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"Way to Freedom" (2018), an installation by Tatyana Vysokova, can be seen in the Passion for Freedom exhibition which runs from October 1-13 at La Galleria Pall Mall and the Royal Opera Arcade Gallery, London (©TATYANA VYSOKOVA)



The question of freedom of speech feels more and more heated by the day. It erupted on Twitter last month when the New Yorker announced that its editor David Remnick would interview Steve Bannon as the headliner of its Festival of Ideas. Within 24 hours the invitation was rescinded after several celebrities dropped out. For many this was too little, too late: the very suggestion of giving a platform to the alt-Right could never be revoked. Zanny Minton Beddoes, editor of the Economist, took the opposite view. Her magazine’s Open Future festival in September did feature Bannon, and she stood by her decision: “Our premise has been that progress is best achieved when ideas are tested in open debate.”

Aware that, in the West, the topic of freedom feels more urgent than ever, Camilla Forest, founder of the Passion for Freedom festival, is brimming with excitement about this year’s 10th edition, which asks: “What is freedom? How do you preserve it? How do you celebrate it?” The exhibition runs from 1-13 October at La Galleria Pall Mall and the Royal Opera Arcade Gallery, London.

Forest first began thinking seriously about freedom when her Polish friend Rafał Jędraszczyk was lost in 2002 near the mountains of Ararat in Turkey. He had travelled there to gather material for a documentary about the Armenian genocide of 1915 to 1923, an event that the Turkish government still denies. He was in his last year studying history at Jagiellonian University, Krakow, and the film was intended to be his Master’s thesis. The Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs was involved in the search for Jędraszczyk, but he has never been found.

Forest worked with others to exhibit what remained of his project, including evidence of Armenian culture prior to 1915 paired with revealing images of the Armenian genocide. It was an early prototype of Passion for Freedom. On the first morning she received a call from Poland’s Culture Institute insisting that the show be taken down immediately due to its shocking content. Forest claims that it later transpired, during a meeting with the director, that the decision had been made only after the Turkish Embassy had threatened to withdraw future investment in the city of Wrocław. 

After 12 years working as a journalist in Poland, Forest took up a radio job in London. The move was especially meaningful for her because, as she recalls, her father always listened to the BBC as his only trusted news source. Characterising the nature of her job as a search for truth, Forest felt disappointed by what she saw as increasingly biased reporting in the UK. This led her to rally a circle of friends, primarily Polish women, and start planning Passion for Freedom.

Since it began in 2009, the festival has faced a series of challenges ranging from the tedious, such as last-minute venue cancellations, to the terrifying — a terrorist attack during a panel discussion on “Art, Blasphemy and Freedom of Expression” in Copenhagen in 2015. Filmmaker Finn Nørgaard was shot dead by an Islamist gunman, who was killed next day in a shoot-out with police. Passion for Freedom’s Agnieszka Kołek was a panellist: she decided to carry on, saying: “They want us to stop talking. Therefore, we should continue.”

Forest and her team were forced to make concessions at that year’s UK festival, including cancelling an appearance by Rafida Ahmed Bonya, widow of the murdered Bangladeshi activist Avijit Roy, because police protection would have cost £6,000 a day. Such difficulties have never shaken her resolve: for her the first ten years were a matter of “surviving or not surviving”. The festival has gained the support of artists Ai Weiwei, Mehdi-Georges Lahlou and Iranian film director Jafar Panahi, and Forest looks to the coming decade as one of opportunity. The milestone will be celebrated with a new book detailing the story of the festival and sharing some of the best art that has been exhibited so far. For this year, the usual flood of entries has arrived from across the globe. Highlights will include the work of US-based artist Kim Gongsan, whose father escaped from North Korea and who channels her anger over living in the shadow of the Korean War into a minimalist language of scorched burlap, resembling bullet holes and intended to commemorate those who died at the border or were detained in concentration camps. Tatyana Vysokova's installation Way to Freedom features a photograph of a butterfly from January 2015, one of the last taken by the artist’s son, Vladimir. He died just months later, after he was drafted into the Russian army. Vysokova recalls, “There were traces of desperate resistance on his body, but we were told he hanged himself.” A physical noose is suspended before the photograph, trapping and enclosing the butterfly within.

Though the themes are often sombre, Forest is keen to stress that much of the art is light-hearted and the festival itself has an inclusive, celebratory feel. For her, the real victory is seeing people gathered before the art and seized by debate. Feeling that recent history has left Poles highly sensitive to the threat of lost freedom, she urges us all to think about it more. “What happens if you die for freedom?” she asks. Then you rely on those that survive you to tell the story on your behalf.
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