On Censorship

Until you bump into the hard edges of censorship, it can be difficult to believe it’s really there, happening. But blunt refusals and denials without explanation rapidly dispel the illusion. For me 2019 was the year I started to feel some of these edges. The edges of the space that I’m permitted to exist within, in society today. The idea that my female body was somehow offensive to society. Obscene. Indecent. Deserving of censorship.

But first back to the 1990’s to help understand why this has come as such a surprise. I grew-up and was a teenager in the UK during the 1990’s and early 2000’s. It was a time of ‘Lads Mags’, Page 3 models and an image of a naked Gail Porter being projected on to the Houses of Parliament. Yes, female bodies were heavily sexualised and objectified. Required to look a certain way. But I wouldn’t say I felt as if the very existence of female bodies was censored. Which perhaps helps explain why, until recently, I never really got the ‘free the nipple’ movement.

It seemed to me there were plenty of nipples around. And more to the point, the phrase ‘free the nipple’ has always reminded me of that strain of British ‘humour’ around wet T-shirt competitions, innuendo about lovely jubbly melons, jugs etc. and how hilarious having a topless calendar in a work environment is. Memo to my 17 year-old self, it’s not and you’re not wrong to feel your skin prickle. So quite frankly ‘free the nipple’ never resonated with me.

Yet somehow, fast forward to life today, drenched in social media and I’m starting to get it. That the dominant social platforms, yes Instagram and Facebook, I’m looking at you, are US corporate beasts is no coincidence. The ‘Free the Nipple’ campaign also started in the US. The added catalyst in my personal case, has probably been spending a lot more time with artists and in the art world in the last year or so.

A good friend and fellow artist who makes artwork with her body, has regularly had her entirely non-sexual work censored on Instagram. In the US printers have refused to print her work declaring her nudity to be ‘pornographic’. In response she created the “Exposure Therapy” project – distributing nipple stickers worldwide – to help normalise the female nipple. Another friend and photographer created a series of portraits called ‘This is Motherhood’ addressing the shaming and guilt that some women experience while breastfeeding. In the wake of yet another breastfeeding-in-public uproar, her work received international press coverage.

Yet female nudity in art has generally been very much accepted, if not the norm. As The Guerrilla Girls famously asked, Do Women have to be Naked to get Into the Met? Instagram is also okay with female nipples in ‘photos of paintings or sculptures’. Lucky that, as a mindboggling amount of old art features either naked women or women with artfully draped robes, falling open at the breast. Just visit the excellent @TitsFromThePast on Instagram to check out the phenomena.

But if you are an artist working today and your subject is the female body, it’s not quite so straight forward. If you want to use platforms such as Instagram to reach your audience, to share your work with an audience bigger than any single gallery, to engage with critics and curators, you’d better tread carefully, . In fact ‘feminist artists on social media’ made #6 on Hyperallergic’s ‘Twenty Most Powerless People in the Art World’. In the more literal medium of photography, Instagram has decided female nipples, aren’t okay, or, in their words, don’t belong in a ‘safe place for inspiration and expression’. Male nipples are fine, but apparently the female upper body is dangerous. Unsafe, offensive. In Europe this feels like a shock, or at least it has to me. I’m not sure I want to live in a vassal society where the rules that bind a vast chunk of communications in modern society today are set by a US corporation.

But apparently that is where we are. Thus back in October 2019, Instagram deigned to meet and discuss their policies with a number of artists who use nudity in their work. It is not clear what effect this has had. Artists essentially still face a choice whether to censor the use of nudity in their work or risk suspension from the Instagram platform. One of the attendees was the US artist Spencer Tunick, famous for his mass nude photography, typically with hundreds, if not thousands, of naked people in each frame. As he pointed out, platforms such as Instagram play a critical role in the art world and “the deletion of an artist’s account is like throwing someone’s address book and portfolio into a fire”. Those are the firm, hard, unyielding walls of censorship. And little did I know my first hand experience of them and the significant difficulties they can pose for early-stage artists was only going to grow.

Coincidentally, earlier in 2019 I had actually taken part in one of Spencer Tunick’s photoshoots. And it turns out spending 4 hours starkers, in pretty cold weather gave me serious food for thought. Some of this thinking led to the creation of The Body Room, an art project directed by myself and Emma Shapiro. The premise is deceptively simple. We provide a private space with a large papered wall and floor surface, plenty of art materials and invite women to make an appointment to spend one hour in this space, in complete privacy. The experience is for women only, as we, Shapiro & Brown, want to create a space that is an antidote to the social and political climate that women face today. In particular a space free of the many expectations that are made about the female body.

During the summer of 2019 we completed our first series of The Body Room, with 10 guests. We refined the concept, tested the practicalities and worked out how to present the experience to guests in the most open, friendly and confidence-inspiring way. As artists with limited means and options for showing our project, we turned to social media and yes, you’ve guessed it, to Instagram, to share our project with the world. Not something I had expected to be problematic. After all, it is not a project particularly rooted in questions of censorship.

I’d forgotten until recently, but when we first tried to register a new username, Instagram said no. Our original plan was for it to match our website: www.bodyroomproject.com but instead you can now find us at @the_body_room. We’re now c. 20 posts in to telling the story of our 2019 series and we’ve hit the the heady heights of 100 followers. But we’re desperate to be telling this story in Spanish too. It’s important to us as we are based in Spain and we want to be able to connect with Spanish-speaking curators, artists and critics. We want a Spanish-language presence on social media to reach future guests and find local-funding for our project. Our Spanish title is La Habitación de la Cuerpa (embracing progressive feminist use of the Spanish language). We have a logo and translations of our posts ready to go. But unfortunately Instagram doesn’t seem to want to let us open a new account. In case you’re wondering, this is what censorship looks like today …. in all its ‘computer says no’ glory.

It is clearly very frustrating, when you just want to get on with sharing your art project with the world but for some reason, Instagram just won’t let you open an account. We have tried different email addresses, different IP addresses, different devices, different browsers. We are relatively tech savvy, so have tried setting all our credentials to ‘lose’ our identity to maximum effect. We have also tried the converse, with very open settings, clearly identifiable, so we don’t seem like spammy bots. Worse, everytime Instagram denies us the use of a particular username, it seems like it is then blocked forever . This leaves us with the dilemma of do we try and create an account ‘just one more time’? .. and risk losing yet another possible permutation of our Instagram handle?

Problems registering a username are not covered in the ‘help’ section of Instagram. There is absolutely no email address, or ability to engage an actual human-being in a conversation on the matter. Just a blunt refusal and for now The Body Room in Spanish sadly remains silent and effectively censored on Instagram.

I’ve wondered whether I’m barking up the wrong tree and perhaps it’s one giant technical error. But it seems unlikely, the problem has persisted over a number of months. And even if it is a technical error, the experience of dealing with one big black box of a system, devoid of human reasoning or interaction is deeply troubling. I feel silenced and excluded from an arena where a vast swathe of communication happens today. And apparently I have no recourse. No rights. No agency. No power. It is an eye-opening experience.

Luckily for our project, the internet outside of Instagram still exists. I’d never imagined that an online order confirmation could look quite so much like freedom – but in this case it does – price, just $9.06!

And maybe, in future we’ll figure out a combination which permits us to engage with a Spanish-speaking audience on Instagram too. But for now you can find us online at lahabitaciondelacuerpa.com.

In the meantime, my thoughts are with all those artists, activists and people whose lives and work don’t fit the narrow ‘community guidelines’ of social media. The projects that don’t happen, the art work that doesn’t get seen and the voices that aren’t heard. And sadly the stakes are sometimes higher than this – the existences denied, the lives no longer lived. I sadly learnt of the recent case of a US-based equality activist who had experienced persistent censorship on social media, which seems likely to have contributed to the state of mind that ultimately took her life.

So it seems, censorship of the female body is alive and kicking today. I don’t wish for a return to the 1990s, but I do have hopes for change as we look ahead to a new decade. Firstly I would like there to be more permitted space for female bodies in society – physically, metaphorically, digitally – and ultimately legally. The equal right to exist and be present as male bodies. For our laws to unequivocally recognise this. For our businesses and media to be bound by these laws.

Next up I would like society to build a more humane online community. One that is centred on human dialogue throughout, that is open and transparent. Rules should be published and clear. An appeals process should be made available. Censorship decisions should be subject to something akin to Freedom of Information requests. Quite frankly unwritten rules, opaque judgements and arbitrary punishments hail from the realm of despotic dictatorships. They should not be the modus operandi of a significant chunk of our media today.

If we can manage these two changes, I think we stand a hope of constructing a society that doesn’t fear and shame the female body. That doesn’t deem the female body obscene. Indecent. Or deserving of censorship. Here’s hoping.