Category Archives: Censorship

Graffiti & Censorship II

Are chalk drawings illegal under local laws? Moreland Council city infrastructure director, Nerina Di Lorenzo said that chalk drawings were illegal under Moreland Council laws. (Tessa Hoffman, “A message for all” Moreland Leader 27/9/10 p.1) I have tried but have been unable to get a comment from Nerina Di Lorenzo but it does appear that Moreland Council has made it illegal for a child to draw a hopscotch pattern on a Coburg sidewalk.

The Moreland Council is highly unlikely to prosecute a child drawing in chalk on the sidewalk. The legal threats were the council’s response to the political demands of the chalk marks as that were part of the campaign for a high school in Coburg. Letters to the Moreland Leader the following week were all in favour of the chalkboard hoarding. The campaign for high school in Coburg doesn’t care they have also been using a sticker campaign to get their message out.

One un-stated reason for the state to enact draconian anti-graffiti legislation has been to censor and control the public space. And anti-graffiti legislation goes further in providing an excuse to censor computer games, films and magazines about graffiti because they promote illegal activity. For example, in 2007 70K, a local film about graffitists, including Renks who was a member of the 70K graffiti crew, has been censored by the OFLC (Office of Film and Literature Classification) and cannot be shown in MUFF (Melbourne Underground Film Festival). “The Classification Board also refused classification for the film, 70K, because it deals with crime (the defacement of public property) in such a way that it offends against the standards of propriety generally acceptable to reasonable adults. The film features documentary footage of people, with masks, disguises or their faces blurred out, vandalizing passenger trains and applying graffiti to walls in Australian cities, including Brisbane and Melbourne. The film is edited to rock music and does not feature commentary, interpretation, justification or explanation. In the Board’s majority view, the film glamorises and attempts to legitimise what are criminal acts committed in Australia and which have a negative impact on Australia and the Australian people.” (OFLC Report p.57) The filmmaker’s obvious mistake, as far as the OFLC is concerned, was not to have a pompous pedantic narrator and a soundtrack by Hildegard Von Bingen.

For more about graffiti and censorship see my blog entry from 2009: Graffiti & censorship. Trying to control and censoring the messages on the street is a reason for enacting anti-graffiti legislation. Anti-graffiti legislation is about censoring the young and poor. People passionately quote Heinrich Hein about burning books but anywhere that they destroy and censor they will also destroy people.


Chilling Effect Continues

Hospital charity rejects exhibition over boy photo” Nick O’Malley reports in The Age (January 5, 2011) that “officials of the Sydney Children’s Hospital Foundation took exception to the image by Archibald prize-winner Del Kathryn Barton of her six-year-old son, Kell.” Over a year and a half later the chill of the Bill Henson censorship fiasco continues to effect Australian art and culture. This might appear like a storm in a teacup but it is a clear example of the chilling effect. It is hard to observe the chilling effect because it is, generally, not doing something out of fear. In this rare example, not being the recipients of a charity exhibition due to fear of controversy, the chilling effect is evident.

The officials at the Sydney Children’s Hospital Foundation are not prudes they are just protective of the reputation of their foundation. They have no way of knowing if this image would have been controversial because what was apparent in the Henson fiasco was that it was an arbitrary action and an arbitrary judgment. Another charity, Midnight Basketball, which runs workshops and tournaments for at-risk youth, will benefit from this charity exhibition.

This stupid and pathetic affair is only an example of the chilling effect, most will not be observed or documented. Although the rejection will not chill Del Kathryn Barton who will continue to use images of her own children in her art, as she has regularly in the past, the continuing fear of controversy will effect the decisions of other artists, curators, and exhibition sponsors.

In his story Nick O’Malley provides a history of this controversy; that Christian groups have been attacking artworks and prompting failed police actions for decades. In order to remedy this chilling effect the government needs to clarify laws and make an apology for its participation in slandering Bill Henson. In the absence of any move to ameliorate the situation a presumption that the government tacitly supports the chilling effects of trial by media and police raids.


Talking Points on the Street

In several of Melbourne’s lanes and alleys there a lot of people were talking about the graffiti. There was usual school group with art teacher in Hosier Lane, a young woman taking photos, and a middle aged man who had seen the ABC documentary on graffiti in Melbourne and had learnt to appreciate what he had previously regarded as rubbish. It is an unlikely scenario; strangers talking to each other about art in a city alley full of rubbish bins but in Melbourne it is common. Even if you can’t read the writing on the wall street art inspires communication, it is a social lubricant, providing a contact point for strangers in the big city.

Isn’t that the whole point of art? – To provide a reason or focus for communication. There is a lot of unofficial communications on the street. The streets will always provide a forum for politics that can’t be censored. Many political groups will use a sticker campaign to get their message on the streets. It is an obvious choice if you fear censorship or reprisals or just hassles.

"Corrupt Cops Killed Carl" sticker in Brunswick

Currently on the streets of Brunswick there is a sticker campaign against the Victorian police. A sticker: “Corrupt Cops Killed Carl” commenting on the death in jail of Melbourne gangster, Carl Williams. There are more stickers on the theme of corruption in the Victorian police scattered around the streets of Brunswick. Another much stranger and bigger political paste-ups on the streets of Brunswick (and Fitzroy and Coburg – how big is this poster campaign?) is advocating considering the alternatives.

"Seek an alternative" poster in Brunswick

Finally in this discussion of the graffiti discourse I must mention the Dunny Art blog. Following in the footsteps of photography Rennie Ellis’s books on Australian graffiti: Australian Graffiti (1971), Australian Graffiti Revisited (1979) and focusing on traditional, pre-aerosol graffiti Dunny Art, photographs graffiti on toilet wall around the world. The comment and reply nature of these ad hoc discussion walls is another forum that can’t be censored.


Censorship

“The State does not permit me to use my thoughts to their full value and communicate them to other men… unless they are its own… Otherwise it shuts me up.” – Max Stirner

Censorship is religious, arbitrary and undemocratic; it is therefore a clear injustice to enforce censorship. However, Australian politicians love censorship; they censor the internet, publications, movies, television, political speech, video games, visual arts exhibitions and anything else they want to. The Australian constitution is weak and does not guarantee basic human rights or democracy. To understand the farce that is called “democracy” in Australia see the case of Albert Langer, one of Australia’s many political prisoners.

Censorship is a type of magico-religious thinking; it is the belief that if you remove the words, signs or symbol then you will hinder the thing itself. Not surprisingly censorship is often employed to support religious beliefs or prejudices. The imposition of a magical-religious view on the public by the government is a breach of the public’s right to freedom of religious beliefs and practices. There is no evidence that censorship does any good but there is lots of evidence to indicate that it does a lot of harm; see Marjorie Heins, Not In Front of the Children, “Indecency,” Censorship, and the Innocence of Youth, (New York, 2001).  People who support censorship are willing to harm people for their faith.

There is no logic to censorship – it is an arbitrary act depending on time, place, the person, their history, their language, the media of communications, popular interpretations of religious traditions in the society and the mood of the politicians. It is impossible to definitively determine what will and what will not be censored, making the law arbitrary. Dziga Vertov, “Man with a Movie Camera” is G rated by the Australian Office of Film and Literature Classification but contains footage of topless young women on a Russian beach. Show it on children’s television and there would be an uproar in Australia, as happened when breastfeeding mammals, including a human mother and child, were shown. To draw any conclusions about the reasons for individual cases of censorship is to assume that they are not arbitrary and there is some logic to censorship. If you want to have censorship you can either be arbitrary and unfair you can be fair and look ridiculous.

Censorship is anti-democratic in that not all citizens have equal access to information. Any system of censorship proposes special categories of elite citizens and that certain people due to academic or legal qualifications or motherhood, or gender etc. are able to look at material unavailable to other citizens. The class issues at the centre of the legal battle over censorship of Lady Chatterley’s Lover makes this point clear. When I was a post-graduate student at LaTrobe University I took advantage of this loophole in the law and read a few of the restricted books in their collection even though they had nothing to do with my thesis research. If you really believe that some citizens have special qualities that makes their judgement better than others then why allow those others to vote?

Censorship, official or unofficial, is so acceptable in Australia that it is believed to be more important than copyright. To alter an artist’s work without permission, including the covering up parts, is a violation of copyright and the moral rights of the artist. However, these censors care nothing for the moral or legal rights of the artist because they think that censorship is better than all of that. Why respect the opinions of people who do not respect your opinion?

Censorship is the exercise of power by one group over another group to deny them the power of expression. It is religious, arbitrary and undemocratic and people who support censorship should be castigated as dangerous fools and nobody should vote for them.


Performance Art in Singapore

The exhibition, At Home Abroad, at 8Q sam featured six contemporary Singaporean artists whose art practices are largely or partially based abroad: Choy Ka Fai, Jason Lim, Ming Wong, Sookoon Ang, and Zulkifle Mahmod. I was surprised in the first gallery with the work of Jason Lim as Jason Lim is a performance artist. Jason Lim’s performance the “last drop” was about space, balance and water. It was documented in the exhibition with videos and the remains of a performance. Jason Lim’s performance consisted of various ways of pouring water. His attempts to catch a drop poured from a glass in the same glass were captivating.

Most of the other artists in the exhibition also had performance art elements to the art. Zulkifle Mahmod created electronic soundscapes with natural samples in both recordings and live site-specific performances. Ming Wong performs in an art video re-enacting and playing every male and female role in a Fassbinder film. Choy Ka Fai is a performer as well as, a visual artist. She performs as a guide and narrator in her video installation about public housing flats in Singapore. This would not be remarkable in most other countries but is in Singapore because of the 1994 controversy, that gives performance art a historical charge that is unique to Singapore.

Performance art emerged from neo-Dadaism, like Allan Karprow’s happenings and Fluxus, and merged with the extreme logic of the avant-garde art in the late 1960s. Performance art focused on the body and the then current political issue of breaking social taboos. American artist Vito Acconci plucked his hair and inflicted painful injuries on himself. In Australia artist Stelarc suspended his body using multiple hooks. And the extremes of the Viennese Actionism that concentrated on breaking taboos.

This trend in performance art continued until at the height of the punk rock movement. When it appeared that all the taboo breaking goals had been accomplished and Sid Vicious was doing Acconci’s masochistic act for the masses. A more elegant and technologically savvy form of performance art started to emerge, like Laurie Anderson in America. And in Australia Stelarc engaged with technology and prosthetic limbs. And all of the Singaporean artists in the At Home Abroad exhibition with their use of video and other digital technology.

Art history is not a neat time-line, art trends generally do not occur in different places simultaneously and local conditions will influence these trends. So the history of performance art in Singapore is different to this broad over-view. In 1994 in Singapore a major controversy erupted following the New Years Day performances by Joseph Ng, who cut off his pubic hair and Shannon Tham, who vomited into a bucket. This already outdated Acconci influenced performance and the subsequent controversy led to a ban of government funding of performance art in Singapore. Extensively documented by Lee Weng Choy in “Chronology of a controversy” (1996). The ban on performance art in the 90s reinforced international perceptions of Singapore as an extremely rigid and controlled state.

In December 2003 the Substation art space hosted a performance art event, Future of Imagination, curated by Lee Wen, the first performance art event that was funded by the Singapore National Arts Council in ten years. As the pendulum of taste swings in the opposite direction with equal force Singapore now has an International Performance Art Event at Sculpture Square; The Future of Imagination is now in its 5th year.


What has Michael Palin done?

Anyone familiar with the BBC travel documentaries of Michael Palin would be aware that he is a mild man with a mildly amused view of the world. Anyone not familiar with them can easily imagine such mild television viewing. So it was with some amusement that I noticed that the Australian Film and Literature Classification (OFLC) has provided the following advice about “Michael Palin’s New Europe” – “PG – Mild themes”.

This is a joke, right? No, the joke is that it is true. In blind and sincere obedience to the idiotic legislation by which they work the OFLC has made a mildly amusing joke. They are so out of touch with community standards that they are no longer making normal sense (no doubt it makes sense in their own strange world). Does anyone still take the OFLC seriously?

What kind of parental guidance could one give about “mild themes”? That was a mild, son, compared to the hardcore stupidity of Australian censorship.


Graffiti & Censorship

In January 2009, Australian censors banned issue #8 of Dirty Deeds, an Australian graffiti magazine.  I’m unsure who Dirty Deeds are. They might be one are a crew of breakbeat DJs from Melbourne. Dirty Deeds is published by Dirty Deeds Streetwear. (Dirty Deeds is, just in case anyone’s missed it, a title of an AC/DC song). I have not seen any issues of the magazine but early issues of the magazine are still available from various places in Europe online. From online descriptions the magazine is about 100 pages and contains images and reports about Australian graffiti and pieces from Australian writers on tour. If anyone knows anymore about Dirty Deeds or the censorship of its issue#8 please leave a comment.

Censorship of graffiti related material has been increasing, like Mark Ecko’s Atari game “Getting Up: Contents Under Pressure” or the film about graffiti, 70K that the Melbourne Underground Film Festival attempted to show last year. These items are being censored in Australia because they “promote, incite or instruct in matters of crime or violence”. This is a very broad category that could include information on crime prevention or a movie showing an armed robbery etc. It is also far broader than any other countries protection, e.g. the USA where  “…the constitutional guarantees of free speech and free press do not permit a State to forbid or proscribe advocacy of the use of force or of law violation except where such advocacy is directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action.”  Per Curiam Opinion, Brandenburg v. Ohio, 395 U.S. 444 (1969)

This is the same excuse for censorship that lead to the protracted 1995-1999 persecution of the editors of the LaTrobe University student newspaper, Rabelais (eventually the charges were dropped with no explanation, so calling it a ‘prosecution’ is misdirection). This law is only used against small independent publishers although the law is so broad it could be used against any publisher with any crime content. The government’s application of this law makes it intentions clear; the government wants to use it to justify the persecution of some victims of moral panic.

Censorship is unjust in that it is arbitrary. It is arbitrary in the choice of targets and in the rules that govern censorship. What will be censored it is rarely completely defined but kept vague and subject to opinion of an authority.

When censorship is not arbitrary it does tend to create embarrassing moments for the authorities when they quickly back down in the face of unimpeachable examples. Creating rules for censorship is not a simple as stating no images of nipples, public hair, torture, bestiality or naked children. Under the Jacaranda Tree has a story about a Chinese blogger who fought the censorship of his Renaissance nudes. The story is similar to an early 2008 controversy London Underground censoring another image of a Renaissance nude. Renaissance nudes are an unimpeachable example that any censorship rules, guidelines or legislation must avoid censoring to appear reasonable and sensible.

One strategy to avoid such ridicule is for censorship to be arbitrary. In Australia censorship is a discretionary act instigated by a complaint. For example, there have been nude photographs exhibited in public at Platform that have been censored and others that have not because censorship by the City of Melbourne is based on complaints.

Censorship continues to be an ugly, arbitrary and unjust feature of Australian law. And I am sick of it.


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