Censoring art to protect Connex's Israel connection

By Sam King

The museum-style artwork called Economy of Movement - A Piece of Palestine that was located in a subway under Melbourne’s Flinders Street train station contained two framed explanations of its centre piece — a stone, resting on a glass pedestal. The first frame explained: “The stone exhibited is from East Jerusalem, Israel (occupied Palestinian Territory). It was thrown at an Israeli Defence Force (IDF) tank by a Palestinian youth.” The second frame stated: “IDF tanks are protecting French companies Veolia (Connex) and Alstom as they conduct illegal* operations on occupied Palestinian territory. *under International Law”.

Economy of Movement by Van Thanh Rudd was part of the group exhibition Resisting Subversion of Subversive Resistance coordinated by Platform Artists Group Inc that appeared last month at the Degraves Street subway below the Flinders Street station — a major station in Melbourne’s suburban train network that is managed by the French-owned Connex corporation.

Rudd’s work was covered from the public view by the exhibition organisers after they received threats of legal action from Connex claiming the colours and font used were designed to look like Connex’s own advertising material. The Anti-Defamation Commission also made claims the artwork was “anti-Semitic” and asked that it be removed.

In response, the City of Melbourne, one of the funding bodies of Platform Artists, appointed a protocol on artworks panel that “acknowledge[d] potential concerns that might be raised by the artwork but considered them insufficient to override the freedom of expression principle articulated in the Victorian Charter of Human Rights and Responsibility”. Rudd’s artwork was then uncovered in time for the exhibition opening on March 6.

Rudd told Direct Action the decision to uncover the work “sets an important precedent, especially since on many previous occasions, radical artwork exhibited in Melbourne has been censored by the City of Melbourne”. His artwork Special Forces — After Banksy, depicting Ronald McDonald carrying an Olympic torch past a burning monk — a comment on the forces of global capitalism and its indifference to human rights (symbolised by the 2008 Beijing Olympics) was censored by the City of Melbourne in May 2008. City of Melbourne CEO Kathy Alexander claimed the artwork did not fit in with the purpose of the arts grant program, which was to show the lives of young artists in Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh City. She also said it might infringe trademark and copyright provisions.

Another Melbourne artist, Azlan Mclennan, has also faced repeated censorship from City of Melbourne and Victorian state authorities, including in 2004 with the removal of his work Fifty-Six (depicting the Israeli flag and statistics on the illegal Israeli settlements on Palestinian territory) from a shopfront art space on Flinders Street. Two years later Mclennan’s artwork Proudly UnAustralian was removed from the Trocadero Art Space billboard by Footscray police.

Connex and another French corporation, Alstom, won a 2002 tender put out by Israeli authorities to construct, maintain and operate for 30 years a light rail transportation project in Jerusalem. According to Palestinian Anti-Apartheid Wall Campaign, the project incorporates a number of Israeli settlements around East Jerusalem, built on stolen Palestinian land, ensuring “the contiguity of these colonies into the central areas of the city and provid[ing] them with a vital transport link.” The project “plays a key role in sustaining the settlements and ensuring they become a permanent fixture upon Palestinian land”.

Rudd believes Connex’s approach actually validated the purpose of his work. “Connex made flimsy claims against the artwork on grounds of aesthetics and copyright. It was clear they didn’t have the moral and legal standing to challenge the weight of international law and the gathering strength of the international boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign.”

Rudd is also a member of the activist group Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC). He stated: “Connex is coming under increasing international pressure over its illegal activities in Palestine. The BDS campaign aims at isolating and punishing companies that profit from occupation.” Rudd says PSC wants to increase BDS activities this year. He sees raising public awareness about Connex as an important part of the campaign.

The artist’s statement, displayed next to the artwork, explained: “Veolia Transportation (formerly Connex) is the international transport services division of the French-based multinational company Veolia Environnement. Veolia Transportation trades under the brand names of Veolia Transportation, Veolia Transport, Veolia Verkehr in Germany, with the former name Connex preserved in Melbourne, Lebanon, Israel and Jersey.”

For Rudd, who is also a member of the Revolutionary Socialist Party, “art can be used to infiltrate the veneer of capitalist cultural production to the point where it can leave gaping holes of truth”. The artist, whose work Residency of Thought, is currently displayed in the Guggenheim Museum in New York, is highly critical of the “post-modernist” view that he says still dominates Australia’s art institutions.

For Rudd’s latest art exhibitions visit Van Thanh Rudd. For more information about the Palestine Solidarity Campaign phone Kim Bullimore on 0439454375.