Blacktown Art Gallery recently organised an exhibition entitled [out of gallery] which was billed as a series of "guerrilla art events". However, last week the work of one artist, Zanny Begg, was cancelled and censored by the very council which commissioned it. Here is an account of the schermozzle from Zanny herself:
What project was the artwork part of?
Was the commissioning body aware of the nature of the artwork before it was installed?
The artwork was part of the [Out of Gallery] project which is jointly organized by the Blacktown Arts Centre and The University of Western Sydney.
This was a curated exhibition: artists were asked to submit a proposal of the work they wanted to make and they were chosen on the basis of their proposals. The commissioning body was, therefore, aware for at least two months prior to its installation of the work that I intended to make.
My proposal read as follows:
"If accepted into this exhibition I would like to construct a site-specific installation and public intervention which expands upon an earlier work of mine called “Checkpoint”. In this work I created a life-size stencil of a US soldier which I placed at various “checkpoints” around Newtown. I created a series of 10 checkpoints for weapons of mass destruction outside churches, schools, houses, bus shelters – to highlight the contradictions in the political rhetoric surrounding the war. I wanted to show how absurd this rhetoric can be – a school accused of being a hiding place for weapons of mass destruction – but also how pertinent – schools in Iraq were destroyed for this very accusation.
I want to expand and develop the Checkpoint series for the Blacktown context by creating 10 checkpoints in locations around the central business area. Some of these will be sprayed onto paper and glued up (as the series in Newtown) and I have chosen a range of hoardings and disused walls for this part of the project. Some I want to spray onto wood and cut out and attach onto fences and poles.
The aim is to place the checkpoints in surprising places to highlight how the conflict in Iraq returns unexpectedly and confronts us as we shop/commute/work."
The day began rather uneventfully – the biggest problem I felt that I was going to encounter was the weather with clouds and showers forecast for the next three days. The installation team – Kate Carr, Joy Lai and myself – crammed into a hire ute and headed out to Blacktown expecting that we would be dodging rainstorms all day. The first part of the installation was fantastic. The weather held and in about an hour we had five checkpoints set up along First St and Prince St. Crowds of school kids had been giving us the peace sign and yelling support out of a bus windows and a number of surprised and interested locals had stopped and stared as five life-sized US soldiers appeared in their neighborhood.
We then decided to head over to the Blacktown Arts Centre and set up one checkpoint in the car-park as I had promised the curator. We had set up one checkpoint outside Kmart and were outside the gallery on Flushcombe St when I was approached by a Community Law Enforcement Officer who wanted to know what we were doing. I explained that we were part of the [Out of Gallery] project and were installing a community artwork. He went inside the gallery and to check it out and came back and told us that my artwork was an illegal sign and “in the climate of terrorism” it was “inappropriate to show such political messages”. Confused I called the curator and he told me that the General Manager had called him and that I had been pulled from the show. I was asked to remove all the remaining artworks.
What happens to the artwork now? Do you face some kind of fine?
When I went back to Blacktown the next day four of the artworks had been removed by the council and the Blacktown Arts Centre took the remaining one back to the store room. The council then sent me an email which read:
Council has impounded the above sign. Enquiries made by Council indicate that you may be owner of the sign.
The sign can be claimed within 28 day of the date of the email.
An impounding fee of 410.30 is payable prior to the sign being returned.
should the sign not be claimed within that time or the impounding fee not be
paid council will proceed to dispose of the sign in accordance with the provisions of the impounding act.
I rang the council and explained that I felt unable to pay a fine to the council for a work which the council (via the art gallery) had commissioned me to make. After a short conversation a representative of the council called me back and said the fee had been waived and the works would be returned to Peter Charuk at The University of Western Sydney.
How do you feel about this whole schermozzle?
I felt very deflated and disappointed when I was pulled from the show.
The curator, Adnan Begic, had organized an interesting exhibition with great artists and I had been very excited to be included within the show. The byline for the [Out of Gallery] project was “guerilla art interventions” in Western Sydney and I had been very upfront about the work I intended to create for such an exhibition. I was disappointed, therefore, when the heat came on and there was some opposition to this work, that I was dropped from the show.
I was also disappointed that in the discussion surrounding the work that an attempt was made to recast the work as a political stunt and not an artwork.
The Mayor of Blacktown, Leo Kelly, issued a statement to the media which alleged that I was a member of a communist organization as if this alone would discredit the work. I find it disappointing that socially engaged art is so maligned. There has been an entire discussion about the “death of the avant guard” impulse in contemporary art. But this incident highlights to me that it is still possible for artists to confront and challenge aspects of society through their work.
But I have been grateful also to those who have offered their support – Stephen Mori, Con Gouriotis, the CFMEU, the local peace groups, the NSW Civil Liberty Group, the Greens, Susan Nori and individual artists who have contacted me and many others.
During all the fuss I remember looking down at a pile of CDS on the floor of a friend’s lounge room and seeing a Public Enemy CD. The song titles “Mind terrorist” “louder than a bomb” and “911 is a joke” caught my eye. Artists have long been interested in power/war/terrorism as subject matter and in the “wake of 9/11” we cannot render these topics “off limits”. We need to be careful that the “war on terrorism” is not used as a silencer for artists dictating what is OK and what is not OK to talk about. We need to be aware that anti-terrorism does not become the new McCarthyism making illegal/unspeakable views and opinions which challenge the status quo.
Is it true that other works which were planned as part of the [out of gallery] programme were cancelled following the censorship of your work?
Yes, as far as i know all the works in Blacktown that were uncomplete were cancelled or moved to another suburb. I think it would be good for other artists in the show to contact Adnan Begic (the curator), he has not responded to any of my emails and it would good to hear his response. Also at this stage the ONLY comment about why i was pulled from the show was by a council ranger, Adnan and the council never actually gave a reason why…
update: the art life blog has much discussion on this particular censorship case, although not all of it is intelligible nor intelligent (but some is!)… I can't work out how to click directly to the article so you have to go to the art life , then proceed to November 29, 2004, and view the comments…
update: as at December 6, 2004, Adnan has not replied to my invitation to respond to Zanny's statements…
update: "Battle over street art" by Lee Dixon published in the Glebe Inner Western Weekly newspaper Thursday 9th December 2004, p 8… Two quotes from the article:
"Blacktown Mayor Leo Kelly said the Out of Gallery exhibition had been suspended until the council investigated why it was not informed of the project. 'If they had gone through the correct procedures and told us what was going to happen, we could have worked with it […] This sort of thing in the name of art is not going to go on in our city'…""A council spokeswoman said it would be innapropriate for Mr Begic to comment while council was examining the issue."
update:…email from Zanny:
Call for artists/activists:
make a placard…
On November 23rd 2004 I was asked to remove my artwork from the [out of gallery] project in Blacktown because it was critical of the war in Iraq (see http://bilateral.blog-city.com/ for more info). This is an open call for artists or activists to show their opposition to the war on terrorism and reject any attempts to censor those of us who speak out about political issues.I am inviting you to be part of an exhibition at Mori Gallery which opens on January 26th. I am asking artists or activists concerned about these issues to donate an artwork which will be available for sale during the exhibition. The only restriction for the work is that it is mounted on A3 cardboard – like a placard at a rally. Any works sold during the exhibition will raise money to produce a catalogue of the show which will have photos of the placards and essays by artists and activists.Don’t be silenced by a climate fuelled by war and fear.The works need to be delivered to Mori Gallery by January 10. Please email firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com or call 0421420420 if you would like to participate.
update: "Postwest" publication arrives, contains dodgy data… (Dec 27th 2004)
This week in the mail I received a copy of the "Postwest" publication – basically a catalogue of the [Out of Gallery] projects. There is no mention of the censorship of Zanny Begg's artwork. On page 58, under a photo of her piece installed previously in (presumably) Newtown, there is a statement about the piece, obviously written by the artist herself, followed by this statement:
"Installation of Checkpoint was never realised. The picture above was created by artist who provisionally positioned one of the "checkpoint" plates in her neigborhood [sic] for documentation purposes only."
That this text was not written by the artist is fairly obvious – consider her remarks about the whole censorship affair in the interview above, and it would seem like a radical back-down for her to distill the whole thing to the bland statement that the "installation was never realised". According to Begg, the installation was partially realised before being siezed by council goons. So, strictly speaking, yes, if you wanted to be picky, you could say that the installation, in its entire, intended form, was never realised, but that's being mealy mouthed, given all the shit that went down.
This is another blatant case of re-writing history, all the more duplicitous since the statement is presented as if it were written by Begg herself – tacked on to the end of her artist's statement, rather than being clearly indicated as a statement by the folks putting together the catalogue.
The thing that makes this dodgy addition so obvious to anyone who was involved with the [Out of Gallery] project is the language used in the tacked-on statement – note the lack of definite articles ("Installation" instead of "The installation", "created by artist" instead of "created by the artist" etc) – it seems clear to me that this was written by curator Adnan Begic, whose correspondence is peppered with such linguistic quirks. (see for instance the email update below…)
update: Adnan Begic no longer working for Blacktown Arts Centre. (Dec 21 2004)
I received this email from Adnan, the curator of the project, and I imagine he sent it to all those involved in the [Out of Gallery] programme. No mention of why he is "concluding" his "last contract" – in fact, as far as I knew, he was planning to run the entire "Western Front" exhibition programme in Blacktown mid-2005. Weird eh. So, what I want to know is – did he get the sack over the Zanny censorship schermozzle? Why did he go totally mute and not answer any emails or phone calls over this issue? (I have also since emailed and phoned the new contact details in the email below, without any response!) What does he think about this whole issue? Why did he not come out in support of the artist's freedom of speech? etc
From: "Adnan Begic" <Adnan.Begic@blacktown.nsw.gov.au>
Date: Tue, 21 Dec 2004 11:56:02 +1100
Subject: Adnan Begic – WF The end of campaign
After two and a half years with Blacktown Arts Centre I am concluding my
last contract position as BAC Curator. It has been a good a challenging but
rewarding period for me.
Almost a year ago I have initiated Western Front project. Over the last
twelve months Western Front Campaign has fused a dynamic partnership of
twelve regional and metropolitan art institutions and galleries and has
enabled more then 70 artists to participate in various contemporary art
programs, exhibitions, forums and art initiatives throughout Western Sydney.
Considering these achievements and professional accomplishments I will take
this opportunity to give a credit not only to BAC staff who have worked with
me on a yearlong campaign with great dedication and enthusiasm, but also to
all partners and artists who have made this campaign possible.
Western Front Exhibition 2005 is perceived by the regional artists as a
promising professional opportunity. Sharing their perception, I hope this
vision will be realised some time in the future.
My last day at Blacktown Arts Centre will be Friday 24 December 2004. After
this date please do not hesitate to contact me on 0415 518310 or through
contempo_rare (curatorial agency) firstname.lastname@example.org.
It has been a pleasure working with you all. I am looking forward to
cooperate with you in the future.
I wish you all Merry Christmas and very productive and prosperous New Year.