Join us for for the first in a programme of lively talks and debates at the Barbican Centre in partnership with Magnum Photos, leading up to the celebration of Magnum’s 70th anniversary in 2017. The Magnum Photos Presents series opens with an evening of discussion between Magnum photographers, writers and curators as they consider recent critical and photographic approaches to documenting migration.
The world is currently experiencing the largest migration of people since the Second World War, with an estimated 60 million people on the move fleeing from war, persecution and poverty, according to the UN. Since September 2015 Magnum has been commissioning its own photographers to cover the migrant crisis across Europe, through the Middle East and into North Africa.
Four expert panelists will reflect on the role of the image in this current crisis; how documentary practice can represent, analyse and challenge, connecting the public to the lived experiences of a political and economic crisis. The panel will include:
Mark Power – Magnum Photographer
David Kogan – Magnum’s Chief Executive
Steve Symonds – Programme Director for Refugee and Migrant Rights, Amnesty International
Sophie Henderson – Director, The Migration Museum Project
Anthony Downey, academic, editor and writer, will chair the panel.
Downey, Anthony, “I Felt Part of It, So I Did: Engaging Subjects in the Work of Anthony Luvera”, The Ethics of Participatory Practice, Photographer’s Gallery, London,November 2010.
Downey, Anthony, “Yinka Shonibare: The Anarchist Artist”, CNN African Voices, 17 May 2010.
Downey, Anthony, “The Rules of Engagement: Towards an Ethics of Collaboration”, AAH Conference, University of Glasgow, April 2010.
Downey, Anthony, “Pete and Repeat: Anthony Downey and Tom McCarthy Discuss Repetition in Art, Philosophy and Literature”. The London Consortium, Zabludowicz Collection, 26 November 2009.
Downey, Anthony, “Tate Encounters: Between the Museum, Academy and Society”, Tate Britain, October 2009.
Downey, Anthony, “Gender, War and Chadors II”, British Museum, October 2009.
Downey, Anthony, “Thresholds of a Coming Community: Aesthetics, Ethics, and Politics”, AAH Annual Conference, Manchester University, April 2009.
Downey, Anthony, “Tate Triennial Conference: Global Modernities”, Chair for Artist’s Roundtable Discussion, Tate Britain, March 2009.
Downey, Anthony, “The Lives of Others: Artur Zmijewski’s ‘Repetition’ and the Aesthetics of Surveillance”, Social East: Forum on the Art and Visual Culture of Eastern Europe, Courtauld Institute of Art, London, February 2009.
Downey, Anthony, “At the Limits of the Image: Representations of Torture in Popular Culture”, Symposium on Iconoclasm and Iconolatry: Image, Terrorism and Blindness, CENDEAC, Murcia, Spain, October 2008.
Downey, Anthony, “The Burden of Representation: Contemporary Visual Arts in the Middle East”, Representing Islam: Comparative Perspectives, Manchester University, September 2008.
Downey, Anthony, “And I Bring Back Untold Treasures: The Curator As Artistic Importer”, chair, Institute of Contemporary Art, May 2008.
Downey, Anthony, “Documenting Disappearance: Algeria, State Terrorism and the Photographic Image”, Centre for the Study of Human Rights public debate, London School of Economics, 15 May 2008.
Downey, Anthony, “Critical Imperatives: Africa Remix and the Curatorial Dilemma, Museum Studies”, Graduate School of Arts and Science, New York University, April 2008.
Downey, Anthony,“Beyond Identity Politics: Excessive Identities in the work of Yinka Shonibare, Aimé Ntakiyika, and Samuel Fosso”, Diasporic Bodies and Visual Culture, Department of the History of Art and Visual Studies, Cornell University, April 2008.
Downey, Anthony, “Time Was When: Duration in the Work of Zarina Bhimji, Yto Barrada, Fatou Kande Senghor, and Allan de Souza”, International Conference on Time and Photography, Leuven and Louvain-La-LeuveUniversity, March 2008.
Downey, Anthony, “Yto Barrada and the Politics of Aesthetics Colour Photography: From Autochrome to Cibachrome”, Courtauld Institute, 10 November 2007.
In 2019, he received a UKRI Arts and Humanities award (in his capacity as a Co-Investigator) to develop research on disability education and visual culture in the West Bank, Jordan and Lebanon. In 2020, he was also awarded a GCRF Education in Conflict award to develop this project over a four year period from 2020-2024.
Anthony has the following professional affiliations:
Member of the Editorial Board of Third Text (thirdtext.org), appointed 2006.
Member of the Editorial Board of Digital War (digital-war.org), appointed 2019.
Editor-in-Chief of Ibraaz(ibraaz.org), appointed 2011.
Anthony holds a PhD from Goldsmiths College, awarded in 2006, and his research, publications, and teaching focus on the politics of global contemporary art practices; human rights, bio-politics and migration; new media, collaborative and participative art practices; and contemporary cultural production in the Maghreb, the Middle East and Global South.
He supervises PhD students with research interests in contemporary art and the politics of cultural production in the Maghreb, the Middle East and Global South; neoliberalism, human rights, bio-politics, and migration in contemporary art practices; and new media, performativity and civil society in the Middle East.
Anthony Downey, image courtesy of Jens Kohlen, Kassel, 2017
Performing Rights: Contemporary Art, the Refugee Condition, and the Alibi of Engagement
Professor Anthony Downey
Contemporary artists are increasingly engaging with some of the most pressing issues facing our world today, from globalisation, migration and citizenship to conflict, sustainability, gentrification, and social activism. Anthony Downey will discuss the implications of this engagement in relation to human rights and conditions of displacement. If the disavowal or absence of legal and political representation is a feature of being a refugee, then what happens, he will ask, when artistic representation is inserted into this already compromised regime of visibility? In an all too amenable substitution that can often reconfirm the absence of legal accountability, is it possible that cultural forms of representation are compensating for—if not replacing—the very systems and procedures of political and legal responsibility that are being denied refugees in the first place? Who, we need to ask thereafter, really benefits from the work of art?
It sometimes appears that radical political positions are a scarce commodity in the landscape of contemporary art, which seems to be dominated by luxury fairs and a virtual sense of narcissism. Nevertheless, the consciousness to address pressing societal issues is of incremental importance for artists such as Santiago Sierra or Wafaa Bilal. Daniel Lippitsch discussed with academic and critic Dr. Anthony Downey the current relationship between art and politics and how this relationship claims its validity in this extraordinarily fast-paced and globally connected world, without losing its significance.
Since the turn of the 21st century, contemporary artists have increasingly engaged with some of the most pressing issues facing our world, from globalization, migration and citizenship to conflict, terrorism and social activism. Why do you think these subjects gain consistently more attention in global artistic practice nowadays?
Globalization has had a huge impact on communities worldwide and, in conjunction with the political logic of neoliberalism, with its emphasis on deregulation, withdrawal of government, and competitiveness, globalization has generated tensions and conflict across those communities. These tensions produced by globalization are manifold and resist cursory analysis, but they can be identified in the unequal distribution of wealth and risk; the suspension of labour laws intended to protect workers; the impact of so-called free-market ideology on local communities; the presence of a globalized underclass of migrant labourers; and the increasingly visible fact of economic and political migrants. Elements of contemporary art, which exist ultimately as a form of social practice, need to be considered within these contexts; specifically how globalization has radically reconfigured social, political, economic and cultural relationships. These are the facts of living in the 21st century and contemporary art practices, or at least those that pertain to political engagement, tend to inevitably reflect these realities. Having carried out research for Art and Politics Now, I use the word ‘reflect’ here cautiously as contemporary art is largely a form of reflection rather than an agent of social and political change in its own right.
Art has its own power in the world, and is as much a force in the power play of global politics today as it once was in the arena of cold war politics.” This claim was famously stated by Boris Groys in Art Power. How do you position current artistic developments in terms of their possibility to take on political as well as social dimensions, becoming themselves a focus of controversy and even a force of political and social change?
I would be reluctant to suggest that contemporary art is or ever has been a force for political and social change. That would suggest that contemporary art has an instrumentalist, utilitarian function of sorts — or that art wants to be an agent of change, an assumption I doubt based on my research. I would need to see more of the context of Groy’s statement here. But as far as I am concerned, the majority of contemporary art practices are often complicit in the very processes they apparently critique. For example, even though a substantial number of artists’ works are considered to be critiques of globalization, the contemporary art world with its emphasis on global mobility (for artists and the art-world in general), is in fact indicative of, if not a precursor to, the processes of globalization. I often see the term “emerging markets” used in the art world without any critique of how it resonates with the political economy of neoliberal markets. Likewise, western curators “discovering” and presenting new work from, say, the Far East or Africa chimes uncomfortably, particularly with the notion of the intrepid colonial explorer in mind. Add to this the manner in which the institutions that support and drive contemporary art, from the biennial to the so-called mega-museum, are often deployed to gentrify otherwise run down areas (from Barcelona to Berlin), or to announce the arrival of cities as tourist destinations (see Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Doha). We can begin to understand the extent to which contemporary art is an active agent in the process of globalization itself. This is before we start to consider the manner in which contemporary art has become a key element in capital accrual, investment, international transactions, and outright not tax avoidance.
We could also consider this when it comes to more fully answering why a significant number of artists now profess to “represent” migrants, refugees, the dispossessed and so on. These forms of representation are often involved in a continuum of commodification that sees images imbricated within systems of value, be it financial or otherwise, for artists, institutions and, of course, critics such as myself. The “value” of these images is very rarely accrued by the subject of these images, which leads to the question of agency: for example, when you create a work about migration who benefits from the work of art? Is it the migrant being depicted, or the artist, gallery and institution showing the work? This may be more problematic than it initially sounds, if we enquire further into what is at stake in the moment of representation and what exactly is happening when news media or artists go into and record life (and death) in refugee camps for example. We need to consider whether representation of the camp produces a regime of visibility that encourages spectacle as a means of visualisation and offers visual representation as a false means to give voice to those who nevertheless remain voiceless? Needless to say, cultural production exists in a continuum of capital accrual and the latter is often centralized in the financial capitals of the western world, be it London, New York, Paris or Frankfurt. Forms of artistic practice — or at least those that profess to engage with globalization and its inequitable effects — that do not reflect upon this reality or admit complicity within it, cannot effect social or indeed political change.
Your research features a wide variety of artists and their personal way of engaging with political issues in a more moderate or radical way. By looking at the work of Santiago Sierra, who, especially after his famous installation 160 cm line tattooed on four people (2000), reinforced the element of voluntary deformation in exchange for low remuneration by letting people being tattooed for a few pounds or letting them masturbate or colour their hair for less. The public controversy was obvious, but how would you evaluate the importance and position of the physical human body as an instrument in political artistic creation and why does it often become the most sought after tool to express fundamental ideas of activism and engagement in this context?
If we look at the history of contemporary art from the 1960s onwards, the body is perhaps the most sought after tool to express fundamental ideas precisely because it is the most accessible, relatable and yet provocative medium. And it remains pivotal to any understanding of art practices today. The body as a site of political violence, if we follow the work of Giorgio Agamben and his conception of ‘bare life’ (a term used to examine the idea that the subject of modernity is one whose ontological relationship to the law is not only precarious but potentially fatal), has also become an all too real element of modern life. In the context of modern life, where the impact of globalization, regional conflicts, and mass migration dictate the redistribution of populations on both micro- and macro-levels the bodies of the migrant and the refugee, to take two examples, have become exemplary facts of modernity rather than exceptions to its logic. They have become emblems of a coming community of endemic dispossession. This momentous development is not only about the so-called “other” of modernity, the refugee or migrant or dispossessed but also about what it is to be a modern subject. For example, in more prosperous countries the fact of abject poverty has merely been replaced by ingrained forms of inequality. In both instances, sovereign power reserves and exercises the right over life and death. In regards to these crucial questions, we must enquire into an emergent aesthetic paradigm in contemporary art that takes as its object of representation the nebulous, crepuscular, suspended, precarious, and often fatal predicament of ‘bare life’ as the conceptual bedrock of its output without concomitantly questioning the broader ‘value’ — in terms of media discourses and the process of representation — attached to such images and their circulation within the political logic of late-modernity . Arguably, Sierra’s work, is doing precisely that: questioning the value system in which these practices and bodies are made to circulate under the conditions affecting the “bare life” of modern subjects today.
As I see it, the further issue is with the quasi form of ethical criticism — or “public controversy” as you put it — that are applied to such acts and the extent to which these forms of criticism are merely engaging in a bout of moral throat-clearing or, just as insidiously, ethical piety. Examples of this abound in art criticism and follow a rationale along these lines:
the participants are understood to be humiliated and the resulting assumption is that the subjects in these works cannot make a volitional decision themselves. They are beyond conscious decision-making processes because of who they are and what they are subjected to in both this work and, by extension, their everyday lives. There is, likewise, a curious sense of abjection underwriting a lot of public and professional criticism of these works, whereby the participant is consistently figured as an unknowing and indeed unwitting performer who has been victimized by various forms of extractive capitalism and the global injustice that ensues from it. In merely demonstrating inequality, the artists in question would appear to be playing to the gratifications of art audiences who would rather have these issues displayed in an institutional context than actually deal with them or attempt to ameliorate them through political means. This smacks of hypocrisy to me — and is far more reactionary in its ramifications than Sierra’s work could ever be.
Adorno famously wrote that all art is an uncommitted crime. Many practicing artists have sought ways of balancing their commitment to art as a representation of their political commitments in constantly re-inventing the role of the activist-artist. Wafaa Bilal’s work “and counting…” (2010), in which the artist tattoos the names of Iraqis who died during the Iraq war and are mainly forgotten in the Western perception of the war, such as Bilal’s brother who was killed in 2004, can be put in this context as well as it delivers another example of using the body as a political platform. How was the perception of these works in the US and how does a moral double standard limit the creation of political art in the West? Can you maybe give examples?
Wafaa Bilal’s past has been indelibly marked by historical events in Iraq and elsewhere over the last two decades, including the invasion of Kuwait (and the ensuing wars in his homeland); the death of his brother Haji in 2004 (killed by American forces); the subsequent death of his father (from the resulting grief); the time he spent in refugee camps (in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, respectively); and, presently, his life in the United States (where he now teaches at Tisch School of the Arts). I have spoken at length with Wafaa and formally interviewed him, and two things become immediately clear about his practice: firstly, his work today, produced within the relative comfort zone of the United States, often reflects upon the conflict zones he has left behind; with the difference between the two generating a poignant creative friction. Secondly, when he looks back on his tumultuous travels there is a keen sense of regret that he lacked the means to record those journeys in all their chaos and uncertainty. This ambition to record no doubt appeals to a broader human desire for things — be they the apparently random events of everyday life or the singularity of a tragedy — to make sense. Making sense of a past riven by conflict and uncertainty, moreover, acts as a palliative of sorts — a consolation of sorts for the subject to negotiate the precariousness of life. However, there is a double standard at play when it comes to how his work is understood inasmuch as revolution, uprisings, internecine warfare, civil conflict, and human rights. All of these have become points of reference in an overt intensification of interest in artists working within or from the Middle East. This comes with a coextensive demand that visual culture either condemns or defends such events and notions. I have always been impressed by the extent to which Wafaa’s work questions these parameters and actively engages in the ambiguity and aesthetic problematic of representation rather than merely revelling in it or taking it for granted.
Another crucial aspect of the perception of political art is the unwillingness of institutions to adopt their authority to controversial context. How do institutions such as museums influence the distribution of political or controversial art?
Institutions often co-opt the radicality of political art and, through embedding it within institutional concerns, effectively mollify its potential as a transformative act or event. If artists are going to respond to the immediacy of events, and who is to say they should not, we nevertheless need to remain alert to how the rhetoric of conflict and the spectacle of revolution is deployed as a benchmark for discussing, if not determining, the institutional and critical legitimacy of these practices. Before Santiago Sierra’s piece proposal, workers who cannot be paid, remunerated to remain inside cardboard boxes (2000), was accepted at Kunstwerke in Berlin, they rejected a proposal to have the staff of the institution photographed, ordered in a line according to their salaries and rates of pay. In this respect, institutions can, if we consider politics in dissensual terms, influence the distribution of the political and, indeed, stymie debate. Institutions also carry a powerful collaborative and progressive legacy. Goshka Macuga’s The Nature of the Beast (2009–10) displayed a tapestry depicting Picasso’s anti-war painting Guernica (1937) in an effort to recall the events leading up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003. To do this, The Nature of the Beast addressed two historical moments: one belonging to the history of the Whitechapel Gallery in London; the other a key event in the United Nations Security Council’s deliberations over whether or not to sanction an invasion of Iraq. The Whitechapel Gallery had exhibited Guernica in 1939 in support of an anti-fascist rally that was taking place in London’s East End. Decades later, on the 5th of February, 2003, the tapestry copy of the painting that had been on display at the United Nations since 1985 was hidden from view during the then US Secretary of State Colin Powell’s speech about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. It was this tapestry that Macuga used in her show, recalling how instrumental an institution — be it sovereign, political, social or cultural — can be in producing meaning, radical or otherwise.
You intensively focus your research on the cultural production in North Africa and the Middle East via the platform Ibraaz. How would you evaluate the claim that political work from African or Middle Eastern countries can hardly be compared to Western approaches due to the political environment and consequences for artists in certain countries of these areas? Meaning that political confrontation in the arts in Western countries will not bear the same consequences and impact compared to Africa or the Middle East.
Ibraaz was set up as a research platform to rethink the usual prescriptive and reductive frames of reference that have long stultified discussions about cultural production from within and beyond the region. How do you place an artist born in, say, Iraq, who has trained in Germany, lives in New York, and has galleries in London and Berlin? The question is key to understanding that all artists work in the realm of the speculative rather than the quantitative, and all artists pursue a social practice that is incontrovertibly intertwined with the political. It goes without saying that artists working under repressive regimes will be subject to more aggressive forms of censorship, control, threats and, indeed, violence in order to keep them in line. But perhaps there is a scale of repression here as well: what if we were to consider how so-called western artists are kept in line through markets, institutions, honours, wealth, critical acclaim and so on; even those artists who are apparently radical, calling governments into question, are merely utilized by institutions as fodder enabling the latter to present themselves as radical. It is important that we make these distinctions and, moreover, recognize that today the biggest single issue in the Middle East on a cultural level is not censorship as such, but an all out war on culture: an on-going, prolonged, obdurate and, in large part, fully intentional, and yet incoherent assault on the very fabric of cultural institutions and those who support and work in them. The effect of this assault has produced a veritable and verifiable crisis in cultural production across the region, which has had both negative and, dare I say, relatively positive ramifications (inasmuch as it provokes cultural practitioners to respond and seek international support for their freedoms). However, the immediate effect of it, specifically on contemporary visual culture and its institutions — be they private galleries, public museums, foundations, magazines (and publishing in general), educational initiatives, workshops, seminars, artistic practice, freedom of speech, civil and public spaces — is a gradual undermining of the edifices of cultural institutions and their ability to produce and disseminate visual culture. I have just delivered a book to my publishers that looks at this issue in depth; it is titled Future Imperfect: Contemporary Art Practices and Cultural Institutions in the Middle East (Sternberg, 2016) and represents over 20 different voices working on these issues and the challenges faced by cultural practitioners in the Middle East today.
You published your book Arts and Politics Now in 2014, what has since then been for you the most intriguing political confrontation in the arts and where do you suggest to find the next major developments?
Arts and Politics Now had a very specific goal: to provide an overview of the changing relationship between art and politics, and, in so doing, clarify what is at stake in the debates discussed. It was intended to provide the reader with an accesible frame of reference for both understanding and exploring these issues further. In my next book, Zones of Indistinction: Contemporary Art Practices and the Neoliberal Logic of Late-Modernity (Sternberg, 2017), I wanted to take this one step further insofar as I observed that many of the practices discussed in Arts and Politics Now are easily co-opted into the rhetoric of neoliberalism — indeed, some of them unwittingly already utilise that rhetoric. There is so much weight placed on contemporary art today as a form of ethical conscientiousness — it must do the right thing politically if it is engaging with politics — and the way in which it needs to not only do something but also do the right thing, according to the particular political and ethical terms of reference. Those political and ethical terms of reference are largely gleaned, consciously or not, from neoliberal rhetoric. Contemporary art is not only expected to do certain things but to be politically and ethically conscientious if it is to be considered successful (or, indeed, unsuccessful). In the place of politically and ethically conscientious, we can read here liberally inclined, secular, democratic and socially engaged forms of critique based, loosely, on ideals such as human rights, justice and inclusion. This paradigm is, on the whole, the general backdrop that informs the heuristic framework of the metropolitan art-world. The inherent expectation that politically effective (successful) art be ethically responsible is a new, almost original critical paradigm. There is therefore a concomitant need to reflect upon that fact rather than just apply it — that is key to where my research is going presently.
Art, it seems, must not only do something within the context of ethico-political forms of critical analyses, but also must be ethically, if not transcendentally, ‘right’. This is not just a critical demand, but a curatorial and institutional one too. Nevertheless, the question that remains for now is simple enough: where do we place art that does not conform to these transcendental, secular, liberal and politically ‘correct’ forms of ethical engagement? Do we label them unethical and thereafter determine them to be politically ineffective (unsuccessful) or do we take the opportunity presented to us to re-evaluate the ontological conditions and teleological expectations of the ethical frameworks that are in use here? This is the direction my research is going in, not so much to critique practice as such but to pose a question: if cultural production has become complicit in the accumulation of capital – be it cultural, private, economic, or social — as a result of neoliberalism, global forms of gentrification, and the relative absence of state and private funding, how might we explore the potential for productive cultural alliances that can effectively address these concerns? I want to enquire: is there a neutral position for critique and how do we rethink the institutionalization, instrumentalization, and commercialization of cultural production, whilst also critiquing our own complicity as cultural producers in this process?
The Edinburgh International Book Festival is the largest public celebration of the written word in the world. Every August they bring over 800 writers and thinkers from across the planet together to rub shoulders with their readers.
“Visual art needn’t just be nice to look at or confusing to behold, it can also be politically aware. For Art and Politics Now, Anthony Downey searched the globe for ambitious, daring and socially engaged artworks. He describes the work of contemporary artists who are creatively reflecting upon the Middle East, the financial crisis, migration, terrorism and social activism.”
Why are contemporary artists increasingly engaging with some of the most pressing issues facing our world today, from globalisation, migration and citizenship to conflict, sustainability, gentrification, terrorism and social activism?
Join Anthony Downey, author of Art and Politics Now, and artist Renzo Martens for a conversation addressing the implications of these developments and how they invite us to rethink what we mean by the terms ‘political’, ‘engagement’, and ‘activism’.
Anthony Downey is an academic, editor and writer. Recent and upcoming publications include Art and Politics Now (Thames and Hudson, 2014); Uncommon Grounds: New Media and Critical Practices in North Africa and the Middle East (I.B. Tauris, 2014); and Archival Dissonance: Contemporary Art and Contested Narratives in the Middle East (forthcoming, 2015). He is the Director of Contemporary Art at Sotheby’s Institute of Art, London, and Editor-in-Chief of Ibraaz, a publishing and research initiative on visual culture in the Middle East. He is currently researching Zones of Indistinction: Performative Ethics and Late Modernity (forthcoming, 2016).
Renzo Martens is an artist living in Brussels. His work Episode III: Enjoy Poverty was exhibited at the 6th Berlin Biennale, Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, La Vireinna, Barcelona, Van Abbemuseum Eindhoven, and screened at Tate Modern, London and Centre Pompidou, Paris. Currently he works on the Institute for Human Activities and its five-year Gentrification Program in the Congo. The Institute held its opening seminar in the Congolese rainforest, as part of the 7th Berlin Biennial, with presentations at the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam and Wiels, Brussels. He studied Political Science at the University of Nijmegen and art at the Royal Academy of Ghent and the Gerrit Rietveld Academy in Amsterdam. Martens is the Artistic Director for the Institute of Human Activities (IHA) and was the World Fellow at Yale University, New Haven in 2013.
The evening will be chaired by Elvira Dyangani Ose (Lecturer Department of Visual Cultures, Goldsmiths College, University of London)
Following the discussion, there will be an opportunity to purchase a copy of Art and Politics Now and have it signed by the author in the Starr Foyer from 20.00–20.20.
This event has been developed in partnership with Thames & Hudson
Top 3: Event Images, Credit Lauren Mele, 2015
Last image set: Left, Cover of Art and Politics Now (Thames and Hudson, 2014); Right: “Impression of CPWAL Inaugural Meeting, Institute for Human Activities, undisclosed location, DR Congo, video still, 2014 “
Please note that any information sent, received or held by Tate may be disclosed under the Freedom of Information Act 2000
In a recent project with the Showroom in London, Lawrence Abu Hamdan presented The Freedom of Speech Itself (2012), an audio documentary that examined the history and application of forensic speech analysis and voice-prints in the United Kingdom’s controversial use of ‘voice analysis’. Accent, always a key signifier in determining an individual’s identity, has now become a means to proscribe and outlaw certain accents when determining the origins and authenticity of asylum seekers’ accents and their places of origin. Drawing on testimony from lawyers, phonetic experts, asylum seekers and Home Office officials, The Freedom of Speech Itself reveals the geo-politics of accents, and how such processes create newer and ill-defined states of exceptionalism when it comes to the rights of refugees. The show also included excerpts from Abu Hamdan’s audio archive and a workshop led by the artist on Harold Pinter’s play Mountain Language, written in 1988. In this conversation, Anthony Downey explores the motivation behind this work with the artist and how it has developed as an investigation into both the legal status of the voice and, perhaps more importantly, the legal implications of silence in the face of immigration laws today. (more…)