How to describe the bizarre case of local artist Rémy Couture? Some in the media seem to have coined a new and disturbing term for it: art crime (also the title of a sympathetic documentary on the subject).
You see, arguably, Coutures only ‘crime’ is that he is pushing the boundaries of good taste with his horrific images of women being dismembered and people being crucified. This, in and of itself, does not constitute a crime. Of course, as any number court rulings recognize, art work, no matter how offensive, is a form of protected self-expression (Section 2 of the Charter) in Canada.
That said, Couture has been charged specifically with committing moral corruption (sometimes the law just sounds so delightfully quaint!) through propagation of obscene material. The result of a complaint originating in Germany after someone visited his website and was apparently so shocked and confused by what they found that they contacted the cops to report what they wrongly believed to be genuine snuff films.
Couture does nothing of the sort. He is, in fact, an internationally renowned make-up artist and special effects geek with a passion for graphic sex and gore. He is due to stand before a jury of his peers (as the saying goes) next December in a highly anticipated and much publicized trial. If found guilty, he could face a lengthy prison sentence and financial ruin.
Under the criminal code, (Section 163) it is illegal to distribute materials that combine sex with horror cruelty or violence. It seems likely that the crown will rely on the harm principle established 20 years ago in the Butler case. While this precedent does make an exception for erotica or works that display artistic merit, they deemed sexual materials that are ‘degrading or dehumanizing’ to constitute obscenity under the law.
Justice John Sopinka provided three categories of porn. The bad news for Mr. Couture is that the only protected categories of porno specifically excludes the depiction of violence and any sexual material with a hint of violence could be enough to justify classifying something as obscene.
However, Mr. Couture does have a few things going for him, legally speaking:
A) He stands accused of creating child pornography, but thus far there is no evidence that any of his actresses were under the age of 18, nor have any of them complained about their treatment at his hands or claimed that they were coerced into participating.
B) The prosecution has their work cut out for them in that the onus is on them to meet the standard of harm established by the Supreme Court. This means that the victims here are either the people that willingly participated in the creation of his art work, none of whom have agreed to testify against him, or lodged a complaint for mistreatment. Or, much harder to prove, that society at large is the victim for being exposed to his artwork. Basically the type of questionable argument used to justify infringing freedom of expression when it’s considered hate speech.
C) Finally, there is the new media aspect of this case. The fact is, in the internet age, the idea of state censorship, legitimate though it may be in some instances, just seems less and less relevant. The State may try and suppress something or someone by locking up artists like Couture and throwing away the key, but you can’t lock up his art work. It is already out there in the ether, being consumed, for better or worse, by millions of users around the world.
I’m one person and that’s who’s writing this. Despite my editorial duties on this site, when I write in this space, it’s my Soapbox and mine alone. I’m speaking for myself and not any one of the twenty plus other writers you read here regularly. Some of them, in fact, may have drastically different opinions. This site is a conversation, and in that conversation I’m but one voice. If you have a difference of opinion, there is a comments section and you’re also invited to offer an alternate view, whether you’re a regular writer on this site or not.
What you’re about to read is biased, incredibly biased, just like any good op-ed piece. I’m a co-founder of the Infringement Festival, a festival which I hold near and dear to my heart. This post, however, also does not necessarily reflect the views of the thousands of artists and volunteer organizers who have participated in the Infringement and continue to do so around the world or the hundreds who infringe here at home.
The Infringement is a festival dedicated to using art to challenge oppressive structures, and having fun while doing it. It was designed to capture the spirit of the original Fringe, lost when the festival started charging artists several hundred dollars to perform and trademarked the word Fringe itself.
I always felt that the best way to achieve this goal was to offer a real alternative. While I am an avid culture jammer with Optative Theatrical Laboratories, theatrically opposing companies like Starbucks, American Apparel and Canadian mining giants over the years to name a few, I always felt that the best approach with the Fringe was just to do better on our own terms.
While not all of my colleagues agreed with me on this, it was a large part of our approach recently. And it worked. The Infringement grew and even the folks at the Fringe seemed to mellow a bit. Gone were the days of blanket bans on anyone remotely associated with our festival entering the Fringe beer tent. Gone were the malicious rumours that all Infringement shows were cancelled and that we weren’t a “real festival” anyways.
I personally went with Infringement colleagues to Parc des Ameriques, a public park temporarily converted into the private “Fringe Park” (also known as the “Fringe Beer Tent”) for the duration of the festival, on the first day of the Fringe this year. People at the Fringe were very cordial with us and it seemed like this year it could very well be the time to start building bridges.
We had a plan to present new Fringe producer Amy Blackmore with a giant novelty cheque and legitimately offer her a free trip to the Buffalo Infringement Festival. While the Infringement in Montreal is small and underground, Buffalo Infringement is one of the largest festivals in the region and is comparable to the Montreal Fringe in size and scope, while also incorporating a much larger line-up of music and arts not traditionally associated with the Fringe. We hoped that she would see such a huge event operating very well without charging the artists a penny to participate and without depending on huge corporate sponsorship money to survive. We hoped that she would bring these experiences back with her to Montreal and help us shake things up a bit.
I wasn’t supposed to be part of this scene, opting instead to perform in an alleyway as part of Car Stories, an interactive guided theatrical walking tour/show that this year was connected to the scene at the Fringe Tent. Now, to clarify, this is a show for three spect-actors at a time. It’s a very intimate experience that does not take attention away from whatever is going on near it in the streets or on a stage in a bar or in Parc des Ameriques.
Given the innocuous and light-hearted nature of what we intended to do, the seemingly more open approach of the new Fringe administration and the fact that all this involved, really, was Donovan King and a few associates sitting down and having a beer in a park, we had every reason to think that there wouldn’t be any problems and our olive branch might be accepted and even welcomed. Well, that wasn’t going to be the case.
I received a call informing me that there was “a huge problem at the Fringe” so I headed down to see what was going on. When I arrived, Donovan King and two other colleagues were being told by Fringe security chief Ace Lopes that they could not enter the park. Lopes then informed me that, regardless of my involvement with what King had planned to do that day and because of my general association with Infringement, I was denied entry as well. Not only that, “anyone associated with Infringement” was not permitted to pass.
Now, despite the gall of, in one sentence, barring thousands of artists worldwide, including artists performing in both Fringe and Infringement, from a festival that is supposed to be inclusive, it gets worse. They also told a man that I have seen at countless activist and community events but never been introduced to that he couldn’t enter. This man has no association with me, the Infringement or Donovan King and was in no way aware of what was going on that day.
Why couldn’t he go into the Fringe Park and meet his friends? Well, he had been given a flier by Donovan a few days earlier and recognized King on his way in. He gave King a fist-bump hello gesture and that was enough to get him barred. This takes guilt-by-association to a whole new level, it’s now guilt by casual gesture of acknowledgement of brief conversation.
OTL has released a video of these events, so have a look for yourself:
What this video doesn’t show is that Lopes attempted to intimidate and bully my colleagues and I with insults. It also doesn’t show him later letting the actors carrying the giant cheque and expecting to be stopped enter the tent only to personally shove them out. This could either be due to incompetence or a desire to further escalate the aggression level in hopes of making us look bad. He used classic schoolyard bully tactics to try and get a rise out of us.
It worked. I’m not proud to admit it, but it worked with me briefly. When he said I was someone who couldn’t string two words together to make a sentence, I temporarily lost my cool. When he called a colleague a “real pussy” after shoving him, he lost his cool, too.
While Lopes seems to be proud of his actions and genuinely seemed to enjoy playing the thug, I wonder how hundreds of artists, two levels of government and McAuslan Brewery (brewers of St-Ambroise beer and major sponsor of the Fringe) feel about paying this guy to turn his workspace and our public space, into the schoolyard.
Since this event, I’ve seen a Gazette article mocking the Fringe’s actions and heard a CKUT radio commentator disgusted (mp3, right click, “save as…”) with how security behaved. I also read the lone report critical of infringers for going to the park in the first place. While the article itself had a pretty standard “let’s bury the hatchet” tone, the comments (now more than 40) tell another story.
People close to the Fringe have come out in droves, making very personal, and in some cases slanderous, attacks against Donovan King and others. I even read the former editor-in-chief of the Hour admit his bias, attack King and never explain why he found it justified to block coverage of Infringement artists for years at the Hour regardless of their personal involvement with King.
It’s this clique-ish mentality that unfortunately permeates the Montreal Anglo arts scene. It’s present at the Fringe, it’s present in some of the press and it’s what’s driving us apart.
I think that, if it is truly interested in peace and progress, the Fringe should distance itself from the actions of Lopes and the wrong-headed decision to blanket-bar anyone remotely connected, or casually associated, with the Infringement from Parc des Ameriques. I may be dreaming in Technicolor here, but an apology for that decision and the security boss’ actions would go a long way to building bridges in our community.
There are plenty of good people who perform at, work and volunteer for and attend the Fringe year after year. It’s a shame that the actions of a few in security, and one would assume Fringe administration, are distracting from what everyone else is doing.
At the very least, it has become crystal clear to me that a festival that puts permits, fees and borders above all else is anything but fringe. Maybe that’s why when people hear the word fringe, they don’t think of the Fringe, they think of the Infringement.
* Images courtesy of Optative Theatrical Laboratories
If you visit the House of Commons, your t-shirt could land you in trouble. That is if you wear one that says Greenpeace. Parliament Hill security, which is controlled by the RCMP, has banned anything with a Greenpeace logo on it from the Parliament Buildings in the wake of a recent banner drop by the organization.
Last Monday, approximately 14 Greenpeace activists scaled the roof of the West Block and unfurled a banner criticizing Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff of deadly inaction on climate change, an inaction that has become quite apparent in Copenhagen. The activists, along with others on the ground, were arrested.
While a spokesperson for the Speaker’s Office, which is responsible for Parliament Hill security, told reporters that this blanket ban on all things Greenpeace is merely a matter of security and not different from attempts to ban other types of cause-specific slogans from the observation deck, others disagree. NDP MP Libby Davies brought up the issue of freedom of expression and others feel this new crackdown is overkill.
Consider for a moment the fact that this security breech isn’t the kind that can physically harm anyone (except, of course, for the people who scaled the building). Also consider that people attempting a repeat action or another action and hoping to get away with it probably wouldn’t walk in the front door wearing t-shirts that shout their allegiance to the group that security is looking out for.
Now factor in the recent shouting match Harper spokesman Dimitri Soudas started with the group Equiterre in Copenhagen over a hoax that was later revealed to be done by The Yes Men (gotta love the Yes Men). Also consider the more than an hour-long inquisition of Amy Goodman, a respected journalist at the hands of border guards out of fear that she may speak negatively of the Vancouver Olympics. Throw in for good measure the treatment of Olympic dissenters as a whole.
We’re left with the impression that Canada has a government that is concerned, above all, with protecting its reputation. The tactics they use, however, just serve to make them look like a bunch of goons who will stomp on civil liberties without batting an eyelash. These, ironically, make them look far worse than their policies could.