Viewpoint:  FESTIVAL OF DISTURBANCES – An Independent, artist-led review Prevent Strategy

Viewpoint: FESTIVAL OF DISTURBANCES – An Independent, artist-led review Prevent Strategy

Julia Farrington

The government has suspended its promised Independent Review of Prevent midway through its gathering of evidence. It has so far failed to appoint a new Reviewer following the departure of Lord Carlile in December 2019, when a judicial review found his government appointment lacked credibility. In this piece for Discover Society, Julia Farrington, freelance arts producer and former Head of Arts at Index on Censorship, proposes that, given the limitations of the government’s performance to date, artists should be invited to engage directly in the theatre of politics and reframe the terms and conditions of the review. By mapping out how she, as a producer, would approach the delivery of ‘A Festival of Disturbances’ she engages the power of the arts to disturb settled judgement, critique the policy itself and provoke new ways of thinking.

This article is written as a fantasy application to Unfundable UK, an imagined funder. To frame the piece, the article opens with the announcement of a call for proposals from Unfundable UK, and the central text is an expression of interest written in response. This is supported by three further documents: the answer to the question ‘Why are you best placed to deliver this work’ as requested by the funder; and two additional documents to help the panel understand the content and methodology of the proposal. These supporting documents are:  Julia’s re-drafting of Lord Carlile’s original Terms and Conditions published in September 2019, and Julia’s Report for Index on Censorship submitted to the Independent Prevent Review in December 2019.

Together these texts can be read as a statement of intent: in the opinion of the author an artist led review is a serious and practicable proposition. As this article illustrates there is a substantial body of work out there that could be brought together into a dynamic festival programme.  However, Julia also acknowledges that the work cited in the article is only the tip of the iceberg – there is much more work out there, or ideas waiting to be realised.

To help make this proposal more substantial and representative, we are sending out a call to artists for work to further illustrate and inform an actual, as opposed to a fantasy application:

Either – submit examples of existing work that addresses Prevent Strategy
Or – ideas for new work, could be considered for commission.

Please note: If A Festival of Disturbances were to become a reality, it would be programmed by a curator, with the support of an advisory group.

Please send your ideas or examples of your work to: festivalofdisturbances@gmail.com

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Unfundable UK announces a call for applications from artists, curators and producers
Unfundable UK, a new coalition of funders who support civil society initiatives, is delighted to announce its inaugural arts funding programme and to send out a call to artists, curators and producers for submissions.

We recognise the invaluable role of artists to illuminate the society we live in, and, at this time of assault on fundamental rights, we want to support work that aims to make a significant contribution to the work of civil society: to call power to account, to illuminate the relationship between state and citizen, and the impact of legislation and government policy on the lives of ordinary people in this country.

As our name suggests we are encouraging practitioners to present us with those ideas that might ordinarily get shelved because they are too political, high-risk, provocative or appear unfeasible. We want to hear the idea first and worry about the budget later.

Please send in an expression of interest describing your project, making it clear both why you think your project would normally be considered unfundable, and why you think it should be funded. In addition we would like to answer the question – Why are you best placed to deliver this work- to give us an idea of your motivation and experience of the issue, maximum 2000 words.

In addition please attach up to two documents, no more than 3000 words in total, that will help the jury understand the proposal that you are submitting to us.

Application to Unfundable UK
Expression of interest – Julia Farrington, producer

November, 2020

Dear Unfundable UK,

Re: The Festival of Disturbances – an artist-led review of Prevent strategy
I am writing this letter as an expression of interest in response to your call for proposals. I want to present ‘Festival of Disturbances’ an artist-led review of the government’s Prevent strategy.  The government’s handling of the review process so far is lamentable and they are wasting valuable time, please see text 1 for more detail on this. The Festival therefore invites artists working in all media to disturb the foundations of Prevent Strategy, to interrogate its assumptions, explore its impact and implications and imagine something new in its place.

I have taken it on myself to write an alternative Terms & Conditions (attached as one of two supporting documents). In this document I have altered the text of Lord Carlile’s original T&Cs, published in December 2019, reframing the original research questions aiming to reflect the concerns arising from civil society, and amending the methodology to create a transparent and accountable research and consultation process. This document will inform the selection and curation of work for the Festival.

‘The Festival of Disturbances’ will take place over a week, featuring a programme of performances, with installations and exhibitions alongside. The festival will be curated to take place virtually online, and in actuality in a series of temporary structures, marquees, domes, tents, enabling the public to experience the work of over 50 artists over the duration of the festival, with carefully coordinated Q&A sessions, debates and discussions, respecting current Covid 19 restrictions.  The festival will commission 3 new works via an open call to artists inviting proposals made in response to the questions posed in the altered Terms & Conditions. In addition, we will send out a call to programme existing work that addresses the questions and concerns of the alternative Terms & Conditions. Examples of this work appear as evidence in the second supporting document, ‘Index on Censorship’s submission to the original ‘Independent’ review, December 2019’. We know that the work cited in the report represents the tip of the iceberg, and there is much more out there that we want to connect with.

We want the festival to build public awareness of Prevent and provide a counter narrative, based on evidence which will be made available to the public, to the government’s assurances that Prevent and its associated surveillance machinery is necessary, effective and successful and to offer up imagined alternatives. The festival will offer experiential encounters with the consequences of Prevent and invite audience participation and feedback throughout. In addition we want to reach out to communities most directly affected by Prevent – those working in and using the services of education, health and social care, people from Muslim and South Asian background, those working in councils and local politics and the increasing number of people whose lives have been impacted by Prevent as activists, campaigners and, as we have heard most recently in an open letter to the Home Secretary, victims of domestic abuse. MPs from both houses will be invited to attend and experts in the field will be invited on to panel discussions. We want the Festival to act as a wake-up call to the public and the government, to alter the course of a policy which threatens to tear up the fabric of civil society and annihilate civil rights.

Your call asks why this project is unfundable. This project would require the input of a wide range of culture professionals and my experience tells me that many arts producers and programmers would like to give a platform to this kind of expression, but are fearful of how best to go about it – not least, persuading risk averse boards that it is a good idea. The whole festival could be considered a security risk; the police are jumpy around artwork that deals with radicalisation or terrorism as subject matter and would rather preemptively remove it, than have to manage the complexities of balancing their duty to uphold the right to freedom of expression with other policing duties. But most significantly, by the logic of Prevent, the chances are that anyone involved in this Festival risks being branded an extremist and find themselves on the Prevent Database. And we know from the Liberty Freedom of Information Request, that’s bad news.

So why do I believe Unfundable should fund this programme. For the reasons stated above.  The risks involved should be acknowledged and worked with, rather than used to quash the idea.  They are what makes the festival so important, they fuel the motivation to produce the festival – to reclaim the space to discuss these issues.  You will see from the report that I submitted to the review, how Prevent is chilling artistic freedom of expression, discussion and debate. I’ve worked with artists who have been censored by authoritarian regimes around the world for the past 10 years and produced numerous events internationally and in the UK to amplify voices of silenced artists. I’ve read 1984, twice. It’s not hard to see what is happening here; we can’t take our liberties for granted any more. And though the government would like us to, we can’t blame the horrendous acts of violence committed in recent years for this.  It is how successive governments chose to respond to these acts that we have to question, to review, to challenge. There are other ways – look at Norway in the wake of Breivik. We have to keep returning to the tension between freedom and security and make sure we deserve both- as Benjamin Franklin said, “those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”

When speaking truth to power is an indication of an extremist agenda, and producing contentious political artwork has been relegated to the realm of dreams, then we need a Festival of Disturbances. I am genuinely excited to see what artists would come up with in response to an open call. You’ll get an idea of the sort of work from the report appended below, though it only scratches the surface of what is out there and what can be created. I want to go beyond reports. The general public doesn’t read them and this strategy has implications for society as a whole and cannot be allowed to languish behind the veil of  bureaucracy.

That’s another reason why the arts are necessary. When artwork takes the law and its impact on people as subject matter, the relationship between the citizen and the state is brought into stark relief. It becomes something you can walk around, hear, see, ingest, interact with, the work transforms how information and ideas are shared, and crucially who with. That’s the point, art is a powerful medium, and changes how we see things, and that’s why it’s high risk and why I believe The Festival of Disturbances will inspire your support.

Yours sincerely

Julia Farrington

Attachment One: Why I am best placed to deliver this project
Attachment Two: Lord Carlile’s Terms and Conditions – altered
Attachment Three:  Index on Censorship’s submission to the ‘Independent’ Review

“For me the sorry state of civil liberties in general and counter-terrorism legislation in particular, acts as an absolute incentive to adopt the unique role of the artist as an informal, independent and privileged agent of social change and moderation of state power.”

Xenofon Kavvadias, artist, 2013

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