Last month I attempted to create a communal chalk drawing, by inviting the guests at an event I organized to grab a piece of chalk on the way out and contribute to a drawing that I had already started. The event was an interview with Richard Demarco, arts patron, artist and national treasure of both Scotland and the UK. In the 1970s, Demarco cultivated a strong friendship with German artist Joseph Beuys, a performance artist who developed the idea of social sculpture, which meant that even a conversation could be a work of art. He also espoused the idea that everyone is an artist—everyone has an inner creativity that is just waiting to be tapped.
Demarco, too, believes that. This is the creativity that we all access as children, as we draw in chalk on the sidewalk or colour outside the lines, paint purple clouds and blue trees, or play with imaginary friends. But somewhere in the passage from childhood to adulthood we lose that sense of wreckless abandon when it comes to creativity, especially within the context of art. We learn to follow the rules, for example, that sidewalks should be neat and unsullied, least of all by chalk. By inviting my guests, all of whom were adults, to draw on the sidewalk with chalk, I was not only giving them permission to be creative and to play, but also inviting them to become part of a community, albeit a temporary one, and create something together.
In order to lay the groundwork for this activity, I started to draw on the sidewalks myself. After about 50 meters—in which I drew smiley faces, arrows, colourful lines and bubbles—I was stopped, and told that I couldn’t continue, because I was “defacing” property. Not only was I stopped, but they actually washed the drawings away. In effect, I was censored. So were my guests, before they even started to draw. Just like the young children in strict schools who are told to colour within the lines, they were not allowed to play or be creative.
By inviting my guests, all of whom were adults, to draw on the sidewalk with chalk, I was not only giving them permission to be creative and to play, but also inviting them to become part of a community, albeit a temporary one, and create something together.
I work with, research and write about a lot of contemporary artists who experience censorship. Some are denied the right to exhibit their work, some are arrested, and some convicted. I would never claim to call myself an Artist with a big “a,” but I do consider myself a creative person who creates interesting projects that could be considered art with a small “a.” And I don’t mean to compare my experience of not being allowed to complete this project to the experiences of those artists who are denied the right to practice their craft, or incarcerated for their creativity, but I do have to say that the experience of being banned, prohibited, censored, or whatever you can call it, had a profound effect on me. In one fell swoop I was told that I was wrong, that I didn’t know what I was doing, that I didn’t have the right to express myself or realize my ideas. And it hurt. Ironically, at the time I was told to drop the chalk, I was five days away from receiving a prize for my work in public engagement, yet by being told to stop, I was being told that I didn’t know how to “do” public engagement. One of the main reasons that we are encouraged to do this public engagement with research is to achieve that ever-important “impact,” which universities covet and research councils demand. Yet I was prohibited from creating or achieving impact by the very institution for which I was attempting to get impact. Oh, the irony. Does this double irony mean that they cancel each other out? No, no they do not.
But I often wonder how this whole incident would have played out if all involved truly felt part of a community that was working toward that one common goal.
After this happened I went through a range of emotions, and I know that we aren’t supposed to talk about emotions in academia but I am going to anyway—after all, isn’t emotion part of impact? At first I felt angry and humiliated, then frustrated, stressed and anxious—which led to sleeplessness—and then I just felt sad. I suppose it gave me a unique insight into what my artists go through, which I guess is its own form of impact.
My friends and colleagues also had a range of reactions. Some thought that this was a gendered response: an older man told a younger female what she couldn’t do. One (male) colleague said that he though if he had been seen drawing in chalk on the sidewalk, the person who stopped me would have just said “oh, are you up to your crazy stuff again?!” I do a lot of crazy stuff too—once, when I told a colleague at the library that I had taped my PhD student to the desk (as part of an artistic performance, with her full agreement), she said “only you, Amy, only you!”—but perhaps my reputation hasn’t extended as widely. Another colleague said that it came down to respect, that this is just not how you treat a colleague at work, especially not in public. And that got me thinking that maybe what this whole thing comes down to is community, or the lack thereof.
A university, as an institution of higher education and research should have one common goal: the pursuit of, and sharing of, knowledge. Our institution just launched a manifesto on “Reclaiming Our University” to a similar effect. As lecturers, we are here to impart knowledge, share knowledge, encourage critical thinking, and to generate new research and new knowledge. But I do understand that there are other priorities. A university has to make money, so it has to attract students, and to do that it has to market itself and have an attractive campus. So, suddenly there are a range of competing priorities: marketing, capital investment, fundraising, etc. But still, we’re all in this together, right? We’re all here for one reason: to do all of those things to develop knowledge, right?
On the one hand, I can’t blame the individual who berated me. After all, he probably thorough he was just doing his job (for the record, I was also doing my job). But I often wonder how this whole incident would have played out if all involved truly felt part of a community that was working toward that one common goal. Maybe instead of being told I was “defacing” property, I would have been approached with a question: “what are you doing?,” or, even better “why are you doing this?” I could have explained all of the reasons above, that this was about creativity, giving individuals permission to be creative, and to create something together to develop a sense of—even just for that one evening—community.
I looked all over to find the rule that says you can’t draw in chalk on the sidewalks, and I couldn’t find it. It must be hidden in the “defacing property” clause, which could include almost anything. If to deface means to “spoil the surface or appearance of (something), for example by drawing or writing on it,” then I suppose I did deface the sidewalks, if you are of the opinion that what I did was to “spoil” them. While I understand the need to present the campus as clean, neat and pristine, I also wonder what message it would convey to show a little bit of the “mess,” too.
As an author, nothing makes me more proud than the sight of my finished book, hot off the press, gorgeous pristine over, binding ready to crack. But I also love my “mess,” my process—the view of my desk as I am working to create that final product. Mess isn’t necessarily disorder, it isn’t necessarily a spoiled surface, it is evidence of creation—and that is precisely what the chalk drawing would have been.
Mess isn’t necessarily disorder, it isn’t necessarily a spoiled surface, it is evidence of creation
I have yet to tell a person this story who does not think it was unfair, shocking, outrageous, etc., that I was prohibited from creating a simple chalk drawing—a drawing made from a natural material that, thanks to the Scottish climate, would eventually wash away. Yet, there was only one colleague who offered to try to help overturn this decision.
the reaction was muffled outrage
A number of individuals supported me via social media, and with a range of chalk drawings, statements and poems (see above), but in general, the reaction was muffled outrage. This surprised me, just as the censoring of my work did. Because all of us who try to do creative work are just one idea away from being censored. Who knows what activity you will plan next that someone will misunderstand and try to—and succeed in—preventing from happening. Maybe this is a cultural difference. Maybe censorship is just my bugaboo, the thing I might put my neck out for, but not others. But, maybe if we had more of a sense of community, others would have spoken out. Maybe the colleague who just shrugged his shoulders in acquiescence to the ruling by the one-man jury that I was “defacing” property would have defended the public engagement activity I was trying to create. Maybe others would have taken to the “streets” armed with chalk, covering the streets in an “I am Spartacus” moment—one man can stop one woman from drawing with chalk, but can he stop a community of 20 or 30?
Because all of us who try to do creative work are just one idea away from being censored.
My hope is that the Reclaiming the University movement may someday result in a greater sense of community, so that if something like this happens again, mutual support and understanding will thwart any attempt at censorship. And maybe, just maybe, those involved in shutting things down could try to look at something they don’t understand with an open mind. That’s not too much to ask at a university, is it?
PS I also created an art project as a response to being censored, which you can follow on Twitter under the hashtags #chalk and #MayFestival @PerformTheEast
I became the Rebel with a Cause, and the Cause was Art.
What became of the rebel? See for yourself…..
I became the Rebel with a Cause, and the Cause was Art.