Q&A: Censorship (round four)

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SOME FINAL THOUGHTS ON CENSORSHIP

This final round of Q&A on censorship brings together the views of artists from Argentina, Australia and England.

Following on from Alasdair Foster’s interview with Armani Nimerawi on the subject of censorship, CDC asked artists and colleagues around the world three questions:

  1. Have you ever been censored?
  2. Can you give an example of justified censorship?
  3. If you ruled the world… how would the issues that lead to censorship be addressed?

We have published the many and various answers over the past weeks in Round One, Round Two and Round Three of the responses. Here is Round Four.

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Richard Sawdon Smith

Richard Sawdon Smith is an artist, and Professor of Photography & Aids Cultures and Head of the Arts & Media Department at London South Bank University, UK. He is a member of the Visual AIDS Archive Project in New York City for whom he has curated a number of virtual exhibitions. He has published widely, both his photographs and his critical writing, and is co-editor of Langford’s Basic Photography (2007–2010).

Have you ever been censored?

As a photographer my work has been censored on a number of occasions, in different ways. The most highlighted case was when I won the John Kobal Photographic Portrait prize at the National Portrait Gallery, London, in 1997. The then media sponsors of the award, The Times on Saturday, refused to publish my image (although it had published all previous winners). The image showed a full frontal male nude of a friend with Aids (the syndrome had left the lower half of his body with water retention and so it was enlarged, including the genitals). The Times said it was too disturbing to publish in a family newspaper. However, the same day The Guardian newspaper published the said image as ‘Picture of the Week’.

Can you give an example of justified censorship?

I think anything that incites violence towards others.

If you ruled the world…

Teach diversity, equality, respect from an early age – including freedom of speech, but with acceptance of those different to ourselves – and hopefully reduce people’s desires to censor others.
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Diane Mantzaris

Diane Mantzaris has an international reputation for her pioneering application of digital imaging to art-making. Her work – which is unconventional, motivated by personal and political concerns – featured at the Adelaide Biennale in 1992 and, in 1994, in the National Gallery of Australia. More recently she created a major installation for Melbourne’s western ring road interchange (2000-2004) and played a key role in Occupy Melbourne in 2011.

Have you ever been censored?

I encountered the ‘art police’, whilst proposing an exhibition for Melbourne. Entitled ‘The Human Clay’, it presented my work and the work of one of the world’s most respected artists, Thai art icon Vasan Sitthiket.

Standing at over seven feet tall, ‘Fountain of Eve’ is from a series of digital works, produced as C-type photographs for ‘The Human Clay’.  With Eve, the apple is understood as a metaphor for breaking the law, combined with the act of urination it stands for transgression; a defiant protest of the individual against injustice, and power over adversity.  The exhibition title refers to the fact that all human beings are bound together by their commonality, and thus deserving of equality.

In 2011, I received feedback on our applications to universities and public galleries in Melbourne which have international residencies, and met with art organisations to discuss.  It was thought that our exhibition might offend CEOs, institutional heads, editors or audiences.  At that time, censor-aspirant Senator Barnett proposed a ban on, or classification of, nudity in art, which left some people fearful as it implied nudity was wrong.  In one instance, the exhibition and residency for Sitthiket was considered a certainty by decision makers, but then a university head intervened on the grounds of perceived political disobedience and the work’s explicit content.  On another occasion, in a meeting with a manager of an arts organisation to discuss funding and exhibition touring, it was stated that the nudity in my work might be inappropriate for Thailand, and pleasing their CEO was the objective behind an incoming exhibition of Thai craft they had received.  Art magazines at this time cowered: three writers proposed articles, but backed down because of a possible negative reaction by their editors, who might find the images “too confronting”.

‘The Human Clay’ eventually made its way to Bangkok’s Number1 Gallery and attracted a warm, enthusiastic, international audience. It featured in the art press in Bangkok, and out as far as Singapore and Hong Kong. It seems that those who hold the power of say-so over Melbourne’s exhibition programs, blinded by priggish Protestantism, a fear of nudity and politics in art (that is, any kind of explicit protest), failed to grasp the meaning of the work, the exhibition and the significance of the missed opportunity.

Can you give an example of justified censorship?

No, it is always counter productive

If you ruled the world…

We need ‘glasnost’, a Russian word used in the Gorbachev era meaning freedom of speech, and also associated with an awakening, transparency, diversity, justice and disobedience. Any sort of awakening that will not further cost the artist is fine with me; the Australian art world needs one! Visual artists would all belong to a union to help regain some control of matters that affect them and also for their protection. Arts organisations would be answerable to visual arts practitioners not politicians, the media and CEOs.  Problematics for artists censored in Australia include things like social and geographic isolation; there is now a lack of care and community, a tribe. Although you cannot manufacture a tribe, you can help create an environment that allows one to exist and prosper.
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Paula Luttringer

In 1977, during Argentina’s so-called Dirty War, Paula Luttringer was kidnapped and imprisoned in a Secret Detention Centre near Buenos Aires.* She was held there for five months before managing to escape and take exile in France. She returned to Argentina in 1995 and began to use photography to explore the intersection of her country’s history and her own. She has received a number of prestigious awards including the 2011 John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship.

Have you ever been censored?

An important Secret Detention Center (SDC)* in Buenos Aires called ‘Club Athletico’ was demolished in the late 1970s for the construction of a freeway. There had been prison cells in the basement of that building, and twenty years after the building was demolished, a crew of young archaeologists and anthropologists discovered some objects that once belonged to people in that SDC, both those who were abducted and detained, and those who tortured and imprisoned them. More than three thousand artefacts from the 70s have been disinterred during this process, and I have taken a series of photographs of these objects, such as shoes, spoons, a cooking pot, a sweater, etc. I call this project Cosas Disenterradas [Unearthed Objects], and a question of censorship arose recently in connection with this project.

One of the objects is a Jacquard pullover [sweater] that belonged to a man who was detained at Club Atletico and was never seen again. This man’s sister recognized his sweater in my photograph and was furiously opposed to my exhibiting the picture. I was quite shocked by her point of view. For me it was a way to bring back a mark of that time, the way we dressed. We were young people before being the desaparecidos, the disappeared.

She felt that the pullover belonged to her family, as a relic. For me it belonged to all of us who shared the same dream and even more importantly to young people now, who are trying to understand who the desaparecidos were, and make sense of an overwhelming past. I strongly feel that we need to be generous and share in a public way all that has been found in the digging. What they have found is not just from Pedro or Jose. It is part of the remains of the same wounded body, our country’s painful past.

I explained to her that this was the kind of pullover that was fashionable in the 70s, it was the kind of clothing young college students wore at that time, and that it would be a tribute to our missing persons to show it. In the end, I did include the photograph of the pullover in the exhibit, and the man’s sister changed her mind when she saw many people of our age being moved to tears by the photograph.

Can you give an example of justified censorship?

I do not believe in censorship, and I do not believe censorship can be justified. Each time you censor, you are taking the power to make decisions for other people, or you are behaving as if others cannot think for themselves and you have the right to make decisions about what others will read or see.  Because I grew up in a dictatorship, I believe that each person can and should think for themselves. Because I have lived many years in France, where there are laws against hate speech, I don’t think of those laws as censorship. It is difficult to talk about censorship globally, as I understand the term ‘censorship’ from the standpoint of an Argentine woman living in France.

If you ruled the world…

I don’t believe I know what is best for the whole world. With all the different cultures in the world, how can anyone want to rule the world and impose her beliefs on everyone else?

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Footnote

* Between 1976 and 1983 a series of military juntas in Argentina systematically persecuted sections of their own citizenry in a period of state terrorism euphemistically titled the ‘National Reorganization Process’, but subsequently dubbed the ‘Dirty War’ (Guerra Sucia). During this time many thousands of people were abducted by security forces and taken to one of more than 520 secret detention centres, never to be seen again (they came to be known as el desaparecidos, ‘the disappeared’). The National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons estimates some 13,000 people were lost in this way, among them young students, journalists and trade unionists.

At the time, the Argentine authorities consistently denied the existence of such clandestine centres or the men and women imprisoned and tortured there. The victims were physically and mentally isolated from the rest of the world. As unregistered detainees, they had no official status. They no longer existed.

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Images:
Fine Art  magazine (Bangkok) advertisement for ‘The Human Clay’, Diane Mantzaris (Australia) and guest artist Vasan Sitthiket (Thailand). Image © Diane Mantzaris 2011
‘Simon’ 1997 © Richard Sawdon Smith
photograph from ‘Disinterred Objects’ ©  Paula Luttringer

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The lead article for this short season on censorship is ‘On Liberty and Censorship’, an interview by Armani Nimerawi with Alasdair Foster, sections of which were published in Capture magazine in May 2012.
You may also be interested Helen Grace’s 2004 interview with Alasdair Foster for ArtLink magazine, in which they discussed ‘Staring in the Dark’, an exhibition about artists who engage pornography.
Also related to this theme is the article written for The Bakery Art Centre in Perth: ‘Normality if not a Virtue’

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  • The majority of the texts on this site are by Alasdair Foster and represent his opinions. However, in order to facilitate a useful diversity of views, some texts have been invited from artists and colleagues around the world, while others appear as independent comments. These opinions and comments are not necessarily those of Alasdair Foster or Cultural Development Consulting (CDC). All data and information on this site is provided on an as-is basis. While every effort is made to be as thorough as possible, neither Alasdair Foster nor CDC make representations as to accuracy, completeness, currency, suitability or validity of any information on this site and will not be liable for any errors, omissions or delays in this information or any losses, injuries or damages arising from its display or use.
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