the foundations of oppression can't be plucked up without the anger of a multitude

The Human Zoo and the ‘Censorship’ Debate

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Today’s comment piece in The Observer by Catherine Bennett (“What price artistic freedom when the bullies turn up?”) was the latest piece of hand-wringing despair in our media at the success of the campaign to pressure the Barbican to withdraw (some say ‘censor’) ‘Exhibit B’. Bennett compared it to the protests over ‘Jerry Springer: The Opera’ and Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti’s ‘Behzti’, ending by admitting that “I struggle to see the essential difference between [Lee] Jasper’s determination to deny sight of Exhibit B to London audiences and the remarks by Lord Griffith-Jones in the Lady Chatterley trial, in 1960: ‘Is it a book that you would ever wish your wife or your servants to read?’” As no other white commentator seems willing to defend the protesters, let me attempt to clarify.The non-objectived actor

The artist who created it, Brett Bailey [some dispute the word ‘artist’], describes his work as follows:

“In Exhibit B there are 12 stages or tableaux vivants. In each, a performer physically characterises an objectified human being. Rather than portraying “the native in his natural surrounds” as human zoos did, each installation shows the brutality subjected upon asylum seekers in the EU or inflicted upon colonial subjects.

The listed components of each installation includes spectators – it is only complete with an audience. The installation is not about the cultural or anatomical difference between the colonial subject and the spectator; it is about the relationship between the two. It is about looking and being looked at. Both performer and spectator are contained within the frame.

Exhibit B is not primarily a work about colonial-era violence. Its main focus is current racist and xenophobic policies in the EU, and how these have evolved from the state-sanctioned racism of the late 19th century. These policies do not exist in historical isolation. They have been shaped over centuries. The dehumanising stereotypes of otherness instilled in the consciousness of our ancestors have been transmitted subconsciously and insidiously through the ages. Exhibit B demands that we interrogate these representations.”[1]

Different this time around... Bailey's Human ZooSo it is like the ‘Human Zoos’ of the 19th century but this time each performer ‘characterises an objectified human being’ rather than actually being ‘an objectified human being’. To me, and to many others, the difference, unfortunately, is slight. The spectators this time around are asked to “interrogate these representations”. Was that not that the case the first time around? Plenty of contemporary white people objected; others enjoyed the spectacle. People interrogated it and gave their answer. The Human Zoos would not have existed without a spectator. To claim that now “it is only complete with an audience” does not in any way make ‘Exhibit B’ new or unique. The wide boys and spivs (as I imagine them) who traded in African people and then displayed them as ‘freak show’ objects would not have made much headway (or money) if there wasn’t an audience for them. Bailey’s most disingenuous defence however, is that “the installation is not about the cultural or anatomical difference between the colonial subject and the spectator … it is about looking and being looked at.” If that were true, why then were the performers only black? If it were not about cultural difference, why did not Bailey choose to stage his ‘tableaux vivant’ with actors from a whole range of backgrounds? The performers were black and the spectators were (going to be) overwhelmingly white. When talking to white friends about it (most had not heard about it), they were unanimously shocked by the idea. What good could they get out of walking around this exhibition? They would learn that racism is wrong; that in the past, Africans were subjected to brutal treatment in the justification and perpetuation of white supremacy. Would this have been news? If, in the unlikely event that I had paid my £20 to watch naked brown-skinned people chained up and placed in Bailey’s ‘tableaux’ (perhaps a girlfriend’s mother, terminally ill with cancer, had asked the family to join her for her last ever birthday), I would have felt embarrassed by my role and disgusted by the spectacle of performers who had to be, according to Bailey himself, trained in “endurance” to stand or sit in these poses for so long. Are embarrassment and disgust the kind of responses we want from art?

So much for Bailey. It is not just the actors themselves who have been degraded. One thing that all white commentators have failed to acknowledge in their complaints about ‘censorship’ is the incredible organisation and mobilisation of black communities and the active involvement of thousands who took part in or supported a campaign that in only a few weeks proved strong enough and numerous enough to force the Barbican to back down and pull a sell-out show. Even if you disagree with the motives and are lamenting the outcome, you cannot deny that it is an impressive piece of organisation. Yet, this seems to have been missed by many white commentators. The protestors were ‘bullies’ (‘The Observer’), or acting out of “boastful ignorance”[2] (The Independent), yet among the ‘you haven’t even seen it’ criticism none of these journalists realised that they themselves had not even talked to the protestors! Terrence Blacker even defended minstrel shows in his attack on the protesters (“the history of  blacking up is more complicated than he… seems to think”) and preoccupied as he was in defaming the movement against Exhibit B, he could only reproduce quotes from other news outlets rather than interviewing “the stupid” people whose ignorance he despises.Cancellation letter

In the run up to this, I heard the feeling put forward that black British people lack the unity and power to organise successful resistance. In discussions and meetings with my local arts organisation BEMA in the run up to the event, people were comparing unfavourably the comparative power of the Jewish community as a minority group who are capable of defending themselves and the representation of themselves in UK art and media. Yet, despite personal differences and a doomed sense of the inevitability of the process (surely a critically well-reviewed, sell-out show put on by an institution as strong as the Barbican could not be stopped?), 22,500 names were gathered in petition, pressure was put on directors and MPs, prominent people were shamed by their involvement and the exhibition’s organisers put in a position that they could not wriggle out of. The Barbican were compelled, belatedly, to hold a public discussion on Monday and then on seeing the determination of the protestors, cancel the show on Tuesday. How could an exhibition purporting to challenge the negative portrayal of black people maintain its integrity when thousands of black people were vocalising their disgust at the exhibition’s portrayal?

Whenever there is a democratic victory, however, there is a backlash by the establishment against it. White commentators have surpassed themselves in their objections. Bennett, for instance, quotes Sara Myers saying the show was “offensive to the memory of our ancestors”. That word ‘ancestors’ is an emotive trigger for white liberals and you can hear Bennett’s sniggers as she writes: “the last century’s preposterous … bans on penis allusions and the depiction of biblical characters have become today’s vague objections to an artwork’s unfairness, bad taste, inaccuracy, disrespect of ancestors: anything offensive enough to draw a crowd, worry the police and end in cancellation, due to safety concerns.” Having ‘ancestors’ is something that white people don’t and its vaguely spiritual connotations conflicts with post-enlightenment scientific, ‘rational’ and thus privileged discourse. Complaining about an offense to ancestors’ memory is, from her standards, the equivalent of censoring an image of a penis. She shows its very lack of rationality by making it part of “anything [that can] draw a crowd”. She seems to think that crowds are just ‘drawn’ by synchronous kneejerk mass offence with no suggestion that such crowds are the result of much organisation and campaigning and planning. Instead these ‘vague’ united and activeobjectors are ‘worrying’ the poor police with their ‘unsafe’ protests.

Of course, the main thrust of these commentators’ objections has been that the protesters don’t understand art. In Bennett’s headline they are ‘bullies’. In her sub-headline they are ‘self-appointed censors’. Aside even from this condescending opinion of a group whose number included well-established artists, intellectuals and activists, this description does not reflect the reality of the actual power relations. She assumes, as all elites do, that protesters need leaders. Lee Jasper, she says, has stated “his credentials as a kind of amateur lord chamberlain, to whom any sensitive artistic material should be submitted” as if he were the only one who objected to it and everyone else was simply blindly following his example. The idea that those outside the gates were ‘self-appointed’ arbiters of what is art and what is not, ignores the way that gates work and is hypocritical in the extreme. The show must be good, thinks Bennett and her like, because establishment critics said it was good. She quotes an unnamed “French critic” who gushed that the exhibition “should run for several months so that all government ministers and scholars can attend” as if these people were the ideal audience of any art piece. The idea that ordinary people not in positions of power should be attending and passing judgments on works of art does not appeal. How could we possibly understand art without the explanation of our betters? Ian Dunt writing on (“an impartial political website with no political affiliation”) sneered at the objections to the show: “The Guardian, that bastion of racism, called it ‘unbearable and essential'”[3]. His sarcasm is revealing. In Dunt’s mind there is no way that The Guardian could possibly be racist. He follows this with another piece of amazing circular logic: “It is perfectly obvious the Barbican would never put on a racist event.” The Barbican is not racist therefore nothing they do is racist. “It would be almost impossible to smuggle a racist piece of theatre, TV or visual art into modern Britain,” he writes. Yet, they almost did!

The art debate is revealing. I have had the pleasure of listening to Ngoma Bishop’s well-informed opinions on this matter over the last few weeks. Here’s his Facebook response to a BBC debate:

“It should now be clear to us that most of the media (and certainly the BBC) will either ignore or misrepresent each and every one of the many valid arguments put forward by the campaign. Some of us are of the mistaken view that this is because they do not understand what we were/are saying. No; it is precisely because they do. There are of course good reasons why we should remain engaged with the ‘wider’ debate. There are even more reasons why perhaps we should not – not at this point anyway. One of the things I believe we should not do is pursue dialogue with those that insist on describing the putting of African heritage people (or indeed any people) in cages so that the public can pay £20 to gawp at them and calling it art. It is not art. Therefore the question of whether or not the campaign sought/seeks to censure art should not even be responded to, except maybe to restate that fact. Of course the counter argument will always be, what gives you the right to define what is and isn’t art. The response must always be ‘the same thing that gives you that right’. Remember if you have the right to define what art is then by extension you also have the right to define what it is not.”

So this is one view and one which I think is indeed valid: Exhibit B is NOT art. It may come under the category of sensationalism or spectacle but it does not fulfil the criteria of art. The Barbican, Brett Bailey and establishment media call it art and they can try and argue the case, but if they’re so sure it’s ok to tell us what art is and is not, then ALL people also have the right to say, ‘no, it is not art’ and their opinions (being more numerous and indeed better argued) deserve to be listened to. Especially when,

“Money that can rarely be found to promote exhibitions of genuine art produced by African heritage and other grass roots and community artists in the UK, was once again found courtesy of the Barbican Centre to enable this insult. An insult not just to the memory of those that had suffered horribly for centuries but to their descendants still undergoing recovery from a sustained genocide for which today there is not so much as an apology from the UK Government, much less a serious attempt to address the issue of reparations. The exhibition was to be promoted under the guise as art and justified by the notion that freedom of speech allows white artists to attempt to terrorise and humiliate African heritage people by chanting the mantra ‘we support free expression and condemn censorship’. Of course this premise only works if we also accept that African people have no right to themselves define what is acceptable artistic expression or even what artistic expression is unless our definitions reflect those of them that mean us no good.”Ngoma discusses the petition

This is an argument that these commentators would do well to consider. The whole ‘art is being censored’ discourse ignores the fact that this isn’t just any art – this is art sponsored by a publically funded, large institution and that cash is not available to the vast majority of artists, much of whose work is sadly under-represented and unheard of in mainstream media.

The other view – also worth listening to – also says that the whole art/not art debate is irrelevant. Just because something is art, it does not make it good. The establishment holds up this thing that they (and only they can) call ‘Art’ as sacred, but art can also be bad art. It can be racist. It can even be good art and be racist. ‘Heart of Darkness’ as Chinua Achebe pointed out, is one such example – even though Joseph Conrad meant it to be (and indeed it does to some extent serve as) a critique of colonialism. There are many others. Art is neither good, nor bad in itself. Nazi propaganda films designed to dehumanise and degrade Jewish people may be art but it doesn’t mean we should tolerate their message.

Bailey’s work is at best crass. If he wanted to make us reflect on the history of the human zoos, surely there were better ways than simply reproducing one and claiming that this time around we are being asked to think about it, as if in the 19th century people were unable to do so. If Bailey genuinely wanted us to “interrogate these representations” surely what he WANTED was for us to close it down. It is the only correct response to such a work. Our sisters and brothers are in chains and we will liberate them – even just as a symbolic response to symbolic oppression. In fact I would really like to believe that, yes, this was all a very clever attempt to mobilise people against racism: here’s a dehumanising exhibition and this time around the black communities and those willing to listen and support their arguments will show that they are organised, independent and together enough to shame anyone who might be inclined towards accepting this kind of thing in the 21st century. Perhaps that was his secret plan all along. But probably it wasn’t.

This question of safety has also been banded around quite sanctimoniously. Ian Dunt (quoted above), got into a twitter argument with Lee Jasper, accusing him in Paxman-style repetitive questions of endangering the safety of paying punters.

Are these people so gullible that they accept official pronouncements at face value? Of course the Barbican said ‘we closed it down because of safety reasons’. What else could they say? ‘We thought we were promoting an important piece of anti-racist art about the oppression of black people and then 25,000 people told us that actually the work in question not only failed to achieve its stated aims but was actually doing the exact opposite. And we’re sorry. Next time we’ll commission African-heritage artists to make art pieces about African history and have proper public consultation about sensitive work.’ Every other public statement in response to a scandal (‘I didn’t inhale’; ‘I knew nothing about phone hacking’ etc.) would be taken with a pinch of salt. Why not this one?

I came down to picket the event, having signed up for the late shift that Tuesday night, and I arrived to discover that the Barbican had indeed closed it down. The atmosphere was joyful, celebratory, resolute, almost taken aback by the victory, but in no way violent. Everyone was happy to talk to me and to have me there, despite the lack of melanin in my skin pigment. The worst thing that punters to the exhibition would have faced is shame. And as I tweeted back to that thread: non-violently shaming people is less of a violence than putting on or going to a shameful exhibition.

Some of the performers have, belatedly, been asked to express their opinion on the matter. How much say did they have in the artistic creation of the piece? How many journalists were seeking out their opinion before the protests and petition started? It is only now they ask them when outraged white liberals are looking for insider black voices who can authenticate their own outrage. After the show had been closed, in an interview with the BBC, one performer, Stella Odunlami, a Gambian asylum seeker who was due to be playing ‘Found Object #2’, explained why she supported the exhibition:

“As a black child going to schools, I wasn’t told much about myself and about my history. All I was taught about was slavery. If you want to know exactly what happened, about how Europe was built on the degradation and dehumanisation of Africans, you have to research it yourself, and I think this piece was amazing in actually bringing that conversation to the fore and saying, are we doing anything different? Have we really changed?”[4]

This exasperated comment is riven with contradictions. At school, she was not “told much about myself and about my history”. Instead she learned only about “slavery”. How then does more history of – and indeed almost exact recreation of – the ‘degradation and dehumanisation’ of people bought and sold for the entertainment of white people, actually disrupt or change this narrative? I do not judge her for taking part – I am in no position to do so. And although it may not have been anywhere near Odunlami’s decision-making, most actors are out of work most of the time. And in all employment, money is the new chain, lack of it the the vaults

I have written poems with black characters in them. I live in East London so it would be strange if I had not done. However, if 20,000 people – or indeed 20 people – told me that I had got it wrong, I would certainly scrap the poem. Indeed, I remember one poem I had written about my girlfriend’s full and beautiful figure, attempting to celebrate non-conventional models of beauty. I showed it to my friend and fellow poet, Michelle Madsen, who could see what I was trying to do but told me quite bluntly that it did not work. It just sounded like a poem about how much I like big boobs. I have never performed the poem. Although Bailey’s exhibition may well have appealed to the ‘government ministers and scholars’ it is clear that it did not sit well with the majority of black artists or (if we can use this term) thinking people in Britain in the 21st century. If you are going to speak for other people (Bailey is white, the history he represented was of black Africans), in whatever field, it is not only helpful but absolutely necessary that you consult with the people you are speaking for.

The whole question of censorship and art is a distraction from the real issues involved. Although Bennett struggles to see the difference between the state censors banning ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ and a large group of self-organised people making a hard-to-dispute case against the artistic merits of ‘Exhibit B’, there is to me a clear difference. This time around it was the “servants and wives” who objected to the representation of themselves not Lord Whatshisname fearing the bad influence on his subordinate dependents by being exposed to art that spoke about their lives. Many – if not all – black artists feel censored at source. Even if you think there is no such institutional racism in the British arts ( “The Arts Council funding of arts infrastructure is not fairly representing the 14% black and minority communities. 14% of ACE’s overall three-year investment of £2.4bn would equate to £336m – that’s £112m per year. The black and minority ethnic community contribute around £62m per year into the overall arts budget. Yet, the current yearly figure currently invested in black and minority ethnic-led work is £4.8m.” Index on Censorship) you have to explain why so many people feel like they are up against exactly that, not being considered for commissions, not getting the media reviews, not getting the public funding, being pigeon-holed as ‘urban’ or ‘black’ rather than having their art considered as it is for white people, separate from their cultural background. Zena Edwards, who has also been very helpful to me in shaping my thoughts on this issue linked to an article from This Day (a blog by Wail Qasim), which gets to the crux of the matter: “The systematic exclusion of black struggle from the art industry is the real censorship.”[5]






Written by angrysampoetry

September 29, 2014 at 6:29 pm

7 Responses

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  1. I signed the petition but since then have learned more and been made to think more deeply by just the full description of the piece and the thoughts of the performers than by many of the ‘closing down’ arguments. But then these heartfelt arguments are sometimes powerful, they are a legitimate response to the piece. They are part of the argument/narrative that the piece was designed to start. So I guess the piece has achieved its aim without having to be seen.

    David Meyer

    September 30, 2014 at 2:42 am

    • Sam – this piece is nigh incoherent and far too long. If you can’t make your argument lucidly in a 1000 words then you are going around the houses but it’s for a reason. It’s bloody difficult to defend attempts at censorship and not sound like a reactionary nutter especially if you are an artist. But I suppose traipsing the poetry circuit where everyone is “fighting the system” you have to tow the line even if you got terribly confused between fellow poet giving you some friendly feedback on a poem you wrote and objecting to an artwork you haven’t seen and you are offended by it by proxy and having to talk to another 100 people who have not seen it and then write an 10,0000 word essay about it that was so long you had to shorten it so some of the people that already agree with you could tell you how bloody on point you are as the self-appointed” only white commentator out there trying to defend protestors” I’ll wait while you get your cape.

      As for your clunky metaphor about how when a lot of people tell the artist they don’t like it they should somehow bow to it… If indeed your friend Michelle had not read your poem and then only heard about it from some other people who also had not really read it but got a couple of lines from it and heard someone who has read it not like it and then organised a protest against you and wrote to the venue in which you were about to perform it in to prevent you from performing it and and then pulled into her argument a whole heap of stuff like female body issues and sexism and women being underpaid and a kitchen sink and how that was directly related to your poem about female body and said that by even attempting to perform it you are already exercising some sort of male privilege and then would have 100 people jeer you while you were about to perform it for people who actually wanted you to perform it including some women that didn’t really want to be protected from your poem by Michelle and then threw herself in the way just as you started performing it, then yeah, maybe then your metaphor would work.

      As it stands: must try harder.

      Ps. And if as a performing artist you deem that 20 people are enough to scrap a piece of work you created then bloody hell, what kind of artist are you that you can’t stand for your own work. Artistic integrity my arse. Is that what riles you about Bailey? That he doesn’t give a flying?

      Lucia Atherton

      October 1, 2014 at 1:34 am

      • Thanks Lucia for putting your comment on here. A long response to a long piece seems quite fitting! I understand censorship question I think. I’m not pro-censorship, as you rightly imagine. Protesters have argued that they were asking the Barbican to withdraw it rather than censor it. Perhaps you think this is only a matter of semantics, and perhaps you’re right. However, I feel like that this isn’t any old art. This is publically funded, ‘national’ art and therefore must stand for more scrutiny.

        The artwork could be seen almost in its entiriety online. The protesters saw it online and were horrified by it. Rather than pay £20 to confirm what they had already seen, they demanded it be withdrawn. The arguments put forward for its defence at Stratford Royal before the exhibition were weak in the extreme. Bailey’s arguments quoted (in full) above seem disingenuous and littered with contradictions. It appears that Bailey and his defenders think that the objections to it are made by narrow-minded, ignorant people and say they should thus be ignored (there have been plenty of insults thrown at them in the press, some of which I quote above). Having met and spoken to some of those prominently involved, I disagree.

        I think Bailey has a ‘right’ to and could have effectively pulled off an art piece where he as a white African spoke on behalf of black Africans to portray their history. I don’t think Bailey has achieved it. Maybe it works in South Africa, but it has been shown (unless you dismiss these voices purely as a mob) not to have worked here.

        As for my cape status, I hope I’m not aiming for one. If subconsiously, I was trying for superhero status, then thank you for pointing it out. As I have tried to argue, our fellow humans are good arbiters and checks on our presumptions and arrogance. I added that line about being the only white defender, as I started to realise that there was not only a consensus against the protest but also a common vitreolic tone resounding through the entire ‘liberal’ press. Unfortunately your response in its breathless paragraph-length sentences is not immune from this tone either.

        The kind of artist I am is one who tries to read the signatures of all things and reflect back what I have seen. If a group of reasonable-minded, intelligent people lucidly point out unforeseen prejudice in my work (especially when I am trying to make work that speaks for a ‘group’ of which I am not part) I would be foolish (at best) not to take them seriously.

        Thanks again for reading it and responding. I want to stimulate debate. As for the length of it, it seemed to me that the Human Zoo saga has been a long story and required a long blog post. Some people suggested I should make a more concise version, so I did – each paragraph labelled with a sub-heading in case people thought I was just ‘going round the houses’. This is how public opinion informs my work. Perhaps this is a mark of my lack of integrity. I think not. But only one of us can be right, and perhaps it is you.


        October 1, 2014 at 3:50 pm

  2. […] Here is a shorter version of a longer blog piece: Catherine Bennett (“What price artistic freedom when the bullies turn up?”) writes that “I struggle to see the essential difference between [Lee] Jasper’s determination to deny sight of Exhibit B to London audiences and the remarks by Lord Griffith-Jones in the Lady Chatterley trial, in 1960: ‘Is it a book that you would ever wish your wife or your servants to read?’” As no other white commentator seems willing to defend the protesters, let me attempt to clarify. […]

    • Yeah Sam, there’s a lot of bullshit in “Art”.

      I guess the old chestnut is “what is Art?”, and the relatively new chestnut is “Who decides?”.

      If we are being wanky,(and how do you get into a conversation like this without being wanky?) we could say the “Who Decides?” is not so much a new question as a post-modern one.

      Now that Art has become more “conceptual” (as distinct from merely “beautiful”), the “Is it Art?” question has become even more vexing. I am a non-artist, old, and uninformed, but even I have noticed that these days (say the last 50 years? Or the last 100 years?) beauty is no longer a necessary condition of Art. Doubtless many Phds have been written on the history of this, and scholars have found some non-beautiful, conceptual Art in a cave painting somewhere. Whatever the cultural roots of conceptual Art, it’s gained a lot more currency in your life-time, approximately. I have to resist an inclination to keep putting the tag “conceptual” in inverted commas. It would look kinda sarcastic and betray my fogey-ishness.

      In the putative Artwork that you discuss, it sounds as if beauty was never intended or contended. Did it meet the criteria for conceptual Art? No one can quite define them, but anyone can have a go. I suggest that that which is not conceptual Art is perhaps Bullshit. I will not exhaust myself or my readers by attempting to define this slippery and subtly-hued contra-artistic descriptor! Another time perhaps.

      This exhibition you discuss sounds like bullshit to me, and ugly to boot.

      I agree with the previous poster that your article was too long, but otherwise it was interesting.



      October 1, 2014 at 11:48 pm

      • I think the art/not art thing is a bit disingenous here, although what you say, Ruth, is interesting. It is right to point out, as Sam does that art can be good qua art and morally disturbing. It is further right to note, as Sam’s quotes do, that you might think this is not art, and the establishment might be wrong. It is also right that to not hear that complaint is an underhand way of shutting down a debate. However, lets except that exhibit B is not art. It remains the case that protestors wanted it withdrawn because they said it was rascist. If we think that they are right, we still have to answer the charge of censorship. Have they curtailed a right to free expression? I think not. What we can’t have is the Lord Chamberline deciding what can be shown. The issue is state regulation of expression. What doesn’t matter is private bodies choosing what they will or will not host, or private individuals trying to prevent from them from hosting them, or, indeed, lobbying them to be less rascist or sexist in what they promote. When the concert goers of Vienna rattled their keys to Schonberg and his 12 tone chums, they were’nt curtailling the 2nd Viena Circle’s (I hope I’ve named the right group) right to free expression. They were trying to prevent music moving in a particular direction.

        What I’m less sure about is whether or not the antis are right. I keep thinking about your ‘comrade’ who said that he’d have protested 12 years a slave. I can’t help but feel that the distance of a recording doesn’t help. A factual retelling of a person’s experience of slavery was presented as entertainment in a broad sense. Here we have Bailey using the tropes of a human zoo to present highly styalised tableaux vivant of historical and contempory rascism. Wherein lies the moral difference?


        PS. Love to David and Ruth. Say hi to my cousins for me.


        October 10, 2014 at 12:01 am

  3. To your point about you poem first:

    What was your motivation?

    I love curvy women. I love big boobs. I shall share that love of curvy women with the world via medium of a poem.
    Or – I love curvy women, I know a lot of them feel bad about being curvy (sample of one) so I will let them know that so that they don’t feel bad about being a ‘non-conventional’ beauty type

    First is authentic expression. Requires no input from curvy women or women in general. It is your view. How people take it – nowt to do with you.

    Second is: I shall fix an issue it by writing a poem about non-conventional beauty. I better run this thing by a woman to see if it checks out. Oh no. It doesn’t. I better bin it.

    First is authentic artistic expression (take guts that…you may look bad and girls on the poetry circuit may think you are a perv), second is very much appreciated view on female issue from a male POV but that’s a white paper material and speak to more than one person then. And maybe write blog instead. Do you think that David Bowie, Bjork or Marina Abramovic gives two fecks about what people think about what they do artistically? If they did they would not be the giants that they are. And you totally get that with them. I loved when Radiohead released OK Computer to some moans from fans about it being too electro and the official response was that they didn’t give a flying what the fans thought. Didn’t stop it selling millions while guitar riff loving ones moved onto something else. Meanwhile, face of music changed.

    That’s the thing with trying to speak for a group. Speak for yourself in relation to it. The problem of this whole debate is that the protestors were speaking for a group ie. ‘black community’ and ‘our ancestors’ and once you do that you end up having people telling you that you are not speaking for them. Interestingly, it then invited protesters to start getting personal with the actors and black commentators not in favour of the ban branding them ‘sellouts’, ‘puppets’ and in some cases accusing them of ‘acting white’ and self-hate – WTF? That’s objectifying AND racist all at the same time. Oh and that self-hate argument was used against and Jew or Israeli who spoke out against the Gaza atrocities recently. Naomi Wolf for example was called self-hating Jew for constantly for posting about Gaza and not supporting Israel. And the fact that they may be angry about lack of representation in art ain’t got a diddly to do with this. It’s bullying pure and simple.

    And let’s talk straight rather than in that weird double speak which plagued a lot of the conversations about Exhibit B. ‘Withdraw the exhibition’ – what does that mean? That means ‘it should not happen’ right? Kirsty Wark had Sara Myers on that one on Newsnight in about 2 seconds. The protest’s aim was not about a debate. It’s was very clear. The objective was to have it ‘withdrawn’ or using the proper term ‘banned’. I am speaking from having seen the Facebook page and having followed it since Sara Meyers posted her appeal on YouTube. Once you set an objective like that there ain’t no going back. Anything less than that is then a failure. So although there was a dialogue with Barbican going on: letters were exchanged twice, BBC radio show was hosted with Myers, Jefferys and performers all having opportunity to speak for an hour, and then the debate happened in Nitro – it did not matter because Barbican would not back down and they wanted it withdrawn. To pretend that ‘debate’ was the aim is disingenuous. What you point to now in your post as some sort of problem a debate. Sadly not a debate on ethnic representation in arts but one on censorship but that’s what happens when your campaign’s goal is exactly that.

    As for campaigners themselves and I will only pick a few:

    Myers did herself no favours. Brilliant at campaigning on the internet and within community that will largely agree with her – the moment you got her on traditional media she was floundering all over the place. ‘I am not art police but I want it withdrawn’ was one of the gems on Newsnight and talking about defending memory ‘our ancestors’ leaving the Exhibit B actress to point out that they were her ancestors too therefore there was no exclusive mandate on this. I actually sat through an hour show on BBC radio with her and the actors performing in the piece and Louise Jefferys desperately willing for her to engage in a conversation rather just saying ‘her thing’ over and over again and dismissing others. Using arguments like ’20 people cannot be wrong’ – errr, they can be, last time I checked EDL Facebook page had 174K likes. Hardly makes it ideologically sound, does it? Which surprised me as she is a journo herself and radio presenter so thought she’d be bit more media trained.

    Dr Kehinde Andrews who was debating with the actress Stella Odunlami made a right tit out of himself in a Guardian piece when he told her that ‘she was not in control of her own body’ with a parting shot ‘black artists do not have the authority to define what is and is not acceptable’ spectacularly failing to notice that neither do black sociologists or therefore anyone really, rendering his own argument void. Which was hilarious. And damning indictment of phd standards in this country.

    Simon Wolley appeared in some interview where he also was ‘against’ the ban, but ‘for withdrawal’ and got totally confused about the difference between the two and in the end blamed the venue for being ‘being in the tunnel’ (well, the protesters successfully petitioned that it should not be in Barbican itself) so the protesters had nowhere else to go but to have a go at the door.

    Akala waded in and told white people to fuck off, which is funny for a mixed race guy as he inadvertently told half of himself to fuck off too, conveniently forgot to mention his Scottish ancestors. He then topped it off with ‘Yes art is supposed to be about free expression, but in reality that free expression is always bounded by the political realities of the day’ (what, really?) which is strange from a man who did an entire album using Orwell as inspiration (the latter currently spinning in his grave at a speed of light).

    If you are trying to effectively ban something that you haven’t seen on the basis that it offends you then really you are no better than Daily Mail reader joining a ‘fury over ’ in a campaigning style so beloved by this particular paper.

    And probably the above are reasons why there may be a slight impression among the folks out there myself included that the protest movement was narrow-minded and ignorant. But mostly confused to the point of incoherence and short-sighted. As I said – now there is a debate on precisely the issue that was campaigned i.e. banning or sorry: ‘withdrawing’. The protesters are now reaping what they sowed, which is a shame because debate on representation is needed.

    To be honest, for me the morale of this debacle is this: this is new world, 3 second attention span clicktivism is rife. And in that respect Barbican’s PR failed to do their job. I would love to know who their agency is because they need sacking. The moment the protest went viral, the key words and phrases started circulating that embedded themselves in people’s minds and all of them were not only hugely emotionally triggering but also mostly incorrect and that element was never effectively countered to defend the work. Trying to get something very wordy (which they did) out there made no difference. So Barbican should have stepped in proactively rather than piss about with debating with people that didn’t really want to debate anyway. They should have blasted it with positive hashtags, got the no censorship line straight (Bonnie Greer did some great work with that on Twitter) and that could have stopped it escalating or at least the counter movement would have slowed down the campaign. And definitely not cancel the piece after the first night. I get that there was a bit of a fracas very clearly visible on the video produced by the protesters themselves and blocking the door which may have freaked Barbican out but they should have involved Met Police rather than cave in like they did. So their media handling was atrocious.

    For example the piece was never called Human Zoo yet it made a great hashtag. The ‘withdrawal’ was dressed as a ‘boycott’ – two different things (and again, disingenuous). One means that you don’t go and see something, the other that you don’t want other people to see it so people clicking, sharing, signing and discussing were already talking from standpoints that were therefore incorrect. After that view is set any further looking for evidence is further coloured by that view especially if you are already outraged. By the way – the guy that commented before me on your blog is a perfect example of that, signed the petition but now a bit unsure because he heard more.

    Having spoken to people who heard about it and were against it but importantly starting the conversation with ‘what do you know about it’ was eye-opening. All they remembered was ‘human zoo’, ‘recreating human zoo’, ‘black people in chains’ – all in all badness. Once I gave a view of each tableaux, the way the installation worked (e.g. walking in one by one to engage individually with each performer rather than stare in a group, the timeline of the tableaux and each having a distinct historical back story from 1800s to modernity) they were like ‘Oh, I didn’t know that. That’s different then’. Some still would not see it but would not in any way want it banned, some were a little taken aback. All of that information was and is also available but not in a hashtag or 2 second activism kind of way that really won protestors their result.

    And finally, the woman who wrote a blog entry about seeing Exhibit B and her blog post was tweeted and shared by the campaigners constantly and became the poster ‘black person who has seen it and didn’t like it and that makes us right about it’ finally responded to her owm blog post with the following after the cancellation:

    “I am lost, and confused about the campaign – and I’m going to sit down at the weekend, to try to unravel and express my thoughts about it, because there’s an awful lot going on. I was shocked by Tuesday’s events, and really appalled by the talk that was hosted at Nitro on Monday. I really didn’t think the work would be withdrawn/cancelled – and as somebody who has seen the work, I am acutely aware of how woefully uninformed a lot of the boycott campaign has been. As an artist myself, I cannot in good conscience support the silencing of an another artist – and my heart aches in particular for the performers, who are clearly so committed and passionate about the work. Bailey has performed the work throughout Europe, and will go on to New York and Paris with it. They will not get that chance. So I don’t think it is a victory in any sense. I also know that seeing Exhibit B – even as somebody that hated it – was extremely valuable for me. I think it will change the way I make work in the future. I’d be livid if somebody had taken that opportunity away from me”

    Which just shows you how out of context this things has really been. And she goes on to criticise Barbican which I agree with – should not have happened the way it happened after the first night, that statement was bollocks.

    THIS IS LONG. Maybe you are right… You can’t unravel this saga without at least 15,0000000 words. I should have really asked for a guest blog, no? And yeah, my punctuation and sentence structuring is well dodgy. English is my second language and far more succinct that my native tongue tends to be.

    And… Do that poem about curvy women as you wrote it. Go on, I’d love to hear it. I mean it. GO GO GO GO SAM!


    October 4, 2014 at 11:58 am

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