Archaeology of the Final Decade, by Vali Mahlouji, Part 3: Q&A on Censorship

Ng Yi-Sheng

June 30, 2016

Ng Yi-Sheng

I’ve already written about Vali’s two projects under Archaeology of the Final Decade: the Festival of Arts Shiraz-Persepolis and Recreating the Citadel, including a lot of details he revealed in the Q&A.

But one persistent topic came up during discussions that somewhat “hijacked” the conversation, as Keng Sen lamented—that old issue of censorship.

Loo Zihan: Is it possible for us to move away from thinking of censorship as evil as unproductive and evil and us as the enlightened?

Zihan’s a performance and video artist, and he’s intrigued by how censorship forces the state to perform as part of an art project, showing its hand, joining in the dance. Vali doesn’t buy it.

VM: I personally don’t like the notion that censorship brings creativity. And I don’t think Iranian cinema became Iranian cinema because of censorship. Because the seeds go much earlier and people like Abbas Kiarostami had developed their craft long before the regime. But of course there was censorship back then too.

Zihan countered that in an age where information is shareable online, the negative effects of censorship may be minimised—yet Vali pointed out that the Internet can also be used to stifle and hide information.

VM: I’m not an expert on censorship. I’m not that interested in censorship. It just follows me.

But I think it’s very effective. What we’re talking about is the healthy circulation of ideas. Yes, we continue without the knowledge that legislation has so changed in Iran that actually the Bill of Rights was scrapped in 1979. That means we are not equal citizens in the face of the law. We are mortals in the face of the divine. And how do you circulate that information? Censorship is not just removing a photograph. It’s removing your rights.

So I think what is important in terms of memory and the work I do against erasure is you don’t want a perverted amputated trajectory of culture. If you cut an arm off, and something else off, the body functions, but the truth is, it doesn’t function in the same way anymore.

I think the idea that the information is there on the Internet or Facebook is really misleading. Culture is a collective space and if you go in saying you can’t do this and you can’t do that, it’s not there anymore.

Keng Sen also stepped in to rubbish the idea that it’s an artist’s business to dance with censors. There’s no equal playing field, he said. In the case of the MDA’s censorship of Vali and Newsha Tavakolian’s I Know Why the Rebel Sings, the MDA’s demand was to have the photos quietly withdrawn without publicity. The reasons for censorship weren’t given directly to the artists—they were submitted to other governmental organisations and printed in the newspapers as a press release.

OKS: If we didn’t talk about it nobody would have known. It's not a case of the state performing, it's a case of the state performing secretly. If the state performs itself transparently, openly, then we can start to talk about it. There is no channel for recourse, for dialogue. So it’s a culture of fear, not a culture of openness, which I think is what festivals should stand for...

In this room I cannot go back to the Iran of the 1970s, because I was not there. But the way it operates in Singapore it’s not just symbolic. It is a case of terrorising, it is a case of installing fear, it is psychological imposition. And there is no way we can dialogue or discuss who’s a terrorist, which would be interesting, we could partake in that performance… and then there’s a way in that is useful. So I don’t quite believe that it’s a performance.

Keng Sen later asked me how I thought people were reacting to the news of the censorship. And I realised I had no idea.

My friends are all artists and liberals. They don’t represent the majority of Singapore.

What do the people think?

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  • 2016