Rewatch our public talk on truth to power in the arts

Maya Strobbe

In Europe, and even at times in Flanders, we’ve witnessed a concerning trend where the freedom of expression for artists and arts organizations has faced increasing challenges. And although this pressure has no legal basis, it can have it’s impact. Sometimes funding is called into question, sometimes artists are deprived of presentation opportunities.
On 31 May, Flanders Arts Institute organised a public talk as part of Kunstenfestivaldesarts on the voice and agency of the arts when it comes to issues of a political and social nature. Who is dealing with it and in what way? Are there limits to our freedom of expression, and if so, what are they? And if not, what is needed to ensure that this does not change in the future?

Moderator Mary Ann DeVlieg posed these questions to four colleagues from the sector: Tom Bonte (Ancienne Belgique), Kasia Redzisz (KANAL), Maria Dogahe (Kaaitheater, Caddy) en Bill Dietz (Overtoon). Keynote opener of the evening was Yazan Khalili.

Rewatch the full conversation here, read the transcription or immerse yourself in the summary.

Rewatch the full conversation

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Part 1 – public talk: truth to power · Watch in the videozone

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Part 2 – public talk: truth to power · Watch in the videozone


In 2024, almost half of the world’s population will go to the polls. This at a time when migrants, people who are not cisgender, those in need of care or socio-economically un(der)privileged people are under increasing pressure. Meanwhile, the violence perpetrated by Israel in Gaza continues, despite global protests.

This talk looks at what role people and structures from the arts field have to play in this. We all have freedom of speech and action. Yet in the West, speaking out about Palestine as an arts organisation is not evident, and this freedom is coming under political pressure. How do we deal with this? (How) do arts organisations protect their artists, their staff and themselves?

Moderator Mary Ann DeVlieg makes the limits to freedom of speech clear, as a universal human right. You are not allowed to call for hatred or violence, discrimination or genocide. Keynote speaker Yazan Khalili adds a critical note: your voice and your message must first be heard and taken seriously before it can be limited. In this sense, universal ‘free speech’ does not actually exist. He is joined by Bill Dietz, who undercuts our romantic idea of a public forum where opinions and voices can clash ‘because large groups of people remain excluded from it’.

Politicians know that freedom of speech (as legally defined) is a quasi-absolute right. In the West, people do not engage in proactive censorship. However, Yazan Khalili does see more and more indirect censorship today, threatening to roll back public resources if organisations make supposedly undesirable statements. This is dangerous, and inevitably leads to more self-censorship.

And if every individual is allowed to speak up for their opinion, what about organisations? Certainly large institutions are by definition multi-headed and multi-voiced. They have teams, executives, board members and chairmen. It is important to clarify what it specifically means when those organisations ‘have an opinion’, and who represents that opinion. Today, more and more policies are being developed around this. Tom Bonte, director of Ancienne Belgique, points out in this regard that increasing (party) political control on the boards of arts organisations is not a good idea. It further complicates and even constrains the interpretation of the – already multi-voiced – opinions of teams. There must be other ways to maintain an open and constructive channel with policy.

Kasia Redzisz, artistic director of KANAL – Centre Pompidou in Brussels, also finds such restrictions a big problem. As a public institution, you are at the service of your audience – or more broadly: of the population. That means you don’t work in a vacuum. Inevitably, you have to relate – preferably in an active way – to the important social and political issues of the time, and to the diversity of perspectives on them among your team and your audience.

Maria Dogahe of Kaaitheater and Caddy for Palestine points out that it is not only about what you can and cannot say, but also about what you can do. Institutions have people, infrastructure, network and resources. There is always something they can contribute, there are always resources to queer (in Sara Ahmed’s meaning). She calls on larger institutions in particular to engage with collectives and associations that are taking actions that they themselves also support, and to work out with them how they can help.

Hiding behind the colonial concept of neutrality – colonial because it mainly benefits the convenience of white people in the West, and cares little about the misery of others – is deeply dishonest and, in the case of Gaza, automatically makes you an accomplice to crimes against humanity. Nor can we hide behind the question ‘what are we going to do for Congo or Yemen then?’ anymore. According to Tom Bonte, this leads to paralysis of those who want to roll up their sleeves. Palestine, meanwhile, symbolises all injustice in the world, which should ideally be tackled step by step, but which as a whole should never be obstructive. Maria Dogahe adds that people expressing interest in Congo’s problems today never talked about them before. Moreover, activists often join hands to support each other on different fronts. For instance, Black Lives Matter was strongly linked to the #MeToo movement, which was driven by black women. Ethics into action, in the broad and intersectional sense, is a basic feminist concept, says Mary Ann DeVlieg.

At KANAL, Kasia Redzisz works on robust systems to become responsive and agile as an organisation. Structures and systems that endure even when the context changes and when new crises emerge. She sees this as a responsibility of institutions today, and the only way these institutions can remain relevant. Compared to other places where she has worked, she also sees a lack of a sectoral feeling here, where different players in the field come together and search for sustainable solutions to the problems of our time. This needs to be worked on urgently, she believes.

Download the transcription here