Right to Humor Trumps Sarkozy’s Lack of Humor

October 29, 2008

Today, a French court rejected President Nicolas Sarkozy’s demand for a ban on a Sarkozy voodoo doll released by French company K&B earlier this month. According to BBC, the Paris judge ruled that the doll was “within the authorized limits of free expression and the right to humour”.

The voodoo kit includes a manual, a doll emblazoned with some of the president’s more memorable quotes (including “Get Lost You Pathetic Asshole” and “Work More To Earn More”), and pins for users to stick into the doll.

Sarkozy’s lawyer had argued that like any French person, Sarkozy owned the right to his own image, which was violated by the sale of the doll. According to the Guardian, the highly litigious president has been ridiculed by his critics for launching the legal action — his sixth lawsuit since his election. The doll has become a must-have.

Earlier this year, Sarkozy and wife Carla Bruni won a case against Ryanair for using their image in a Paris newspaper ad without permission. Sarkozy has also launched a legal case against another company that produces novelty T-shirts bearing his name and a target sign, saying “Sarkozy Tolerance Zero”.

Whatever happened to Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité ?

Photo: Franck Fife/AFP/Getty images
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Australian Authorities Drop Sex Crime Charges Against Artist… and Bust 42 Queenslanders

June 6, 2008

On Cafe Philos this morning: Australian police have decided NOT to prosecute artist Bill Henson and his gallery Roslyn Oxley9 on charges of pornography. They were following the advice of Nicholas Cowdery, NSW Director of Public Prosecutions, who felt there was no reasonable prospect of conviction, particularly in this complex and “notoriously difficult” area involving law and art.

In smh, Assistant Commissioner Catherine Burn said the police jumped into action after receiving THREE complaints, adding that they “would respond if there was one complaint from the public… It is the role of the police to respond to community concerns and investigate complaints.” Burn did not explain how or why one complaint constitutes a public. Three complaints must have felt like a national movement.

Playing politics, Social Conservative Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has both backed down and not backed down from his condemnation of Henson’s work (previously described as “revolting”). In the same smh report:

I said what my views are as a parent, I don’t budge from that. But I’m not about to go around and start dictating to the legal authorities what they should or should not do… Organisations like that are at arm’s length from politicians…

Meanwhile, in northeastern Australia, police have arrested 42 Queenslanders in one the nation’s biggest pedophile busts. The Daily Telegraph reports that Queensland Police Commissioner Bob Atkinson expects to charge 70 to 80 more people over the next fortnight as part of state and federal efforts to bust a global child pornography network.

A 59-year-old teacher charged over the bust has committed suicide. A second teacher, 48, is recovering after a failed suicide attempt. A parliamentarian declared that society would be better off if pedophiles committed suicide before they abused children.

These two near-simultaneous events in Australia (Henson’s liberation and the Queensland arrests) are fueling the fires of highly-combustible debates about rights and responsibilities in an increasingly technological, globalized, and some say (sadly) post-human, civilization.

Our societies are collective works in progress. And our individual humanities are all we have. It is absolutely crucial that we continue to negotiate both — without wishing death or violence on anyone. Life is not a zero-sum game.

See blixity’s previous post on Bill Henson’s case.


Censoring Bill Henson: Government, God, and Gallery

June 2, 2008

Australian authorities took down Bill Henson’s purportedly pornographic photographs from his gallery, Roslyn Oxley9, on May 22, and the battle between public good and private expression continues.

On the right: Prime Minister Kevin Rudd leading the charge with: “I think [the photographs] are revolting… kids deserve to have the innocence of their childhood protected.” On the left: the arts community, led by playwright Michael Gow and writer Alison Croggon, armed with an open letter asking politicians to rethink their positions. (Apparently novelist John Coetzee and actress Cate Blanchett are now among the signatories.)

Taking a broader perspective, Richard Phillips wrote in wsws last Friday about the scapegoating of Bill Henson and the ensuing witch hunt:

Rudd and the rest of the Labor leadership have seized on the Henson issue as a diversion from mounting social tensions resulting from the rapid rise in the cost of living and growing hostility—just six months after its election—to the Labor government… Rudd Labor is trying to develop a political constituency among the extreme right, Christian fundamentalists and other disoriented layers to use as a means of intimidating and suppressing critical thought…

Another perspective to consider is the gallery’s role in supporting their artists. The owners, Roslyn and Tony Oxley, have largely complied with authorities. Following the police raid, this “Media Statement” went up on their website, essentially acknowledging self-censorship.

rosoxleyweb

I cannot claim to know their full position on this. And I understand they are facing death threats and criminal charges — sincerely, who can blame them for compliance.

But I am disappointed and confused about Roslyn Oxley9’s silence. As of this writing, their website’s “NEWS” section still has NOTHING about the debates unfolding around Henson — a story that could become the Australian counterpart to the Robert Mapplethorpe controversy (to name just one) in American art.

Ironically, this is in their website’s “About The Gallery” section:

Since 1982, Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery has been committed to the advancement of the most serious and innovative forms of contemporary art.

Through its exhibition program the gallery has supported work that is challenging and at the forefront of contemporary art practice.

The gallery’s silence suggests there are limits to such commitment and support. The obvious gap between what they say and what they do is troubling. This is NOT an attempt to prescribe. This is an attempt to raise a broader question: What role should a private gallery (i.e., no public funding) play in advocating for critical thought and expression — particularly in an increasingly conservative sociopolitical climate?

(See blixity’s previous post on this.)


Police Shut Down Exhibition, Accuse Artist of Child Pornography

May 25, 2008

roslynoxley

Police raided Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery in Sydney, Australia last Thursday, just hours before the opening of an exhibition featuring new works by acclaimed contemporary artist Bill Henson. Australian news media report that 21 photographs of a naked 12-year-old girl and a 13-year-old boy have been seized from the gallery. 41 images have been removed from its web site. Indecency and obscenity charges will be brought under state and federal laws.

We know the art-vs.-pornography, censorship-vs.-free-speech drill. Political and sociocultural authorities are now locking horns in fury. Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has weighed in, calling Henson’s photographs “revolting” and “devoid of artistic merit”. (Rudd was described as being “out of touch with everyday Australia” by opposition leader Brendan Nelson.) The art community is outraged and prominent arts figures have accused the Prime Minister of hypocrisy. Child protection advocates, determined to be offended, are calling for Henson’s criminalization.

I don’t know where I stand on this issue — particularly as it involves children and art whose status continues to be subservient to political ideology. But I do hope it opens up a serious and heated debate (not another theatrical cockfight) about what it means to be a citizen of a certain civilized state. As capital globalizes and we morph into “one world, one dream”, it is important to ask what it means to be an Australian vs. American vs. Chinese vs. Danish vs. Dominican. Citizenship has distinct rights and privileges, as well as moral standards and social responsibilities. What should we be able to see in public and in private?

Michel Foucault famously theorized that what exists has been allowed to exist. Jacques Ranciere writes about the “distribution of the sensible”, loosely defined as the system of divisions and boundaries that define what we as a society can perceive through our senses. As a New Yorker, I’ve grown accustomed to the post-9/11 police strategies of “If You See Something, Say Something”. It’s time we also say something about that which we do NOT see, what we collectively elect to leave out, eliminate, mutilate, conceal, or render extinct. The works we take down and the silences we administer define our humanity just as powerfully as the paintings we leave up and the speeches we amplify.

LEFT – “Amor Vincit Omnia” (translated as Love Conquers All), 1601, Caravaggio; RIGHT – One of Bill Henson’s seized photographs. (Black bar added by Australian news site.)

henson


Anonymous Blogging with WordPress and Tor

April 18, 2008

A tangential follow-up to yesterday’s entry on uncensored blogging:

Ethan Zuckerman (co-founder of Global Voices Online) published a very thorough how-to guide titled “Anonymous Blogging with WordPress and Tor”, a free downloadable pdf available on the Global Voices Advocacy* website. Recognizing the dangers certain people face when they express themselves openly in certain environments, Zuckerman also wrote a technical guide back in 2005 that explains how a combination of web tools could be deployed to maintain a high level of anonymity. It was intended particularly for human rights activists, aid workers, and whistleblowers who needed to “ensure that their writing couldn’t be traced back to their identity”.

*Global Voices Advocacy is an online project whose goal is to “build a global anti-censorship network of bloggers and online activists throughout the developing world that is dedicated to protecting freedom of expression and free access to information online”. Different kinds of pirates! We love them just the same.

BayWords: Uncensored Blogging from The Pirate Bay

April 17, 2008

The Pirate Bay, a controversial Swedish group that runs the “world’s largest BitTorrent tracker“, continues its daring and defiant quest to liberate file-sharing on the Internet by launching a new blogging service called BayWords. Expanding its persistent defense of freedom of speech and uncensored, open-source web, The Pirate Bay started BayWords to provide bloggers with a secure hosting service (using WordPress as its blogging engine) that will not shut down sites due to deviant content. From its manifesto-like homepage:

“Many blogs are being shut down for uncomfortable thoughts and ideas. We will not do that. Our goal is to protect freedom of speech and your thoughts. As long as you don’t break any Swedish laws in your blog, we will defend it.”

Since WordPress (blixity’s host) is based in the U.S., BayWords (like most of The Pirate Bay’s recent activities) is headed for an interesting adventure. In TorrentFreak yesterday, Matt Mullenweg of WordPress seemed cautious:

“WordPress.com supports free speech and doesn’t shut people down for “uncomfortable thoughts and ideas”, in fact we’re blocked in several countries because of that. However as a US-based companies we must comply with US laws, which means if the primary purpose of a blog is distributing illegal material it’s not a good fit for WordPress.com.”

Fortunately, The Pirate Bay has other open-source “No Copyright No License” projects in the works. BayImg is an uncensored image-hosting service, “a place where you can host all your images”. Slopsbox is an email service that protects users’ privacy. And as of May 2007, an uncensored video streaming site to compete with YouTube is apparently on the horizon. We love Pirates!