Frontline, an independent Marxist journal from Scotland
Naked: Institutional fear and bodies in public spaces
Argentinian artist Syd Krochmalny’s recent project ‘The Naked Soul’ explores different ideas of ‘nakedness’, public space and justice drawing on the case of the Naked Rambler here in Scotland. Dr Sarah Wilson of the University of Stirling writes in this article about some of the surprising responses to Krochmalny’s project and some of the issues it raises in terms of access to ‘public’ space and the fear and self-censure provoked by risk management practices in the workplace.
A recent art performance involving the projection of a video in a public place in Edinburgh raises key questions regarding freedom of expression, ‘public’ space and how it is controlled in contemporary Scotland. The video (‘The Naked Soul’) was made by Argentinian artist, Syd Krochmalny. Syd was invited to Scotland to give two seminars (one at the University of Stirling and one in the University of Edinburgh), an exhibition and to create this art work. After months of discussion, the resultant video draws on Biblical and philosophical texts, poetry and Scottish history to reflect on the case of Stephen Gough, the ‘Naked Rambler’, who spent over 6 years in Scottish prisons. It highlights different ideas of ‘nakedness’, attitudes to the body, imprisonment as a response to bodies seen as out of place, and ultimately of the kind of society Scotland is and could be. Do we want a society in which debate and ideas are valued as, we are often told, during the Scottish Enlightenment? Or one in which notions of ‘freedom of expression’, the ‘public’ and of dialogue are decaying in the wake of an all-encompassing institutional fear of controversy and the bureaucratisation (and potential criminalisation) not only of protest, but of any public gathering?
In the beginning was the word. And the fears provoked by the word. The ‘Naked Soul’ refers to the Greek myth of the origins of justice recounted by Plato. But the inclusion of the word ‘naked’ on our application for permission to project in public was ‘alarming’ to Council officials though I assured them no naked genitalia would be shown. Indeed, much less of the body than in many television programmes and advertisements, than on the covers of lads’ mags freely displayed in most supermarkets, than in the flesh during stag or hen party antics. In conjunction with the word ‘naked’ however, even arms and legs can become dangerous. A visceral fear of ‘offence’, of something ‘inappropriate’ seemed to pervade. It seemed an excuse to veil the fear of nakedness itself.
Don’t Push the Boundaries
Yes ‘freedom of expression is important’ but we don’t want anything that ‘pushes the boundaries’ said one official awkwardly, anything ‘offensive’ or ‘inappropriate’. Our first idea was to project the video onto the statue of the Scottish Enlightenment philosopher David Hume in the centre of Edinburgh in front of the High Court of Justiciary. This attracted an aggressive response from the sculptor (backed up by implied threats from Edinburgh artistic and legal Establishment ‘heavies’ based on interpretations of Copyright Law that ignored established Scottish customs of hanging traffic cones on public statues and of rubbing Hume’s toe.) The sculptor’s representative suggested that if we didn’t believe in the aura of a work of art such as this sculpture, we should consider projecting onto a poster with the words ‘David Hume’ on it. In spite of having accepted a commission from an organisation with a definite political purpose (the Saltire Society), the sculptor himself employed Kant’s argument of the ‘Kingdom of ends’ and ‘art for art’s sake’ against the idea of temporarily projecting anything not only onto ‘his’ work but also onto the space around it.
The idea of political debate in a public place, or even of public space itself, seemed to be disturbing for artists, public bodies and others. It was suggested that ‘as a matter of courtesy’ we should ask the permission of the courts if the projection were to hit ‘their’ walls. Naïvely, we suggested that the walls of public buildings might be seen as ‘public’ property and not ‘theirs’. ‘That sounds like sedition’ was one response. Commercial suppliers were also frightened of causing ‘offence’. A company of equipment suppliers suggested we do something less ‘political’, concerned that they might lose contracts if they were seen to be ‘involved’. A Council official then suggested that one way to appease local artists and the ultimate local commandment of ‘Thou shall not interfere with the traffic even minutely… except during the commercially successful Festival’ was to transfer the projection to a local cemetery in which no one had been buried for over a century. Of course, this would also be a transfer to a less visible public place. This official in a public institution happily engaged in discussion around the project, but was afraid of censure from superiors concerned to ‘manage’ risk rather than encourage freedom of expression or dialogue. ‘I don’t want to get a call from the local newspaper about this’. No one was unhelpful. Most were interested in the project and wanted to chat. But as employees they knew well the contemporary concern of institutions to avoid anything ‘controversial’. They were scared and preferred to pass the decision onto someone else.
Monument to Thomas Muir, democratic martyr in New Calton Cemetery
But the cemetery which contains David Hume’s tomb was, we realised, a good location for a project related to myths around death and judgment. A liminal place, for souls banished from too public places: Jews originally, transported activists such as Thomas Muir, prostitutes, Naked Ramblers perhaps, and artists wishing to explore certain issues (while still not offending against another British commandment ‘Thou shalt not show willies in public places ..at least not outside of a commercial context’). Sorted we thought, with the blessing of two Council departments. But unbeknownst to us, the cemetery took us outside of the invisible boundary lines of these two departments and inside those of another, according to whom, even though Old Calton Cemetery functions more now as a tourist attraction than as a ‘live’ cemetery; ‘The families of the dead might be offended’. The idea of offence takes multiple forms and multiple spaces then. We’d seen no sign of mourners in amongst the detritus of local drinkers, which we offered to clear. How many people might be the descendants (or the potentially offended) of these people buried over century ago? What kind of offence related to never known ancestors might this be? How far might such offence travel over time? The project was coming to resemble its subject: the banishment of the (nearly) naked body to the margins, the fear of sexuality and death. But still there was no official response, yes or no. The official processes left us hanging despite several phone calls; with the blessing of some departments, but passed to others who did not respond. Was this silence the result of miscommunications….or a type of silence intended to silence, to lead us to self-censure? …..better to not engage in anything ‘controversial’, right? An effective silence too. It was beginning to get to me. I realised that I, too, was scared.
Our final no came through an unexpected but revealing source. The afternoon before the projection, a university press official phoned the Council media department which suggested the Council did not know of our previous negotiations, or that we had been directed to the Cemetery by Council officials, and stated that the cemeteries’ department’s response was a definite ‘no’ (not that anyone had told us this). Rather than questioning this process or broader theories of freedom of expression or notions of public space, the increasingly cautious and commercialised university, too, preferred to avoid anything ‘controversial’, anything that might tarnish its monolithic, clean ‘brand’. A university officer suggested that the video would be better shown in a more ‘private’ space, such as, in his view, the university itself. The Council media department’s gratitude to the university press office was obvious in an email ‘thanks for the heads up’; two institutions managing the risk posed by employees and their pesky, creative ideas.
Furious, and animated by an Argentinian who could not quite believe that this was happening in the country of Hume and Smith, we went ahead. After the cemetery we projected in the AugustineCentralChurch. In contrast to other institutions, this church honoured its tradition as a place of public dialogue and welcomed us with open arms. Here, at last Syd was shocked and impressed by an Edinburgh institution!
Is Another Scotland Possible?
We are left though with many broad questions at this crossroads in Scottish history. Is another Scotland possible? One in which the body provokes less official fear and revulsion, and in which children are not taught that the naked body is exclusively sexual or something perverted? One in which the many intelligent, creative workers within institutions –whether in the public or private sector- are allowed space to engage with ideas and spaces around them without fear of censure? One in which dialogue is welcomed, rather than ended by risk management practices in institutions relating to (potential) ‘offence’ to a few and the reaction of powerful media outlets? More broadly, can a society administered, explicitly or otherwise, through such a state of fear and self-censure, in which words such as ‘inappropriate’ and ‘controversial’ are used to close down rather than to open debate, be truly democratic? If democracy is constructed through dissensus, then does the aversion to such debate within some Scottish institutions reveal a latent timidity, and from an Argentinian perspective, proto-fascist, spirit at their heart? The spirit of the Scottish Enlightenment may still haunt CaltonCemetery, but it seems to be well buried in today’s institutions and (increasingly privatised) public spaces.