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.

The Writers Museum
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Scot of the South Seas: Robert Louis Stevenson in Samoa

Story of author's time with his family in the island nation details a political awakening.

A contemporary once saw Louis and Fanny Stevenson, with Fanny’s son Lloyd, strolling barefoot along a Samoan beach. With their shawls and shells, floppy hats, pyjama suits and banjo, they could have been 1960s hippies. Indeed, the writer mistook the trio for wandering players. But Stevenson was already the famous author of Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. He was wealthy, too. An only child, he had recently inherited from his father, despite the elder Stevenson’s alarm at his son’s lifestyle and choice of spouse: the older, divorced mother of three, Frances Van de Grift Osbourne.

As is well known, Stevenson settled in Samoa, surrounded by what we might now call a “blended” family. Even his mother joined in, travelling from the douce Victorian Edinburgh, tolerating the Samoan sun in her heavy skirts and widow’s cap.

That was in 1890. Samoa was in the midst of a grievous colonial push and shove. Because of its strategic position in the South Pacific, the UK, Germany and the US all maintained an aggressive interest in the archipelago. Joseph Farrell writes in his account of the writer’s four years on the island:

The 1880s were a decade of war and rumours of war, the raising of banners, the gathering of forces, the issuing of indignant notes, the summoning of assemblies and councils on Samoa, and of exchanges of diplomatic missives between Washington, London and Berlin.

In 1885, Samoan chiefs asked to become part of the British empire, to the Germans’ annoyance, but the request was declined. Gunboats were a common sight in Samoan harbours. Sometimes they fired at villages. Despite, or because of pressures from without, Samoan society was descending into inter-clan war.

As a rich white man, Stevenson surely benefited from the imperial adventure. Sailing by, he liked what he saw and decided to return, buy land, build a home and hire servants. Having done that, he could have remained aloof, but instead he soon came to identify with the Samoan people and their cause. He became a champion and activist. It is this change that primarily interests Farrell, and his book examines the effect that Samoa had on Stevenson the writer in the few short years he had left to live. Farrell explores how he responded to the politics of empire-building, as he witnessed it at the sharp end.

To their colonial meddlers, the Samoans were backward savages, inhabiting an imagined utopia of fruitful nudity and ease. But Stevenson soon felt his way into Samoan culture. Even his acknowledgement that they had a culture at all set him at an angle to the imperialists. He found the Samoan people admirable. He wrote, “They are easy, merry, and pleasure-loving” – but also given to warfare.

Having decided to integrate, Stevenson set about learning the Samoan language and, as a way of understanding the situation he encountered on the island, he identified parallels with Scotland. Stevenson may have been a Lowlander and a conservative but, like many Scots, he was seduced by the romance of the Jacobites, and the Scottish Highlands fuelled his imagination. He could feel for the situation in Samoa by referring to the Highlands after the failure of the Jacobite Risings. Both societies had clan systems. In both cases, the indigenous people faced the occupation of their land and suppression of their culture. But the Jacobite times were over and romanticised, not least by Stevenson, and the Samoan situation was happening in front of his eyes.

Taking the Samoan name “Tusitala” – “writer of tales” – Stevenson sought out local stories (chieftains and their families became guests at his house), but he could give as good as he got. He not only recorded Samoan legends, as an anthropologist might, but he offered Scottish stories in return. Farrell writes that he used weird tales of brownies, kelpies and the like to win Samoan friends. The story that became “The Bottle Imp” was told to him in the South Seas.

As Stevenson’s knowledge of Samoa and its problems grew, Farrell identifies in him a new frustration as a writer. It was no longer sufficient to be a romancer. He experienced a desire to address and influence political issues, right from the hot spot. He quickly became the annoying activist, lecturer, reporter and agitator, firing off letters to the Times, ambivalent about missionaries, a friend to Samoan chieftains. As well as championing the islanders abroad, he apparently felt himself “entitled to plunge head-first on arrival into the political affairs of Samoa”.

Farrell clearly believes that the writer’s interventions were right, even heroic. “Injustices casually perpetrated in Samoa, like similar acts of oppression on native peoples in far-off lands, would have passed unobserved… had they not aroused the indignation of this man.” Stevenson’s A Footnote to History appeared in 1892. It’s a poor title, but the subtitle – “Eight Years of Trouble in Samoa” – sets out its intention. In today’s parlance, it is a micro-history. Though the book is little known now, Farrell believes that Footnote can take its place alongside Heart of Darkness as “a radical, deeply felt critique of foreign intrusion and dominance”.

Farrell believes that had Stevenson known the term “racist”, he would have employed it, as it was “an attitude RLS abominated instinctively”. Nonetheless, he felt able to lecture the Samoans, too. Pyjama suits notwithstanding, Stevenson was a Calvinist to the last. Although Samoa had been settled for 3,000 years, at a public meeting he told the Samoans that he deplored their “indolence” and that the remedy to the loss of their land and dignity lay in “hard work”.

Stevenson wrote an estimated 700,000 words during his years on Samoa. He may have become engagé (Farrell’s word) but his imagination still resided in Scotland: it was there he wrote Catriona and began Weir of Hermiston. Although his routine was constantly disrupted by visitors, events and ill health (his own and Fanny’s), his mornings were spent writing in bed, with afternoons and evenings a never-ending round of parties, visits, horse rides, dressing for dinner and good wines. Farrell is careful to explain Samoan political complexities that Stevenson despaired of expressing; the glimpses of domestic life at
Vailima offer light relief.

It came to a sudden end. A note on the effect of Stevenson’s early death on his family and household, especially Fanny, would have been welcome, but these topics are well covered in other books. As it is, the book closes with the cerebral haemorrhage that killed him and the bearing of his body to its hilltop grave.

Farrell declines to speculate how Stevenson might have developed had he lived another 20 years on Samoa. We might remember a different kind of writer: fewer tales and old-time romances, more investigative journalism. Or perhaps he might have combined both by developing a more realistic fiction. He had embarked on that direction by completing “The Beach of Falesà”, which, Farrell writes, “exposes exploitative behaviour… The villains are white, their behaviour towards the islanders reprehensible and contemptible.” Stevenson called it “the first realistic South Sea story”, the first to tell it like it was.

Robert Louis Stevenson in Samoa
Joseph Farrell
MacLehose Press, 352pp, £20

Kathleen Jamie’s poetry collections include “The Bonniest Companie” (Picador)

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear