18 June 2022

Pääministerin morsian



Matti Vanhanen, Prime Minister of Finland from 2003 to 2010, was largely seen as rather bland during his two terms in office. That reputation was briefly tested when a book by his former girlfriend, a caterer called Susan Kuronen, was published in 2007.

There was nothing scandalous about Vanhanen’s relationship with Kuronen—he and his wife were already divorced—so her somewhat tawdry kiss-and-tell book, Pääministerin morsian (‘the Prime Minister’s bride’), had no real public-interest defence. In fact, more than 50,000 Finns signed a petition calling on bookshops to refuse to stock it.

Vanhanen sued the publisher for invasion of privacy, as the book included personal text messages he had sent to Kuronen during their relationship. He sought $1,450 in damages (plus $83,200 in royalties and profits), and initially lost the case, though he won on appeal, a decision upheld by Finland’s Supreme Court in 2010. Kuronen lost her appeal at the European Court of Human Rights in 2014, seven years after Vanhanen’s lawsuit was first filed.

Boiled Angels

The case has interesting parallels with former UK prime minister John Major. Like Vanhanen, Major was perceived as grey and dull (a reputation caricatured by Spitting Image), and he also sued over reports of an alleged affair with a caterer. In that case, however, the allegation was false, though Major was having an affair with one of his ministers, Edwina Currie, at the time.

08 June 2022

No Love Deep Web


No Love Deep Web

No Love Deep Web has one of the most provocative covers of any album: an uncensored photograph of an aroused phallus. Specifically, the organ belongs to Zach Hill, the drummer from the band Death Grips, and the record was released in 2013. (The album was rereleased in 2020 with a plain slipcase.) Frontal nudity on record sleeves is very rare, and this is the first and only erection on an album cover.

Perhaps the closest equivalent is the explicit H.R. Giger painting Penis Landscape, which was issued as a poster with the Dead Kennedys’ LP Frankenchrist. After a fourteen-year-old girl bought that album in California, her mother made a police complaint, and the record label was charged with distributing harmful material to minors. (Coincidentally, another music-related obscenity case was also unwittingly instigated by a fourteen-year-old girl: the daughter of a Canadian police officer bought the Dayglo Abortions albums Here Today Guano Tomorrow and Feed Us a Fetus, and her father filed an obscenity charge.)

Home


Home

Canadian band Numenorean caused controversy in 2016 by using a post-mortem photograph of a two-year-old girl as the cover for their debut album Home. (On the CD version, the exploitative cover is inside a slipcase.) Kristen MacDonald was killed by her father in 1970, in a well-documented murder case, and the band explained their use of her image in the album’s liner notes: “Perhaps what we are really searching for is the innocence that we once had as a child. However, since we are incapable of ever getting that back, the only place we can perhaps find this comfort once more is in death.”

The first photograph of a dead body on a record cover was perhaps the Dead Kennedys’ single Holiday in Cambodia, released in 1980. The 12" single appropriated Neal Ulevich’s image of a public lynching after the 6th October 1976 massacre. Another notorious lynching appeared on the cover of the Public Enemy single Hazy Shade of Criminal in 1992: Lawrence Beitler’s 1930 photograph of the hangings of J. Thomas Shipp and Abraham S. Smith in Indiana. (This photo also inspired the writing of Strange Fruit, one of the most powerful protest songs in popular music history.)

There have also been two examples of severed heads on album covers. Pungent Stench’s 1991 album Been Caught Buttering used Joel-Peter Witkin’s photograph Le baiser (‘the kiss’)—a decapitated head sawn in half, appearing to kiss itself—as its cover image. Then, in 1993, Brujeria bought the reproduction rights to a photo of the head of a murder victim from the Mexican tabloid magazine ¡Alarma! (‘warning!’), for the cover of their album Matando Güeros (‘killing whiteys’).

UK goregrind band Carcass used montages of autopsy photographs as the covers for their albums Reek of Putrefaction in 1988 and Symphonies of Sickness a year later. Both albums were seized when police raided Earache Records in 1991, though no charges were filed. The raid was prompted by the earlier seizure of cover art for the Pain Killer album Guts of a Virgin. That image—an autopsy photo of a woman with her intestines exposed, in a tasteless pun on the album title—was destroyed by customs as potentially obscene, and the album was released with a modified cover. (The uncensored photo was used for the Japanese CD release.) Clearly, goregrind record sleeves are as gross as their titles, and Last Days of Humanity’s albums, such as Hymns of Indigestible Suppuration from 2000, are particularly nauseating examples.

02 June 2022

“It sets back the clock...”


Fairfax County Circuit Court

Johnny Depp has won his defamation case against his ex-wife Amber Heard, after the trial concluded yesterday. Depp had sued Heard for libel in relation to three sentences in an op-ed she wrote, and Heard counter-sued Depp over three quotes attributed to his lawyer. Although Heard won in one of those instances, the trial was a victory for Depp, who won in all three of his cases and was awarded the maximum legal entitlement of $10 million in damages.

Depp’s lawsuit related to a Washington Post op-ed published in 2018, in which Heard described her personal connection to domestic violence: “I became a public figure representing domestic abuse, and I felt the full force of our culture’s wrath for women who speak out.” She also wrote: “I had the rare vantage point of seeing, in real time, how institutions protect men accused of abuse.” The jury determined that both statements defamed Depp, even though he was not named in the article. They also concluded that the op-ed’s online headline (“I spoke up against sexual violence — and faced our culture’s wrath. That has to change”) was defamatory, and that Heard was liable for this even though she had not written it. (Like other headlines, it was written by a subeditor.)

Heard counter-sued for $100 million over three statements issued by Depp’s lawyer, Adam Waldman, to the Daily Mail. Waldman was first quoted in the Mail on 7th April 2020 (on page 38), and on the newspaper’s website the following day: “Amber Heard and her friends in the media use fake sexual violence allegations as both a sword and shield, depending on their needs. They have selected some of her sexual violence hoax ‘facts’ as the sword, inflicting them on the public and Mr Depp.” He was quoted again online on 27th April 2020: “we have reached the beginning of the end of Ms Heard’s abuse hoax against Johnny Depp.” Those statements were not regarded as defamatory by the jury.

A third quote from Waldman, which also appeared online on 27th April 2020, was deemed defamatory, for which Heard was awarded $2 million in damages. Waldman said: “They set Mr Depp up by calling the cops, but the first attempt didn’t do the trick. The officers came to the penthouses, thoroughly searched and interviewed, and left after seeing no damage to face or property. So Amber and her friends spilled a little wine and roughed the place up, got their stories straight under the direction of a lawyer and publicist, and then placed a second call to 911.” (The Mail has deleted each of these Waldman quotes from its website, though the Washington Post has not deleted Heard’s op-ed.)

The verdict was in stark contrast to the outcome of Depp’s libel case in the UK two years earlier. He had sued The Sun after it referred to him by name as a “WIFE-BEATER” in a headline, though he lost the case and the judge described the allegation as “substantially true”. US defamation law is much stricter than that of the UK, with a requirement to prove ‘actual malice’ in cases involving public figures, making the outcome all the more surprising. The jury’s verdict seemingly reflects their belief that Heard deliberately falsified her abuse claims in a vendetta against Depp.

Perhaps the key difference between the UK and US cases is that the former was decided by a judge whereas the latter was a jury trial. The US trial was televised, and Heard had been convicted in the court of public opinion long before the jury’s verdict was announced. It’s possible that the (unsequestered) jury was influenced by the extensive coverage the trial received on social media, which was overwhelmingly negative towards Heard, or that the jurors themselves formed the same opinion of her as the armchair pundits.

After the verdict, Heard described it as a retrograde decision: “It sets back the clock to a time when a woman who spoke up and spoke out could be publicly shamed and humiliated.” Depp, on the other hand, welcomed the apparent vindication of his “quest to have the truth be told”. (Heard and Depp were photographed in Fairfax County Circuit Court by Jim Lo Scalzo.)

26 May 2022

สงครามเย็น (ใน)ระหว่าง โบว์ขาว



Kanokrat Lertchoosakul’s book สงครามเย็น (ใน)ระหว่าง โบว์ขาว (‘the Cold War (in)between the white bow’), published last year, examines the roles of successive generations in the current Thai political protest movement. Kanokrat argues that the present government, which came to power in a military coup, is a remnant of the Cold War era, when authoritarianism was accepted by society at large. (Director Apichatpong Weerasethakul discusses this older generation’s submissive attitude in Thai Cinema Uncensored: “disruption of the flow and unity is a really big deal. Like my Mum... she is in the generation of Sarit [Thanarat], all these people who were very powerful.”) On the other hand, today’s students are much less tolerant of Thailand’s top-down culture, and in 2020 the Free Youth anti-government group encouraged high school students to wear white ribbons as a symbol of resistance.

What’s most remarkable about the book is its inclusion (on page 57) of the Dao Siam (ดาวสยาม) front page that sparked the 6th October 1976 massacre. (The newspaper falsely accused Thammasat University students of lèse-majesté, and vigilantes stormed the campus.) For more than thirty years, there was an unspoken prohibition against reproducing Dao Siam’s incendiary headline and photo. Sarakadee (สำรคดี) magazine broke the taboo in its June 2012 issue, though other publications have only recently followed suit. The front page has appeared in only three other books, all published within the last three years: 45 ปี 6 (‘45 years of 6th Oct.’), Prism of Photography (ปริซึมของภาพถ่าย), and Moments of Silence. Heavily obscured by overpainting, it’s also part of Thasnai Sethaseree’s new Cold War exhibition at MAIIAM in Chiang Mai.

04 May 2022

Shadow Dancing:
Where Can We Find a Silver Lining in Challenging Times?


Shadow Dancing

The group exhibition Shadow Dancing: Where Can We Find a Silver Lining in Challenging Times? opened on 17th March at the Jim Thompson Art Center in Bangkok. It’s the second in a series of exhibitions that explore the aftermath of the Cold War, after last year’s Future Tense. This time, the emphasis is on Taiwan and Thailand, and the highlights are two video installations: Paths to Utopia by Ting-Ting Chen and ANG48 by Chulayarnnon Siriphol.

Ting-Ting Chen is Taiwanese, though the various elements of her Paths to Utopia installation have a global and specifically Thai focus. The video was inspired by the movie The Beach, which portrayed Thailand as both a tropical paradise and as the centre of a violent drug trade. (When The Beach was released in Thailand, a group of MPs called for it to be banned, and there were protests at its Thai premiere.) The artist juxtaposes idyllic shots of Phi Phi island (where The Beach was filmed) with a collage of news footage of anti-government protests, showing that achieving utopia is a contested process and that picture-postcard scenery doesn’t reveal the whole truth.

Chulayarnnon’s ANG48 is a two-channel video installation whose full title is ANGSUMALIN48 / ANG48 / Alliance of Nippon Girls 48 (อังศุมาลิน 48 หรือ เอเอ็นจี 48 หรือ พันธมิตรสตรีนิปปอง 48). Like Paths to Utopia, it was also inspired by an existing movie—Sunset at Chaophraya (คู่กรรม)—and clips from that film are repurposed to create a new narrative. (Sunset at Chaophraya, based on a classic Thai novel, has been remade numerous times, though ANG48 uses footage from the original 1988 film version. On the Art Center’s website, one letter—อ—is missing from the full title of Chulayarnnon’s video.)

Chulayarnnon often creates fictional characters, or appropriates them from existing sources, giving them new biographies—most elaborately in his Museum of Kirati exhibition and the accompanying book Kirati Memorial (หนังสืออนุสรณ์กีรติ). In ANG48, he conjures up a new science-fiction backstory for Angsumalin, the heroine of Sunset at Chaophraya, which he combines with his short film Birth of Golden Snail (กำเนิดหอยทากทอง). That film was banned from the Thailand Biennale, and ANG48 includes clips from it alongside a new voice-over by the female protagonist, who explains that Thai soldiers forbade her from making Japanese desserts: “from now on the mochi I made would be a forbidden sweet. No consumption, production, or sale... I was very sad but had to keep my feelings inside.” This metaphor for the censorship of Birth of Golden Snail is followed by a shot of the rejection letter from the Biennale.

Like Planetarium, his segment of 10 Years Thailand, ANG48 is a summation of Chulayarnnon’s recent video works. Along with clips from Birth of Golden Snail, it also incorporates footage from his music video The Internationale, his short film Golden Spiral, and his Parade of Golden Snail (ขบวนแห่หอยทากทอง) performance. Birth of Golden Snail will be available to stream from 4th to 6th May, and ANG48 on 6th May, both as part of the online event Re/enacting History and Decolonizing Genteel Romance in Thailand and Asia. Shadow Dancing closes on 5th June.

27 April 2022

“Conspiracy to corrupt public morals...”


Ladies Directory Classified

Alfred Barrett’s lonely hearts magazine The Link, founded in 1915, was certainly ahead of its time. It published personal ads, though as its masthead proudly proclaimed, they were “NOT MATRIMONIAL” in nature. So if people weren’t looking for a spouse, what could they be looking for...? The Metropolitan Police pondered that very question, after R.A. Bennett—editor of another magazine, the moralistic Truth—sent copies of The Link to Scotland Yard.

Bennett suspected that some of The Link’s classified ads were coded messages written by gay men. One example, which he underlined with a literal blue pencil, was by someone “anxious to correspond with friend. Must be same sex, affectionate, and amiable”. Homosexuality was illegal in Britain at the time, and the police seized not only copies of The Link but also letters sent to the box numbers advertised. Barrett was convicted of conspiracy to corrupt public morals in 1921, and sentenced to two years’ hard labour.

Forty years later, in 1961, another publisher was convicted of the same offence. Frederick Shaw’s Ladies Directory, founded in 1959, was a catalogue of ads placed by prostitutes (the equivalent of the ‘tart cards’ left in phone boxes). Shaw himself had sent his publication to the Director of Public Prosecutions, seeking guidance on its legality. He got his answer when the DPP charged him with conspiracy to corrupt public morals, and after his conviction he served nine months in prison. The charge—which set a legal precedent—related specifically to issues 7-10 of the Ladies Directory. (My copy of number 8 is an undated and unpaginated A5 booklet.)

In 1965, Way Out led a revival of the lonely hearts magazine, and soon inspired imitators such as Exit and numerous others. In his authoritative Encyclopedia of Censorship, Jonathon Green noted that these titles “were not prosecuted, and more respectable magazines began to run lonely hearts columns that might have been indictable in earlier years.” H.G. Cocks, however, in his book Classified: The Secret History of the Personal Column, demonstrates that these titles were indeed prosecuted for conspiracy to corrupt public morals: “The way the police in Britain investigated smalltime magazines like Exit and Way Out while their American counterparts merely shrugged as their own swinging industry exploded, tells us everything about the differences between the two countries.” (Classified’s coverage of the investigation into Exit and Way Out sets it apart from other books on censorship in Britain.)

The last major conviction for consiracy to corrupt public morals came in 1970, when three publishers of the underground magazine International Times received suspended sentences. In 1969 (issues 51-56), IT published a column of gay personal ads (Males), and this gave the Metropolitan Police the excuse they needed to prosecute the magazine, after several previous speculative raids on its offices. In an echo of the investigation into The Link fifty years earlier, and notwithstanding the legalisation of homosexuality in 1967, the police seized hundreds of letters sent in reply to the ads. The editors of a more famous underground title, Oz, were acquitted of conspiracy to corrupt public morals in 1971, though after a prolonged trial they were found guilty of obscenity (a verdict later overturned on appeal).

30 March 2022

#รัฐบาลเผด็จการ


Same Sky

Thai police have ordered Same Sky Books to remove a banner from its booth at the National Book Fair. The banner reproduced various anti-government social media hashtags, and the police singled out #รัฐบาลเผด็จการ (‘dictatorial government’) as particularly unacceptable.

The cloth banner, suspended from the ceiling, had been on display since the Book Fair opened at Bang Sue Grand Station in Bangkok on 26th March. The police asked Same Sky to remove it two days later. After some negotiation, the publisher reversed the banner yesterday, making the text unreadable and highlighting the act of censorship.

Ironically, of course, the authoritarian police action demonstrates the accuracy of the hashtag under dispute. Police also visited Same Sky’s booth at the 2014 Book Fair, forcing them to remove three t-shirts from sale. This year’s Book Fair runs until 6th April.

06 March 2022

‘This madness must be stopped!’



On 2nd March, the offices of four local newspapers were raided by Russian police, who seized all copies before they could be distributed. Each paper had printed a front-page headline calling for an end to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine: “ЭТО БЕЗУМИЕ ДОЛЖНО БЫТЬ ОСТАНОВЛЕНО!” (‘this madness must be stopped!’).

Russian media is heavily censored, and state television—which broadcasts Kremlin propaganda—remains the most popular source of news. Even terms such as ‘war’ and ‘invasion’ are forbidden in coverage of the Ukraine conflict, making the headlines all the more courageous. The four newspapers are: Вечерний Краснотурьинск (‘Krasnoturyinsk evening news’), Вечерний Карпинск (‘Karpinsk evening news’), ПроСевероуральск (‘Severouralsk news’), and Глобуса (‘the globe’).

04 March 2022

Kleptopia:
How Dirty Money Is Conquering the World



A mining company has lost its libel case against a journalist who implied it had arranged the killings of several senior staff. In his book Kleptopia: How Dirty Money Is Conquering the World, Tom Burgis describes the mysterious deaths of former employees of the Eurasian Natural Resources Corporation, which was being investigated by the Serious Fraud Office in the UK. Burgis also wrote an eight-page cover story about the case for the FT Weekend Magazine—headlined “Silent Witnesses”—published on 2nd October 2020.

In Kleptopia, Burgis alleges that two former ENRC staff died in suspicious circumstances, describing them as “the deceased bearers of ENRC’s secrets”. James Bethel and Gerrit Strydom died in their separate hotel rooms on the same night in 2015, during a road trip. Malaria was recorded as the cause of both men’s deaths, though Burgis points out that their malaria parasites had different genotypes, making it impossible that they were both infected at the same time. As he writes in his magazine piece, this begs the question: “if malaria did not kill the two men, what did?”

A third man associated with ENRC, James Bekker, died when his parked car caught fire in 2016. His body was found on the back seat. In Kleptopia, Burgis implies that he was silenced: “Bekker knew... that the valuation must have been inflated. And he had started telling people as much.” In the FT Weekend Magazine, Burgis alleges that Bekker was the victim of a contract killing: “local crime gangs claimed to have a source who said a contract on Bekker’s life had been paid out.”

ENRC sued Burgis and HarperCollins, who published Kleptopia, though the case was dismissed at yesterday’s High Court hearing in London, and any potential appeal was denied. The judge ruled that ENRC was not defamed by Burgis, as a corporation cannot be held legally responsible for murder. Speaking outside court, Burgis said: “I’m delighted that this attempt to censor Kleptopia has failed.”

24 February 2022

“Harry tried to keep his legal fight over bodyguards secret...”


The Mail on Sunday

Prince Harry yesterday launched a third lawsuit against the publisher of The Mail on Sunday, after the newspaper accused him of attempting to suppress coverage of his legal case against the Home Office over payments for police protection. The article under dispute, by Kate Mansey, was headlined “REVEALED: How Harry tried to keep his legal fight over bodyguards secret”.

The article was published on 20th February, on page 13. The lead is as follows: “Prince Harry tried to keep details of his legal battle to reinstate his police protection secret from the public, The Mail on Sunday can reveal.” The story is still available on the Mail’s website, and Mansey’s tweets promoting it have not been deleted, despite yesterday’s libel action against the publisher, Associated Newspapers.

Harry previously sued The Mail on Sunday for libel in 2020, after it alleged that he had ceased contact with the Royal Marines. His wife Meghan sued the newspaper for breach of privacy and copyright in 2019, when it published extracts from a letter she had written to her father.

In both cases, the Sussexes received undisclosed damages from the publisher. Meghan was paid only a nominal sum of £1 for breach of privacy, though the legal precedent was more significant: the judge ruled in her favour without a trial, his verdict was upheld on appeal, and Associated Newspapers covered her substantial legal costs.

07 February 2022

บันทึกการเมืองด้วยเส้นสายลายการ์ตูน 3



More than a decade ago, veteran political cartoonist Sakda Saeeow was accused of lèse-majesté and subjected to a three-year police investigation, after one of his cartoons was misinterpreted. The case—which has not been fully disclosed until now—stemmed from a newspaper cartoon published in Thai Rath (ไทยรัฐ) on 9th March 2009, showing Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva as a puppet of his deputy, Suthep Thaugsuban. (Suthep was known to be the Democrat Party’s fixer, pulling the strings behind the scenes.)

The butt of the joke was Sondhi Limthongkul, portrayed as a toad complaining that he had been sidelined despite his PAD protests paving the way for Abhisit’s premiership. (This is a reference to the Thai idiom ‘คางคกขึ้นวอ’, literally ‘a toad carried on a palanquin’: rising above one’s station.) But it was the drawing of Suthep that caused the controversy. A reader reported the cartoon to the police, alleging that Suthep’s face resembled that of King Rama IX. As Sakda explained today, he was falsely accused of depicting “ในหลวงชักใยอภิสิทธิ์” (‘the King manipulating Abhisit’).

Under Thai law, defamantion is a criminal offence, and lèse-majesté (royal defamation) charges can be filed by anyone. The police examined all of Sakda’s work published six months before and six months after the cartoon in question. (He often caricatured Abhisit as a puppet, usually controlled by an unseen figure.) The political editors of four newspapers were also called to give evidence, and they all confirmed that the cartoon depicted Suthep, not Rama IX.

Even benign illustrations of King Rama IX were considered taboo, to the extent that children’s picture books—such as The Story of Tongdaeng (เรื่อง ทองแดง)—showed him only in silhouette. Somewhat trepidatiously, Stéphane Peray (known as Stephff) drew a respectful cartoon of the King ascending to heaven, published in The Nation newspaper to commemorate his death (reproduced in Red Lines). A hundred years ago, the political climate was very different: เกราะเหล็ก (‘armour’) printed a highly unflattering front-page caricature of Rama VI by cartoonist Sem Sumanan on 22nd November 1925 (reprinted in Woman, Man, Bangkok), and the newspaper was closed down—though it was back on sale six weeks later.


Sakda’s cartoon was reprinted in บันทึกการเมืองด้วยเส้นสายลายการ์ตูน 3 (‘a cartoon record of politics’), the third volume of his political cartoon anthologies, though its notoriety has not been revealed until now. (The book also includes cartoons mourning the victims of the 2010 military crackdown and, as the months go by, Abhisit’s caricature bears an increasing resemblance to Hitler.) In a more famous instance of state censorship, Sakda (who uses the pen name Sia) was summonsed by the NCPO junta on 4th October 2015, the day after Thai Rath published his cartoon mocking Prayut Chan-o-cha’s speech at the UN General Assembly.

23 January 2022

10 ราษฎร


Family Club

Five plainclothes police officers made an unannounced inspection of the new 1932 People Space Library at Wat Thong Noppakhun in Bangkok today. They confiscated a copy of 10 ราษฎร (‘10 people’), which features portraits by Chalermpol Junrayab of ten activists charged with lèse-majesté.

One of the officers returned the book a few hours later, claiming that he had merely taken it for his young son to read. 10 ราษฎร is part of a series of eight children’s picture books investigated by the Ministry of Education last year.

‘When an ox comes to the palace, it does not become a king...’



Turkish journalist Sedef Kabaş was arrested in the early hours of yesterday morning, on a charge of insulting President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The charge stems from her appearance as a panelist on the discussion show Demokrasi Arenası (‘democratic arena’), a weekly forum for political debate on Tele 1 TV. (Tele 1 had its broadcasting licence suspended for five days in 2020, along with another pro-opposition channel, Halk TV.)

When Kabaş appeared on the show on 14th January, she quoted a Turkish proverb: ‘Öküz saraya çıkınca kral olmaz. Ama saray ahır olur.’ (‘When an ox comes to the palace, it does not become a king. Instead, the palace becomes a barn.’) This coded reference to Erdoğan was the trigger for her arrest.

Erdoğan has previously filed defamation charges against the Turkish magazines Cumhuriyet (in 2004 and 2014), Penguen (in 2014), and Nokta (in 2015). In 2006, he sued the artist Michael Dickinson over the collages Good Boy and Best in Show. In 2016, he sued a German comedian who recited a poem mocking him. (The poem was read out in solidarity in the German parliament, and The Spectator launched an anti-Erdoğan poetry competition that was won by Boris Johnson.) In 2020, he filed charges against the French magazine Charlie Hebdo.

20 January 2022

The Monarchy and Thai Society



Thai police raided the offices of Same Sky Books this morning, looking for copies of Arnon Nampa’s booklet The Monarchy and Thai Society (สถาบันพระมหากษัตริย์กับสังคมไทย). (Its English title comes from an authorised online translation by PEN.) Around thirty officers searched the premises; they didn’t find any copies of the booklet, though they obtained a court order to confiscate Same Sky editor Thanapol Eawsakul’s mobile phone and computer instead.

10,000 copies of the booklet were seized from Same Sky last year, and their offices were also raided in 2020. Thanapol was one of many anti-military intellectuals subjected to ‘attitude adjustment’ in 2014, and he was also questioned by the military in connection with the distribution of Thaksin and Yingluck Shinawatra calendars in 2016.

The Monarchy and Thai Society is one of three booklets written by anti-government protesters, published in the colours of the Thai flag. The others are The Day the Sky Trembled (ปรากฏการณ์สะท้านฟ้า 10 สิงหา; also translated by PEN) and บทปราศรัยคัดสรรคดี 112 (‘speeches on 112’).

28 December 2021

The King of Bangkok


The King of Bangkok

The King of Bangkok, the English-language edition of the Italian graphic novel Il Re di Bangkok, was published last month. A Thai edition was released last year, retitled ตาสว่าง (ta sawang). The book was written by Claudio Sopranzetti and Chiara Natalucci, with illustrations by Sara Fabbri, and is the product of meticulous ethnographic and archival research into Thai political and cultural history. The English edition features several new appendices, including a timeline of political events giving extra context to the narrative.

There is also an extensive interview with the authors, in which they discuss their goal of counteracting the ‘Teflon’ effect, whereby Thailand’s violent political climate is so successfully expunged from its international image by the Ministry of Tourism, “one of the most effective propaganda machines in the country.” The interview also touches on the book’s slightly censored Thai translation: “The solution we finally adopted in Thai was to cover three particularly sensitive sentences with a black line, a strategy used by progressive Thai filmmakers to pass state censorship while indexing its presence and effects.”

11 December 2021

Unforgetting History


Unforgetting History

Ceramicist Sirisak Saengow’s first solo exhibition opened yesterday at Cartel Artspace in Bangkok, and runs until 20th January 2022. The show features painted tiles, ceramic sculptures, and installations, all of which address dark moments from Thailand’s modern history that those in authority would prefer us to forget.

The exhibition title, Unforgetting History, recalls Thongchai Winichakul’s book Moments of Silence, which is subtitled The Unforgetting of the October 6, 1976, Massacre in Bangkok. As in Wittawat Tongkaew’s 841.594, shown at Cartel last year, the exhibition is dominated by the colour blue, which has a symbolic meaning in Thailand on the country’s tricolour flag.

History of Guns

Occupying one wall of the exhibition, History of Guns consists of twenty-five rifles arranged in a triangle, with a pistol at its apex. These unglazed ceramic weapons are all stamped with numbers referring to the dates of violent episodes in Thai political history. The pistol, which is streaked with blue paint, is stamped 090689 (9th June 2489 BE, the day in 1946 that King Rama VIII was shot). A blue rifle is stamped 170298 (17th February 2498 BE, the day in 1955 that three men were executed for Rama VIII’s murder).

Stamps on the other rifles refer to military crackdowns in Bangkok. These are: 141016 (14th October 2516 BE, the 1973 massacre of anti-dictatorship protesters), 061019 (6th October 2519 BE, the 1976 massacre of Thammasat University students), 100453 (10th April 2553 BE, the shooting of red-shirt protesters at Phan Fah in 2010), and 190553 (19th May 2553 BE, the 2010 killing of red-shirt protesters at Lumpini and Ratchaprasong).

Other artists and filmmakers have also used numerical codes to refer to notorious dates in Thai history. In the music video Remember (วน), directed by Thunska Pansittivorakul, a man wears a jumpsuit with the number 1721955, another reference to the execution of the men convicted of Rama VIII’s murder. That number also appears as a password in Thunska’s film Supernatural (เหนือธรรมชาติ), and his new film Danse Macabre (มรณสติ) features two men with the numbers 1702 and 1955 on their respective running shorts. Similarly, the title of Arin Rungjang’s video and installation 246247596248914102516... And Then There Were None refers to 24th June 2475 BE (the 1932 revolution), the death of Rama VIII, and the 14th October 1973 massacre.

Censored

On another wall, a mosaic forms a surprisingly direct message that is only readable from a distance, as the letters are blurred in an act of self-censorship. (While the text is not immediately understandable, the impulse to self-censor certainly is.) The text is inverted in another mosaic underneath.

Blue Dust

In one corner of the gallery are sixteen tiles, collectively titled Blue Dust, a series of paintings of anti-government and monarchy-reform protesters being arrested by riot police last year. The police appear as blue figures, while the protesters are stippled like specks of dust, which also has a metaphorical meaning in Thailand. Riot police are also coloured blue in The Adventures of Little Duck (เป็ดน้อย), a children’s picture book under investigation by the Ministry of Education.

Unforgetting History Unforgetting History
Unforgetting History Unforgetting History

In another corner is an untitled installation recreating the artist’s desk. Strewn around the desk are ceramic renderings of various banned books, including The King Never Smiles (with a pixellated cover), the Thai translation of The Devil’s Discus, and the Same Sky (ฟ้าเดียวกัน) journal. These are surrounded by blue bullet casings and photographs of the 6th October 1976 massacre, which, like the books, are also realistically painted ceramic objects. There is also a folding chair, which has become an iconic symbol (or cliché) of the massacre. The King Never Smiles—or rather, its modified dust jacket—also featured in the Derivatives and Integrals (อนุพันธ์ และปริพันธ์) exhibition at Cartel earlier this year.

06 December 2021

Oh My Ghost! 8


Oh My Ghost! 8

A scene from Oh My Ghost! 8 (หอแต๋วแตกแหก โควิดปังปุริเย่), the new comedy from Poj Arnon, has been censored. The Film and Video Censorship Committee gave the movie a ‘15’ rating, though only after an entire sequence featuring celebrity monk Paivan Wannabud was deleted. According to the censors, it’s inappropriate for a real monk to appear in an entertainment film, and all footage of him had to be cut. (Coincidentally, Paivan left the monkhood on 3rd December, the day after the film’s release, a technicality that might eventually allow Poj to show the film uncut.)

The censored material is completely innocuous, simply showing Paivan blessing the hotel in which the film is set. In real life, Paivan is famous for his camp mannerisms, which is in keeping with the rest of the film. Poj announced the censors’ decision on 25th November and, after being initially tight-lipped about what had been deleted, he uploaded part of the censored scene online five days later. Other clips from the sequence are included in the film’s trailer.

Surprisingly, a scene mocking Prayut Chan-o-cha escaped censorship. One character complains to another—“You’ve been managing for 7-8 years... You make people poorer and poorer, idiot!... Especially Covid-19, everywhere is fully vaccinated. Except here, only 1 jab or nothing”—who assumes that she’s talking about “Big Tu”. (Tu is Prayut’s nickname.) The film is full of topical references like this, one of which is shockingly insensitive: a parody of police chief Thitisan Utthanaphon’s suffocation of a suspect with a bin liner.

Representation of monks has long been a sensitive subject in Thai cinema, and I wrote a chapter about it in my book Thai Cinema Uncensored. Monks have been censored from recent films such as Kanittha Kwunyoo’s Karma (อาบัติ), Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Syndromes and a Century (แสงศตวรรษ), Pen-ek Ratanaruang’s Headshot (ฝนตกขึ้นฟ้า), and Surasak Pongson’s Thibaan: The Series 2.2 (ไทบ้านเดอะซีรีส์ 2.2). Similarly, paintings depicting monks were withdrawn from two exhibitions in Bangkok in 2007.

Oh My Ghost! 3 Oh My Ghost! 3 Oh My Ghost! 3

This is the eighth film in Poj’s Oh My Ghost! series, though it’s not the first to be censored. The teaser poster for Oh My Ghost! 3 was judged too risqué: a pair of trousers had to be superimposed over an actor’s skimpy underwear. (A much more modest image was used as the final release poster.) Oh My Ghost! 3’s Thai title was also changed by the censors, from หอแต๋วแตก แหกชิมิ to หอแต๋วแตก แหวกชิมิ. They objected to the word haek (แหก), meaning ‘spread apart’, and changed it to the more polite waek (แหวก). (Karma required a similarly negligible change to its Thai title.)

05 December 2021

Next Love


Next Love Next Love
Next Love Next Love

The music video for Badmixy’s single Next Love was released this week. In the video, a birthday party (filmed surreptitiously) is being held for a rich man at his poolside, and a succession of women are competing for his affections. The first lady, who has a rather ample figure, is supplanted by one wearing a G-string posing next to a poodle. Another wears a sash proclaiming her ‘Miss Nan’ (from a fictional beauty pageant in that province). All of this may—or may not—have a coded meaning.

The video has been viewed more than half a million times on YouTube already, though satirical content such as this is becoming increasingly risky. Also this week, Warunee Weerasak was charged under the lèse-majesté law and the Computer Crime Act, after posting a Photoshopped image of the Emerald Buddha statue wearing a dress designed by Princess Sirivannavari on Facebook on 24th November. She was arrested on 2nd December, and has been released on bail.

27 November 2021

The Art of Destruction:
The Vienna Action Group in Film, Performance and Revolt


The Art of Destruction

The Art of Destruction: The Vienna Action Group in Film, Performance and Revolt is the most comprehensive English-language study of the Vienna Action Group, the transgressive performance artists whose work explored “the body’s determinedly expelled elements: semen, excrement, urine and blood.” The book was first published in 2004, as Art of Destruction: The Films of the Vienna Action Group; the second edition was published last year.

Author Stephen Barber profiles each artist—Otto Muehl, Günter Brus, Hermann Nitsch, and Rudolf Schwarzkogler—individually, and analyses the films they made with experimental filmmakers including Kurt Kren. Amusingly, he claims that Brus was “habitually shy and polite,” which is, to put it mildly, inconsistent with the artist’s role in Kunst und Revolution (‘art and revolution’): “Before several hundred spectators, he undressed completely, incised his chest with a razor, urinated into a cup and drank it... he then reclined on his side, coated in excrement, and sang the Austrian national anthem.”

Muehl’s performances were equally provocative, and he was jailed alongside Brus after Kunst und Revolution. In Oh Sensibility, which Barber describes as “Muehl’s most notorious film”, a goose is decapitated. After initially filming various performances (or ‘actions’), rendered semi-abstract by rapid editing, Kren’s role became increasingly participatory, and he appeared with Muehl in orgiastic performances such as Scheißkerl (whose title is a German pejorative).

The book includes a complete filmography, which is essential as most Vienna Action Group films—aside from Kren’s Action Films DVD—remain unavailable. When they were screened at Warwick University twenty years ago, my partner and I were the only ones in attendance, so the projectionist played the 16mm reels in the order we requested, starting with Kren’s notorious 20. September. (That film inspired Vasan Sitthiket’s equally scatological video There Must Be Something Happen [sic].)