Don’t take money from oppressors in the name of free expression

city incubator edinburgh cancelled
Incubator Theatre's The City will now run at JW3 in London
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The Edinburgh Fringe Festival is a bubble. Normal work schedules go out the window for artists, critics, audience members and Edinburgh residents, while perspectives become grossly skewed, notably by star power.

But sometimes the bubble bursts and reality comes pouring in. On July 18, against the backdrop of the horrific conflict raging between Israel and Hamas, a number of high profile Scottish artists signed an open letter in The Herald titled ‘Israeli theatre company should not be included in the Fringe’. Their reason? Incubator Theatre’s (partial) funding by the Israeli Government.

After only one show Incubator’s The City closed at the Underbelly because of public protests outside the venue – a closure that has now become permanent.

Artistic Director Arik Eshet told the Guardian they came to the fringe as artists. “Every group that comes to the Fringe from other countries is unable to come without government help,” he said.

With regards to travel documentation such as visas I’m not sure as to the validity of this statement – if anyone does know please let me know below. But I’m pretty sure that financially this isn’t true at all.

I’m not saying it’s easy. Of course I’m not saying that. But there’s always a choice, which is why I don’t agree with voices such as Scottish Culture Minister Julie Hyslop, who say the boycott is inherently wrong because it’s against an artist’s freedom of expression. Writing for The Stage, producer Richard Jordan argues that we cannot expect artists to refuse government funding.

But the right of freedom of expression should not be placed above the choice not to align yourself with an oppressive government body. Find another way to make the work instead.

How? Well the fringe is a place of alternatives. It’s full of ‘yes’ people, people who make things happen against all odds. One of the original signatories of the letter to the Herald, playwright David Greig, has started a crowdfunding Kickstarter campaign to help Palestinian theatre makers to come to the fringe and to assist Israeli artists to reject government support. Welcome to the Fringe!

This isn’t only restricted to Edinburgh. The Tricycle Theatre recently requested that the UK Jewish Film Festival (UKJFF) forgo the part of its funding that came from the Israeli Embassy because, as artistic director Indhu Rubasingham said to the Evening Standard, the Tricycle – which serves a wildly diverse audience base – should not be “perceived as taking sides in a very emotional, passionate situation”. The theatre was prepared to make up for the shortfall; although the UKJFF refused, an alternative had been given to them.

Alignment to government is inherently political. I agree with the artists who wrote on July 18: “The state of Israel uses the international ventures of its artists to attempt to lend itself a sense of cultural legitimacy and to distract attention from the brutality of its illegal occupation.”

Simply by accepting funding for the Israeli Government Incubator Theatre are reinforcing this fallacy.

We cannot use freedom of expression to stop discussions around the pervasive nature of regime control within the arts taking place. Boycotting is the first step to bringing this to the fore. Proposing a viable alternative is the vital second to counter calls of censorship.

Note: both this column and Richard Jordan’s piece entitled Holding Israeli artists to account for their government is absurd represent the views of the individual writers and not those of The Stage Media Company.

Read more opinion in The Stage

4 Comments

  1. Recently in Australia, many artists- including myself- vowed to avoid the Sydney Biennale, and some exhibiting artists planned to pull out entirely. The reason for this was that the Biennale were sponsored by Transfield Holdings, whose parent company had a contract to build offshore processing centres for asylum seekers. Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers and its offshore detention policy are deplorable and many felt that they couldn’t associated with the Biennale whilst it was supported by Transfield. A huge campaign led to Transfield pulling out. Brilliant. Except most Australian arts companies are still funded by government arts bodies, like the Australia Council. And Australia’s policies towards asylum seekers have not changed. I’m not trying to compare Australia and asylum seekers to Israel and Gaza. I am interested in discussing…do we always consider the ethical position of our funders? I don’t think Incubator did, not because they are callous or didn’t try hard enough to get other funding, but because they went to a funding source most of us go to all the time- their government arts funding. Did many people reject Arts Council funding in the UK during wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? Australian artists were appeased when Transfield pulled out of the Biennale,but did anyone also give back Australia Council funding? Not as far as I know! I’m really not trying to deflect from Gaza or draw any comparisons, but rather to highlight the moral complexities of funding…it’s probably not just an Israeli issue…

  2. Whilst I can understand and agree with the sentiments of this article I am afraid I also think it is very naive. David Greig is noble in his idea to start a crowd funding scheme for Palestinian and Israeli artists to reject local funding and come to Edinburgh. But let’s get real here – in a few weeks time when the Fringe has ended who will be bothered about this little show on the Fringe that got  closed down. A scheme such as the one David Greig proposes requires continued ongoing long term commitment and a sizeable fund. If these artists reject their government grant support in their home countries they will risk their own unemployment and closure unless there is a promise guaranteed of funding and that this is ongoing and matching past grants. Equally does it also put David Greig and others in the position of power over what they select to fund if they are controlling this pot of money. It becomes a dangerous game to play where you sit as the moral judge over the work in a country where you do not even live. The sentiment behind all this may be right but to me this is not a solution and could even make an already complex situation worse. Finally those working in the UK have enough struggle to raise funds to put on theatre Productions. To then to see that potentially be reduced further as a result money going to a crowd funding  campaign supporting non-UK artists arts seems unhelpful to the UK theatre industry.

  3. Okey-dokey, since 99% of people calling for a boycott of Israel accuse the UK of being fully complicit in Israeli foreign policy, can I look forward to either:

    1) You calling for Liz Lochhead to stand by her principles and return all the many she got from UK taxpeyers, or

    2) Showing some consistency and calling for a boycott of all art funded by the British Arts Councils?

    Alternatively, I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt if you can tell me how many Russian acts you called to be boycotted during the height of the conflict where 75,000+ innocent people died. Fair?

  4. Ms Honour Bayes is obviously on a mission (or subtly manipulated): to restore piece and justice in the Middle East from the cosy comfort of her blogging room. But Ms Honour Bayes is herself using her right to freedom of expression to try to ban it for others. And what is worse, she does it when the “others” are artists, and the self-proclaimed censor is supposed to be an impartial reviewer! Clearly Ms Honour Bayes would prefer only productions that fit her narrow and dogmatic opinions… but are we to listen to her? And then what next? Burn all books that used Israeli printers? Sounds familiar, doesn’it? History doesn’t repeat itself, it studders

    The Stage Media Company cannot hide its responsibility behind a two line disclaimer, and needs to hold up some basic values of our trade. Freedom of communication, just like freedom itself, has to stop where that of others begins: Ms Honour Bayes is obviously on a mission of some sort, and her covert propaganda is drawing us towards a dangerous slope. Boycott the boycotters now, lest we’ll all end up bullied and boycotted, for not fitting Ms Honour Bayes personal agenda – and that of her hidden sponsors.

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