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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Celluloid Dreams: are film scores the next area of serious musical scholarship?

John Wilson has little time for people who don't see the genius at work in so-called "light music".

When John Wilson walks out on to the stage at the Royal Albert Hall in London, there is a roar from the audience that would be more fitting in a football stadium. Before he even steps on to the conductor’s podium, people whistle and cheer, thumping and clapping. The members of his orchestra grin as he turns to acknowledge the applause. Many soloists reaching the end of a triumphant concerto performance receive less ecstatic praise. Even if you had never heard of Wilson before, the rock-star reception would tip you off that you were about to hear something special.

There is a moment of silence as Wilson holds the whole hall, audience and orchestra alike, in stasis, his baton raised expectantly. Then it slices down and the orchestra bursts into a tightly controlled mass of sound, complete with swirling strings and blowsy brass. You are instantly transported: this is the music to which Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced, the music of George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, which reverberated around the cauldron of creativity that was Hollywood of the early 20th century, when composers were as sought after as film directors.

Wilson’s shows are tremendously popular. Since he presented the MGM musicals programme at the Proms in 2009, which was watched by 3.5 million people on TV and is still selling on DVD, his concerts have been among the first to sell out in every Proms season. There are international tours and popular CDs, too. But a great deal of behind-the-scenes work goes into bringing this music – much of which had been lost to history – back to life. There are familiar tunes among the complex arrangements that he and his orchestra play, to be sure, but the music sounds fresher and sharper than it ever does on old records or in movies. Whether you’re a film fan or not, you will find something about the irrepressible energy of these tunes that lifts the spirits.

Sitting in an armchair in the conductor’s room beneath the Henry Wood Hall in south London, Wilson looks anything but energetic. “Excuse my yawning, but I’ve been up since three o’clock this morning,” he says. This is a short break in a hectic rehearsal schedule, as he puts his orchestra through its paces in the lead-up to its appearance at the 2016 Proms. Watching him at work before we sat down to talk, I saw a conductor who was far from sluggish. Bobbing on the balls of his feet, he pushed his players to consider every detail of their sound, often stopping the musicians to adjust the tone of a single note or phrase. At times, his whole body was tense with the effort of communicating the tone he required.

The programme that Wilson and his orchestra are obsessing over at the moment is a celebration of George and Ira Gershwin, the American songwriting partnership that produced such immortal songs as “I Got Rhythm”, “’S Wonderful” and “Funny Face”, as well as the 1934 opera Porgy and Bess. Though it might all sound effortless when everyone finally appears in white tie, huge amounts of preparation go into a John Wilson concert and they start long before the orchestra begins to rehearse.

“Coming up with the idea is the first step,” he says. “Then you put a programme together, which takes a great deal of time and thought and revision. You can go through 40 drafts until you get it right. I was still fiddling with the running order two weeks ago. It’s like a three-dimensional game of chess – one thing changes and the whole lot comes down.”

Wilson, 44, who also conducts the more conventional classical repertoire, says that his interest in so-called light music came early on. “When you’re a kid, you don’t know that you shouldn’t like the Beatles, or you shouldn’t like Fred Astaire, or whatever,” he says. “You just like anything that’s good. So I grew up loving Beethoven and Brahms and Ravel and Frank Sinatra and the Beatles.” At home in Gateshead – he still has the Geordie accent – the only music in the house was “what was on the radio and telly”, and the young boy acquired his taste from what he encountered playing with local brass bands and amateur orchestras.

He had the opposite of the hothoused, pressured childhood that we often associate with professional musicians. “Mine were just nice, lovely, normal parents! As long as I wore clean underwear and finished my tea, then they were happy,” he recalls. “I was never forced into doing music. My parents used to have to sometimes say, ‘Look, you’ve played the piano enough today; go out and get some fresh air’ – things like that.” Indeed, he received barely any formal musical education until he went to the Royal College of Music at the age of 18, after doing his A-levels at Newcastle College.

The title of the concert he conducted at this year’s Proms was “George and Ira Gershwin Rediscovered”, which hints at the full scale of Wilson’s work. Not only does he select his music from the surviving repertoire of 20th-century Hollywood: in many cases, he unearths scores that weren’t considered worth keeping at the time and resurrects the music into a playable state. At times, there is no written trace at all and he must reconstruct a score by ear from a ­recording or the soundtrack of a film.

For most other musicians, even experts, it would be an impossible task. Wilson smiles ruefully when I ask how he goes about it. “There are 18 pieces in this concert. Only six of them exist in full scores. So you track down whatever materials survive, whether they be piano or conductors’ scores or recordings, and then my colleagues and I – there are four of us – sit down with the scores.” There is no hard and fast rule for how to do this kind of reconstruction, he says, as it depends entirely on what there is left to work with. “It’s like putting together a jigsaw, or a kind of archaeology. You find whatever bits you can get your hands on. But the recording is always the final word: that’s the ur-text. That is what you aim to replicate, because that represents the composer’s and lyricist’s final thoughts.” There is a purpose to all this effort that goes beyond putting on a great show, though that is a big part of why Wilson does it. “I just want everyone to leave with the thrill of having experienced the sound of a live orchestra,” he says earnestly. “I tell the orchestra, ‘Never lose sight of the fact that people have bought tickets, left the house, got on the bus/Tube, come to the concert. Give them their money’s worth. Play every last quaver with your lifeblood.’”

Besides holding to a commitment to entertain, Wilson believes there is an academic justification for the music. “These composers were working with expert ­arrangers, players and singers . . . It’s a wonderful period of music. I think it’s the next major area of serious musical scholarship.”

These compositions sit in a strange, in-between place. Classical purists deride them as “light” and thus not worthy of attention, while jazz diehards find the catchy syncopations tame and conventional. But he has little time for anyone who doesn’t recognise the genius at work here. “They’re art songs, is what they are. The songs of Gershwin and Porter and [Jerome] Kern are as important to their period as the songs of Schubert . . . People who are sniffy about this material don’t really know it, as far as I’m concerned, because I’ve never met a musician of any worth who’s sniffy about this.

Selecting the right performers is another way in which Wilson ensures that his rediscovered scores will get the best possible presentation. He formed the John Wilson Orchestra in 1994, while he was still studying at the Royal College of Music, with the intention of imitating the old Hollywood studio orchestras that originally performed this repertoire. Many of the players he works with are stars of other European orchestras – in a sense, it is a supergroup. The ensemble looks a bit like a symphony orchestra with a big band nestled in the middle – saxophones next to French horns and a drum kit in the centre. The right string sound, in particular, is essential.

At the rehearsal for the Gershwin programme, I heard Wilson describing to the first violins exactly what he wanted: “Give me the hottest sound you’ve made since your first concerto at college.” Rather than the blended tone that much of the classical repertoire calls for, this music demands throbbing, emotive, swooping strings. Or, as Wilson put it: “Use so much vibrato that people’s family photos will shuffle across the top of their TVs and fall off.”

His conducting work spans much more than his Hollywood musical reconstruction projects. Wilson is a principal conductor with the Royal Northern Sinfonia and has performed or recorded with most of the major ensembles in Britain. And his great passion is for English music: the romanticism of Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Delius needs advocates, too, he says. He insists that these two strands of his career are of equivalent importance. “I make no separation between my activities conducting classical music and [film scores]. They’re just all different rooms in the same house.” 

The John Wilson Orchestra’s “Gershwin in Hollywood” (Warner Classics) is out now

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser