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Features Essays Published 30 September 2015

No Boundaries: Conversations About Censorship

Eleanor Turney on the first day of the symposium of arts and culture.
Eleanor Turney

In theory, organising an arts conference isn’t that difficult. You ask some interesting people to speak; you give them an interesting question or starting point; you invite some people to come and hear what they think. In practice, though, most gatherings of arts bods are an excuse to either indulge in some mutual back-scratching, or to have a collective bitch about funding cuts. I have very little patience for either. Given that I got into a fair amount of trouble the last time I raised this point , I’m doubly delighted to say that No Boundaries was a bloody brilliant day.

The speakers were articulate, fiery, passionate and (mostly) stuck to time. There were things I nodded along to and things I didn’t agree with, but it was pretty much all interesting. The Twitter conversation was sparky and critical and insightful; there were no pointless, self-aggrandising “questions” from the floor; the atmosphere was lively and convivial and energetic. The technology all worked. The lunch was fantastic. The evening reception was sponsored by Hendricks. Need I say more?

Well, yes, I should probably mention the talks. The most interesting session of the day was the first, on freedom of expression. Julia Farrington from Index of Censorship kicked off the day, exploring “potentially inflammatory” work and the issues around police and protestors shutting down work. The Mall Galleries, which was criticised for removed Mimsy’s work, ISIS Threaten Sylvania, last week, was apparently told that a police presence was necessary if they wanted to show the piece – a police presence that would cost the gallery £36k. In 2010, Behud at the Belgrade in Coventry was quoted £10k a night for police security after the issues around playwright Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti’s previous show, Behzti ,which was closed down by Sikh protestors in 2004.

Farrington describes this as “the heckler’s veto”, forcing arts organisations down the path of least resistance, which is usually to cancel or remove the work. She also pointed out a worrying shift towards pre-emptive strikes; it used to be that protests could close a show or exhibition, but perhaps now arts organisations are cancelling for fear of potential protest. Further, Farrington said, because it is often work with a religious theme that causes controversy, BAME artists are often hit harder by this censorship.

A gradual infringing of the right to make provocative work is clearly something we should be vigilant against, and the same applies to preserving the right to protest. That said, Ali Robertson of the Tobacco Factory pointed out in the break that instances of this kind of censorship are pretty rare. The cancellation of Homegrown has encouraged media attention again (and rightly so – more on that in a min), but the reason we still use Behzti as an example is that there aren’t that many others (that we know about, anyway). There’s the anti-Israel protests in Edinburgh and at the Globe; Exhibit B’s Human Zoo at the Barbican; and Behzti. Farrington made a clear and articulate case against this kind of censorship, but it is worth noting that provocative art is still being made even if there is some evidence of a worrying trend to stifle it.

For me, and for many delegates I spoke to in the breaks, Natalia Kaliada’s talk, It’s Exhausting To Be Free, was the most powerful of the day. Kaliada, who founded Belarus Free Theatre under the Belarusian dictatorship, suffered imprisonment and intimidation, and was eventually smuggled out of the country with her husband and youngest daughter, now lives in exile in London, rehearsing with her underground company over Skype. She and her company have pledged “to defend human rights at all costs”, and, as someone commented on Twitter, her story makes the rest of the theatre world’s issues feel like #firstworldproblems…

Kaliada was critical of “safe” theatre, suggesting that Belarus Free Theatre are popular when they are seen as “victims of an exotic dictatorship”, but get less goodwill if they want to point out issues with their adopted country: “In areas where artists’ human rights are violated we hear their voices screaming. But from the UK there is silence.” She suggested that the censorship of a democracy is self-censorship, usually prompted by a fear of losing funding for being critical. This is obviously not comparable to the censorship imposed by the fear of physical harm to oneself or one’s family, but Kaliada’s observations about the UK arts world are interesting nonetheless.

The next speaker in the session on freedom of expression was Nadia Latif, director of National Youth Theatre’s Homegrown, which was recently cancelled. NYT cited concerns about the quality of the production; Latif and her team claim censorship because the play looked at questions of extremism. Latif was direct and eloquent, calling out the reductive “good Muslim, bad Muslim” rhetoric that gets spouted by politicians and the media, and criticising “artistic cowardice and insidious authoritarianism”.

Other sessions ranged across nurturing tomorrow’s talent, arts education, funding (and lack thereof), new digital platforms and the government’s “divide-and-rule” approach to arts policy. All were interesting, although none matched the first session for sheer invigoration or depth of ideas. Poet Jackie Kay gave a barnstorming talk about arts education: “the arts make us not only better citizens but also better people.” She also recounted being told when she was auditioning as a young actor: “you’re really good, dear, you’re just the wrong colour”, and questioned how much has changed in terms of BAME actors’ opportunities.

Professor Sugata Mitra gave a great talk about education, and whether it is at all fit for purpose in an internet age. In 2015, he suggests, children are passengers rather than drivers in their education, and an education system that basically pretends that the internet doesn’t exist (banning mobiles, encouraging rote-learning and enforcing closed-book exams) is unhelpful and backwards. The system is set-up around a “just-in-case” philosophy, but when was the last time you needed to do a quadratic equation? Probably during your Maths GCSE, which was testing if you knew how to solve a quadratic equation.

It was a full day, and I won’t rehearse all of the speakers for you here – the whole day was live-streamed and the talks will be available online if you want to watch them. Everyone gets ten minutes to speak, and it might be nice next year if a few speakers were given slightly more breathing space – I’d love to know what Natalia Kaliada would say in half an hour, for example. I also wonder if some of the sessions would have benefitted from being panel discussions rather than separated talks – there was a Q&A session at the end of the day, but the speakers didn’t talk to each other and perhaps some of the ideas would have been interrogated and debated in interesting ways. I do recognise the difficult of co-ordinating this across two sites, though, and it really is a minor quibble – in fact, co-ordinating the whole event across two cities is immensely impressive, as is the commitment to subtitling and signing all of the talks. I left invigorated and buoyed up by how many smart, passionate people there are in this sector, and looking forward to more talk tomorrow.

No Boundaries takes place on 29th and 30th September 2015 at HOME Manchester and the Watershed Bristol.

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Eleanor Turney

Eleanor Turney is a freelance writer and editor. @eleanorturney