Should Free Expression Include Normalising Far-Right Ideas?

This weekend antifascists protested a gallery in London that showed alt-right artwork and hosted far-right speakers.
01 March 2017, 12:59am

Activists protesting outside the LD50 gallery (Photo: Theo McInness)

On Saturday morning about 100 antifascists gathered outside LD50 Gallery in Dalston, east London. They were responding to a call made by the ShutdownLD50 Campaign, which was formed last week after it was revealed that the gallery hosted a series of talks by far-right speakers and curated an exhibition of alt-right iconography.

In the centre of Hackney, one of the most ethnically diverse boroughs of London, LD50 established what the campaign describes as "one of the most extensive neo-Nazi cultural programmes to appear in London in the last decade".

With a surprisingly light police presence and no counter-protesters, save for one sheepish contrarian who was promptly made to feel unwelcome, the demonstration had a convivial and determined mood. As John, a local activist who helped organise the event, told me outside the gallery, "Our main aim today is speaking to the local community. We've got 2,000 flyers and this is really just a prelude to informing people about what's going on."

The gallery owner, Lucia Diego, described the campaign as "militant and hyperbolic" in a written statement on LD50's website – which has since been deleted – suggesting that it impinged her gallery's right to free expression.

I asked John what he made of that argument. "It's not a free speech issue," he told me. "It's an immediate public threat to the great majority of people who live in this area. [LD50 has] been organising fascists – people who support the immediate deportation of all non-white people in the UK and United States. Politics globally is moving rapidly rightwards: if we can't ensure an environment free of people who wish harm against us, then things are only going to get worse."

Diego has struck a few contradictory poses while defending her gallery. She has claimed to be a political "centrist" with an academic interest in the alt-right.

Many of the posts on the gallery's Facebook have an alt-right sensibility, making references to "neoreactionary" bloggers like Mencius Moldbug and, in one post, appearing to ironically glamorise the right-wing terrorist Anders Breivik. Diego's implicit claim, made to the Hackney Gazette, that the events weren't secretive because the talks "were available since the summer online" contradicts another made on the far-right website, with whom the events appear to have been co-organised, which states: "A neo-reaction conference was held in London this summer behind a veil of secrecy to prevent the usual suspects (leftists and other neurotics) from attacking."

Although recordings of the speeches appear to have been removed from LD50's website, there are two available on YouTube, which were originally presented in the gallery on iPad screens. In "Christianity, Progressivism and the Occidental Soul", first screened at LD50 on the 6th of August, 2016, the right-wing blogger Mark Citadel sketches a vague theory of what he calls "Progressivism".

Despite its philosophical gloss, the speech is clearly reactionary bullshit. He says that "progressivism" is responsible for "our slow demographic replacement at the hands of a supposedly unstoppable mass migration".

Diego has pointed out a few times that most of the other exhibitions at LD50 were not political, and this is true. However, the art that is normally shown at the gallery tends to be a variation of what's been called "post-internet art". With its nostalgia for low-resolution graphics and a nihilistic bent, post-internet art has become the natural aesthetic for the alt-right, a mainly online phenomenon.

A smashed window at the LD50 gallery. (Photo: Theo McInnes)

The alt-right exhibition at LD50, which featured artworks like a Pepe the Frog meme illustrated as a plantation-era slave owner, deployed many of the tropes and forms of post-internet art.

I put this to ShutdownLD50 organiser Andrew Osborne, an artist and teacher at the Royal College of Art, and he agrees that there's an affinity. "There's been some disquiet amongst artists and theorists for a while that, in some ways, the interest in 'post-internet art' is amongst a certain group of people in the art world who avoid certain questions of racism, post-colonialism and things like that because it's convenient to them," he told me.

"In some ways [the post-internet art scene] is quite comfortable in creating a whites-only space in the internet and the art world. And some of them are perhaps flirting with imagery they don't understand – thinking it's on the edge," he said.

At the protest, people held signs with slogans like "No (Flat) White Supremacy" and "Death to Nazi Hipsters", suggesting hipster culture – with its depthless irony and political disengagement – has become a suitable space for reactionary ideas. A fashionable artist who previously exhibited at LD50, Deanna Havas, has claimed to be both "apolitical" and a Donald Trump supporter.

However, as Osborne made clear to me, the ShutdownLD50 Campaign is not about art: it's about safeguarding the lives of people in Hackney. The main purpose of Saturday's demonstration was "consciousness raising", which he believes is a sufficient strategy for getting the place shut down.

Already the Mayor of Hackney, Philip Glanville, has condemned LD50, stating, "We should not allow hate to become normalised or acceptable." Given that the protest has demonstrated an ability to mobilise at least 100 antifascists at short notice, it is hard to imagine LD50 holding another exhibition in its current location and getting away with it.

Speaking to Diego via an online messenger, I told her that it seemed clear to me that LD50's social media had an alt-right sensibility. She said this implied I wasn't "familiar with online discourses" or what is "happening online at all". The Mencius Moldbug post was a "joke" based on a tweet that had "circulated online". The Anders Breivik image was generated by an algorithm and was posted because it was "part of [their] exhibition".

As for the far-right website, she said that "events were organised solely by the gallery" but she "gave permission to Brett Stevens to announce [sic] on his website". She didn't respond to the specific part of my question which asked why published a post stating that press passes for the talks at LD50 could be obtained by emailing " which forwards to the organizers".

When I asked for a general comment on the campaign to close her gallery, Diego responded, "I stand on the side of freedom of speech."

After making their voices heard outside the gallery for a few hours – "Alt-Right? Alt-Shite!" – a large proportion of the protesters marched up and down Kingsland High Street, stopping traffic and handing out leaflets to small business owners, shoppers and people smoking outside pubs. "The people of Hackney need to come together to defend their common values," the leaflet read.

One local was Miladul, a Bangladeshi sales assistant working a few doors down from the gallery in a clothes shop. After he read a leaflet handed to him by a campaigner, I asked what he thought about the situation.

"You have to shut it down," he said, without missing a beat. "I'm definitely behind the protest."