In June this year an internationally recognized local sound artist grew tired of asking money for his works and decided to give them away for free.
He was inspired by local photographer and musician Lance Strickland who, the month before, had posted his photos around Dunedin for the public to take. This sound artist planned to do something similar with his latest work.
The work was a music piece and a poem. It tried to encompass the feelings of the disenfranchised, people who are homeless, people who feel ignored and abandoned by the system. People who have “nothing left to lose”.
He typed each poem individually onto pages of an expired passport. The poems were then attached to cassettes which contained the music component: a harsh and abrasive soundscape, layers of distorted guitar with repetitive phrases desperately trying to fight through the noise.
The artist chose to attach his work to thirteen abandoned buildings around the centre city. To someone without a home a building which is unoccupied must feel like an insult.
Ten lucky members of the public found the intriguing packages and took them home. One of the works on Stuart Street was reported to the police as being suspicious, so the responding officer simply removed it and closed the case.
Unfortunately nobody got to enjoy the last three. Another work was reported as suspicious days after the first, and this time the police response was to cordon off the area, fly in the bomb squad from Christchurch, and blow it up. They then deemed it necessary to search the artist’s house and seize his typewriter. In his interview with the police he explained his intent behind the work.
A few days later they issued him with this charge: “Without lawful excuse and without claim of right, knowing a letter to contain a threat to damage property, namely a building, office and house, secured the said letter to 318 Moray Pl and caused the said letter to be received by members of the public”. The charge held a maximum penalty of three years in prison.
The basis of their prosecution was that the note contained a threat to damage property, specifically the line “I will firebomb your house and car” which, when taken literally, does sound a lot like a threat. In the context of the artwork however, said by someone with “nothing left to lose” and anger towards those who do, it serves its artistic purpose of portraying the frustration many homeless feel.
And for some reason they didn’t consider the poem’s threat to “hack into your computer” enough to charge him for cybercrime, or the threat to “leak trade and state secrets” enough to charge him for treason.
In court last Friday a full gallery of artists and musicians watched on incredulously as the prosecution stumbled through an attempt to convince the judge the threats to damage property were serious. Eventually the judge dismissed the charge, ruling that context mattered and within that context the words did not constitute a threat.
My issue is not with the initial response to the “bomb”. I can understand the reasoning behind treating all threats as serious, although it gets a bit murkier when you consider the fact that a previous identical “threat” was not considered serious.
My issue is with the fact that they chose to pursue criminal charges for what was essentially a misunderstanding. They could have engaged with the work and tried to understand it, instead they prosecuted.
Why? I have no idea, but I’m glad justice has prevailed. Hopefully this resolution will help make Dunedin a city where artists can, as the DCC arts and culture strategy states, “take risks and bravely champion artistic experimentation that pushes boundaries” without risking a lengthy and expensive court battle.