THE BODY POLITIC July/August 1984, No. 105. Chris Bearchell p. 12.
"We would have been required by the Theatres Act to [conduct this raid] if they'd been showing Bambi."
&3151; an official of the Ministry of Consumer and Commercial Relations in an interview with the Globe and Mail
Curator Jane Wright had worked hard to mount Toronto's end of the British-Canadian Video Exchange '84 at Canada's oldest artist-run centre, A Space. It wasn't until the fourth screening in the series, May 31, that the censor board's axe fell.
It was an evening of tapes "dealing with sexuality, stereotypes and self-image," although they contained nothing so controversial as nudity. The tapes, including "Framed Youth," by the London Lesbian and Gay Video Project, had all been shown and the audience was filing out of the gallery when TBP reporter Tim McCaskell noticed a mean-looking man in a dark-blue suit engaged in a heated discussion with Wright. He wandered over and discovered that the curator was being presented with documents listing the tapes (all those shown that evening) and equipment (a $2,500 videotape player on loan from Harbourfront Gallery) that were about to be seized by the man and an accomplice. Wright had been avoiding direct confrontation with the censors for the two weeks the exhibit had been open. It was their move and they'd obviously decided to take it.
Representatives of the Theatres Branch of the above-named ministry had attended three earlier screenings (including two devoted to the peace movement) in the series, which was financed by arts-funding agencies on both sides of the Atlantic. No charges were laid at the time of the raid, although the organizers were told they had contravened section 38 of the Theatres Act, which requires that they have a licensed projectionist and that films be submitted to the censor board. They were also told that they could contact censor board chairman (sic) Mary Brown the morning after the raid and that they might get the tapes back, "depending on her mood." the gallery points out that videos don't need projectionists, as they run themselves, "like sculpture," and that it is "inappropriate for the Theatres Branch to have control over these works of art."As TBP goes to press, the tapes and equipment have not been returned to A Space; nor have charges been laid. Subsequent screenings in the British-Canadian Video Exchange have gone unmolested, although seizure of the equipment forced the cancellation of British video artist Tina Keane's sculptural-installation work about the Greenham Common peace camp.
A Space members and supporters were understandably shocked and outraged at the action against a critically acclaimed art exhibition. Jane Wright said, the night of the raid, that it was "an international embarrassment and will certainly damage the reputations of all art institutions in the province. When the province moves with such a heavy hand against an art gallery, what's next? Are they going to be judging paintings and drawings, too?"
While this exhibition is completely consistent with the video work exhibited by A Space since 1970, according to the gallery's board of directors, this is the first project of its scope to be mounted and presented in Canada. The gallery fears the intervention of the Theatres Branch jeopardizes the future of all such exhibitions.
In spite of the fact that censorship is a natural issue around which the alternative-arts world could organize a common political response, many worry that the competition fostered among artists and galleries will undermine A Space's chances for widespread support within the arts community.
These days, the Ontario Censor Board operates in spite of court decisions that it is unconstitutional unless the "community standards" by which it decides what to censor are defined in law. Technically, the board &151; which is about to be renamed, in Newspeak, the Ontario Film Review Board doesn't yet have jurisdiction over videotapes. Consumer and Commercial Relations Minister Robert Elgie introduced legislation May 28 that he hopes will answer the court's objections. It will also extend the board's power to "classify, cut and ban" videotapes.
The legislation, introduced only three days before the raid, will not likely be enacted before this September.
The horror of this incident is that, as our official from the ministry noted, the content of the tapes is irrelevant. The censor board, riding a wave of pro-censorship sentiment, has taken upon itself to extend its mandate to video, happy to use a bureaucratic device to harass suspicious art, regardless of what that art may contain. The prior censorship demanded by the board has nothing to do with what might or might not be acceptable according to contemporary Canadian community standards that's the business of the Criminal Code, however poorly those standards may be defined there. While the obscenity provisions in criminal law make the censor board quite unnecessary for anyone's "protection," it remains a useful administrative, rather than judicial, means of controlling what the public may see.
The revamping of the censor board has been justified as a means to curb the spread of pornographic video cassettes for home consumption. The first target of the censors' videomania, however, has been not under-the-counter smut, but an alternative art gallery showing what may as well have been Bambi. What anti-censorship advocate could resist saying "I told you so"? But that's small comfort as you watch your worst fears being realized.