art censored in trades hall

mike leggett: sussi porsborg, performance space, halls for hire

The Making of the Flag: Give Us Back Our Unions, Sussi Porsborg, Performance Space, Halls for Hire

The Making of the Flag: Give Us Back Our Unions, Sussi Porsborg, Performance Space, Halls for Hire

The Making of the Flag: Give Us Back Our Unions, Sussi Porsborg, Performance Space, Halls for Hire

A VIDEO, COMMISSIONED BY PERTH ARTIST SUSSI PORSBORG AND SCREENED AS PART OF HER EXHIBITION AND WORKSHOP AT TRADES HALL IN SYDNEY, WAS SWITCHED OFF BY THE BUILDING MANAGER. HE EXPLAINED HE HAD RECEIVED COMPLAINTS FROM PEOPLE IN THE BUILDING BUT WAS UNWILLING TO SAY FROM WHOM, OR INDEED THE NATURE OF THE COMPLAINTS.

The video was part of an exhibition and workshop, The Making of the Flag: Give us Back Our Unions, presented by Performance Space as part of their Halls for Hire season: “Steeped in a rich history of Australian Trade Unionism, the Sydney Trades Hall is the perfect setting for this politically-charged flag-making workshop. Expanding the notions of participatory democracy in unexpected ways, Sussi Porsborg will take attendees on a live sewing performance that doubles as an educational conversation on the intersection of radical art, nationalism, politics and labour rights.”

The video, The Right to Represent, which can be seen on YouTube, http://youtube/nemJMfBVjqU, had been recently shot in Perth with the artist interviewing veteran trade union organiser Kevin Reynolds (former WA State Secretary of the CFMEU). He recounts the struggles of the movement from the 1960s through to the 80s in the days when the police were in the pockets of the government and employers—like Senator Rocher (Liberal Party, WA), who ran the Trident Building Company. As Reynolds tells his stories large captions appear under the images to emphasise the history, its rhetoric and the opinions of unionists: Taking the Fight Up; Rank and File; No Ticket No Start; Third Wave Campaign; Won the Fight; Retain What We’ve Got; We Can’t Rely on Governments; Intimidate Workers; 457 Visa; Workers Aren’t Getting a Share.

These captions are echoed in the other part of the exhibition and workshop where visitors are invited to heat-seal a slogan of their invention onto a flag or banner using cut out letters provided, already pre-cut from alphabetically arranged piles.

This is an opportunity for visitors, many arriving as invited groups from varied backgrounds, to become immersed in a tradition resonant with history. So what is it that upset the anonymous Trades Hall complainants so much? Is it Reynolds’ outspoken views on contemporary politics and unionism? Is it his recalling the confrontational days of yore? Is it the fact that the artist, a trade unionist herself, has used her imaginative and forthright approach to remind younger generations—the ‘virgins’ to whom Reynolds refers—that the conditions they enjoy in the workplace today are based on the struggles of previous generations, and that vigilance is needed. These conditions are being eroded, as both the artist and Reynolds propose, by the cozy agreements currently in place between the unions, government and industry.

Following an appeal to the general secretary of Unions NSW, the building manager appeared again, not to re-instate the video (now hung with banners made by the artist saying Freedom of Association, Freedom of Expression), but to remove it entirely from the exhibition space.

Why are we seeing such underhand censorship of an artist’s exhibition over content that had been previously agreed to on a handshake? Is freedom of expression and freedom of association really too much for some to take in a building originally dedicated to such principles?

Performance Space, Halls for Hire: The Making of the Flag: Give Us Back Our Unions; Sydney Trades Hall, Oct 2-7

RealTime issue #112 Dec-Jan 2012 pg. 35

© Mike Leggett; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

11 December 2012