Licensed to censor performance art

By treating adults like children, the 2003 Licensing Act is being used to undermine the freedom of both artists and audiences.

Manick Govinda

Topics Politics

During the twentieth century, performance art developed a reputation for being both powerful and provocative. Originating as an underground movement, and witnessed by small audiences in basement and warehouse spaces, it was also highly influential. The likes of Martin Scorsese, Samuel R Delaney, Don DeLillo, The Beatles (John Lennon married a performance artist) and many other cultural luminaries were drawn to its secret world. It was controversial, puzzling, life changing and, in some cases, extremely physically violent (usually to the artist, not the public).

In this tradition of anti-establishment art, a few contemporary young British performance artists such as Thomas John Bacon continue to forge ahead. Finding grassroots venues or spaces, such as Lock Up Performance Art, a garage on a council estate in Bethnal Green, young up-and-coming performance artists continue to challenge and provoke, and they do so in environments unburdened by the demand for bums on seats or big audience numbers.

However, Bacon’s recent programme of performances, entitled Tempting Failure, was to be a far larger affair. Featuring 13 artists, it was to take place at a new 400-seat space called the Bristol Bierkeller. But then, seven weeks before it was to take place (on 4 March), the event was pulled by the management.

The news came as a shock to Bacon. In an email sent to Bacon by the Bierkeller, a representative explained that ‘after having the act breakdowns reviewed by a licensing lawyer and in-house staff, we found two acts… to be unsuitable for us to host. The focus on nudity, body modification, bleeding, urination, urinating on other artists, and exchange of bodily fluids (between both artist and audience), we believe, would have compromised the legal standing, our artistic remit, relationship with our landlords, and licensing entitlement that we currently hold.’ (The artists that the venue’s management was primarily offended by are Kris Canavan, Nick Kilby, Mark Flisher and Holly Johnson.)

So once again, the 2003 Licensing Act was used to stifle alternative and risk-taking live performance for adults. This act effectively allows the government and local authorities to control and regulate the presentation of art and entertainment.

Given the licensing objectives – the prevention of crime and disorder; the prevention of public nuisance; public safety; the protection of children from harm – it is clear from the Bierkeller’s consultation with its licensing lawyer that the venue enforced these objectives to curb and censor work with which it felt uncomfortable. In particular, it claimed to be protecting the public and children from harm (not that under-18s would be attending). So rather than talk and discuss its concerns with the artists and Bacon, the venue used the law to justify the cancellation and censorship. As Kris Canavan mentioned in an email, ‘What really angers me about Bierkeller’s decision, is that had they made any contact with myself to discuss the work further… I could have gone in depth about the reasons/rationale for every action within the piece.’

There are many worrying concerns about this censorship and cancellation of adult-oriented performance that go far beyond the coterie of the performance-art scene. First of all, that the public has to be protected like children is an insult to adulthood. The law assumes that we are not to be trusted to make reasoned decisions about what we choose to experience and see. Infantilising adults for fear that they may be offended, insulted or emotionally disturbed by witnessing body-based art is symptomatic of many other curbs on freedom of expression such as hate speech or offensive language. Restrictions of any form weaken our ability to think for ourselves about what we like or do not like, or what we wish to challenge.

Secondly, the banning of body-based art is an affront to artistic and individual autonomy. The fundamental right that our body is ours, and that we are free to do what we desire with it, must be upheld; it is not the property of the state. As adults who consent to enter into this performance agreement, artists and audiences should be free to take that journey. Besides, as Canavan himself explained, his performances are not intended be unnecessarily reckless to either himself or the public.

Bacon and the other artists have stood in solidarity with their fellow artists. They are now looking for an alternative venue, with Bacon remaining defiant: ‘I will never agree to a single act of censorship.’ Small venues would do well to stand shoulder to shoulder with artists by challenging the licensing laws. Body-based performance art may not be to everyone’s taste, but it asks questions and, when executed well, is a powerful experience, capable of exploring the potential, and transcendence, of the human body. If fewer and fewer small-scale venues are willing to take risks, the Guardian’s theatre critic Michael Billington may be right after all: experimental theatre has indeed become institutionalised. And what kind of society are we creating if we don’t take risks and embrace freedom?

Manick Govinda is head of the Manifesto Club’s Visiting Artists and Academics Campaign.

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Topics Politics


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