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Art and Politicking (and in defence of art)

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Seelan Palay as a one-year-old, 1985. Image courtesy of the artist

Singapore again.

Earlier last month, I wrote about the Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts’ announcement to convene a Censorship Review Committee to conduct a mid-term review of issues pertaining to the censorship of all forms of media and information that might enter the island’s hallowed land and airspace, and of how some members of the arts community thought it good to revisit the issue having sent in a proposal for the last 2002/3 review.

In a continuing attempt at engagement with art policies, the group that met earlier put together a list of 23 members of the arts community including artists, playwrights, filmmakers, writers and theatre directors, willing to participate in the Censorship Review Committee 2009, in the name of sowing OATs (openness, accountability and transparency – for the acronym-loving state that we are). This list has been submitted to the ministry and we await their response (though strictly they did politely issue a terse reply already saying that they would “take (our) feedback into consideration,” we are after all nothing if not courteous. It is nice to know the graciously smiling orange and upright, elbow-less Singa lions on the grassy knoll next to the Ministry’s building are doing their job).

Issues about the problems of censorship have been raised in the Arteri post on 22.6.2009, and seeing how censorship seems to have become a recurring topic as well in this site, I thought I’d add a bit more to the pile: with some more  examples and perspectives on contemporary art. As Sharon Chin has mentioned in her post the purpose of the practice of censorship is one of power, and what is politics if not power? The issue however I would like to argue is perhaps not so much whether one is provoked by the naked behind, but the meanings inscribed on the body and other that are then seen as violated, transgressing and subject to policing. The bogeyman or rationale for censorship routinely marched out for the masses is that without censorship there would be “riots on the streets” with a capital “R”, proving if nothing else how useful it is to terrorise a community with nebulous terrors.

While the terror may be unclear, the policing however is real. During the group’s discussion a video experiencing such policing was mentioned: One Nation Under Lee is a work for which artist and activist Seelan Palay is currently under investigation, the DVD having been seized by censorship officers during a private screening at Excelsior Hotel on May 17, 2008. The act of screening the video is being charged under the Films Act. Section 21 of which states that:

(1) Any person who (a) has in his possession; (b) exhibits or distributes; or (c) reproduces, any film without a valid certificate, approving the exhibition of the film, shall be guilty of an offence and shall be liable on conviction.

If the Act is strictly upheld, it would also mean that your nephew’s birthday party video needs a license before his grandparents may proudly show off the delightful child he has grown up into to their golfing clique.

With formal police investigations beginning as of last week (22 June 2009), the charge raises the spectre of a witch-hunt, as the Act quite clearly (even if arbitrarily employed) implies that all video and film are suspect until proven otherwise, and by none other than a board of officially approved and predisposed censors. That the video touches on history does not enter into the police investigation, only the act of screening – who brought the film into the room, how many copies were there in the room, who was operating the system when the film was screened? Between history and logistics, logistics would appear more tangible to navigate.

But if this is not about the sheer impertinent audacity of the artist showing unclassified video to people he knows (and as a private event, surely it was but preaching to the converted), what is it of the content that transgresses? Perhaps it challenges a dominant historiography, but would that merit draconian censure? Standing at 45 minutes long, One Nation Under Lee is not for the lax, it is undoubtedly critical, but it does not pretend to be otherwise, and it raises topics of national development and management that one would be hard-pressed to find in mainstream media. The attention however that the attempt at seizing the video has aroused is far greater than the interest the video would have received had the attempt not been made.

Accepting that history is rather more dynamic than dusty tomes read in the half-light of libraries, the concern with such content is less about history’s past as it is about history in the making, and making this history we are all the time. As historians Hong Lysa and Huang Jianli note:

“nations are idealised communities, which ‘recover’ the history they need to bind diverse elements into a single whole, while concealing the inevitable inequalities, exploitations, as well as patterns of domination and exclusion involved.”1

While it is arguable if the work is purely political or tinged with the nuance of artistic expression, that contemporary art might engage with the political is something that needs to be accepted. Art does engage with different aspects of life, and with politics it may prove enlightening – charging it, inflecting it and adding new perspectives to those on hand. As Susan Hiller, an artist with a background in anthropology, describes:

“artists, in the sense I mean, modify their own culture while learning from it. The artist, like everyone else, is an insider. Artists’ work depict biographically-determined social conditioning. Artists’ work do not allow discontinuities between experience and reality, and it eliminates any gap between the investigator and the object or situation investigated … Artists change their culture by emphasising certain aspects of it, aspects perhaps previously ignored. The artist’s version may show hidden or suppressed cultural potentials. Artists may offer ‘paraconceptual’ notions of culture, by revealing the extent to which shared conceptual models are inadequate because they exclude or deny some part of reality. Artists everywhere operate skillfully within the very socio-cultural contexts that formed them. Their work is received and recognised to varying degrees within these contexts. They are experts in their own cultures.”2

The artist as “insider” (as opposed to the role of transgressive “outsider” as demonised by officiousness) informed by his / her conditions be they social, religious, economic, geographic, linguistic and political, creates works that explore the limitations and boundaries of these conditions. The denial of this, the depoliticisation of art, is useful only to maintain a status quo, a political hold, which art then attempts to mediate.

“Mediators are fundamental. Creation’s all about mediators. Without them nothing happens. They can be people – for a philosopher, artists or scientists; for a scientist, philosophers or artists.”3

Arguably then also, it is mediation in Fahmi Reza’s attempt at giving voice to one side of the political landscape appearing in the vein of the Sex Pistols’ God Save the Queen with his work Najib’s Head Stolen from Billboard that needs defending, if not the controversiality of its content if the 54 comments it evoked is anything to go by. Sure the discussion gets a bit heated and emotions get riled, but do not for a moment mistake the questioning of assumptions for the assumptions themselves.

Cries against politics in art and the pitchfork-waving occurs when it appears that boundaries are crossed, yet little is said about the boundaries that are maintained, shored up and reinforced in all the other moments. That artistic expression might find its way into the political sphere, is not exceptional, but the ways in which it can create new spaces for discussion is. In his examination of his own “research-based” practice which may be viewed in relation to political exegesis in art for its socio-political-cultural mining, artist Sean Snyder has this to say:

“I have often placed myself in precarious situations in order to access information and images for my work. I have been thrown out of places, been arrested, had cameras confiscated, have faked journalist credentials, paid bribes, and so on. A compulsion? A ‘research-based art practice’? Well, more the former, supported by the notion of the latter … What is often forgotten in discussions about ‘research-based’ art practice is that it cannot simply be reduced to research. To do so is to forget what art can do and what research can’t. Art makes the form the site of knowledge. Without rejecting the content. It is art itself that delineates its own borders.”4

That the private viewing of a work might turn into a convicted offence seems extreme, and while it might be taken by the media (and authorities) as a call for a spurious discussion of the line between art as critique and art as sedition, the point is that when art appears to transgress it does so within a context that frames it and which it produces meanings from – it is on the inside, even if they are meanings that some may not agree to. Art does not, and perhaps should not, acquiesce to a dominant ideology or oblige for the sake of; art is not a “product” of “creative industries”, manufactured in factory lines and quality circles, and labelling it activism is the prerogative of the artist, not his / her audience, and certainly not the state.



Production, Seelan Palay, 2008. Image courtesy of the artist

The Scripting of A National History: Singapore and Its Pasts, Hong Lysa and Huang Jianli, Hong Kong University Press, 2008

Art and Anthropology/Anthropology and Art, Susan Hiller, in Thinking about art: Conversations with Susan Hiller, Manchester University Press, 1999

Mediators, Gilles Deleuze, in Negotiations 1972-1990, Columbia University Press, 1997

4 Disobedience in Byelorussia: Self-Interrogation on “Research-Based Art”, Sean Snyder, e-flux 2009, http://e-flux.com/journal/view/57

This article was first posted on the original Arteri site on 30 June, 2009.

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