A response from Peter Kennard and Cat Phillips: Censorship is flourishing in our "public spaces"

Their Tony Blair "selfie" was recently banned from public display after advertisers refused to display the image. Here Peter Kennard and Cat Phillips speak out about the censorship of their work.

Ours is a story exposing the absolute loss of democracy in British urban space: what the British public is allowed and not allowed to see in the streets. We’re talking about images.

Photo Op by kennardphillips.

Our photomontage "Photo Op" depicting Tony Blair taking a "selfie" in front of a burning oil field has just gone on show at Catalyst - the first major exhibition at the Imperial War Museum’s (IWM) national contemporary art collection in Manchester.

Over the last seven years, the image has been shown at Tate Britain, at Banksy’s Santa’s Ghetto on Oxford Street and in numerous other exhibitions. It has been printed full-page in the Daily Telegraph, the Times, the Guardian and the Independent, has been bought by the National Galleries Scotland, the V&A and the Imperial War Museum for their collections, and used in numerous ways across print and online media globally. It’s even been used by the British Council in an exhibition of British art in New Delhi, India.

It is popular.

Photo Op in the window of Banksy's "Santa's Ghetto" - Oxford St, 2006. Image: kennardphillips.

The IWM decided to use it as the lead image in a campaign to advertise their new exhibition. The adverts were to go on bus shelters and hoardings in and around Manchester. But it didn’t happen.

Shortly before the show opened, IWM informed us that the companies who own the advertising space, CBS Outdoor and JCDecaux, were refusing to allow the IWM to use the artwork in the advertising on any of their sites.

As they own the majority of the sites in Manchester (and according to a government report from 2011, 50-70 per cent of all the outdoor advertising sites in Britain), the IWM were forced to scrap the entire campaign (along with the Blair "selfie"), and choose an image more to the corporations’ liking. 

The reason CBS gave to the IWM was that "they will not run anything 'deemed to be political' nor 'involving explosions' – on 'public transport media'". JCDecaux declined to give a reason and refused to reconsider.

CBS's corporate interests stretch worldwide. Sexist and violent images sell products and are a mainstay of advertising across the companies' many thousands of hoardings, buses and Underground stations. Currently showing on CBS adspace in the London Underground (all of whose advertising space is licensed to CBS) is a poster for Frederick Forsyth’s latest book, Kill List, which uncritically depicts a drone flying out of an explosion, firing a missile in the viewers’ direction. It runs with the strapline: "IDENTIFY. LOCATE. DESTROY."

Try and show an artwork that is prophetically anti-war and has enjoyed huge public popularity, even within the context of a major new exhibition at the Imperial War Museum, and the message suddenly becomes anti-business. It doesn’t serve company profits.

Perhaps, CBS thought that major companies advertising their products might have subsidiary companies that manufacture weapons? We cannot know for sure. Better to cause no offence and certainly better not to offend Blair, the Middle East peace envoy (sic) and popular speaker at corporate functions.

Our work has been censored by a large corporation before.

In December 2003, we were asked to make an image symbolising "peace on earth" as part of a public event organised by Bob Geldof. The commissioned images were to be projected onto buildings around London - ours on Trinity House in the City of London. We made a photomontage based on a painting of the Virgin Mary in the National Gallery. We turned her halo into a peace symbol and her face into an image of the earth. The image evokes the position that we are far from a life of peace on earth while giving a locus for hope in both the CND symbol and the original painting itself.

Before any projection happened we were told that our image had been banned. Instead a photograph of Nigella Lawson’s mince pies was projected onto Trinity House. At that point we learned that Orange was the company financing and running the event. Following the controversy that followed the banning of our image, Niamh Byrne, head of Media Relations at Orange, wrote to the Guardian that Orange had decided "small children and grandparents would not appreciate" our image. The Orange mission statement reads: "We are ready to push boundaries and take risks, we are always open and honest, we say what we do and we do what we say, we want to make a difference to people’s lives".

We title the work "Peace on Earth, banned by Orange".

"Peace on Earth, banned by Orange" by kennardphillips.

Corporations whitewash their reputations by sponsoring the arts on the one hand and censoring art on the other. It is a commonplace that a corporation will only sponsor what it deems to be good for its image and business. Edgy is good for companies with a young demographic, but only so far - not to the point of an actual critique of our lords and masters, be they politicians or businessmen. Certainly nothing suggesting that peace might be worth more than war.

CBS is a corporate monolith that has powerful interests in politics and business (it is a major TV channel in the states, heavy in political content, as well as being a big player in the global entertainments industry), but the fact that CBS actually controls what we see on the posters in our so-called "public space" is less commonly known.

Artists are imprisoned all over the world for making work about injustice and for criticising their governments. In Britain the censorship of dissident artists appears benign, but is more insidious. The penalty is more likely to be that their work is marginalised rather than that their life is threatened. This can result in self-censorship rather than state censorship. Artists subconsciously know that there is an invisible line that must not be crossed if they want to want to make public art which, nowadays, is mainly sponsored by corporations.

Nearly every surface in all our public spaces has become a gallery for the corporate art of advertising. To participate in that public space as an artist you either have to be sponsored and pointless or put your hood up and work illegally.

The gagging bill is nearly on the statute books: an example of the government’s further attempt to curtail freedom of speech and public debate. But in the same way that CBS has censored our image for an exhibition at the Imperial War Museum (not exactly the most subversive institution in Britain) the bill surely shows that both our political and corporate masters are aware of the danger to their wealth and power from a global public with a desire for dissent.

More information is available on the kennardphillips website.

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The “Yolocaust” project conflates hate with foolish but innocent acts of joy

A montage of selfies taken at Berlin’s Holocaust Memorial layered above images of concentration camps risks shutting visitors out of respectful commemoration.

Ten years ago I visited Berlin for the first time. It was a cold and overcast day – the kind of grey that encourages melancholy. When my friends and I came across the city’s Holocaust Memorial, with its maze of over 2,000 concrete slabs, we refrained from taking photos of each other exploring the site. “Might it be disrespectful?” asked one of my non-Jewish (and usually outrageously extroverted) friends. Yes, probably, a bit, we concluded, and moved softly and slowly on through the Memorial’s narrow alleys.

But not all days are gloomy, even in Berlin. And not all visitors to the Memorial had the same reaction as us.

A photo project called “Yolocaust” has collected together images of the Memorial and selfies taken there that young people from around the world have posted to Facebook, Instagram, Tinder and Grindr. In the 12 photos featured on the website, one man juggles pink balls, a girl does yoga atop a pillar, another practises a handstand against a slab’s base. The last of these is tagged “#flexiblegirl #circus #summer”.

Most of the images seem more brainless than abusive. But the implication seems to be that such behaviour risks sliding into insult – a fear all too painfully embodied in the first image of the series: a shot of two guys leaping between pillars with the tag-line: “Jumping on dead Jews @ Holocaust Memorial.”

Grim doesn’t begin to cover it, but the artist who collated the photos has thought up a clever device for retribution. As your cursor scrolls or hovers over each photo, a second image is then revealed beneath. These hidden black-and-white photographs of the Holocaust show countless emaciated bodies laid out in mass graves, or piled up against walls.

Even though they are familiar for those who learned about the Nazi concentration camps at school, these historic scenes are still too terrible and I cannot look at them for more than a few seconds before something in my chest seizes up. In fact, it’s only on second glance that I see the artist has also super-imposed the jumping men into the dead bodies – so that their sickening metaphor “jumping on dead Jews” is now made to appear actual.

The result is a powerful montage, and its message is an important one: that goofy, ill-considered behaviour at such sites is disrespectful, if not worse. Just take the woman who urinated on a British war memorial, or the attack on a Holocaust memorial in Hungary.

But while desecration and hate should not be tolerated anywhere, especially not at memorials, does juggling fall into the same category?

I can’t help but feel that the Yolocaust project is unfair to many of the contemporary subjects featured. After all, this is not Auschwitz but the centre of a modern city. If public-space memorials are intended to be inhabited, then surely they invite use not just as places for contemplation, grieving and reflection but also for being thankful for your life and your city on a sunny day?

The Memorial in Berlin is clearly designed to be walked in and around.  Even the architect, Peter Eisenman, has been reported saying he wants visitors to behave freely at the site – with children playing between the pillars and families picnicking on its fringes.

So how do we determine what is offensive behaviour and what is not?

A section at the bottom of the Yolocaust website also suggests (in rather sarcastic tones) that there are no prescriptions on how visitors should behave, “at a site that marks the death of 6 million people”. Though in fact a code of conduct on the memorial’s website lists the following as not permitted: loud noise, jumping from slab to slab, dogs or pets, bicycles, smoking and alcohol.

Only one of Yolocaust’s 12 photos breaks this code: the first and only explicitly insulting image of the jumping men. Another six show people climbing or sitting atop the pillars but most of these are a world away in tone from the jumpers.

The blurb at the bottom of the webpage says that the project intends to explore “our commemorative culture”. But by treating the image of the yoga performer – with an accompanying montage of her balancing amid dead bodies – in the same way as the jumping men, the artist seems to conflate the two.

In fact, the girl practising a yoga balance could be seen as a hopeful – if overtly cutesy and hipster – act of reverence. “Yoga is connection with everything around us,” says her tag beneath. And even if climbing the slabs is frowned upon by some, it could also be read as an act of joy, something to cherish when faced with such a dark history.

In an era when populist German politicians are using the past – and sentiment towards Holocaust memorials themselves – to rev up anti-immigrant, nationalist feeling, the need for careful and inclusive readings of the role of memorials in our society has never been greater.

Yolocaust may have intended to provide a space for reflection on our commemorative behaviour but the result feels worryingly sensationalist, if not censorious. Instead of inviting others in to the act of respectful commemoration, has it risked shutting people out?

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.