*During the course of the debate, a contributor had to cancel their participation for personal reasons. At their request, we have edited out all explicit references, but some of the participants below might make reference to particular elements of that contribution. For parity and transparency we have kept these references in.
Diana Damian and Bojana Jankovic: Originally conceived in 2010, Exhibit B (formerly known, in a slightly different incarnation, as Exhibit A), is a ‘human installation’ by Brett Bailey, a white South-African director. The piece reenacts the set-up of 19th and 20h century human zoos and constructs images that refer to the colonial past and the postcolonial present. The presence of images stemming from different epochs, including the one we find ourselves in, means the piece has been promoted (and sometimes seen) as a testament to not only ‘the scientific racism that spanned the late 19th and early 20th centuries’ but also ‘the current policies towards African immigrants in Europe’. The performers are local to each city/country Exhibit B visits; they are asked to maintain eye contact with the audience for the duration of the piece, and not allowed to move in any other manner.
Before arriving to London, Exhibit B travelled throughout Europe, visiting Germany, France, The Netherlands, Belgium, Austria, Poland and Finland and taking part in some of the most prestigious festivals, including Avignon, Holland and Berliner Festspiele. The reactions – at least from the reviewers and critics – have been overwhelmingly positive, but wherever it went, Exhibit B sparked some sort of protest. In South Africa, Exhibit A took part in the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown; its future schedule includes Moscow and Paris.
In a recent article for The Guardian responding to the cancellation of Exhibit B in London, Brett Bailey states: “ I stand for a global society that is rich in a plurality of voices. I stand against any action that calls for the censoring of creative work or the silencing of divergent views, except those where hatred is the intention.” He openly declares that Exhibit B is primarily a work that responds and deals with “racist and xenophobic policies in the EU”, rather than “a work about colonial-era violence.”
Over at Huffington Post, artist Akala accuses the work of being openly racist, arguing that “this 21st century recreation of the very real human zoos is disgusting, deplorable and aims to do none of the things its supporters claim it does.” He underlines the importance of considering the Barbican as an institutional context for the work, arguing that its predominantly white, middle class audience is contained by a space of privilege, not open conversation with those which it excludes.
We invited participants with a range of views to contribute to this piece and it does not begin with either a fundamental support or rejection of censorship nor an immediate accusation or defense of racism. There are several layers to the debate which we would like to unpick together; this is an attempt to fuel a conversation that concerns itself with the reasons and ramifications of such a mixed set of reactions to the work and its cancellation, bearing in mind the cultural specificity of the UK, as well as the origins of the work and institutions involved.
There are several layers here: the ways in which the work is approached, its intentions, origins and its presence across several cultural contexts; the engagement with questions of otherness, gaze, authorship, complicity; the institutional, political and social dimensions of the different views in regards to its cancellation, posited as a result of threatening protests; the nature of those who are choosing to speak in the defense of the work, or towards its accusation.
Despite historical parallels to be drawn – Couple in a Cage by Coco Fusco and Guillermo Gomez-Pena, for example – as well as more contemporary ones – the film The Act of Killing, the recent DV8 piece at the National Theatre, Can We Talk About This?– the issues remain complex, embedded in discourses around collective guilt, ownership, colonialism and of course, representational politics. Authorship is a fundamental aspect of this conversation, and has been the cause of much debate in terms of accusations and ownership, particularly when the voices of performers have not been deemed relevant by everyone partaking in the conversation. Yet what is fuelling this division remains open for discussion, likewise, the nature of the protests that led to its cancellation, and the questions of representation, form, narrative and history that the piece fuels, alongside those of ownership, liberalism, ethics, and political sensitivity.
Adam Alston: What right do I have, as someone who has not experienced Exhibit B, to comment on the ethics and politics of the furore surrounding both Brett Bailey’s decision to stage a ‘human zoo’ and the Barbican’s decision to pull the performance? For some, silence would seem the only sensible response, because views and opinions will remain groundless without experiencing, first-hand, the work in question. However, we ought to think twice before switching the mute button. For a start, we’d be doing theatre historians out of a job if they were unable to pass comment on works that they were unable to experience. Is their commentary somehow valueless because they failed to attend a performance that took place a century ago? Or perhaps it’s possible to collate enough information to at least offer a sense of a particular work from which an informed view can be proposed. Surely this is better than silence?
Silence is part of the problem surrounding the Exhibit B controversy, as well as a central theme of the artwork. Audiences are confronted with a literalisation of what Michael Fried once called, to borrow from another context, ‘the silent presence of another person’ – the silence, that is, of a human art-object. The Exhibit B audience shares in this silence; in fact, it’s demanded of them by Brett Bailey, the exhibit’s director, in a strange way that also invites the protest that ultimately silenced the artwork, for venting frustration and the emotional consequences of uneasy spectatorship after experiencing the work is not just appropriate, but in some sense necessary. Consigned to the rules of engagement set up by Bailey, silence, while experiencing the exhibit (or at least I imagine), also opens up a space for contemplative reflection. It opens up a space to question both what one observes and a relationship to the observed. Approaching this theme a little more obliquely, the human art-objects also stand in for a silent group of disparate black identities, raised from the dead. The individuals are not given voice; the images speak for themselves. It is up to the audience to ‘listen’. In all these respects and more, Exhibit B centres on the theme of silence.
But the theme of silence has taken on another hue following on from the protests outside the exhibition on its opening night. Firstly, the exhibit has been ‘silenced’ by the Barbican. According to a statement issued by a Barbican spokesperson, the protest was of ‘extreme nature’, which meant that the Barbican ‘could not guarantee the safety of performers, audiences and staff’.
For Stella Odunlami, an Exhibit B performer, ‘The protesters have censored me and silenced me’, adding that ‘the sense of irony here is heavy’. She is surely right, for the exhibition is seeking to make visible that which history might otherwise erase through collective amnesia. Perhaps this erasure is due to a reluctance to confront that which we personally had no hand in perpetrating, but to which we, as human beings, especially white human beings in the context of Exhibit B,owe a debt of recognition. Perhaps it is to do with something more sinister, more deliberate. The point is that the bubbling up of an uncomfortable past is quashed by the powerful voices of a 200-strong crowd of protesters, noting that the protest and not the online petition was cited as a reason for pulling the exhibition. At a time when it has become fashionable in political philosophy to count the uncounted and to acknowledge the significance of the minority silenced by a liberal majority, as important and insightful as this work is, perhaps we ought also to reflect on its darker side. Where the assertion and ultimate dominance of a few rears its head, tyranny isn’t far behind
‘Hold your horses!’, I hear you say. ‘Aren’t they the minority to which this so-called art exhibit responds? Shouldn’t they have a voice and be heard?’ This is the second form of silence surrounding the protest, specifically. There is a discourse emerging in a range of interviews, discussion forums, newspaper articles, television debates and so on that bands around the theme of ‘censorship’ as an abhorrent word. Let me be frank: I personally disagree with the Barbican’s decision to censor the performance. However, I find it strange that these defenders of free expression are so quick to silence, or, rather, to strive to silence, the protester’s claims and opinions. Censorship is a term that is being applied to the art context, but not to the political context of the protest. Of course, the protest was not censored, but discrediting the views of a group of people affected by the ethics of staging Exhibit B arises from an impulse to censor – to censor the credibility of those views.
The media thrives on antagonism and blunt polarisation. Take, for example, an episode of Newsnight screened on 25 September. Either side of Kirsty Walk, the presenter, sit Kandy Rohmann, an actress in Exhibit B, andSara Myers from the ‘Boycott the Human Zoo Campaign’. While some fairly muddy points were raised in that debate, there was no attempt to foster any third space, or point of negotiation. After all, the public loves a punch-up, don’t they? What emerges from the media’s fostering of stronger barricades between binary positions and from our own investment in controversy is a failure to listen, to really listen.
In his book Together, the sociologist Richard Sennett explores listening as a craft. It’s a skill. Good listening implies latent responsiveness. It implies latent negotiation. The problem with the Exhibit B controversy is a refusal to listen properly, on both sides. The sooner that we stop trying to fetishise assertive positions in contexts that demand cultural sensitivity, the sooner those silenced – those people and those issues – will be heard.
Phoebe Patey-Ferguson: I am really keen here to echo some of other contributor’s comments, and respond to Adam’s above. This is an exciting and crucial moment for everyone to critically engage with the complex but vitally important key issues surrounding diversity and representation in the arts, and for all of us to listen to each other, talk and take real action. These events call for wider, more inclusive and intelligent conversation about whose voices are heard and represented in our theatres. What international work we bring to the UK and why.
My inital gut reaction to the protest outside The Vaults in Southwark was: ‘this is fucking fantastic!’. There was a huge, engaged, majority black crowd who were articulating their anger in a peaceful manner. The people I chatted to were angry about the ticket price (which removed the possibility of experience away from certain sociocultural groups), were angry about the lack of black voices, black bodies and black experiences and general lack of diversity in the arts and at the majority white arts elite in London – one that reflects people’s feelings about politics/politicians too. I knew which side of the (actual) fence I wanted to be on. I did not want to be a sheepish arts professional ducking inside, I wanted to shout about the importance of diversity in the arts.
These voices were not the ‘mob’ who ‘silenced the artist’. These are the voices of people who are systematically silenced within institutionalised power networks, who deserve to be heard. The censorship is built into the [race/gender/class] structures that dominate Britain.
Let’s re-configure this situation: If a man, from a privileged background (who used misogynist language frequently- let’s not forget Bailey’s ‘casual’ use of the n-word which is just not acceptable [alarm bells ring]) made a piece about ‘women’s experience’ and ‘women’s history’ where he depicted violent and hateful immobile scenes of women being abused and raped whilst those women ‘performers’ were frozen, fixed and silent whilst a majority male crowd stood artfully and watched and ‘felt bad’…? As a feminist I would be fucking furious. I’d start the petition. I’m angry enough about the ‘rape paintings’ that hang in the National Gallery and Allen Jones’ chairs. How do we understand women-in-culture when a theatre programme has (nearly) no work at all by all-women companies/women directors and then programmes a high-profile international work that has women objectified and depicted as nothing but victims? As a woman I do not want to be seen as an anonymous and interchangeable silent victim of past (and current) atrocities, but as a powerful agent with my own voice.
Yes, art divides. Yes, historically people have protested/rioted what we now consider ‘great art’ (Rite of Spring, The Playboy of the Western World etc.). But when art makes the majority of one (privileged) section of a society go ‘oh wow, what a profound and excellent piece of art’ whilst the majority of a (marginalised) section feel conflicted, disgusted and/or angry- there is surely something profoundly wrong with the art itself? Witnessing performance is an incredibly influential experience that fundamentally shapes our perceptions of and participation within our society. Works-in-performance are also works-in-society. Is this the way we want to view each other in contemporary London?
Adam: Thank you for your thoughts. I accept your concern that the payment of lipservice to a protest – and the acceptance of protest on condition that it does not and will not promote any real change – is damaging (not least politically). However, I also sense an underlying assumption that homogenises diverse and nuanced strands in the perennial debate surrounding identity politics. Are we at risk in this conversation of paying lip-service not to protest, but to views that do not sit so snugly at either pole of a debate? Is polarisation of a debate – into antagonists and supporters of Exhibit B, in dialogue with the polarisation of the race-relations debate that surrounds it – a good or a bad thing? In what ways, specifically, does polarisation affect the POWER dynamic? Is there a centre ground and what might that ground look like? Should we even be looking for a centre ground and in what ways might the centre ground be all false promise? If not the centre ground, then what? Are these two aspects of the controversy (the performance and the debate that emerges from, or is imposed on, the performance) neatly compatible, or something else? Phoebe, you write: “These voices [of the protesters] were not the ‘mob’ who ‘silenced the artist’. These are the voices of people who are systematically silenced within institutionalised power networks, who deserve to be heard”. This is an insightful and potent observation. But I would also be interested to know what you think – what you both think, as well as those yet to enter the conversation – about the statements from Exhibit B performers supporting Brett Bailey, the performance and their roles in the performance.
Phoebe: In direct answer to that above question Adam (whilst understanding that there is no clear answer). I do feel that it is a failure within the form of the piece itself to incorporate these statements from the performers into the ‘exhibition’. Instead, they are excluded to a position in a secondary room, where they act as a postscript, or appendix to the piece. Additionally, reading through the statements by performers in their entirety (Bailey made these public following the cancellation) there is a clear uncertainty in their involvement with project by many of them.
For example ‘E.’ an Actor: “being involved in EXHIBIT B was an incredibly difficult choice for me. It has kept me up for many nights over the last couple of months, made my chest hurt, my stomach sick and my head so full of questions I thought it better to leave Brett Bailey and his “human zoo” well alone.” ‘E’ also describes not even being able to enter Exhibit B in Edinburgh. I would also direct you to a piece by Antony Simpson-Pike where he unpicks his choice to not audition for the piece
I am aware some of these performers have spoken out strongly in favour of the piece (as is their right) but there are questions around how some of these statements have been edited by Bailey. However, it is important to recognise this space of ambiguity and conflict experienced by the performers. Again, I feel that although many people are attributing the ‘failure’ of this episode to the Barbican (and its modes of engagement) and/or to the protesters we should also be analysing the ‘failures’ of the artist and of the form of the piece.
Neleswa Mclean-Thorne: It is in my opinion at the crux of this ‘debate’ however I have yet to see it addressed in that way. The outrage that many, including myself felt towards this exhibit goes way beyond theatre. Black people are very rarely able to represent themselves, not only in artistic mediums and media representation but when it comes to the re-telling of history pre and post transatlantic slave trade. Whereas this may be an abstract intellectual issue for some, for many again including myself, this is a very painful and recurring experience of black history, images and voiceless bodies being used by white artists in such a way that removes any humanity from the ‘subjects’.
Many of the protesters were holding up ‘I am Human’, ‘I am Somebody’ placards illustrating feelings of dehumanisation. The fact that the majority of articles that have since sprung up concerning the exhibit, protests and ultimate cancellation have focused on censorship, the scariness of the (peaceful) protests/ers, the opinions of Mr Bailey and performers who are in support of the exhibition is telling. Of all mainstream articles, I have found only 3 that give a voice to the leaders if you will, of this protest and the 23,000 plus people who signed the petition for the removal of Exhibit B.
White Imperialism enslaves, exploits, tortures and murders Black people – White Privilege makes art that demonstrates the enslavement, exploitation, torture and murder of Black people – White Privilege talks about art that demonstrates the enslavement, torture and murder of Black people.
Even in the decision to join this conversation I found myself in an uncomfortable internal struggle, in terms of how my voice would represented or perceived within the context of this dialogue. Another factor is the ‘a black voice’ vs ‘the black voice’ in conversations concerning race and representation; a thought that crossed my mind when I read your question about the performers Adam. I would not like to judge the people that chose to perform in Exhibit B and as I do not speak for all black people, I think that it has come to light that neither do those few performers. In terms of why they chose to perform, we do not have adequate information about the performers, their backgrounds, their education and/or politics; in fact we know nothing about them other than the fact that they are performing in a Brett Bailey piece as slaves.
The slave narrative is something that is often represented as the only narrative when it comes to the ‘black experience’, almost as a means to somehow relegate those hundreds of years in history to a distant past, while maintaining it’s validity. Once again, the issues surrounding race and diversity in this country are present and present and they have existed in one form or another since that time. It can be seen in our schools, on our televisions, in our cinemas and in our behaviours. I see it among students, colleagues, friends, family and in myself, the toll of continuous non and/or misrepresentation, exclusion from the pages of history in our schools and micro-aggressions in our daily interactions. Whilst writing the last paper for my degree I did a significant amount research on African and Caribbean 1st, 2nd and 3rd… generation diaspora in London and how theatre can influence our perceptions of each other in this city, the 3rd most diverse in the world. The fact is that a great number of people of colour in our society do not feel included, respected or safe. This exhibit cannot be looked at in a bubble, to many it is a display of the power that this artist has, (unintentional or otherwise), an exhibition of the voiceless ‘other’ and a reflection of not only a lack of communication, but lack of respect for the subject and human ‘subjects’.
Manick Govinda: I am unable to comment on the actual performance of Exhibit B. I was denied my right to see it due to the censorship of the work by the protesters. I have made my thoughts and position known, so I won’t repeat what I have already written or published. The links are here and here.
So what can I add to this discussion that hasn’t already been said or written? What of the anti-racist movement, which I was once so actively engaged with? Many an evening in the 1980s and 1990s I would be standing with comrades demonstrating outside council meetings, police consultation meetings and magistrate courts, taking part in protests against police brutality and racial attacks. To call Exhibit B – an anti-racist work of art – RACIST baffles me and is an insult to the real victims of racism and the immigrants who are dehumanised and incarcerated in detention centres. It also a deep insult to the agency of the black performers who used their talent, discipline and rigour to perform in a difficult performance work.
The anti-racist movement has lost its moral compass. The racism of the 1970’s and 80’s is incomparable to the largely tolerant society that we now live in with regards to black and Asian citizens, so their search for a moral purpose has led them to attempt to curb or censor everyday language on football pitches, on twitter, the content of music videos and now these anti-racists, constantly on a look-out for new arenas to validate their authority, are targeting the arts and its institutions.
I’ve been told by prominent voices within the anti-Exhibit B protest that they are challenging ‘white supremacist’ or ‘white privilege’ authority who hold the power to governance and decision-making and that the Barbican Centre is the cultural symbol of ‘white supremacy’: hardly any black British work is programmed there, hardly any black Trustees or board members, probably no black members of staff in decision making positions as programmers or curators. However, viewing the Barbican in isolation from the rest of London’s cultural offer is foolish. If we look at the month of September 2014 alone with regards to work that features black subjects, curated by black professionals or works made by black artists in London: Africa Utopia at Southbank Centre (11-14 September), Black Chronicles II at Autograph/Rivington Place (12 Sept – 29 Nov), Re-imagine: Black Women in Britain, until 30 November, Black Heritage Centre. London is a global open art studio! We have the world at our doorstep, and this amazing city had that openness, that mix, that plurality, that tolerance for high art, popular art, controversial art, fun art, difficult art seriously compromised by the forced cancellation, tantamount to censorship, of Exhibit B.
The uneven distribution of the capacity to participate as spectator, audience or participant has to do with individual agency and the choices one makes in life. If I took another route in my life I may not have had the capacity to participate in this debate. I don’t have the capacity to participate in Particle Physics but I’m not asking for the closure of science labs because I don’t fully understand the theory.
Why does The Barbican have to be accountable? Do we have to spoon-feed the public? A dependency culture? Can’t the public actively go out to discover or find other narratives themselves? There is a multitude of narratives, we just need to get out and look for them. If exclusion is the fall-back position to censor something people don’t like, or feel offended by, we will find ourselves deeper entrenched in identity ghettoes and giving greater authority to self-appointed ‘community’ leaders to police our everyday lives and culture. Exhibit B wasn’t an isolated, de-contextualised work, London is the context, empire is the context, history is the context. Let’s not be lazy and do some of the work ourselves as active producers of meaning.
Phoebe: If I can just highlight a fundamental ideological difference of Manick’s point of view (with the purpose of understanding our different views in a constructive manner). The crux of Manick’s argument is that “uneven distribution of the capacity to participate […] has to do with individual agency and the choices one makes in life.” This is a libertarian view that I fundamentally disagree with. Coming from a sociological conviction, I believe that the ‘uneven distribution’ comes from these power structures that control and dominate society not just an individuals choices. There are many factors outside of our control (socio-economic status, colour, gender, sexuality, parents status etc.) that can be obstacles to our participation within all spheres. We have to learn to articulate our unfreedom before we can begin to consider what ‘free speech’ might possibly be.
Adam: The word ‘articulate’ is a great word to bring into play here, so thank you Phoebe. I wonder how this term plays out against the theme of silence raised earlier in this discussion? Perhaps Exhibit B, as a difficult work – difficult in terms of content, form and context – should encourage both protagonists and antagonists of the ‘difficult’ performance to reflect on how best to articulate their relative subject positions, instead of assuming that the public are incapable of doing so (thus requiring censorship).
The debate surrounding the cancellation of the show – which is a form of censorship, at least implicitly, whether we like it or not – has given rise to a flurry of comment pieces, debates, etc., as noted earlier. But, still, I can’t help but feel that this might have played out more productively alongside the performance, rather than in its place. Replacing one form of dominance with another, while compelling in terms of ‘giving voice’ to a demographic who feel directly affected by the work in question, is surely not going to promote the change that we might otherwise wish to see in the world. As Audre Lorde puts it, ‘the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house’. In allowing for competing world views to exist alongside one another, potentially opening up spaces for exchange instead of submitting to the logic of ‘power structures that control and dominate society’ (as you put it, Phoebe), perhaps we might also provide space for a broader cross section of the public to articulate their own views in light not just of debate and a performance which sparks debate but, ideally, dialogue.
Diana: There are two fundamental aspects that I would like to push further here, which have been in discussion so far: agency and representation. I for one have not had a chance to see Exhibit B, and I think it is problematic to reflect back on the work discourses that it attempts to engage with on a representational and reflective level. This is, however, not a value judgment per se: I am not attempting to define or qualify the ways in which Exhibit B engages with complex discourses on race, immigration, trafficking and silencing; how it achieves this, and the journey it takes to do so are highly pertinent matters, and they tend to slide by in discussions that are aimed at declaiming its intentions as racist. This gives little agency to the work itself, its participants, viewers and those who both agree with it, and oppose it. I fully agree with Adam’s call to dialogue as a site where these issues might be facilitated, and what to me Exhibit B has questioned is where might this site for dialogue be.
There is a real danger at allowing legislation to be a mode of thinking; that the answer to anything that we might find contentious is to legislate its access. This comes in the context of a culture that is no stranger to legislation not just as a framework, but a process of structuring, ordering public space and the public body.
If we are saying that Brett Bailey cannot make a piece of work about the subject because he is a white man, then we are simplifying the ways in which culture moves, shifts and changes, as well as legislating who has a right to speak about what, and under what circumstances. If, as Manick has argued, we are saying that people cannot make up their own minds about a piece of work, because some find it offensive, we are both denying the importance of agency and independent thinking, and are making declarations on behalf of some for others; we are telling people what they should think about their own heritage, and others how they can and cannot engage with it. That is not to say that the discussion around the piece cannot take place, on the contrary; it is a highly appropriate site in which some of these conversations can take place, as Adam and Manick have already argued.
Adam brings up the question of visibility as representational power, both as a trend in recent political philosophy and as a mode of thinking about the ways in which performance practice navigates questions that are culturally embedded. I would like to push that argument further in the case of Exhibit B; there is an issue here with thinking that representation is mimesis; that re-creating certain scenarios, particularly with bodies that are re-coded within those contexts, necessarily means that those power discourses are enacted. What the London protests show is the dangerous of objectifying a piece of work under the auspices of a local history and its current political ramifications (of which there are many, of course).
Cultural politics has taught us that there are complex processes of meaning-making that occur in these scenarios that do not ascribe representation and visibility solely as bearers of power; we do not think of performance as a solely semiotic space, nor are we ignorant to the fact that any image and action have an aesthetic discourse that is plural and embedded. As a result, how can we claim something about a piece of work solely on the artist’s heritage and intention, but not on the ways in which it acts in different contexts? The UK is a perfect example on the ways in which discourses of colonialism, of ownership, of silence and image as a mode of discourse, are highly contented and contentious. Add to that the issues around issue-led politics , and you get an instance in which Exhibit B become an object within a discussion, rather than a process of debate. And of course given the vehement, strong positions it invites, there is more collective ownership over it that totemises it without complicating the issue.
If, as Neleswa states, we consider that there are real issues around the ways in which certain communities feel ownership of their own histories, and presence within the public sphere, then how can we demand of one artwork to re-code those power structures? Are we not removing the right of an artist to make work that engages these conversation, in a similar way in which minorities- and not even – are disabled from having a voice and partaking, even leading those conversations? That being said it’s of course a discussion situated in the context of a theatrical culture that is dominated by white voices, and an institutional system that legislates access and ownership. The protest was first and foremost a form of response; and I think issues around the framing of Exhibit B and the ways in which the Barbican removed itself from any form of conversations remain pertinent to the discussion.
Manick, here Is where my point differs from yours: I think the Barbican could have anticipated a heated response to Exhibit B and chosen to frame the work differently, and to enable some access and conversation to happen around the piece, rather than intently removing itself from any conversation, which is what their decision and statement suggest. To not acknowledge the communities that tend to attend and have access to the work, nor consider the debate that the work would invite is problematic; and if anything, the protests could have been the start of a conversation, not its termination.
At the same time, neoliberal ideology certainly invites, if not configures ways in which issues of individual interest become matters of public legislation (see, for example, Dardot and Laval’s The New Way of the World: On Neoliberal Society). As Adam points out there is a danger of fetishisation that occurs; and what is of importance here, and perhaps one of the most fruitful elements of the debate, is a questioning of what we all assume is the public good; what role institutions like the Barbican play in its configuration, and the different ways in which this is politicised.
Neleswa: To address some of Manick’s points: The anti-racism movement, as well as racism itself of course, is still alive and well in this country. It may not be the same movement that people like my father and his friends fought on the ground and in the boardroom in ‘Race Relations’, but that would take us into another very complex discussion. The fact that racism is more visible to some on an institutional level, does not negate the fact that racially motivated violence is still happening on our streets. It does not negate the fact that racial profiling (not limited to the MET Police Service) is still a challenge that many poc face. Profiling in all it’s forms is a direct result of the learned perceptions of others and the theatre/arts industries have a huge influence on those perceptions in our society.
The piece was labeled ‘anti-racist’ by the artist, this does not preclude people the right to find it offensive or racist. The implication that the artist, the venue and/or the supporters of the piece are more qualified to decide, whether a large proportion of the people it depicts should find the piece offensive is not only patronising, but opposes their purported intentions.
I’m not sure a tolerant society is enough? I would like to work toward a society that affords me the right to an education that includes me, a police service I do not fear, a job market that respects my capabilities as much as my white counterparts. A society in which I can express offence, hurt and dismay at a depiction my ancestors (counterproductively) presented to the world as silent, passive, brutalised, objects once again, without being dismissed.
The idea that the protesters are angry simply down to a lack of understanding, (of ‘high art’ I assume), is once again a very patronising assumption. It seeks to reduce their outrage and protest to an infantile tantrum. Having studied performance arts, I myself have viewed the premise of Exhibit B from the perspective of a black, female, Londoner, performance-maker, anti-racist (person), who has largely worked with children and has witnessed racism institutional and otherwise countless times in my short life.
The lack of engagement with the protest organisers from the Barbican and Mr Bailey at the beginning stages read as arrogance and was more than likely a precipitant in the growth of the movement and the eventual closure (self-censorship) of the exhibit by The Barbican.
I know one of the prominent voices within the anti-Exhibit B movement, have read some very discerning articles by a few and am aware that many of them are artists themselves. No doubt as is common in a vast amount of the Black Community, (speaking from my experience), many if not most seek out and attend Black British exhibits, film screenings, theatre productions, poetry readings, concerts…in London. (PPF) They may not all attend the Barbican, RSC or ENO on a regular basis, but I would make an educated guess that neither do most of the population regardless of ethnicity.
As in any critique or critical analysis of art, this exhibit is being viewed for the purpose of enjoyment yes, engagement of course and judgement. This, all within the context of the hosting institution, the context of representation in the broader theatre world and in the context of race and representation in our society. Art cannot and does not exist without context, therefore must be made, viewed and critiqued with that in mind.
The authority or voice of ‘the people’ is the highest in my opinion, now that does not mean we have to obey or even agree, but we must listen. When those voices are mocked, censured and trivialised, we are in danger of muzzling, particularly in groups that have been historically and are at present largely unheard, undervalued and underrepresented.
Donald Hutera: I’m joining the debate late as a freelance journalist who recognises my privileged status and access to the arts. I wouldn’t however, label myself a sheepish arts professional especially as i don’t ‘get’ the adjective. What is there to be sheepish about attending (rather than ‘ducking in’) an installation-performance? Could I have been one of those white men who ‘stood artfully’ at Exhibit B in Edinburgh? Perhaps, but I don’t really understand what ‘artful’ standing is except maybe as a caricature, and if I did happen to stand artfully it was entirely unintentional.
Actually, what I recall was moving through the room (a venerable library and no doubt a bastion of colonising white privilege) and being so moved that I thought I would break down. There were black voices in Edinburgh: four heads singing a song beautifully, and unbearably, in part because the bodies attached to those heads were encased in wooden boxes.These four singers were, as indicated by the four photographs positioned behind them, meant to be the voices of the beheaded. Their song is something I won’t forget.
But that’s another line of enquiry, and one perhaps based on the aesthetics of atrocity.
Among other, admittedly undigested thoughts that have arisen as a result of the cancellation of Exhibit B and its aftermath (including this forum):
Arlene Croce in The New Yorker two decades or so ago re Bill T Jones/Arnie Zane Company’s Still/Here. She wrote about this work without having seen it, claiming that its supposed bid for her sympathy(the production was about and also featured people with life-threatening and/or terminal illness) would negate a valid critical stance. The label Croce slapped on the show was ‘victim art.’
Who are the victims of Exhibit B – those who saw it, who didn’t see it or who were denied the right to see it?Just asking…
In a similar vein a colleague sent a response – sorry, I can’t name the source – to the closure from someone who wrote with concerns about the African body being perceived as that of a proto-victim. I also had some Twitter exchanges with someone who was concerned about how Exhibit B represented his/her ancestors. A valid point. When I brought up holocaust museums as repositories of a history that shouldn’t be forgotten, and ought they also to be closed, the reply I received was ‘That’s for the Jewish community to decide.’ Interesting, this notion of decision, agency or call it what you will. Who are the cultural gate-keepers (this is a rhetorical question) and can the ‘power’ be shared? Who is and who is allowed to be responsible?
There is of course something about Exhibit B as a ‘human zoo’ that elicits strong reactions. It’s to do with the real flesh of living bodies, with eyes that stare back at you. No mannequins or wax dummies. I guess what confounds me is the notion that humanity is removed. I saw and perceived – acutely, or so it seemed – humanity.
I’m also thinking about the Edinburgh cast member who stated (yes, via a placard) that one reason she was participating in the performance was because she’d been attacked at a bus stop and no one around her intervened. If I were at that or some other bus stop now, post-Exhibit B, would I be that much more likely to come to her or someone else’s aid?
Also, just last night, I was reading thanks to an article torn from one of the weekend papers about ‘trigger warnings’ – sensitivity notes warning readers or viewers about content that might produce anxiety or induce relived trauma. And then, via BBC News online, came a report of trigger warnings attached to Tom and Jerry cartoons.
Who writes – or rewrites – the past, and how (hyper-)sensitive ought we to be today?
Back to the tweets. The word my anonymous correspondent used was ‘amusement’ – that Exhibit B was designed for the amusement of the (presumably white privileged male) public. It didn’t amuse me. I think this resonant and controversial piece could’ve been – and can still be, even unseen – a tool to educate, illuminate and expand thinking and access to the arts, culture and history. It all depends where people – individuals and organisations – want to take it.
Neleswa: In contemplation of Diana’s points surrounding dialogue and the rights of the artist and the audience and Adam’s observations on censoring the credibility of the protestors.
What I have noticed most about the dialogue surrounding Exhibit B since it’s closure, is that at no point (with exception to this discussion) has anybody questioned what we might learn from those who oppose it.There have been implications that they and/or we might learn from the piece, which was a possibility, but never the reverse. There seems to be an assumption that they’re either solely projecting onto the material, (as we all do) or that even if the protest is somewhat valid, that the outrage stems from conservatism or is a purely emotional response.
I pose these questions: Do you believe any of the supporters of Exhibit B, Mr Bailey, or the co-ordinators at the Barbican have read Frantz Fanons’ The Wretched of the Earth, Black Skins White Masks, Bell Hooks’ Black Looks: Race and Representation or any socio-physiological or political studies relating to ‘The Human Zoo’ with a focus on ‘the black experience’? With an awareness that each person is an individual; this goes to seminal works of the 19th and 20th century, on societal and politically embedded experiences of representation that differ based on race.
Is there an understanding of the means by which white privilege and supremacy are perpetuated through representation?
Is there an awareness that white privilege and supremacy are moreover perpetuated subconsciously through institutionally learned behaviour?
I also ask these questions of the wider theatre community, makers and audiences. Are we mindful of inequality in representation when we are not forced to be?
For argument’s sake, let us say that Mr Bailey’s intentions were as he claimed and that he performed the (necessary) research and study. Clearly, enough people were offended by the premise alone, to sign a petition in their thousands, organise protests and write outraged letters to the venue.
Why are we not trying to understand (rather than cursorily acknowledge) what it is that they gleaned? Is it so far fetched that some may have an insight that others may not, through study perhaps, life experience, the conversations that many people of colour are forced to have, on a near daily basis living in our society.
I am not suggesting that a white artist does not have the right to engage in these conversations through their art, however they must then be prepared for response and dialogue.
An artist made a piece of work that in his own words was, “to explore the machinations of systems of racism and how they dehumanise all who are touched by them.” Though neither he, his supporters or even our lauded critics, are vaguely interested in the criticism from the people who were/are undoubtedly more negatively ‘touched’ by racism, or why it is that they believe that ‘The Human Zoo’ perpetuates their dehumanisation.
Now, I do not presume to know what if anything anybody involved in the making of Exhibit B, involved in its ultimate closure or what anyone for that matter has read or understood.
However if we are going to engage in meaningful, progressive dialogue about the piece, it’s themes and the circumstances of its closure, to look at Exhibit B ‘The Human Zoo’ in isolation from the very people it depicts and the existence it is attempting to empathise with, is preposterous.
Donald, it is an interesting question to consider, who are the victims? That would largely depend on how we characterise victimisation, then from our unique pov how/if we prioritise that… I agree, the piece could provoke development in all the areas suggested and yes, it does depend on where people want to take it. This largely depends on an invitation to be included, space to be heard and a willingness to listen.
Bojana: Apologies for entering this debate so late in the game. It’s partly due to my internal attempts to position myself within the conversation. Outside of this virtual document, the arguments have, as other have noted, been polarised: the trouble is, as a white person from a country with no colonial history I don’t belong to either of the demographics the public conversation has turned to, and so I found the conversation rejecting me. But here I am, and I’ll make it very personal: bear with me.
Phoebe and David raised the question of the representation of history and ancestry and the legitimacy of different groups engaging in this representation. To quote Neleswa, this is far from ‘an abstract intellectual issue’ to me; I come from a country convicted of genocide.
A certain percentage of my compatriots who know this would defend the atrocities committed; they would say (and have said in the past) that the actions were valid within the context of a war and that the international courts belong to the West, and the West hates us. They don’t worry me as much as what I’m sure is a significant percentage of the population that’s not even aware of the fact. Ignorance of the majority is not only ominous, it is in fact debilitating to a society.
If a Serbian director dared to dive head-first into what happened in Srebrenica, the aftermath, consequences and implications, I would not only welcome it, but applaud it. If this attempt included Bosniak actors, performers, dramaturgs or other collaborators, allowing for joint voices and multiple perspectives and experiences to emerge, it would already be more than most, if not all diplomatic ‘initiatives’ of the last 20 years. If this attempt included the bare facts – that should be taught in Serbian schools, but are not – it would already be a triumph. I hope you will take my word that no one, least of all the current elected officials, would think a project like this is a theatrical equivalent of tapping yourself on the back for being adequately guilt-tripped and politically correct. A Serb, using Serbian taxes to tell Serbian people about Serbian-committed genocide? No, that’s not politically correct at all.
Before I get shut down from opposing sides: I don’t think slavery is comparable to the Bosnian War. When the conversation turns to whether the ‘perpetrators’ can legitimately create from history however you’ll find me up on the barricades, where I’ll be kicking and screaming until I lose my voice. White artists from former colonies are the same as my imaginary Serbian director: not only should this wrestling match with their heritage not be sanctioned, it should be mandatory. Otherwise we risk art that perpetuates the status quo, of privilege, class, conflict and historical narratives. Artists have an obligation to look to their own ancestry and find out what their fathers did during the war (metaphorically and if necessary literally). An artist who defects from this obligation is an artists who doesn’t want to confirm what they already suspect. All Serbs need to know what happened in Srebrenica; all British people need to know what slavery and imperialism meant. I say this as an embedded outsider to the UK: my impression has been that the history of the UK imperial rule is largely lost on a huge chunk of (white) British population.
Of course only allowing space for ‘perpetrators’ to look back is beyond dangerous; the unequal distribution of opportunities in the arts for those coming from less-privileged backgrounds and ethnic minorities is hardly news in the UK. I agree with Diana that Barbican should have done more to consider the context of the UK and the conversations that might arise from Exhibit B. What I can’t forgive however is that the Barbican has allowed the discussion that emerged to turn to censorship, even though what occurred was something slightly but distinctly different: self-censorship. It’s what happens when you think you might get into trouble for speaking up; it’s the kind of behaviour outsiders and members of minority groups might engage in for pragmatic and sometimes life-saving reasons. It’s not entirely appropriate for a major UK venue, positioning itself as cornered by the power of those who took to the streets and endangered its safety.
Neleswa mentioned considering what we all learned from those who oppose Exhibit B: I learned about the difficulty of agency being met with silence. Faced with a piece that stirs up the status quo, the artistic community by and large masked into innocent bystanders. They were invited to have a conversation: instead the protesters got a couple of press releases and the Barbican effectively shoved the colonial history under the carpet once again instead of somehow acknowledging it (the Barbican) belongs to a system distrusted by entire communities its meant to work for. I find the argument that showing is somehow promoting semiologically deeply problematic; the treatment that those who opposed Exhibit B got on the other hand I found to be an act of kidnapping agency.
I can’t help but notice that the conversations half-started in the outside world are retreating into silence discussed previously. Back to my personal experience: silence breeds ignorance, and ignorance is debilitating.
Adam Alston is a Lecturer in Theatre and Performance Studies at the University of Surrey. His research focuses on theatre audiences, focusing especially on audience participation, immersive theatre and theatre in the dark. He is a Creative Associate with Curious Directive, a devised theatre company, and is part of a small editorial team for Contemporary Theatre Review’s recently launched online resource.
Phoebe Patey-Ferguson is a PhD student at Goldsmiths, researching the role of International Theatre Festivals in the UK. Phoebe is part of the team at IBT in Bristol and has previously worked with LIFT.
Donald Hutera writes about dance, theatre and live performance for The Times of London, Animated (published by the Foundation for Community Dance) and many other publications and websites. He also curates GOlive Dance and Performance Festival and Chelsea Arts Collective aka CAC.
Neleswa Mclean-Thorne is a freelance theatre practitioner and facilitator, mainly working with young people in London. Artistic director at collaborative devising theatre company Sometime We Work Together, with a focus on Socio-Political structures. Invisibly disabled with a love for big earrings.
Manick Govinda is writing about Exhibit B in his capacity as a steering committee (unpaid & voluntary) member of the Manifesto Club, a campaign group believing in free expression, free association and freedom of movement.