The UK’s slow slide towards fascism may be waymarked by draconian anti-protests laws and Rwanda deportations, but it is creeping into our colleges and universities as well. Higher Education institutions were once bastions of academic freedoms. Now the managers use censorship and threats towards staff and students to stifle dissent.
I am currently studying Fine Art in Nottingham. In November 2021, my college invited the police onto the campus to operate a knife arch (a portable metal detector used to detect whether someone is carrying a blade). My questions about this to senior management were ignored and when I persisted, I was suspended. I had to prove to the disciplinary board that the college had repeatedly violated its own rules before I was allowed to return to my studies.
Half of my work was banned
Fast forward two years, and I am producing two booklets for my final year project. The first, Us & Them, is about photographing the wave of protests organised by far-right groups such as Patriotic Alternative and National Support Detachment that happened in this region. The second, ‘& We’, is about my three years in college. For just two of its thirty-two pages, I write about being suspended. These two booklets make up my end-of-year show – a big deal for me as it plays a large part in my final degree results.
About two weeks before the show’s deadline, I am informed that I cannot present the second booklet unless I censor it. The reason given? It includes the initials of the two senior staff members who were responsible for the knife arch and also for my suspension. The booklet contains extracts of my statement to the college during the disciplinary process. I had redacted the names of those involved but left initials so the text would make sense.
I found myself in a situation where half of my work was banned. Yet I did not see how, either artistically or ethically, I could show only the other half, as it was about my time on the frontline protesting against nationalism – a movement not unfamiliar with banning books and art.
Two weeks before the deadline, I had no work to show.
I wrote back to the college and asked them to reconsider. I also suggested that they google the ‘Streisand Effect’. They stood firm; I could not display the work unless it was censored. It is worth noting that the person in charge of making that decision was one of the people responsible for my suspension and whose initials were in the book.
That was when I decided to use everything I had been taught (by my excellent teachers) to create art which not only made the college look stupid – but also gave the college an active role in creating that art.
Censoring the alphabet
Deadline day arrived and I installed all my work for the show. I had discussed the situation with the teaching staff and they knew my art would be a protest and that there would be things they would need to censor. They also knew that I would be drawing attention to their censorship with stickers.
But the management didn’t have a clue what I was doing.
Two highly experienced teachers (both artists in their own right) spent half an hour working out how to censor a graphic of the alphabet, a picture of Queen Victoria, a parody of a book cover, and I also displayed a slab of text detailing all the ways the college had broken its own rules.
Everything contained subtle (and not-so-subtle) hints as to who the senior managers involved in my suspension were.
In short, I had made a Kobayashi Maru – an unwinnable training exercise where what matters is how you fail. Whichever way the college chose to censor my art would make them look bad and, in fact, draw attention to what they were trying to hide.
In the end, they decided I needed to take it all down. The work never went on public display. This was the best possible result from my perspective.
A few minutes after the college closed and their social media team had gone home, I posted on social media myself, explaining what I’d done. By the following morning, my posts had received 50,000 views – contrast this with the print run for my booklets – 20 copies, of which five might actually get read.
The college really should have googled the ‘Streisand Effect’.
Fine words butter no parsnips
Everything I did, from the moment I started asking questions, was intended to help the college be better. I’d like it to be an institution that actually lives up to the fine words in its mission statement and prospectus.
I want to stress that most of the college staff are extremely professional and excellent at their jobs. But some of them screwed up and then made things worse by trying to suppress the problem.
The end result? A college, a place of education that censored the alphabet.
You can find links to my booklets on my social media. Please take the time to read them.
The likes of Patriotic Alternative and National Support Detachment marching in our streets is a much more important issue than a little bit of art in a college in Nottingham.
Nottingham College were approached for comment and a spokesperson for the college said:
“Chris has recently completed his degree studies with us in our art and design school and has recently exhibited his final year project.
At no point has the College attempted to censor Chris’ artwork and the College has placed no restriction on Chris’ ability to exhibit. His class tutor did however ask that he remove or redact the names of two staff members who were named, in full, in the exhibition but who had not given their permission.
We expect all our students to follow data protection legislation and a common code of ethics and Chris’ tutor asked for Chris to comply.
Chris participated in the end of year exhibition and his work was reviewed by examiners last week. We wish Chris luck with his final marks and wish him the best for the future.”