Will Silence Be Golden When Our Freedoms Are Gone?
The origin of the word “censor” can be traced to the office of censor established in Rome 443 BCE. While free speech and expression have always been a threat to established interests, whether in Ancient Greece and Rome, Medieval Christian Europe, through to the Soviet Socialist Republics of the twentieth century, throughout the entire history of censorship, artists, journalists and the intelligentsia are always the first victims in times of war and conflict. But never, I would argue, have we experienced such unprecedented and widespread use of self-censorship that threatens the autonomy of art than today.
Though many governments and human rights defenders in Europe and the West rightly criticize the abuses perpetrated on new democracies and non-democratic countries alike, we should remember that the violent history of censorship and colonialism are forever intertwined. Likewise we also need to recognize the cruel suppression of Indigenous cultures, languages, artifacts and non-written materials that for centuries were either appropriated or muted entirely.
Accordingly, censorship is like a vortex that consumes all in its wake. Artists operating outside the law in countries that police freedom of speech and expression often face serious legal, if not existential, consequences. Qualitative differences concerning punitive measures aside, one should note that censorship exists in nearly every country and every society. Powerful works of art that tinker with the social engineering of the censoring body, usually from the perspective of an underclass or minority struggling to gain equality, comes with considerable risk. As we see in cases like Singapore, Russia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, China and Cuba, the suppression or prohibition of books, films, artworks, media, etc., usually occurs step in line with the persecution of the author(s). Far from exempt, however, the West supports censorship through an arguably more sinister form of self-censorship. In the United States, Germany, Canada and elsewhere, artists deliberately water down their work free of social and political critique, mostly out of cowardice, afraid to go against entrenched plutocratic interests. This leads to widespread self-censorship that often occurs without overt pressure from any single party or institutional authority, manifesting instead as a form of collective catharsis.
According to Dr. Srirak Plipat, the Executive Director of Freemuse, the main independent organization defending freedom of expression for artists worldwide, the conditions of censorship differ from one country to the next. Nevertheless, he notes, several underlying trends point to bleak prospects for artistic freedoms in the wake of growing anti-immigrant and nationalist movements worldwide. “The practices of silencing others continues,” Dr. Plipat pointed out to me via email. “With security dominating the world agenda,” he continued, “we have seen an increasing number of artists being prosecuted and imprisoned as a result of anti-terrorist measures” and “together with right-wing movements in Europe, and the status quo of traditional repressive regimes, the world is moving to a new low on freedom of expression.”
In late 2017, Singaporean artist Seelan Palay staged a performance entitled 32 Years: The Interrogation of a Mirror, which aimed to commemorate Singaporean activist Dr. Chia Thye Poh, the longest serving prisoner of conscience in the world. Poh was imprisoned for 23 years without charge or trial and subsequently placed under conditions of house arrest for allegedly conducting pro-communist activities against the Singaporean government. The artist received permission to perform at the Speakers Corner in Hong Lim Park, but after moving towards the Parliament House, Palay was detained and arrested. While Speakers’ Corner may be intended to act as a venue for the exercise of free speech, it nevertheless remains a tokenistic gesture by the government in an effort to curtail free speech on a more widespread, systematic basis. Here, one might argue, art is neither neutral nor alienated from the social habitus of public space.
In Russia, the ongoing house-arrest of a leading theater director comes amidst a growing cultural crackdown that mirrors the country’s Soviet past. In the 1930s, during the Stalinist purges that witnessed widespread perceptions of the country’s intellectual and cultural elite, artists had to either conform to the demands of state propaganda promoting Social Realist art, work in secret, or leave. The prosecution of Kirill Serebrennikov, the artistic director of the Gogol Center, an avant-garde experimental theater, and three of his associates, mirrors the forms of censorship popularized during the Soviet Union under Stalin. Serebrennikov stands accused of embezzling more than $2 million in government funds, a popular tactic the Kremlin uses to sully the reputation of its critics, but many in Russia’s cultural sector point to a more sinister plot: that being Serebrennikov’s award-winning plays, which are often critical of Putin. “Now the Kremlin is coming for the young and the talented—to control the theater, to push out independent cinema, to cancel concerts,” Mikhail Zygar, a journalist and the author of a best-selling history of Putin’s presidency, said recently.
Throughout history, artists have tended to fit in with the role of social outcasts. Nowhere is this more clear than in contemporary Russia. In 2015, a Russian military court found Oleg Sentsov, a filmmaker, guilty on terror charges, sentencing him 20 years in a high-security penal colony. Sentsov was accused of orchestrating anti-Kremlin demonstrations in Crimea, the disputed area formerly part of Ukraine which the Russian government annexed in 2015. As both Sentsov and Serebrennikov show, artistic expression is increasingly being categorized as criminal in Russia today, with artists liable for criminal prosecution, labelled as outcasts and defiant members of society.
In Saudi Arabia, artists and activists live in a constant state of fear rendering censorship an omnipresent fact of everyday life. The widely reported assassination of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi last year was likely due to his criticisms of Saudi society and customs, one of the most censorious countries in the world, with many of his articles critical of the incumbent Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. In response, many Saudi artists and civil activists have fled, including Saffaa, a self-exiled Saudi street artist currently living in Australia. Saffaa is part of a new generation of Saudi activists who take to social media to spread ideas critical of the government, with much of her art challenging Saudi authorities’ rules with respect to women’s position in society. Those unable to flee, like the poet, artist and member of Edge or Arabia Ashraf Fayadh, can face death or lengthy prison sentences for making works critical of either Islam or the state. “They accused me [of] atheism and spreading some destructive thoughts into society,” Fayadh told the Guardian at the time of his arrest, explaining that his poems were “just about me being [a] Palestinian refugee… about cultural and philosophical issues. But the religious extremists explained it as destructive ideas against God.”
Perversely, censored art works and individuals can become typologies of culture martyrdom, often given second life online by going viral and coming to the attention of Western artists and activists. In such cases, the social antagonisms of a censored event, art work or individual, is given increased visibility, paradoxically, by virtue of the very act of being censored, infinitely multiplied by social networks online. Ai Weiwei is an excellent example of this. In 2011, Weiwei was arrested and brutally integrated by Chinese authorities, later given a sentence of four years under house arrest. As a result, Weiwei’s career skyrocketed in the West, taken up by institutions eager to reap the cultural capital of platforming a politically engaged and socially relevant artist.
In China, the gradients of censorship and social engineering are today happening on a massive, unprecedented scale, through plans to rank all its citizens based on their “social credit” by 2020. It’s a new widespread surveillance system that is currently being rolled out that will rank individuals connected to facial recognition cameras under the Skynet system. Each citizen starts with an A rating and a capital of 1,000 points. As they earn or lose points, they climb to A+ or fall to B, C, or D. The loss of just one initial point is enough to slide into a B rating, meaning refusal of a mortgage, with low rankings going so far as barr individuals from traveling on trains and airplanes. The social credit score will likely have disastrous consequences for artist and journalists critical of the government, a chilling, perpetual panopticon only Jeremy Bentham could conceive.
In Turkey, one of the most censorious countries in the world, the attempted coup in July 2016 led to a State of Emergency and a clampdown against oppositional voices. The authorities targeted academia and the arts, imprisoning tens of thousands of people in the process. Kurdish artists have also long been the target of overly zealous censors, and for decades the minority population in the country has faced systemic prosecutions and attacks by Turkish officials. One notable case being that of Zehra Dogan, the Kurdish artist and journalist who has been imprisoned since July 21, 2016, taken into custody for painting an image based on a photograph distributed by the Turkish military of the predominantly Kurdish city of Nusaybin in ruins with Turkish flags flying above.
In 2017, Spanish authorities in Madrid issued an arrest warrant for Mallorcan rapper Valtonyc, following his release of a song critical of the monarchy. “Tomorrow is the day. Disobedience is legitimate and a duty. Here, no one surrenders,” he said shortly before going into exile, where he remains to this day. Catalonia’s ex-President, Carles Puigdemont, tweeted support for Valtonyc, stating: “All my affection to you for a difficult decision, but it allows you to continue defending values and fundamental freedoms without which there is no democracy.”
The case for censoring art works and songs in support of Catalan independence has reached a near fever pitch in the last two years. ”Persecution for reasons of conscience is normalized,” said artist Santiago Sierra after his work entitled Political Prisoners in Contemporary Spain was taken down and removed from an art fair in Madrid in 2018. The work consists of a series of 24 pixelated portraits of recognizable characters. The work was singled out for its accompanying texts that included documents written by well-known Catalan leaders including Oriol Junqueras, President of a Catalan Nationalist and Democratic Socialist political party; Jordi Sànchez, President of the Catalan National Assembly; and Jordi Cuixart, of Òmniun Cultural. All three are in preventive detention accused of rebellion and sedition as a result of their participation in the Catalan push for independence.
These cases are only the tip of the iceberg in what is undoubtedly an ongoing system of persecution of politically informed artists and musicians worldwide. Often, many of these artists face charges of harming established interests and of inserting chaos into the machine of the state.
In December 2018, several Cuban artists—including Tania Bruguera—were arrested following a sit-in at the Cuban Ministry of Culture to protest Decree 349. The new law was set to put in place overt censorship of the arts thereby ushering in an unprecedented decree of institutional censorship in the island country. Decree 349 is deliberately vague about its scope, its critics assert, effectively providing the Cuban government with complete control over independent artistic production in the private sector by explicitly banning content that wealth with sexuality, violence, discrimination, or anything “that violates the legal provisions that regulate the normal development of our society in cultural matters.”
In the West, censorship is often diametrically opposed to consensus, which today is increasingly dominated by nationalist populism and unadulterated support of corporate interests. Within this milieu, self-censorship has become de rigueur. The norm, not the exception, governed by a manufacturing of consent through popular culture and corporate ownership of the mainstream media that has effectively become the preferred method of censorship in the twenty-first century.
That may be seem like a stretch, but according to Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, “Society develops a type of self-censorship with the knowledge that surveillance exists,” which can lead to “a double language” where no one “says what they really mean,” producing, in the long run, “low-level fear” and “conformity.” The same occurs within arts institutions, where censorship works akin to selective hearing, i.e., the decision to platform one exhibition or artist and not another. “That’s the way that the bulk of censorship occurs,” Assange points out, “decisions [that]” may seem arbitrary in nature, “are made as a result of personal or shared experience. And what happens if you don’t tow the party line? People are compromised,” negatively impacting “their employment [sic] or social opportunities.”
In December 2018, for example, news suddenly broke that Ralf Beil, director of the Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg, Germany, was suddenly let go, leading many to become suspicious. His departure came as a surprise to the public, visitor numbers at the museum were good, public relations with the local and international art press were healthy, and there were no financial scandals to report. The problem? An exhibition in the works planned for 2019 centered on fossil fuels: Oil—Beauty and Horror in the Petrol Age. At issue was that Wolfsburg, where the museum is located, is the global headquarters of carmaker Volkswagen, which maintains an art foundation that is the sole sponsor of the museum.
In 2018, a détourned star-spangled banner flag was censored at Kansas University on the grounds that it “generated public safety concerns for our campus community.” The work in question, by Josephine Meckseper, consisted of a collage of the American flag embezzled with a black-and-white sock, which according to the artist, symbolized the ongoing imprisonment of immigrant children at the border. Caving to political pressures, the University of Kansas chancellor Doug Girod agreed to remove the artwork from a flagpole on university grounds after Kansas Governor Jeff Colyer and other Republican candidates complained that it was an unpatriotic symbol. Meckseper’s case notwithstanding, there is also the increasing prevalence of the use of gag orders in US, which conveniently serve as legally binding means of restricting access to information.
Today, fake news and propaganda foster widespread manufacturing of consent on a massive and never before scene scale. This is not hyperbole, the social credit score in China being the most egregious example, more clandestine systems of social control have been put in place in democratic states for decades. According to political dissident and linguist Noam Chomsky, dominant political cultures use indoctrination by aligning mainstream media–through ownership, advertising revenue models, fear of flak, editorial spin and national security interests–to influence what is sayable and visible in a given society. In doing so, popular culture and the mainstream media literally drown out subversive content:
You don’t have any other society where the educated classes are so effectively indoctrinated and controlled by a subtle propaganda system–a private system including media, intellectual opinion forming magazines and the participation of the most highly educated sections of the population. Such people ought to be referred to as “Commissars” — for that is what their essential function is — to set up and maintain a system of doctrines and beliefs which will undermine independent thought and prevent a proper understanding and analysis of national and global institutions, issues and policies.
Against this milieu, mechanisms of self-defence against censorship and the manufacturing of consent are needed more than ever.
During the intense prohibition of culture in the Soviet Union, roentgenizdat became a form of dissident activity across the Eastern Bloc in which individuals reproduced censored underground music prohibited by foreign and emigre musicians banned from broadcast. Ribs, as these recordings were also known, became a means of evading censorship. Today, new tools are needed to evade censorship in environments that manufacture consent through propaganda.
Founded in February 2017, the University of Underground in Amsterdam is a hybrid design institution that supports unconventional research and practices that “makes innovative use of design, linguistic, experiential, political, musical and film practices as tools to engage members of the public with the experiences and the debates created.” They are actively involved in bringing to light how educative structures can be built to combat “the commodities of knowledge, power and politics.” At the threshold of a nonlinear approach to critical pedagogy, media literacy and production, the University of Underground supports through a free education model critical practices in art and design that challenge existing circuits of self-censorship.
In 2013, an initiative called Artists-at-Risk (AR) was started by Marita Muukkonen and Ivor Stodolosky tasked with using developing the curatorial field as a site of possible cultural resistance .at the intersection of human rights and arts. Building and Ppartnering with a multiplicity of institutions arts councils and (residencies, artistic initiatives, unions, state and municipal institutions) acrossin Europe and beyond, Artists-at-Risk to help offers AR-Ssafe Hhaven Residencies for artists who face acute perrosecution and censorship., Artists-at-Risk exists at the intersection of human rights and arts. A diplomatic and cultural initiative that helps artists escape countries from persecution, which has only become more difficult over time.
“As the EU pulls up the draw-bridges of “Fortress Europe” Artists-at-Risk has begun building AR-Residencies outside of the Schengen area, with residents currently in or passing through relatively safe countries such as Cote D’Ivoire and Tunisia. The rise of fascism in Europe is also increasing the applications from within the European continent, which is forcing us to revise our selection process.”
(you’ve told me before things have gotten harder and more difficult, why?) Since its founding, Artists-at-Risk hashave hosted approximately 30 art-practioners (AR does not provide exact figures, as some residents “fly under the radar”) (how many?- we’ve now checked)., Among them was Ramy Essam, known to the world as the voice of the Egyptian revolution and “singer of Tahrir Square” who was imprisoned and tortured repeatedlyimprisoned (for how long?) and beaten for leading protestsing against Mubarak’s regimes of Mubarak, SKAF, then Morsi and lastly Sissi. AR also hosts curated events, conferences and the dedicated “AR Pavilion” — recently at the Athens Biennale; parallel to the Istanbul Biennial; at Matadero-Madrid; or at the Nordic Embassies / Aufbauhaus in Berlin — where they platform artistic practices of AR Residents.
As such, never has there been a more crucial time for developing tools to resist censorship than today. Art’s task, I would argue, is to push social boundaries by surpassing the limits of what is visible in any given society, even if that means questioning certain laws and established norms. What’s clear, however, is that the nature of censorship today has evolved. The transformation of art and arts institutions into financial commodities has resulted in unprecedented forms of self-censorship that raises profound questions about the viability of art as a public good. In democratic and demagogic societies alike, falling afoul of either national, moral, religious or increasingly, the national security interests of the state is becoming increasingly more life threatening for artists. A condition, I would argue, that is becoming more prevalent with each passing year.
 The charge of embezzlement is a popular tactic used to silence critics in Russia. Since 2012, Alexei Navalny, the leader of a major opposition part in Russia, has faced accusations by the Kremlin of embezzling $1.4 million USD, charges which often come on the eve of national elections. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/russia/9745288/Russia-opposition-leader-accused-of-1.1m-embezzlement.html
 Anna Nemstov, A Theatrical Moscow Trial Draws the Ire of Russia’s Cultural Elite, The National, 2019: https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2019/01/russian-artist-serebrennikov-culture-trial-moscow/580306/
 Sarah Cascone, Ukrainian Filmmaker Sentenced to 20 Years in High-Security Russian Penal Colony, Artnet News, 2015: https://news.artnet.com/art-world/russia-sentences-ukrainian-filmmaker-oleg-sentsov-327916
 Ms. Saffaa has just been nominated for the 2019 Freedom of Expression Awards shortlist for her artistic activism: https://www.indexoncensorship.org/2019/01/awards-2019/
 David Batty, Saudi court sentences poet to death for renouncing Islam, The Guardian, 2015: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/nov/20/saudi-court-sentences-poet-to-death-for-renouncing-islam
 For additional statistics on censorship in the arts, Freemuse is an excellent source: https://freemuse.org; in addition to Artists-at-Risk: https://artistsatrisk.org/?lang=en, and the National Coalition Against Censorship: https://ncac.org/
 Jasmine Weber, Artists Arrested in Cuba for Protesting Decree Censoring the Arts, Hyperallergic, 2018: https://hyperallergic.com/474525/artists-arrested-in-cuba-for-protesting-decree-censoring-the-arts/
 Kate Brown, A Museum Director Planned a Show About Art and Oil. Just One Problem: His Institution Is Funded by Volkswagen, Artnet news, 2018: https://news.artnet.com/art-world/we-are-living-in-a-world-with-ever-diminishing-ethic-values-ousted-museum-director-ralf-beil-on-the-urgency-of-artistic-freedom-in-the-face-of-big-sponsorship-1424839
 Seung-yoon Lee, Julian Assange: ‘Western Civilization Has Produced a God, the God of Mass Surveillance’ Huffington Post Blog, 2017: https://www.huffingtonpost.com/seungyoon-lee/julian-assange_1_b_7560710.html
 Zachary Small, Flag Art Is Censored at Kansas University, Warhol Foundation Weighs In [UPDATE 2], Hyperallergic: New York, 2018: https://hyperallergic.com/452672/warhol-foundation-flag-censorship-controversy-kansas/