Comment | ‘More welcome in a cage than on a stage’: On ‘Exhibit B’, Censorship and Liberal Outrage
Ideas, New in Ceasefire - Posted on Thursday, October 9, 2014 14:06 - 3 Comments
On 23rd September the Barbican cancelled the Exhibit B exhibition, popularly known as the ‘Human Zoo’, following a grassroots campaign led by a broad coalition of black and anti-racist organisations. The campaign garnered 23,000 signatures and mobilised hundreds of protesters outside the Barbican.
Flash back to February 2014 and another cultural event had just been cancelled at the same venue. ‘Just Jam’ was supposed to be a showcase of London’s grime and electronic music scenes, with artists such as JME, Big Narstie and Mount Kimbie due to perform. This time, ‘public safety’ concerns raised by the police were cited as the reason for the cancellation. However, this was the latest in a long history of efforts by the police to pressure venues to cancel shows linked to London’s grime scene, despite very little evidence of grime music posing any threat to public order.
The differing responses to these two events reveal the liberal racism at the heart of the UK’s media and cultural Establishment. The cancellation of ‘Just Jam’ was noted in the music press but passed largely without comment elsewhere. Exhibit B, on the other hand, has provoked an outcry from the liberal commentariat, showing that when one type of event is cancelled this is a grave threat to freedom of expression, while the suppression of another type barely deserves a mention. The right of a white South African to dehumanise black people and appropriate their struggle in the name of art is defended to the hilt, while the systematic suppression of black working-class cultural expression is completely ignored.
Those who invoke the spectre of ‘censorship’ when decrying the shutting down of Exhibit B do so uncritically and with no understanding of the power relations involved in this situation. The exhibition was supported by the South African Department of Arts and Culture and the British Council and has toured across Europe, South Africa and Australia. Clearly the director, Brett Bailey, is not a man who struggles to gain a platform for his work, and his freedom of expression is not under threat in any meaningful sense. As such, the grassroots campaign calling for Exhibit B’s cancellation was not in a position to systematically determine the agendas of large cultural institutions, but was merely the reflection of a widespread revulsion at the problematic nature of the exhibition amongst people who have suffered racism, and their allies.
If we compare this with the grime artists who have had to endure repeated show cancellations due to racist policing, censorship starts to look like a more appropriate term. JME, one of the MCs due to perform at Just Jam, recently made a documentary exploring the grime scene’s relationship with the police. He spoke to Logan Sama, a grime DJ who argued that the police’s use of a bureaucratic procedure known as ‘Form 696’ to put pressure on venues to cancel grime shows was killing the scene.
Sama, who has never witnessed a violent incident at a grime rave, said, “When one or two large events that have had a lot of money spent on them get closed down, everyone else sees it and thinks ‘it’s not worth my while risking investing in putting on a show like this’… The number of people that I’ve seen either quit music entirely or drastically alter artistically what they’re doing because making this type of music wasn’t able to support them financially…” Artists losing their livelihoods or changing their creative output as a direct result of continual state repression – surely this is the kind of censorship we should be concerned about, not a one-off cancellation of a show due to a popular anti-racist campaign?
Form 696 was introduced by the Metropolitan Police in 2008 as a way of racially profiling the performers and attendees of live music events. Originally, it asked music venues for an ethnic breakdown of the likely attendees and a description of the genres of music that would be played. However, this was later toned down to a less overt question about the “target audience”. It is now a risk assessment form for any event that “predominantly features DJs or MCs performing to a recorded backing track” i.e. genres such as Grime and Hip-Hop.
The stifling effect that Form 696 has had was highlighted in a recent interview with DJ, and Butterz label boss, Elijah, who lamented the fact that Grime was flourishing everywhere except in its birthplace. “We’ll play places in England once a year, but spend a lot of time in Europe. People will ask me where I’m playing this weekend, and I’ll say ‘Montenegro.’ They go, ‘Why?’ ‘Well, I’m not getting booked for Bristol, am I?’ All these places, where you thought there would be regular grime shows? It’s still not happening.”
With Just Jam, the reasons given by the police for the cancellation didn’t stack up. They stated that “alcohol would be on sale at an event which would be allowing entry to anyone aged 16 or over” (just like any other gig; that’s what ID policy is for) and that “there were worries about the lack of adequate measures in place to address potential issues that might arise, including overcrowding if more people decided to attend than the venue could cater for” (the event was ticketed). We can only assume that the genres of music and the ethnic background of the performers and attendees were the main factors in the cancellation. With their enthusiastic promotion of Exhibit B, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that the Barbican is more comfortable with hosting black performers when they are in a cage than when they are on a stage.
Without any understanding of the power relations involved in shaping Britain’s cultural agenda, the cancellation of Exhibit B can certainly look like censorship. However, it is more useful to look at which voices and modes of expression are marginalised on a systematic basis. Those concerned about the erosion of freedom of expression would be better off speaking to JME than Brett Bailey.
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