Alyn Gwyndaf, 24 January 2015

…and is it something we should concern ourselves with?

Contributors included…

Sian Rees | Jonathon Carr | Cat Robey | Simon Bowes | Holly Aston | Jonathan

Malquis | Jim Manganello | Nazha Harb | Phil Clarke | Susan Croft | Natalie Wison |

David Cottis | Kate O'Connor | Jordan Lennie | Mary Hatton | Julia Locascio | Anna

Cottis | Liz Moreton | Nick Gilbert | Frances Rifkin | Ben Luke | Vanessa Hammick |

Alyn Gwyndaf (who asked the question)

Some brief notes

Pope's comment that people shouldn't be surprised if their comments are responded

to with a punch in the face.

Current ‘fast’ culture makes people feel they have to respond quickly, rather than

taking time to think through a more considered response. For example, most

immediate responses to Charlie Hebdo shootings were uncritical pro-free speech,

while those appearing later seemed to provide more thoughtful, nuanced


Useful to consider our terms. On the one hand, we have the notion of press freedom,

with its regulatory constraints and requirement to provide unbiased ‘facts’ (according

to its regulatory context). On the other we have the notion of freedom of artistic

expression by individual artists. And social media gives individuals the reach and

power of media institutions, but without imposing comparable regulation or constraint.

But, there may be a shifting between these arenas: for example, Belarus Free Theatre

operate in an environment where regulatory context heavily skews what ‘facts’ are, so

they - as an underground body - end up being the channel of communication for

what's actually going on.

Exhibit B at the Barbican was also cited as an example, having provoked local

protests, and the Barbican's decision to close it, citing health and safety grounds.

However, it had toured internationally, and been shown previously in the UK, without

such protests, and the Barbican showing was the first to provoke such a strong

reaction. This make us discuss what was so particular about this being at the


It's rare for art to provoke riots or protests these days, so there was a sense that

maybe this was a useful indicator that there was something underlying the work and

response that needed to be discussed. However, the Barbican didn't present the work

in this context. There weren't any discussions or workshops curated around it, which

would embrace people's responses to the work. And perhaps they hadn't properly

considered who people responding to the work might be. An example was cited of a

mailing list aiming to orchestrate protests against the show and have it shut down,

rather than seeking to open up discussion around the work. However, the Barbican

was the authority presenting the work, and the manner of its presentation had

effectively disenfranchised such voices as part of the conversation, so protest against

the exhibition was the only route open to such viewpoints. Whose responsibility is it to

set up the dialogue around work presented?

* Insert diagram of Venue - Audience - Art *

Much discussion centred around the notion of unexpected responses to work. Are

venues/artists not sufficiently connected with audiences, or public (i.e. the full diversity

of who's out there, rather than a narrow group), that they're surprised when there's an

angry response to work. Perhaps that surprise is an indicator of failure to properly

think through the work and understand how people might respond. As the venue has

the power to present the work, should they also take on the responsibility of

considering responses to it, and provide/facilitate the wider frame for discussion

around the work? Apparently the Barbican had expressed regret at the way this was

handled, however, no-one seemed to know if they'd said what they'd learned from the


Anger. It's often presumed that this comes out in response, but perhaps it's also latent

and already present, and a piece of work can draw it out, a catalyst.

The notion of ‘offence’ vs ‘harm’ - does cultural power also carry the ability to create

norms that might be systemically harmful, e.g. by oppression? Sun's page 3?

But, often, provocation is itself the ‘commodity’ being offered. So should those selling

provocation not be prepared for the response? If you start a fire, make sure you have

a fire extinguisher.

Is there are sense that the arts often just play with and explore notions of risk and

controversy, but often aren't properly engaged with the wider world, so get surprised

when other people don't respond in the way they'd expected?

In smaller scale, the economic/commercial difficulties of presenting work might mean

that, say, providing additional space/time to frame the work with discussion isn't


Background on Charlie Hebdo - it's more about the spirit of 1968, and revolutionary

fervour. Most difficult responses to their work had come from Catholics, rather than

Muslims (and noting that the shooters were isolated, rather than representative of


A concern that worrying about causing offence can make one open to manipulation.

Very important to properly think through one's position, intentions, and justification, to

know clearly where you're coming from. And to whom. So less likely to be surprised by

the response.

Action point. Whether retroactive re Exhibit B or in future.

Write to the Barbican proposing dialogue around Exhibit B. Or other venues

presenting controversial works This is effectively us as an artistic community taking

responsibility for ensuring that venues are encouraged/educated to be aware of

audience/community responses and provide the forum for these.

Apparently Radar festival at The Bush had staged a debate/discussion around Exhibit

B. There was some question whether this reached and included people where were

offended/harmed/protesting against the exhibition originally.

'Self-censorship' (which might equally be called ‘taking responsibility’). Should there be

work that should never be done? Who has the right to speak about what issues? Can

a man write a play about violence against women?.

But, fear can be a big barrier to the artist. Need to ask what's our function as an artistic

community. Do we have power? What's the nature of our power?

In practical terms, it's valuable to surround ourselves with people who will call us on

our stuff. Focus on the specific idea/proposition, and put that out there for

comments/feedback from people who know. Importance of honesty with oneself about

one's position (e.g. generally kept fairly quiet in media that Brett Bailey is a white

South African).

Is the ability/facility to handle offence, and respond “appropriately” a

privileged/middle-class position?

However, example of ISPA debate in New York, where the voice for taking

responsibility was that of an Ivy League professor, while that for greater liberty was of

a black South African, who'd experienced apartheid. So, can't necessarily assume that

free speech is solely in service of the privileged.

Due diligence. We should ensure this is part of our practice, so we fully understand the

issues involved. This helps ensure we don't get surprised by the response.

D&D is unusual within theatre, in that it provides a more fluid, incomplete

work/dialogue, while most theatre is delivered as a fixed, finished commodity. This can

potentially become a fait accompli offering less space for public discussion around it.

Some approaches (e.g. BAC Scratch) can provide greater provisionality, allowing

more space around the work for discussion. This sort of thing was much more de

rigeur in the early days of the fringe.

Exhibit B raised questions around who has access to funding. For example, money is

there for this artist, but may be nothing available to the local black community to make


Often the available platforms are controlled by those with money, and deliver the

message “money=happiness” but with no comparable channels through which those

without money can deliver alternative messages.

Question of who has access to the money and platforms. Example of BAC Ballad of

the Burning Star, post-show discussion with Palestinian artist complaining he didn't

have access to money, tools or cultural capital to present his point of view. And an

anger that ignored the polite rules of debate in the room.

Discussion of artists engaging with community intrinsically presumes that they're not

part of it, and just parachuting in as outsiders. Should we give money directly to

communities to facilitate their own ownership of the agenda and what gets made?

Schools provide an important route - through which everyone goes - but since arts in

schools are being downgraded, the sense of awareness, permission, voice and

aspiration falls away from many people and become privileged. But, Fun Palaces does

aim very much to provide something that's owned by, so accessible to, everyone.

Cultural capital. Worry about governments taking Charlie Hebdo attack and harvesting

it to serve their own political agendas.

Question of how much we're complicit in similar systems by aspiring to be ‘career

artists’ - what baggage does this come with?

'The Ethics of Participation' - online piece (Fran Rifkin)

Jamel Debbouze “The Jamel Comedy Club” giving Algerians in France cultural

access. Initially as a comedy club, then writing web and TV series, providing

opportunity and empowerment for Algerians to have a cultural voice.

What are the means by which everyone has access? Royal Court Young Writers or

NYT still require and existing awareness and entry process. So what are the other

space/routes more widely accessible. Do these need to be more fluid or pop-up so

they're responsive to how their society is constituted at the present time? For example,

patterns of migration and social movement change, so perhaps one long-standing

institution can't always serve all its surrounding people, but new ones have to spring


In many ways, maybe TV does a better job of accessibility. It's available to a far wider

social range of people, so an easier thing to aspire to. Similarly with the web, with the

benefit of being maybe more accessible. Concern that private ventures like

Stagecoach don't really help accessibility, and largely irrelevant.

Artistic expression vs economics. What's the impact of needing to earn a living on

artistic freedom?

'Theatre in Action' book cites artists (professional) working with torture victims

(non-professional). Although they were also artists (?), value of trained artists was that

they could help shape work in a way that would speak in terms audiences understood,

so there was a value in training.

Can economic need constitute censorship? That our agenda is driven by who's got

money/food to give us?

Need to make a living can push one beyond the boundaries of what's comfortable, the

discipline of being able to fit to what other people want, not a wholly self-driven

agenda. Thus having to connect with the wider world. And the basic need to do work

just to earn a living puts us in the same boat as other people who have to do work they

don't like so they can eat. Places artists as ordinary people within society. This all

seems good as it helps us be in touch, so we're not surprised at responses to work. So

we're properly informed in the making of the work.

Comparison with scientific process. Of rigour, double-blind testing and peer review.

Similar processes might be useful in ‘testing’ what response to artistic product might

be, so we understand better.

First draft. I may tidy this up when I've got chance to review it properly. Realistically,

that probably won't happen.




Money, Surprise, surprise, Language, anger, public, Audiences, privilege, Response,

Cultural Capital, Public, Speed, Resonsibility, Ethics, Charlie Hebdo, Privilege, Exhibit

B, Anger, participation, barbican, Due Diligence, Offence, Participation, Harm,

audiences, Provocation, money, provocation, Barbican, response, community, Power,

harm, Venues, power, ethics, venues, Community, language