[the following was first published in The Lives of the Artists (sometime in early 2003) edited by Liz Pulie, Sydney. You can order a copy of the magazine by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org ]
just wanted to let your readers know about a â€œschermozzleâ€ that happened with the Performance Space late last year. You might have seen the A3 posters which advertise upcoming events at the space. The design is by Suzanne Boccalatte, and during 2002, the front of the poster always featured two groovy looking people, in their coolest clothes, posing in a grungy inner-city location … its an Aussie re-take on the â€œFruitsâ€ concept – the Japanese fashion photography book. (The â€œFruitsâ€ exhibition is actually in Sydney at the Powerhouse Museum right now).
Anyway, in October, Fiona Winning at The Performance Space gave Mickie Quick a ring. Apparently, the two â€œmodelsâ€ they had lined up to do the shoot fell through at the last minute, and so they were asking me and Mick to pose. We fell about laughing, ‘cos we felt about as far away from that fashion stuff as possible. We agreed to do it anyhow, fascinated and perplexed as to why they had actually asked us … apparently they liked Mickie Quick’s â€œRefugee Islandâ€ street sign alteration which had popped up during the BorderPanic conference, so they were keen to have that in the photo too.
We showed up for the shoot with the Refugee Island sign, and two t-shirts from an ongoing project of mine entitled â€œEvent for Touristic Sitesâ€ – t-shirts emblazoned with national stereotypes, in this case â€œAll Australians are Arse-Lickersâ€ and â€œAll Iraqis are Guiltyâ€. We dressed up as daggy as we could, tourist shorts with heaps of cargo pockets, long socks, backpacks, green-n-gold umbrella. Frankly, we were hoping to use the Performance Space poster as a way to place art and politics in the same sphere, and (of course) to promote our own projects via the path of parasitical publicity. (And ok, we admit it, to intervene weirdly in the Performance Space’s â€œtoo-cool for schoolâ€ fashion photo series.)
The photo shoot took place in Redfern: in some side streets out the back of the Performance Space; a funny little concrete apartment block courtyard; and on the traffic island near Space 3 at the corner of Regent and Cleveland Streets. This last location meant that the photo had the racist t-shirts and the Refugee Island sign in the foreground, juxtaposed with the Redfern’s TNT â€œtwin towersâ€ in the background. Suzanne, and Mikala from the Performance Space anticipated that these images might be a bit controversial, so they took a few extra shots in which Mick and I wore our backpacks back-to-front, and with the umbrella pointed to the camera – so that the text on the t-shirts could not be seen … a safety net in case the more hard-hitting images got rejected…
A week after posing for those photos, the “Bali Bombing” happened, and the Performance Space had to call an emergency meeting of its Board of Directors to decide if they could go ahead with using the images from our photo shoot for their publicity poster. You guessed it, they decided that they could only use the watered-down shots with the text on the t-shirts covered up.
Mick and I protested (although without much hope of making them change their mind). First we said that the references to Australia and Iraq on the t-shirts were quite un-related to the specific events in Bali (the Board’s fear supposedly being that their publicity campaign would be read by poster viewers as a direct comment on the Bali situation.)
Then we thought that to go ahead with the image might, in fact, be a courageous (and timely) tactic that the Performance Space could take, by deliberately juxtaposing national stereotypes, tourism, terrorism and refugees. Fiona Winning, the Performance Space’s director, was very supportive of our position. While disagreeing with the Board’s decision herself, she wrote:
“It was the weekend events in Bali which provoked a different position (if only we’d got it to the printers last week!). We talked it through and it’s clear to me, that the weekend events and the image are not related (ie. terrorism and the intensification of anti Muslim fervor) but as they pointed out we don’t have the opportunity to talk through with the viewers of 10,000 posters that are essentially a publicity tool for our program.”
“Also there was a feeling that the composition was not careful enough…. (which is Suzanne’s deliberate aesthetic) The twin TNT towers in the back kind of bagging the idea that we are vulnerable to terrorism […] Interesting how much semiotic scrutiny this image came under. Which should not surprise me in some ways and I admit to a level of naivety about not having expected that.”
(One wonders whether the board went as far as humming the words to the old AC/DC song “T-N-T… it’s DYNAMITE!!” as they were debating the semiotics of the shots…)
We respectfully withdrew our consent for them to use the watered down photos, a move Fiona had been expecting anyway. So we left it at that, and the Performance Space organised to re-shoot the poster with new models: two groovy looking kids on a bright yellow motor scooter.
[I contacted the PVI (performance, video, installation) Collective in Perth, having heard that their “Terrorist Training School” project planned for October 2002 had been similarly canned due to the Bali Bombing. Actually, it was only postponed, but the story is similar, and I thought it was fascinating that these two events happened simultaneously on opposite sides of the country… Below is an email reply to my enquiries, from PVI’s Kelli McLusky …]
yeah know of your t-shirt project! [wonderful pieces] – we were part of the tis exhibition in perth too, so got to check out some of them there, although missed the public happenings with them.
but, sure, of course happy to talk about the situation and have attached a presser & pics of the work to give you an idea [theres also a write up in this month’s realtime mag, if you wanted more info], but basically the situation goes like this……deep breath…..
the artrage festival commissioned a piece from pvi for the 2002 festival planned for sept 2002. the piece was originally called terrorist training school [yep, nice and subtle] and involved a long period of research into the history of terrorism and its relationship with the media – the company is a core group of six so we get to cover a lot of diverse ground when we get stuck in to a new work. for example, two performers infiltrated the ranks of the local army reserve to gather info on the mindset of a soldier, another joined a terrorism and the media class, we recorded most sight seeing tours around the city – i guess what i’m getting at is that we’re keen for the work to be well grounded before we start to devise. anyway, we wanted the work to be a bus tour around the city, visiting local hotspots and for interventionalist acts to be happening outside at these spaces during the tour. we organised a 22-seater bus, we kitted it out with on-board media [tv, sound, mic and pvi ‘tour guide’] and we started to develop a piece that seemed v focused on generating a growing sense of fear and unease within a familiar surrounding – we mixed factual info on sites such as the belltower with complete fiction, always comparing with american counter-parts, so the belltower became perth equivalent of the statue of liberty, known as perths penis and taking the contemporary design of a cockroach mounting a syringe…you get the idea – ended up a v abstract piece in the end…anyway i’m waffling..our original publicity showed four member of pvi on a local bus with ex-american presidents masks, we used a caption from a seminal book called ‘terrorism’ written in the 70’s which was:
“terrorists will always have to be innovative…they are in some respects the super-entertainers of our time”
initially we received good responses from the publicity.
one week prior to opening the show the bali bombing occurred. artrage started to receive an increasing number of calls stating that the work was in ‘bad taste’ and should be removed from the program – we provided artrage with info on the work stating that it was v much anti-war, but using the structural device of satire in the work. the viewers and listeners association began lobbying the arts minister to have the work banned. one of artrage’s sponsors [the west australian paper] requested that their logo be removed from anything associated with the work [after they had two days prior to bali proudly published the tts ex-presidents image in the arts section of the paper, but actually refused to print the name of the show alongside it, as far as i’m aware]. things got worse with the phone calls as artrage staff members were now in tears from relatives of bali victims phoning up and abusing them for supporting the work [we fielded a few ourselves and also received some prank calls], mostly people were offended by the publicity and the quote about ‘super-entertainment’
artrage called us in for a meeting to see what we wanted to do about it all and they then received a phone call from the arts minister ‘requesting’ that we ‘strongly consider’ postponing or removing the work from the program out of respect for those who had lost loved ones. i have to add at this point that artrage were totally with us and willing to stand behind any decision we made, but we were acutely aware that we were making their life really unpleasant and felt v guilty about that. also anything we seemed to say in retaliation was coming across as defensive, so it seemed to us that we would do more harm to the work by putting it on at this point. we got advice but basically had 45 mins to make a decision before the minister released a statement to the press about it. we were advised to contribute to this statement as it could help to ease the situation, we were also advised at this point that if we wanted to still show the work then the minister could be put in a situation where she have to raise it in parliament in response to pressure from lobby groups – we were worried the work may get banned at this point, which seemed ridiculous as nobody had seen the bloody thing yet! [we were later informed that you cannot ban a work without it having at least one public showing]. anyway our decision after two hours in the artrage office and advice from board members and friends was to postpone and re-mount at a later date.
which we did.
the final work wasn’t at all different in form or content from the original, the only differences being we abbreviated the title to tts, were able to bring the sound artist over to work on-site on the soundscapes and hired a bouncer to ride with us on the bus in order to ensure the safety of bus passengers.
it was a huge learning curve for us, we have had problems b4 with previous work – we did a car sticker campaign once on how to steal the three most popular cars in australia and did a weekend hit on all these cars placing stickers with step-by-step guides on how to carry it out, [what tools to use, preferred clothing etc…] and had a visit from police, fingerprints on file etc.. but in terms of being prepared on how to respond when the shit hits the fan and also the negative impact of publicity and the fact that no-one [i’m talking press] seemed to want to hear our side of the story at all, was a real eye opener. we now want to take tts to every australian city and are in the process of applying for funding to do exactly that – so fingers crossed eh!
sorry its been a long one, hope its not a rant, but that was the upshot of events from our perspective. The deal with the perf space sounds a great shame. We know fiona does a bloody fantastic job and that mustâ€™ve been a really difficult call. been chatting to steve [from pvi] about this and you have to wonder if your publicity had gone ahead a week earlier [as fiona mentioned] if you guys wouldâ€™ve experienced a similar situation to us, our feeling is yes, we think you probably would. it was equally as provocative, if not more so with the direct reference to iraq. my gut feeling now, looking at the image that did come out on the perf space program is that I would like to have seen that original image and make my own mind up about it, not to have board members do that for me. this is an easy stance to take though, we have had people saying to us that we still should have put tts on at the time and in postponing it, it made us seem to be buckling under external pressure, but ultimately for us it was about trying to reclaim some control over the situation and the work – to stop, evaluate, strategise and come back prepared for it as best we could.
take care and look forward to hearing back from you soon 🙂
[see also www.pvicollective.com and http://www.realtimearts.net/rt53/khan.html]