Speech by Nicholas Trench, Earl of Clancarty

A speech by Nicholas Trench, Earl of Clancarty in the House of Lords, about the effect of the UK’s points-based visa system on visiting artists. This talk was given at the Border Walk event, in August.

‘First I would like to say thank you very much indeed to Rocca, Claudia and Manick for inviting me to this event.

May I begin by saying something about myself and my own involvement in this campaign. My name is Nick Trench. I am an artist – and I am also a parliamentarian. I sit in the House of Lords as a crossbencher, which means I am independent from any party.

It was in Parliament where I learnt about the problems that have arisen since the Labour government introduced the new immigration regulations in 2008. I heard about this last year when the Liberal Democrat peer Tim Clement-Jones asked a question in Parliament. He had become aware of the problems through the painstaking work of the campaigning group the Manifesto Club in compiling all the experiences of the many non-EU artists who have either not been allowed into the UK and/or have had a difficult time at a port of entry. All of this is well-documented on their website. And of course the Manifesto Club has its petition with more than 10,000 signatures, which although it was handed into the previous government last year, is nevertheless an on-going petition for all members of the public to sign.

So last year I contacted the Manifesto Club and English PEN and then the Visual Arts and Galleries Association who between them are spearheading this campaign. In March of this year we had a one and a half hour debate in the Lords in which, among others Helena Kennedy and Joan Bakewell spoke. It was a passionate debate.

In June we sent an open letter to the Home Secretary, Theresa May, which was published in the Daily Telegraph and signed by more than 100 people in the arts in the UK, including many signatories from Scotland and the north of England.

In the letter we concentrated on one aspect of what is certainly a larger problem and this one aspect was temporary visits by non-EU artists; this might include visual artists coming here for exhibitions, poets and novelists for readings, musicians and dancers and so on. We came up with a constructive proposal which was to expand the currently existing entertainers’ visa so that non-EU artists could visit for up to six months which would cover most projects, and be also paid if they wished or were offered.

Although we have also written to Damian Green, the immigration minister, I am sorry to report that we have yet to receive any official reply, as indeed we have not had from the Home Secretary either. As yet, one feels they are simply brushing the problem under the carpet.

But perhaps there is an element of ignorance too – the Home Secretary and her colleagues may not yet realise the sheer strength of feeling that exists on the topic. A depth of concern which is not centred on keeping ‘foreigners’ (and I use that term with some caution) out of the UK, but on how we are preventing them coming in, and what this blinkered approach is doing to our arts within the country, and our reputation abroad.

So we need to consider the problem of awareness. Although I myself am an artist, I did not become aware of this issue through being an artist.

As anyone who works in the arts knows – despite the existence of groups and associations, the arts sector is in fact a very disparate fragmented world. And despite the enormous work that the Manifesto Club has now done in the past three years, and the letters that have been sent to the London national newspapers such as the one in the Daily Telegraph, and indeed recent newspaper reports, commissioned pieces such as that by my colleague Kamila Shamsie, and a burgeoning social media campaign, I think many artists in the UK are still somewhat unaware of this issue, which is why an event such as this is important in terms of raising awareness as well as having an opportunity to think about the nature of borders themselves.

At Westminster, as I have explained, there is an ‘awareness’ in the Lords. But there isn’t yet in the Commons. This is something that needs to be pushed as well as the involvement of the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly, and indeed the relevant media. We need to contact and brief more MPs, demand action from them, pester them if necessary. And start informing international news outlets too. This is a global problem; one thing we would not wish is for Britain’s current treatment of artists to become a benchmark for other countries to act by.

However, it is worth stating that I believe our campaign is not in itself an immigration issue. It is primarily a cultural issue, and it is Britain’s long tradition of cultural exchange which is most at threat. The current regulations are a slight on the arts in Britain, and they fundamentally misunderstand how the arts work, as well as how artists work. One of the things that the regulations (and the UK Border Agency officers who implement them) should bear in mind – and don’t – is that an artist never stops working. Whether it is simply a pencil sketch, a note made on a train ride, an idea caught on a walk, inspired perhaps by the UK’s countryside such as that we find ourselves in today – artists are the sum of what they see, hear, think, taste, smell and touch. Of what they experience. We can’t hand our senses over at Customs, and promise not to employ them until safely back at home.

The concern is real. Last year Jude Kelly, artistic director of the Southbank Centre said: ‘Today we’re in danger of losing our reputation as a world city if we’re incapable of welcoming the world’. She said this about London, but one could as easily say this about Edinburgh, Glasgow, Cardiff or Belfast or the UK as a whole.

Borders themselves are interesting places because they are in-between, transitional areas full of uncertainty. The artists who are denied entry while within this border zone do not at that moment belong to any country, any country in particular. The reality for politicians is that they are not our constituents – although I feel differently about this – and the countries for which the artists hold passports are generally loathe to challenge another country’s immigration regulations, so that these artists, like all who are stopped and held by border agencies, are very much caught in between.

It’s great of course that we can cross the borders between countries within Europe so easily, but even that is something we should perhaps not take completely for granted now.

Yet we mustn’t be entirely disheartened. Even in the current repressive climate, the spontaneous solutions found, and the way non-EU artists are responding to the restrictions placed on them, can demonstrate resourcefulness and wit. Take for example the case of Alec Soth, the American photographer, member of Magnum who last year was asked by the Brighton Photo Biennial if he would like to exhibit there. In his own words, he reveals: ‘At the airport the customs agent asked me why I was visiting England. I explained that I’d been hired to do a photographic commission of Brighton. After reprimanding me for not having a work visa, he detained me and my family for an hour.

‘I should put you right back on the plane,’ he said. ‘Without the proper paperwork, there is no reason a British national couldn’t have been hired to take these pictures. I’m going to allow you and your family in. But you are strictly forbidden from working here. If you are caught photographing, you could face a severe financial penalty and up to two years in prison.’

Soth goes on to say: ‘My plan had been to follow a photographer at the Argus, Brighton’s newspaper since 1880. But after the custom agent’s threat, I wasn’t sure what to do. Along with the legal predicament, I wasn’t feeling inspired. After a couple of days of wandering around the city without taking a single picture, I asked my seven-year-old daughter, Carmen, to join me. After a while, she started taking pictures’.

So what happened, as some of you may know, was that in fact Soth exhibited his daughter’s pictures although in the end the photographs were credited to both he and Carmen.

One thing that might be pointed out is that as overall artistic director Soth was of course still working whether he was using a camera or not. As I have discussed already, an artist is always working, always ‘on call’- something that is simply non-negotiable, something that the UK Border Agency cannot get its head round at all.

As a member of the House of Lords, I do not formulate policy, but I am able to ask the Government questions. Recently, I asked the Home Office: ‘under what circumstances an artist who is not a citizen of the European Union can come to the UK and work on a self-generated project such as painting pictures or taking photographs without being attached to an official event, an arts organisation in the UK or having UK sponsorship.’ The answer that came back from the government just a few days ago was that you simply cannot do this unless you have a sponsor – unless your activities are ‘solely recreational’.

In the case of Alec Soth, the only images he would be allowed to even think about, let alone photograph, would be those that could never have a bearing on his future work. This is Orwellian mind control in practice.

But – and here is where we must find hope – artists (and I venture to suggest all human beings) simply cannot be controlled, boxed or managed in such a bureaucratic way. Soth is not the only one to fight back publicly. Tango dancers Ismael Ludman and Maria Mondino made a film while being detained at Glasgow Airport, highlighting the ludicrous procedure in a work of considerable artistic merit. None of this excuses the behaviour of the UK Border Agency or government policy. Officialdom can smother art in red tape, squash and hurt it but sometimes artists will find a way to rise above such treatment.’