In recent years it has become apparent that the codes, rules and norms that have determined freedom of speech and freedom of expression for a large part of our postwar history are being defined anew. We live in a time in which censorship is on the rise and civil liberties seem, increasingly, to be under threat. There is a tendency towards greater governmental control served under the pretext of ‘security issues’ as well as social order. Cultural and religious clashes have prompted the advent of hate speech laws restricting freedom of speech. At the same time, respecting different cultures or the ‘Other’, sometimes now means restricting debate through self-censorship.
The question of freedom of expression, particularly in relation to notions of tolerance and various forms of extremism, has become one of the most contentious topics of the day. In some ways, it would appear that we have entered a period of counter-enlightenment, regression and fear. The question of freedom of speech is one that is being increasingly contested in light of transformations taking place globally, both in authoritarian regimes and in liberal democracies. Apart from the fact that it relates to Denmark specifically, it is also highly relevant to much of what is happening in the world today: current events in North Africa; press intimidation and censorship in Russia and elsewhere; Google’s recent episode in China and the effects of the ‘Great Firewall of China’; recent changes to media law in Hungary and the new constitution; the WikiLeaks scandal; increased surveillance in the UK and the USA; and highly charged debates about the limits of freedom of speech in several European countries (notably, the Netherlands).
The notions of freedom of speech and freedom of expression are fundamentally bound to broader questions of politics and culture, as well as social and personal issues. They also impact upon, and are interrelated with, other areas such as the freedom of the press, censorship and self-censorship, the internet, copyright, intellectual property, the privatisation of knowledge, protest and public order, public space, judicial and legal questions, pornography, sexual orientation, lifestyle preferences, and human rights issues in general.
Denmark has a longstanding reputation for freedom of speech and the freedom of the press. It has repeatedly ranked in the top ten in the Worldwide Press Freedom Index and has always been at the forefront of the public debate on a number of progressive issues in relation to free speech. But it has also suffered the so-called ‘trauma of free speech’, making it even more appropriate to use the Danish Pavilion as a springboard from which to discuss these issues.
The exhibition at the Danish Pavilion aims to provoke a considered debate and to complicate the issue of freedom of speech. The issue seems to be increasingly used as an empty political slogan, and is often subjected to a very simplified, biased and populist debate. In reality, it is an extremely complex and often ambivalent issue that is contingent on subjective political, social, cultural, religious, and personal views. The discussion around free speech is therefore highly relative and open. This exhibition aims to highlight some of the intricacies, ambiguities and grey areas inherent to the subject, emphasising the fact that free speech cannot be exercised or applied in any programmatic or strictly prescribed manner, and its boundaries cannot be easily delimited.
The question of freedom of expression in general is also important. It relates not only to artistic and literary expression, but also to how we inhabit and occupy public space, and the freedom of the media, another site of increasing regulation. The internet adds yet another dimension to the discourse in regard to the ownership, control and dissemination of information. The subject also touches on the essence of visual artistic practice per se , which fundamentally entails and depends on conditions of freedom. Contemporary artists in a so-called free society operate under the de facto assumption that they can work in conditions of freedom - but to what extent’ In an era in which corporate and private interests increasingly compromise artistic autonomy, what about the nature of artistic freedom itself’
What do we mean by freedom of speech today’ As George Orwell put it, in an essay entitled The Freedom of the Press , ‘Is every opinion, however unpopular - however foolish, even - entitled to a hearing’’ Most advocates of freedom of speech acknowledge the need for certain limits, but what are those limits and who decides on them’ Freedom of expression and speech are often curbed for fear of offending public decency - but, again, who decides what constitutes the common, hypothetically shared sense of public decency’ What is the line separating criticism of a belief system and speech that is offensive or hurtful’
These are some of the issues and concerns that have informed the exhibition at the Danish Pavilion. While the freedom of speech debate can edge towards inflammatory rhetoric, it should be emphasised that the aim of this exhibition is not to shock, provoke or offend, but on the contrary to provide a series of reflections on the development of the debate about freedom of expression, from politics to culture, as well as to question the limits that govern the free speech argument. The aim is to elicit reflexive insight into the subject and to highlight the complexities and subjectivities that underlie it. Perhaps the visual arts, by virtue of their less deterministic and healthily detached way of operating, offer an antidote to the polarised discourse that often governs the free speech debate.
The exhibition SPEECH MATTERS features 18 international artists of different generations (the oldest born in 1934, the youngest in 1981), working in diverse media, from photography, painting and installation to cartoon and animation. Of these, 13 have been commissioned to make new works. There are artists from countries where freedom of speech is still contested and under threat, such as China and Iran; artists from countries where the issue is becoming increasingly contentious, such as the Netherlands; and artists whose work has consistently engaged with the issue in one way or another. The result is an exhibition with a lot of surprises, and with several complementary strands rather than one curatorial narrative.
It is important to point out that the understanding of freedom of speech, in this context, is not related to the spoken word, per se, but also to inextricably interrelated issues of freedom of artistic expression. The exhibition focuses on several areas of enquiry such as questions of intellectual property and copyright; language, speech and subjectivity; the relationship between free speech and history, politics, and memory; the silenced speech of voiceless or marginalized communities or persons; censorship, the suppression of information and the fabrication of memory; self-censorship and personal free speech dilemmas; and free or revolutionary speech and the public sphere.
The approach to the project is one that makes the case for a commitment to conscientious free speech and its protection. Commitment to free speech involves protecting the speech that one wants to hear, but also the speech that one may find objectionable. This principle lies at the heart of an open, democratic society, and is a basic human right. Without freedom of speech and freedom of expression, the circulation of ideas is obstructed, imagination is stifled, and knowledge barred. Being brought in contact with diverse thoughts, ideas and information can only be done when these are made public. The development of one’s thoughts and ideas is always fed and nurtured by a public, collective dialogue. It is this public dialogue that Speech Matters aims to instigate.