Sonja van Kerkhoff's Oxford performance art

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Date: 2002

Region: Europe

Subject: Political/Economic/Social Opinion Language

Medium: Performance Art


Artist: Sonja van Kerkhoff (b. 1960)

Confronting Bodies: Oxford City Council, and artist collaborator.

Dates of Action: October 2002

Location: Oxford, England at the Carfax intersection.

Description of Artwork: The artwork was a series of performances and interactive pieces. An initial segment of the work engaged several artists to draw on the sidewalks of Oxford transposing cultural archetypes from their homelands on to the streets. Different sayings, monuments, and traditional activities were illustrated by artists, who hailed from all over Europe. One of the artists who helped Sonja organize the event became upset by the writings on the street. The irate artist then told Sonja to remove the work. Sonja, caring for the integrity of the simulation of colonization did not feel comfortable interceding in the messages delivered by her fellow colonizing artists. The disapproving member of the performance then acquired a mop and removed the work. The project continued on from there relatively smoothing. The remaining performances continued to focus on aspects of colonization, such as artists exchanging and trading objects to the native Oxfordians, which had no intrinsic value to them (e.g. a plastic coin), in an effort to have the population adopt Sonja, "the colonizer's," values. The final stage of the performance received much scrutiny from the local government. The last piece was to incorporate four different groups situated at the four corners of the Carfax intersection. One group of artists would sit and read silently, the second would stand and read aloud narrations from their own cultures works, the third group would read pieces of poetry that were culturally poignant, and the fourth group was designed to debate amongst themselves issues of language and colonization.

The Incident: Sonja submitted the proposal for the fourth scene to May Wylie, the twinning officer for the City Council of Oxford. The Council ruled Sonja was not allowed to use the title "Colonizing Oxford,” no publicity was allowed for this piece, and all the reading material had to be submitted to the council for approval. Furthermore, a debater was not allowed to participate by decree of the council. The council's explanation for their censorship was that the political nature of the work would cause race riots. They elaborated stating such work would threaten the non-political nature of artistic exchange between cities that was the council's purpose in allowing Sonja, a Dutch woman, to perform her work at Oxford. The city council after reviewing the pieces to be read aloud, strongly dissented against and prohibited readers from orating in their native tongue. The chief Counselor, when confronted with her acts of censorship by the press, responded: "We were concerned for her [Sonja's] safety and we thought that this event might cause a breach of race relations. It would be like an Oxford artist going over to Holland and giving talks on how the Dutch were colonial. It has nothing to do with modern-day life." Sonja memorialized the mutilation of her work by the council, through entitling the last segment of her work "Olonizing Oxford," removing the C.

Results of Incident: Sonja went to the press regarding the incident. A great social uproar ensued. The city council denied censoring the work and claimed the abridgement was for reasons of traffic safety. After the fervor subsided, however and an article appeared in the Oxford Mail, Sonja received the following email from Councilor Craig Simmons.

"Myself and Oxford's other Green Party Councilors were saddened to hear of your treatment during your recent visit to our city.

We DID NOT agree with the Council's decision to ban your work. If you wish to return and perform again in Oxford we are happy to support you."

Source: Index for Free Expression, and Sonja's website.