, none was hostile or disturbed, most asked ‘Why are you arresting him?’ He managed to wind down the police car window – ‘Don’t buy Disney!’ – before they drove him away. Within those few minutes he had acquired an entirely new group of followers, some of whom rocked the police car in futile protest.
Later, standing in the rain outside the Derby police station, his most avid apostles awaited his release, holding signs demanding ‘Free Billy’. And on the third hour (his release scheduled to coincide with the closing of the shops), he arose triumphantly again, ready to fight on. Not, however, in the Disney store of Derby, where he is effectively banned for life … which is not uncommon for Reverend Billy.
Can you give an example of justified censorship?
I once worked on an exhibition where we relocated an artist’s work. The work was a slideshow; a beautiful series on ordinary domestic life* in which, it was discovered, there were images of a blowjob.The plan had been to site the work for several weeks in a prominent place within a council-run regional theatre but, at the time, the theatre was presenting a children’s performance season. As programmers we had a responsibility towards the work, the venue and the audience (young children and families). Consequently, it was felt that the theatre was not the right place for this piece to be properly appreciated or mediated; we simply wanted to relocate it to another venue rather than silence the work. At the time, there was quite a lot of accusation by the artists who were angry at being censored. Censorship is an emotive subject. Any hint of it can cause a huge amount of (often blindly positioned) debate. Fortunately, in the UK, room remains for voices to be heard on all points.
* Caixa de Sapato [shoe box] presents images made by Cia de Foto, a photography collective based in São Paulo, Brazil. Founded in 2003, the photographers in the collective are committed to experimental research that questions the context and multiple meanings of images. This video clip was commissioned by the Museu de Arte Moderna in São Paulo and produced by Alex Carvalho with soundtrack by DJ GUAB. Borrowing a phrase from Marcel Duchamp, Caixa de Sapato is described by its creators as an essay on the intimacy and daily life of the collective that is “definitively unfinished”.
If you ruled the world…
I agree with this statement by Norman Rosenthal about the role of artists in relation to pushing our boundaries of censorship:
“Artists must continue the conquest of new territory and new taboos”.
Without independent minds testing boundaries, the debates will fail.
 Pioneered by Reverend Billy, Mobile Phone Opera is a critical mass takeover of a site by performers discussing a subject with a friend (their conscience) in a voice audible to passersby. More here…
 Rosenthal, Norman: “The blood must continue to flow” (pp 8-11) in the companion book to the Sensation exhibition: Rosenthal, Norman et al. Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection. London: Thames and Hudson. 1997
© Tracey Emin Tower Drawing 7 2007 (for more information visit White Cube, London)
Banner head from Reverend Billy’s website
Consumption Awareness Rituals: comfort, publicity for the Stop Shopping Tour and Ronald hits back… see more here
Stills from the online video clip of Stop the Shopping Roadshow
Caixa de Sapato © Cia de Foto, Alex Carvalho and GUAB