Warning: cellos, paintbrushes, sketchpads and cameras on UK Borders Agency’s list of suspicious items

The UK now has a 'Borders Agency' that seems to be philistine, stupid, and counter-productive.
Manick Govinda
20 November 2010

A Cellist was held at Heathrow Airport and questioned for 8 hours this week.  A terrorist suspect?  False passport?  Drug smuggling?  If only it was so dramatic and spectacular.  Her crime was coming to the UK with her cello, to participate in musicology conference organised by the School of Music at the University of Leeds and it was for this reason that Kristin Ostling was deported back to Chicago.  What was UK Borders Agency (UKBA) thinking?  That she would sell her cello to earn some cash, or do a spot of moonlighting at some secretive classical music gig, while she was here?
The Conference organiser, Professor Derek Scott informed the Manifesto Club that “She was not being paid a penny for this, but these zealous officers decided that playing a cello is work and, paid or unpaid, she could not be allowed in.”
Sadly this is not a unique case of a UKBA jobsworth being ludicrously overzealous, but part of a systematic strategy of threatening warnings to artists and musicians that they have to submit to the points-based system (PBS).  Under these rules, introduced by New Labour nearly two years ago, any organisation which wishes to invite non-EU artists or academics must register as a ‘licensed sponsor’. Their visitors must then go through a set of arduous procedures, including giving biometric details and proving that they hold savings; and then the host organisation is responsible for monitoring them for the duration of their stay, and must inform the UKBA if their visitor is delayed for any reason or exhibits ‘suspicious behaviour’. Host organisations must also agree to collaborate with the UKBA at all times, including handing over staff details or allowing the inspection of their premises.
At the Manifesto Club we have received reports from artists which would be worthy of a Kafka-inspired collection of short stories.  The message of the UKBA to non-EU visiting artists: you are welcome to visit, but you’re not allowed to be an artist while you’re here.  It’s like being temporarily stripped of your identity until you return home.
The UKBA is snooping around grassroots and alternative arts activities, threatening visiting artists and their hosts with alarming regularity.  In August this year I was told by the curator John Askew how two artists he invited to collaborate to make an installation at Yinka Shonibare’s space Guests Projects were intimidated by UKBA.  The installation by the US-based visiting artist, and British based Singaporean Lynn Charlotte Lu, “was removed from the gallery at the very last moment because of concern that both the artists and the space might be liable to prosecution because the artists didn't have work permits.”  The same US artist was deported in 2009 because she was coming to create an artwork for a commercial gallery that was not a “licensed sponsor”.  Her second visit this year was as a tourist.  However, her UK-based collaborator Lynn Charlotte Lu told me that the US artist“was nevertheless interrogated for hours due to her previous art-related deportation. The immigration officer then phoned me to interrogate and threaten me. He warned me that if X was found to be making art on this trip, that I would be fined and blacklisted, and that he already knew all of my details.”

The story then became even more surreal, as the US artist was subjected to a bizarre interrogation at UK customs:

“The officer then asked X to ‘prove’ that she will not make art in London. When X said she did not know how to do that, the officer asked what he would find if he searched her bags. When she mentioned watercolour paints, he demanded to know what she planned to do with them. She replied that she may wish to make some paintings in her sketchbook of London's architecture, etc. He then asked her to ‘prove’ that she had made watercolour paintings in her sketchbook before. She flipped through her book and showed him some watercolours she had made. He said, ‘These aren't watercolours of buildings. Show me a watercolour of a building.’ Luckily she happened to have some sketches in another notebook. He was finally appeased (of what we still do not know), and let her through customs with a stern warning. “

The US artist entered the UK, and started building the work. But during that week they investigated further, and found out that making any art – even if unpaid – was counted as ‘work’ and required official clearance. “ We learned that since the beginning of the recession, visiting non-EU artists are no longer permitted to make art without official sponsorship (expensive and time-consuming) by an institution, and while on 'Visitors Visa' are permitted to do nothing more than sight-see. If caught: deportation, a fine, and blacklisted forever.” It was because of this that they decided to withdraw the show.

US Photographer Alec Soth was threatened by UKBA, and told that he could face imprisonment for 2 years should he be caught taking photographs for an exhibition commissioned by Brighton Photo Biennial. He ingeniously got around these rules by getting his 7 year old daughter to take his photographs.

Meanwhile, the Brazilian theatre company Teatro da Curva was deported for intending to perform at the Camden Fringe, a festival not recognized as an official exemption from the points-based system.

The common feature of all these examples are that these art projects are run, not for economic motives, but for a love and passion for classical music, contemporary art and experimental theatre.  The artists are rarely paid or if they are it’s a modest commission fee or box office split - a week’s run at a 50-seat theatre venue is not going to break any box office records.  However, in the eyes of the UKBA, bringing your musical instrument, your paintbrushes, sketchbook or camera equipment makes you a likely candidate for breaking the law, and so sets the condition that you are not allowed to make or do any art during your visit.

These preposterous rules are stifling the grassroots and alternative arts scene, and the UK is being made all the poorer as international dialogue and exchange becomes policed and regulated by a pointless bureaucratic machinery.  Officials have recognized the economic value of culture, and provide exemptions for high-profile festivals such as Edinburgh, Glastonbury or WOMAD, but the grassroots are suffering most, where events are arranged informally and little if no money changes hands. What the policymakers seem to have forgotten is that every arts scene grows up from its grassroots: the Edinburgh Fringe springs from the Camden Fringe. It is now more urgent than ever to call for PBS to be scrapped and to tell the philistine Home Office and UKBA to keep out of our cultural affairs, and to stop spying on our invited guest artists.

Manick Govinda is head of artists' advisory services at ArtsAdmin, and leads the Manifesto Club's Visiting Artists campaign against the Points-Based Immigration System, wich has a petition for registering your support.  

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