Artists in Profile: “One Cannot be too Careful” An exhibition on Censorship and Self-Censorship.

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July 3, 2017
“These days when all taboos seem to have been broken by the artistic avant-garde, we are still facing a paradox of censorship returning back to the arts.”
One Can Not Be Too Careful
Between 31st May 2017 and 4th June 2017 an exhibition took place in the Lock In Gallery, Brighton. The exhibition was an exploration of censorship based on a quote from Chekhov that become the title “One Can Not Be Too Care”. Below is an interview with two of the artists working on the project, Max Evstropov and Aliaxey Tolstou, discussing the project and issues relating to censorship.
Photography by Michal Kosakowsky.
A second exhibition is planned for Brighton, UK, for the near future. To find out more about them, or to see when and where their next exhibition will be taking place please follow them on Facebook.

Bradley Tuck: The topic of censorship and self-censorship seems very pertinent at the moment, but I guess what it means and why it is pertinent may be very different to different people depending on where in the world you live, your political leanings and so on. What brought you to the issue and how did this inspire you to create an exhibition around it?
Max Evstropov: I’m a member of {rodina} group based in Saint Petersburg, Russia. We make “experimental political art”, as we call it. This winter {rodina} faced yet another ban imposed on one of our projects. We often do risky things, but this time our work was rather innocent (a video from election campaign of Mother-bear – it will be presented at the exhibition in Brighton), and that’s why this ban seemed even more grotesque. The ban was motivated by fear that it might lead to something and came from the institution that was in general on our side and hosted the exhibition we took part in (the irony of the situation was in the fact that the title of the exhibition was “Democracy” and it was dedicated to the centenary of the February revolution in Russia). After that we decided to collect such cases of censorship and self-censorship and form an exhibition based on them named after Chekhov’s quotation that comes to our mind more and more often the further we go.
When conceiving this exhibition we, first of all, came from our local context of nowadays Russia where conservative, obscurant and right-wing tendencies dominate and where “censorship” nearly always means “political censorship”. But it was also evident for us that this situation is not characteristic for Russia only and tends to be global.

BT: One of the things that make this project interesting is its international scope. How have perspectives differed between artists from different parts of the world and in what ways have they converged?
ME: Artists taking part in the exhibition are, from one hand, from the post-Soviet East (Russia, Ukraine, Belarus), and from another, from the West of Europe (mainly from UK). And their perspectives on censorship really differ. Works that come from the East are much more about political censorship and various forms of institutional pressure. Belarusian artists focus on tension between government and society; Ukrainian artists associate censorship with war that still rests tabooed for many others; Russian artists deal with many different cases of censorship within society, among them religious obscurantism is one of the most common items. Artists from the West work mostly with personal issues and self-censorship that they understand in rather broad sense. The question of censorship for them refers, first of all, to the exclusion of “marginal” bodies (female bodies, refugee’s bodies etc.). But, of course, these perspectives can be easily converged, because all that we consider “personal” can’t be separated from “political”, “censorship” implies “self-censorship”, and vice versa. And, of course, critical attitude and general tension to liberation can still unite, I believe.
BT: The title of your exhibition is drawn from a Chekhov quote “that it might lead to something” because “all sorts of things might happen” and “one can not be too careful”. This raises a question of censorship, but self-censorship. It suggests a fear that transcends the remit of the censors themselves. To me this seems pertinent today in that self-censorship can be both a response to increased government surveillance, and scornful public opinion. Why was it important to discuss self-censorship as well as censorship?
ME: For me it’s evident that political censorship can’t be effective when it’s just a violent pressure coming from outside, when it doesn’t integrate into personal attitudes and interpersonal relations becoming self-censorship in fact. The most part of bans that we’ve got were such bans coming from within. Self-censorship, of course, is much deeper than just integrated rhetoric or ideology, but it can’t be separated from political circumstances, as well as politics won’t be even existing without funding from inside. That’s why it’s important to talk about self-censorship, too.
Ania Psh's performance "If there is a River"

Ania Psh’s performance “If there is a River”

BT: For me, personally, I get the sense that a number of things have contributed to a context where censorship is a major issue. On the one hand, I think we are witnessing the collapse of the establishment center. In Britain, for example, with New Labour under Blair, and later the Conservatives under David Cameron there was a sense amongst voters that there was very little difference between the two parties and this tended to foster a frustration and disillusionment with mainstream politics. Although I think this frustration was there beforehand it has probably been exacerbated by the 2008 financial crash. People are struggling and they are exploring a broader spectrum of ideas. On the other hand, the internet is giving us greater platforms to share these ideas. It is very immediate and very easy to get our thoughts out there and find like-minded people. We have, arguably, never had so much freedom of speech, but this is why it is under threat. It is a threat to those in power because it challenges their dominance and their media control. It is a threat to people on the ground because it amps up the likelihood of unpleasant internet encounters, cyber-bullying, and ideological warfare. Thus because it is such a threat it is under threat. Would you agree with this summation?
ME: Yes, I agree. In Russia now, as it seems to me, they are trying to rebuild something like “Soviet Empire”, but not such as it, in fact, was in the 20th century. It’s a sort of post-modern copy, gathering all the best: late USSR with elements of Stalinism, monarchism, orthodoxy, capitalism and with a cult of “The Great Victory” as a state religion. They also want to restore various institutions of control (governmental and non-governmental, religious, medical etc.). The web is still a space of freedom, but they are trying to make it more and more controllable – via legislation (anti-extremist law, law on the insult of feelings of the believers, law protecting children from undesirable information etc.), but also technically. There are already many cases in Russia when people are put in jail just for reposting something on social webs.
Nathan King "Footnotoe"

Nathan King “Footnotoe”

BT: In your own self-description you describe how censorship is not only “coming from the side of the government but also from society as a whole, from non-government organizations and even from within the artistic community.”
I think you are absolutely right. Censorship is not simply coming from above, but seems to be coming from all over the place. This seems to raise some interesting dilemmas. For example, internet trolling is often a way of censoring from below. Trolls often use threats or verbal abuse to get their opponents to shut up. However to combat this, people often turn to, say, twitter and call for them to censor these trolls, but this is a call for censorship from above. This raises questions of how Twitter, or any other institution or organisation, decides what is acceptable and what is not. In calling for certain organisations and institutions to censor we risk putting power upwards. So we have two forms of censorship, but it is hard to escape one without falling prey to the other. Would you agree with this? If so, how would you imagine us escaping such a deadlock?
ME: I agree that censorship is something ambivalent and heterogeneous. I don’t believe that there is, or once would be such an abstract freedom that is just saying yes and accepting everything without making exclusions (maybe death is such a freedom). It may sound surprising, but I don’t think that censorship should be just totally rejected; I don’t even think that censorship as such is something unacceptable, though I’m against state control (as well as many other “transcendent” or alienated forms of control). In the case you are talking about it is important that those institutions that one can address for protection stay acceptable for the grassroots influence, “non-transcendent”, in the ideal situation they should be just elements of self-organisation of “horizontal” societies. (But all these statements are weak, I know).
Irca Solza "J...s"

Irca Solza “J…s”

BT: We often tend to find it easy to support freedom of speech when it is someone we agree with, but less so when it is someone we disagree with. For example, during the US election a certain faction of the right (often associated with the so-called ‘alt-right’ and ‘alt-light’) was able to claim the mantel of free-speech, often against left and liberal political correctness. However, this defense of free-speech often tends to be accompanied by endorsements of figures such as Donald Trump or Vladimir Putin, who are anything but free-speech advocates. Is this a case of “free-speech for my friends, but not for my enemies”? How does freedom of speech relate to the left/right divide and to what extent may certain groups be blind to its violations on their own side?
ME: Freedom is a problem, it’s a difficult thing. Answering the previous question I’ve said that I don’t believe in the abstract freedom for all. This argument (you are advocating the freedom of speech – then why don’t you let me say what I want?) is very popular among the right and so on, but it is based just on the abstract idea of freedom (and, I’m afraid, this argument is the only situation when they recall this idea). But the freedom of speech, difficult as it is, doesn’t suppose giving a word to racist, sexist, homophobic and other kinds of discriminating discourses. As for me, fighting them is not violating freedom (I just want to say that I’m not afraid of being not correct enough at this point).

 

Max Stropov " Stages of Decomposition of a Leader"

Max Evstropov ” Stages of Decomposition of a Leader”

Federico De Cicco “We, the Bisons of Pryp’jat”

 BT: In John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty he defends the position that opinions ought never to be suppressed on the grounds that 1) such suppression would entail our own infallibility, 2) some erroneous opinions nonetheless contain a portion of truth, 3) if a true belief is not challenged it is held in the manner of a prejudice, and 4) if a true belief is held in the manner of a prejudice it risks being lost or enfeebled.
A contrary attitude seems to have come about after the second world war, in response to the horrors of Fascism. They suggest that some ideas are so horrific that they cannot be judged at the level of ideas, but must be judged my the actions of their perpetrators. We must judge fascism by the actions of fascists, not by scrutinising the arguments from its defenders. But why stop at Fascists, the same might be applied to communists, Islamists, racists, homophobes, transphobes, Tories and so on. I worry that this easily degenerates into an excuse for not engaging with your opponent, but it is easy to see the appeal. One of the things that censors are often well aware of is that ideas have power. The freedom to express ideas is not without genuine risks and real world consequences. Do you think there is a limit to Mill’s argument, and, if so, where is that limit?
ME: I think there’s a conceptual limit to Mill’s decision. His argument seems to me a relativist one that makes no principal difference between any points of view: they all have a right to be, they all should be considered – but only because none of them is true, and none ever can be such (the reverse side of this argument means that everything is just a crap). I agree that ideas should be judged at the conceptual level, but I think that it makes difference and there are such ideas that are conceptually no good. There’s even too much ideological garbage.
Anton Romanov "It's not your blood"

Anton Romanov “It’s not your blood”

BT: There seems to be, to my mind, a limitation to a particular kind of anti-censorship that is simply negative, that simply says “we want freedom from certain prohibitions on our speech and expression”. This doesn’t amount to much if it is simply lots of people sounding off in a little bubble, not speaking to each other and not discussing with one another. It seems like it isn’t just an issue of freedom to say what we like, but building spaces where we can have discussion, converse and have debate without fear. I think this is where projects like yours come in. They create a space for conversation and productive disagreement. Is this something you had in mind, and if so, how did it shape your project?
ME: With this project, we wanted to form a reflective, research-like position towards censorship (outer and inner), bans, transgression of bans etc., we wanted to accentuate the problem first without giving universal answers and making final decisions. The ban is an astonishing thing often shocking in its absurdity, and we wanted to share our astonishment. But it was rather a provocation to do something (we don’t know exactly what), – to discuss at least.
on the left Michail Deyev "S", and on the right 3 works by ZOYA ZOYA 1. "The Monster" 2. "The Voice of the Streets" 3. half of work " Between life and death"

On the left Michail Deyev “S”. On the right, three works by ZOYA . 1. “The Monster” 2. “The Voice of the Streets” 3. half of ” Between life and death”

BT: What artists will you be showing and how did you pick them? What were salient factors in the process of curation and how does your attitude to censorship shape this?
ME: Now we have 30 individual artists and art groups from 8 countries taking part in our project. We gathered them with an open call, though a lot of them have already been collaborating with us in other projects. We tried to be as open as possible and not to reject (nearly) anything and there was (almost) no necessity to do that. There was only one issue with erotic images that we considered “sexist” at first, but we’ve changed our mind after a conversation with the artist. Another problem we’ve faced when preparing the exhibition was the translation, because there were too many specific items considering censorship in various local situations that needed additional explications.
Vadim Lurje " No Photo"

Vadim Lurje ” No Photo”

Andre Borges "Apologies in a Lift"

Andre Borges “Apologies in a Lift”

BT:  Although this exhibition is taking place in Brighton, you also intend to tour this. This touring could be an exploration of censorship in its own right. Where are you planning to take it and what censorship issues do you think will emerge?
Aliaxey Tolstou: Well, yes it is always good to tour. And especially with such a topic that you can bring everywhere. Actually, it’s supposed to be not only the show of those works that you`ll see here in Brighton, but maybe a kind of mix with those that can be added by the local authors from the destinations. It`s more like sharing not exporting, kind of exploration of the issue in different contexts – you`re right. We going to launch the show in Minsk, Belarus this fall, and people have their own stuff there that is good to include, so we gonna have an additional call there. As for me touring works in our case is more like building a platform and discussing a common problem, wherever is the exhibition goes. We also have plans for Prague, Saint Petersburg maybe somewhere else. It depends on local initiatives as well.
ME: Yes, we want to show this exhibition in other countries and spaces, we want to make it a long-term project of artistic investigation of censorship in various contexts, each time making dialogues and collaborations with local art and activist milieux. Our nearest plan is to make it in Minsk and in Prague. I think the further we go the more questions will emerge considering this ambiguity of both censorship and freedom of expression.

Adonaj Kaf “Pentaptych-comic-decay

Larisa's Carpentero "Inside Me"

Larisas Carpentero “Inside Me”

 

“FOR YOUR SAFETY” delegated to us by Rodina group

Mim King performance “Salt. Water. Milk.”

Aidar Bekchintaev “Meat Bricks”

 

Max Evstropov “Black Square”

Paul Lewey “When Facing One’s Filthy Paintings The Word Artist Sounds Perverse”

Photographer Michal Kosakowsky with his tripod standing in front of a film by Sergey Shabohin “11.04.2011 / 17:55”

A censored photograph of one of the curators.

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