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
Honour Bayes is a freelance arts journalist who has written extensively for The Stage and had work published in the Guardian, Independent, Time Out, Exeunt Magazine and The Church Times. She is currently Associate Editor on Chinese arts magazine ArtZip and has worked as web editor for the Royal College of Art, managing its arts and design coverage.
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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