by Mickie Quick
Mickie Quick has decades of tactical media activism under his belt. In his day job, he is Publications Manager at Honi Soit newspaper.
The artist Deborah Kelly was recently kicked out of an exhibition called How The City Cares at Customs House gallery because the City of Sydney, who produced the show as part of the Big Anxiety Festival, claimed that her work My Sydney Summer was “not suitable to be viewed by children”. The work, devised as a four metre wide print, depicts young people protesting against inaction on climate change.
Your intrepid EXTRA! EXTRA! reporter is a participating artist in the exhibition as part of the artist-activist group SquatSpace. How The City Cares considers life in Sydney through artist-led projects that care about its people and places. Our contribution to the show is an historical overview of the Redfern-Waterloo Tour Of Beauty, a bunch of bus and bicycle tours that we used to run from 2005–2016. The Tour took people to meet locals in Redfern and Waterloo, to hear their perspectives on the rapid changes affecting the area.
We too were required to submit all images and video to the City of Sydney for vetting, even though the curator Bec Dean already knew our work very well. I was half-expecting the City to come back with objections to something edgy in our work. Perhaps the video interview with Aboriginal activist Jenny Munro might be cutting too close to the bone in her descriptions of the genocide of her people, or perhaps the varied criticisms of the NSW state government’s terrible handling of the area’s development would prove to be troublesome. But alas we sailed through the vetting process without ruffling anyone’s feathers.
It wasn’t until the day before the exhibition opening that I heard about Deborah Kelly’s very different interaction with the City. She posted about it on social media, adding that “I also want the artists, with whom I was so looking forward to showing, to know I was excluded”.
The road to Kelly’s exclusion from the exhibition was a highly unusual one for any artist. It was not a straightforward ban on that particular finished work. She was asked by the City to remove particular elements in the image. Perhaps the downside to digitally created art is that it creates the perception that it can be “edited”. It is highly unlikely that a painter would be instructed to go back into their canvas with their brush: such a request would quite rightly be seen as puppeteering the hand of an artist. But digital art somehow enters that grey area where it can be treated like graphic design, with the “client” submitting “requests for changes”. This is not the way that artists should be treated.
Kelly’s situation involved heavy handed puppeteering by the City. She says, “They asked for the burning church to be removed and only because of my friendship with (curator) Bec Dean, I complied. THEN they said I had to remove the smoke! I said no.” The puppeteering was likely to have kept on going. Deborah added, “They also didn’t want the zombies, but by then I had refused further alteration”. It was this refusal that led to the work being kicked out of the exhibition by the City staff.
It’s outrageous that the City has meddled in Kelly’s work to this degree. In the weeks leading up to Halloween they were quibbling over images of teenagers dressed up as zombies. Those kids are participating creatively in protests about our likely extinction. Extinction = the death of human existence = zombies… get it??
In trying to understand the motivations of the City, Kelly says, “I feel that it’s the celebration of protest per se that they did not like. AND maybe, that they censored my work in advance of the ‘Religious Freedom’ laws, which everyone fears”. Perhaps it’s easier for an institution to pre-emptively censor on the side of caution.
In the face of this injustice to artistic freedom, your intrepid reporter had to take action. I quickly created an A5 flyer to hand out at the opening of the exhibition on the evening of Tuesday November 5. The flyer had a reproduction of the banned artwork with the text, “here it is snuck into the exhibition opening night, albeit a lot smaller, on this A5 flyer!”
The back of the flyer asked the following questions:
WHAT IS THE CITY WORRIED ABOUT? …Kids seeing other kids participating in the global protest movement against climate inaction in the face of an extinction crisis? Really?Quick, 2019
IS IT THE “NEEDLESS ANXIETY” FESTIVAL NOW?
IS IT THE BURNING CHURCH? …an intentional reference to the 1978 artwork Keep Warm This Winter by Marie McMahon, a poster from the Tin Sheds Art Workshop, which is in the collection of The National Gallery of Australia, and also currently on display at the State Library of NSW. Other posters from the Tin Sheds Poster Collection are in this exhibition at Customs House. The church in Deborah’s artwork is the old church of convicted paedophile George Pell. The anger is deserved, but actually the ‘mob’ outside this church is in fact just a candlelight vigil, which communities are conducting for an increasing range of concerns, whether it’s for the victims of Australian immigration policy, or the victims of murderous rapists, or the victims of terrorist shooting attacks at mosques. Just as the poster in the NGA collection is filed under ‘Subject: Community Issues’, the City of Sydney should not be interfering in and censoring this contemporary expression of community issues.
IS IT THE ANTI-SCOMO T-SHIRT WORN BY ONE OF THE PROTESTORS? …bloody hell, it’s not the City of Sydney annual report being designed here!
IS IT THE PARTIALLY OBSCURED IMAGE OF DANNY LIM? Just like the magistrate who decided that Danny’s ‘CVN’T’ sandwich-board was ‘cheeky but not offensive’, his words about the reaction of the police also apply to the City of Sydney’s reaction to Deborah Kelly’s work: ‘unnecessary and very heavy-handed’.
I handed out the flyers at the opening with my seven-year-old kid. He was also outraged that an image of kids protesting climate action was censored. His school principal has been amazing about the school climate strikes, finding ways to step gingerly around the NSW Department of Education’s ban on staff supporting or even discussing the strikes. She addresses the school about the importance of organising collectively for positive change that will benefit us all. That is leadership.
Perhaps the City of Sydney frets that someone like Alan Jones will make a big hoo-ha out of the work in their exhibition. Upon reflection, I don’t think my flyer landed the point strongly enough that other major state institutions are simultaneously displaying controversial material (a poster with a church on fire with the directive of its title, Keep Warm This Winter) without censoring the artist.
I had handed out about 50 flyers at the opening when I was approached by the head of programs at the City of Sydney, I didn’t catch her name. She asked me to stop distributing the flyers “out of respect for the other artists”. The speeches were about to begin. “Let me talk to you about respect”, I nearly replied, but she said we could discuss the problem after the speeches. I was happy with that and complied.
After the speeches we had a chat, also with another City of Sydney bureaucrat. I went through the points on the flyer with them. It all boiled down, they said, to their policy that content on display at Customs House had to be “warm and welcoming”. They said they had the right to choose appropriate works to fit that criteria. I pointed out that it wasn’t a straightforward process of selecting works, and I detailed the meddling and puppeteering they had been doing, to which they had nothing really to say, except “there’s two sides to the story”. I urged them to make this elusive ‘other side of the story’ public so that it can be scrutinised and held to account. To date we are still in the dark on the exact reason why Kelly’s work was censored.
As I walked around the exhibition I discovered that the City had also censored parts of Sarah Goffman’s work, Occupy Sydney. Her large photographs document hundreds of the phrases seen on the protest placards of the Occupy movement during its occupation of Martin Place from 2011 to 2014, only a few blocks from Customs House.
Expletives on the placards have been heavily pixelated. As always with censorship by pixelation, this has the counter-productive effect of making the viewer more curious about what is being concealed. Somehow holding a phone camera up close to the pixelated words reveals the word a little more clearly. One censored word was ‘ASSHOLES’!
Sarah said of the censorship process, “I was bemused by it frankly, and a bit disgusted by their meddling (now that I see the work). The notion of the city caring, the appearance and reality of the City of Sydney as a body corporate censoring and decisively marketing themselves…argh!”
The City would be more transparent in its processes if they had blacked out the offensive words with solid black blocks, and added text over the black that says ‘CENSORED’, since this is what has happened.
I write this on the day that catastrophic fire danger is forecast for large parts of the country. This predicament is not ‘warm and welcoming’, it’s hot-as-hell and hostile-as-fuck. We need to support our young people in their protests about the climate inaction that might decimate their future. Our institutions need to support the cultural expressions of this state of affairs. For the City of Sydney to hinder this important work makes them the ASSHOLES!