Polo shirt doesn’t look pretty with Nation Estate. Censorship is so contemporary

Posted on February 22, 2012

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This cover story could be  a good opportunity to talk about a matter outwardly  referring to past ages, different cultural systems, far away from a liberal and democratic society:  does censorship still exist in contemporary art?

Certainly, Larissa Sansour, Russian-Palestinian artist, has  experienced that. At the end of 2011 Larissa was among the eight artists shortlisted for the Lacoste Elysée prize awarded by the Swiss Museum de L’Elyséè, sponsorshiped by the French firm. In December  2011 Lacoste  stated its refusal to support Larissa’s work, labelling it “too-pro Palestinian”.

We talk about it with Larissa, to stimulate interest and reflection about the present meaning of censorship, with reference to  private sponsorship: does money mean total control?

1.Did you expect this reaction from Lacoste? In your opinion, what are the real reasons lying behind the decision of the clothing brand?

In the case of Lacoste censoring my work, I only know what I have been told by the museum in Lausanne. And this is that my work was deemed too pro-Palestinian for the brand to support. These were the exact words when I was first informed that my work had been banned. In later conversations with museum staff I was informed that Lacoste wished to remain apolitical. My strong feeling is, however, that is matters hugely what brand of politics my work represented, and that had I chosen most any other current political topic, my exclusion would not have been as automatic and robust. Even if global opinion seems to favour a Palestinian state, Palestine is still viewed as a toxic brand by many people, let alone by big corporations making a living out of selling polo shirts.

The problem here is not a major brand not openly supporting a Palestinian state. Not at all. The problem is getting involved in the arts and then not playing by the rules. My feeling is that if a sponsor feels that it has the mandate first grant artists complete freedom to create and then revoke work that does seems to fall outside their comfort zone, then they have no business getting involved in the arts.

Sadly, however, when I first heard of Lacoste’s decision to kick me out, my first reaction was not surprise. When I first got nominated, I thought to myself that this sounded too good to be true. It turned out that I was right. But the confusing and frustrating issue was, of course, having been nominated and given complete artistic freedom only then to get thrown out because of the nature of the work submitted. And Lacoste’s excuse that my work simply did not comply with the theme of the prize, la joie de vivre, is not only not true. Even if this had been the real reason for my exclusion, the act of censorship would still have been intact and lamentable.

To this day, as far as I am informed, Lacoste insists that the brand, the museum and I came to some kind of understanding, and that I left voluntarily. This is not the case at all. I was simply informed that I was out, and that the decision was final, so there was no room for discussion. The museum had defended my work, but to no avail.

2. What are you going to do now? I think you want to realize Nation estate, more than ever.

The three photos developed for the Lacoste Elysée Prize being only sketches for the actual series, there’s still a long way to go before Nation Estate project is completed.   In addition to the photos, I am making a five-minute  sci-fi short film with elaborate special effects, futuristic folklore costumes, sci-fi food packaging and a soundtrack composed by an Iraqi electronica musician. I am currently in the pre-production and fundraising stages, but hope to complete the entire project in time for a solo show later this year at the Center of Photography in Copenhagen, Denmark.

Nation Estate is a sci-fi photo series conceived in the wake of the Palestinian bid for nationhood at the UN. With Israeli settlements leaving very little land for a future Palestine, I decided to explore a vertical solution to statehood. In Nation Estate, Palestinians have their state in the form of a skyscraper. A single colossal high-rise houses the entire Palestinian population – now finally living the high life. Each city has its own floor: Jerusalem, third floor; Ramallah, fourth floor. Intercity trips previously marred by checkpoints are now made by elevator.

The photo series is part of a bigger project that involves a sci-fi video of this future Nation Estate, in which we see a short narrative unfold. The main story takes place mostly in the elevator, but various floors from the building will also be revealed. I will be playing the main character in the film.

3. Censorship, how much do you think is present in contemporary art today? Do you think you are “only” an exception on, on the contrary, censorship silences more and more?

I don’t think that the kind of pressure my work came under is in any way unique. I am certain that many artists have had similar experiences. In Europe, people normally associate censorship with regimes less democratic than their own, forgetting that there are other bodies and institutions than governments with an interest in preventing a certain message or idea from spreading.

But what the Lacoste episode also shows is that censorship in this day and age is a risky business that often ends up backfiring. It may be possible to ban certain works from appearing in a certain context, but with modes of publicizing information and documenting facts so readily available to anyone with a camera phone and an internet connection, actual silencing is virtually impossible. Anyone in the censorship business is at a very imminent risk of being exposed.

That said, attempts to influence, muffle or remove artwork are not uncommon. Over the years, I have experienced several calls to close down exhibitions I have featured in. These calls normally come from special interest groups opposing any kind of rights, let alone statehood to Palestinians. But there have also been attempts at muffling my work from people initially favourable to it. I have been asked by gallerists showing my work to change the title of my exhibition or a specific piece in order to avoid aggravating Jewish communities, for example.

On several occasions, sponsors have demanded that a certain project of mine also presents an Israeli perspective. This is a different way of trying to limit the artistic expression. I have never understood the logic behind this. Asking the occupied to introduce the position of the occupier seems at best misguided.

4. In your story, censorship strikes artistic production for political (maybe) reasons. Do you think censorship also deal in other forms? For example?

When it comes to corporate sponsorships of the arts, I am sure that the reasons for attempting to censor certain works are often non-political. There could be any number of reasons why a sponsor would have a problem being associated with a specific artwork. Anything deemed potentially offensive could spark such a reaction.

Whenever a corporate sponsor decides to get involved in the arts, however, it is crucial to keep in mind that art prizes are not advertising campaigns for the sponsoring corporation. As soon as a sponsor blocks, censors or attempts to limit the artistic freedom, the system has failed.

The Lacoste episode is indeed an unfortunate one, but nonetheless, I am not opposed to the idea of corporate sponsorship per se. Administered well, financial support from institutions that can afford it is a valuable asset to artistic production. But the rules of the game have to be respected.

Read more:

The Guardian, December 22nd

Larissa Sansour

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Posted in: Art Public