I am an Australian who is performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, the world's largest arts festival. The fringe attracts artists from all over the world to perform in damp pop-up theatres to a handful of people a night for a whole month. Every fringe performer hopes that their show will attract public and media attention. Every fringe performer dreams of having a whole crowd of people, outside their venue, chanting.
This year one performance achieved that on the very first night. A state-funded Israeli Theatre company, Incubator, who were putting on a hip-hopera titled "The City" drew the attention of activists, concerned with Israel's assault on Gaza. The activists had organised a daily picket of the show for the duration of the festival. Stating that it was "unacceptable that an Israeli state-sponsored cultural event should go ahead at the Edinburgh Fringe" and that "If the artists were unconnected with the Israeli state [the protesters] would have no issue with them."
I walked past the protesters in Bristo square, a large festival hub housing a large number of venues, and their demonstration filled the area. Their chants were so loud that I have no doubt that they penetrated into every performance venue on the block. It was a very effective demonstration. They had signs, megaphones and everything.
After opening night (and the first picket), it was decided by promoters to cancel the remaining performances. They are now looking for another venue... presumably somewhere far away from the centre of festival activity so that the picketers don't ruin the rest of the festival for those who like to ignore the terrible things happening around the world.
My thoughts on this have been very mixed. I too have very strong views on Israel's aggression towards Palestine. But I find myself questioning whether picketing a small hip hop show at an arts festival is the best way to make a demonstration. Does the theatre company's receipt of a government grant really make them complicit in the assault on Gaza?
At the same time, the protest has been very successful. It's gained a lot of media attention and has gotten its message across clearly. Perhaps the loss of these performances and the interruption of at least twenty others is suitable collateral damage for the advancement of the cause. I definitely feel that we should be protesting against the atrocities being committed in Gaza and I cannot argue that this was an ineffective protest.
The thing that strikes me most, though, is that I've never seen this kind of demonstration before. This is my sixth year performing at the Edinburgh Fringe and my tenth performing at international arts festivals and I've never seen a performance by an American artist being picketed over the war in Iraq and I wonder why my own show is not being picketed over Australia's current refugee policy and treatment of asylum seekers.
I have also received government funding in the form of art and cultural grants. My comedy group is also "state funded" by our government just like Incubator is by theirs. Should we be a target for protest as well?
For those not in the know, there are groups of Asylum seekers who have attempted to reach Australia by boat. It is Australia's policy to stop them from arriving. Those that have been intercepted by Australian forces are sent back to their points of origin or detained, in squalid detention facilities in places like Papua New Guinea and Nauru. One man has died whilst in my "government's care", allegedly beaten to death by his guards. Many of the people in these prisons are children and babies. These people came to Australia asking for help and we put them in prison on islands.
It is my Government's concerted policy is to "stop the boats" from getting to Australia and to do this they are willing to hold people prisoner indefinitely, all the while telling people in my country that the asylum seekers are the ones acting "illegally".
The Minister in charge refuses to speak on "operational matters" and has even denied the existence or whereabouts of certain people and certain boats. It's something I wish I could make fun of by calling it Stalinist, except it's not funny because it actually might be.
Obviously you can't compare what's happening in Gaza to what's happening outside Australia; how would you even begin to do that? But I guess you can compare the kind of responses both situations are receiving.
The idea that our musical comedy show would be picketed for the actions of our current government seems absurd to me. Why is that? Why is it easier for me to separate an Australian or American performance group from the actions of their government than it is for an Israeli group? Why is it easy for me to rationalise this demonstration as reasonable but to see a similar one against me as absurd? How is it that I find it easy to accept arts grants from a government whose policies I strongly disagree with?
I really don't know but to be honest with you we've already spent the money and we'll probably keep applying for more arts grants. We made some really funny videos with the last one and I think that state support of art and culture is very important. Without state funding many works and performances would not exist. I also think it's important that artist not be beholden to their governments for receiving funding and should be free to use that funding to express dissent.
At this point, I find myself asking what I would do if a group of activists decided to picket one of my performance for a cause that I believed in and decided that I'd probably join the picket it wouldn't be the first time.