Steve Walsh got himself into a world of hurt when he took a photo of a microwave oven at this local servo. Carrie Miller reports.
There’s a long history to the Nanny State sticking its upturned moral nose into the art world’s business. But things have really reached a low point when individual citizens take it upon themselves to morally police creative expression.
Take the experience of experimental filmmaker and performance artist, Steve Walsh.
While going about his business lampooning that cultural icon of mediocrity Meg Ryan by attempting to take a picture for his video “Hey, Meg Ryan” at his local service station, Walsh encountered what might just be the thin end of the artistic censorship wedge.
As Walsh tells it:
“My local petrol station is, or at least was, my preferred place for buying milk as I can get 4 litres for $5, much better than the fruit shop up the road where it would cost me $7.38, even though carrying the 4kg load the extra distance makes my elbows sore. On the day in question I wasn’t there for milk, I just wanted to take a photo of their microwave oven for my new rap video “Hey, Meg Ryan. (Do you need some gas?)“. I went in, headed straight for the microwave, took a couple of snaps (without flash) and then was stopped on my way out by the Indian gentleman behind the counter. “What were you doing?” he said. He had a kind of mean look on his face. This was the nice guy who always smiled at me and said nice things when I bought my milk. He’d even told me how I could split the milk deal and change it for a loaf of bread and 2 litres of milk, which is much more convenient if you’re having trouble getting through all the milk by the use by date, although technically 50 cents less value.
“He wasn’t friendly at all with me today. “I just took a few photos of your microwave,” I said. He still looked mean, but also a little confused. “What is this for?” he said. “I’m an artist,” I said, hoping this would close the matter. “You can’t take photos without permission,” he said. “Can I take photos of your microwave?” I said. “No,” he said. Then his colleague came out. I recognised him too from previous visits. “He was taking photos of our microwave,” said the first guy. The second guy looked at me liked I’d just rubbed my own poo all over the door. “You can’t take photos of the microwave,” he said.
“And then I said something which I regret to this day: “I’ll delete them then. No big deal.” “Okay,” said the second guy. And then I did something that I regret to this day. I actually deleted them and they didn’t even look to check. I could have just pretended to and they wouldn’t have known the difference. “There,” I said, holding up the camera. But what I wanted to say add was, “You f__king c__ts I will never come in here and buy your shitty milk again.” And I never have. Because now we get our milk delivered and it costs slightly more than it does at the fruit shop. Oh, and I got the photo I needed from a Google images search, which, I think, technically makes me a copyright violator which is a far worse crime than taking an unauthorised picture of a microwave oven in a convenience store.”
Management of the service station were unavailable for comment today. One only has to view Walsh’s video to see that the work was potentially compromised by his inability to shoot live footage of the microwave. While the artist was able to substitute the vision, it’s conceivable that the end product may have been more successfully resolved if he had had access to his preferred choice of microwave.
Walsh’s experience is not a solitary one. I’ve spoken to a number of artists, particularly those making performance and video work, who report being harassed and at times prevented from executing work in public spaces.
For many in the arts community, the rise of Kevin Rudd represented a shift in the collective consciousness about culture. But it seems getting rid of the small, suburban solicitor mentality of the Howard government has done nothing in real terms to alter people’s perception of the significance of the arts to this country’s culture more broadly. The reality is that we have a culturally conservative, Christian, rural Queenslander as our Prime Minister. It’s not the f__king 70s, people. And it was never going to be enough to have an ex-rock star as Minister for the Arts – indeed that appointment is increasingly looking like an act of tokenism and a bad one at that.
It’s time to face the fact that, despite a change of government, we continue to live in a place where contemporary art practices are at risk of being severely compromised.
Artists need to stand up and be counted before their freedoms are irrevocably eroded, not only by the State but by ordinary citizens who appear to have internalised a populist, anti-intellectual position on cultural production.
Just imagine a world without the videos of Steve Walsh. If that’s not a call to arms, I don’t know what is.