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The “Effects” of Censorship

The richly industrious nature of the city of Glasgow has allowed it to develop a high-end artistic scene as well as a distinctively straightforward and forthcoming character. It seems to have been able to retain and develop a certain social and political sovereignty, and is renowned for its people and gregariousness. This, in particular, is why it seems like such a shame that the Glasgow School of Art has – for the first time in its history – censored the work of a student from exhibition. A piece entitled “Effects” - from a wider work called The Enthronement by James Oberhelm of the Masters of Fine Art (MFA) – was concerned with our culture’s wars, past and present. It commented on and provided means for considering these conflicts from within and outwith the common perspective. It would have been, in my estimations, a particularly stark but engaging piece; difficult to ignore and easy to understand. It was due to be shown at the MFA interim exhibition in May, but the Senior Management Team (SMT) decided to censor it in unanimity.

Although two other pieces of The Enthronement were displayed, the exhibition space proposed for “Effects” contained instead an open book entitled The Shock of the New, a poster quoting material from the Records Office active during the 1914-1918 war and some pamphlets explaining that “Effects” was censored, with a list of the materials that would have been used. These are thus:  a replica of “Army Form B. 101-82”; the official notification letter sent to next of kin in the event of a soldier’s death during the first world war. There would have been the type of typewriter, and a desk and chair from that period. There would have been a laptop linked to UK Ministry of Defence Joint Casualty and Compassionate Centre website - which offers support and guidance to the next of kin of those who die in military service, there would have been a modern desk and chair by that. There would have been a replica of the Sykes-Picot Agreement map, a map depicting initial secret arrangements between Britain and France for division of much of the Middle East into spheres of imperial influence from 1916. We would have found a video projection of The End of Sykes Picot, and Kaser al-Hudud (the breaking of the borders) - propaganda videos issued by Al Hayat, the media outlet for Daesh/ISIS from 29 June 2014 – these videos included executions. There would have been booklets containing historical-political contextual materials relating to the Sykes-Picot Agreement and Daesh/ISIS published between 2015 and 2016 by political analysts. The rest of the materials I quote: “contemporary stretch barrier; a security guard; a printed sign reading ‘contains graphic and potentially disturbing content’; some printed leaflets containing descriptive guidance for the work and further notification as to the potential distress caused by its content and finally a staff member available for instruction as to the structure and duration of the installation, and for discussion and assistance upon request by attendees.” The highly controversial nature of the sorts of materials displayed are probably evident, but did it deserve to be censored? What was behind the censorship? Should we put our foot down? And if not, when?

I met the artist in the Savoy Centre, near GSA, to talk about the issues at hand. The censorship is – as far as Oberhelm is concerned – politically motivated. “Prevent is at the heart of this”, I’m told. The Prevent Strategy is a government campaign aimed at stopping radicalisation in educational institutions, it has been active in its present capacity in Scotland since 2015. There is a Prevent Concerns Group (PCG) in all educational institutions, at GSA, there are seventeen members, including the director, the deputy director and the head of the school of fine art. “Effects” was never actually formally referred to the PCG, so why does the artist believe that Prevent was at the core of the decision?  

Dr Rizwaan Sabir – who was himself arrested under Prevent whilst studying towards his masters - suggests that a lot of misrepresentation of information and buck-passing between police, Prevent members and institutions is endemic in cases such as these. He said that Prevent “attempts to silence, and does silence dissent and resistance. It seeks to instil a form of self-discipline because it’s ultimately based on a potential of force being used”. Nik Williams – who works with Scottish PEN – has submitted two Freedom of Information requests regarding this case, leading to the disclosure of notes from meetings, the forms submitted for the installation and some e-mails between GSA faculty. Williams asked for “all information related to the schools Prevent Concerns Group” and was told that “since the case was never referred to Prevent, no Prevent related concern has been referred for consideration: the subgroup has therefore never been convened.” This is despite minutes of a meeting between departmental heads and the Director of the Students Representatives Council (SRC), in which the Director of the SRC wrote to the artist, “there was a separate discussion with members of Prevent at GSA and it was decided that this piece would not go to the committee as you obviously did not display signs of being radicalised and that this was more of an academic decision.”

Maybe it was an academic decision, and Oberhelm is a rubbish artist, full of baloney. But, in an e-mail sent by a faculty member containing the execution video for review, they wrote, “What I would add is that James is an excellent student, full of integrity and fully aware of the potentially distressing nature of the imagery – which he is not treating lightly”. The plea for consideration continues for a number of sentences, ending with “We are very supporting of his work and believe it is dealing with important (if difficult) issues at quite a critical time”. The decision to censor was unanimous amongst seventeen members of the SMT. There’s something amiss here, given the fact that Oberhelm’s approach and work are regarded highly within the institution.

Because the PCG never convened, there is no available information. But it doesn’t seem likely that such a group might ever need to “convene” formally in order to make decisions. One can only speculate at this stage how many overlapping members of the SMT and the PCG there are. Prevent needn’t be involved if the school simply censors the offending article, as appears to have happened here. Prevent is obviously deeply rooted in the school – as it must be in many institutions. Were it not for the pressures of Prevent, the work may not have been censored.

The wording of the revised Prevent Duty Guidance for Scotland (2015) specifically refers to “Islamist extremists”, “The white supremacist ideology” and “The threat from terrorism relating to Northern Ireland” - in which there are “several dissident republican groups”. According to the guidelines, “The Government has defined extremism under the Prevent Strategy as: “vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs”.  There is a group operating by assimilations of these values nested in our educational institutions. It seems to me concerning, particularly when the policy has the full weight of the law behind it. The idea that you cannot question the rule of law or someone else’s faiths and beliefs is written into the law.

This article does not seek to single out, defend or speak for the artist or the institution in question, but to comment on the culture within which they operate. Dr Sabir argues that it is often “incompetence over conspiracy” that results in the mishandling of cases where Prevent is involved, so whether it is a culture of incompetence or a culture of conspiracy, that culture is important. Michael Attenborough has commented on the threat to artistic culture presented by the “catastrophe” of “self-censorship” that is “creeping in” to exhibitions for the last few years. “Effects” was censored, and the new first year MFA students have been told in no uncertain terms that the GSA will not exhibit certain materials, with specific reference made regarding terrorism – undoubtedly a response to the “Effects” case. These two steps make their way down a very dark path as far as I can tell.

Despite the institution’s best efforts, “Effects” is still in motion. This article is testament to that – perhaps it would have been wiser for them to simply exhibit the material, since it doesn’t look as if the problem is going away. It is important to stand up against censorship; Oberhelm tells me that – as an artist – this is less about moral courage and more about professional responsibility. When we accept censorship, we have sacrificed freedom of expression. This sacrifice should not, and must not, stand.

Paul Aitken writes on psychology and visual culture. He is based in Glasgow. Recent projects include an interview series with Amir George of Black Radical Imagination.

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