Transfield, Biennale of Sydney, and artistic complicity

Over the past week there has been intense discussion of the major sponsorship of the 19th Biennale of Sydney (BOS19) by the Transfield Foundation, a joint partnership between investment company Transfield Holdings and Transfield Services, with Transfield Holdings also holding approximately 11% of the shareholding in Transfield Services. Transfield Services are an infrastructure provider recently awarded a contract to provide ‘social welfare’ services alongside its existing contracts with Australian Government immigration detention centres on Nauru and Manus Island, to bring a total of over $1 billion in earnings over the next 20 months. The Biennale was established by Transfield Holdings in 1973, and executive director of Transfield Holdings Luca Belgiorno-Netti is also Chairman of the Biennale’s Board of Directors.  Following a call for a boycott (aimed at no particular group) first raised by design educator Matthew Kiem, refugee & asylum seeker organisation RISE called specifically on participating artists to boycott the Biennale, which begins next month. The fullest documentation of the call and responses is available on the website Crossborder Operational Matters, although this website has a clear agenda to push the boycott and their posts should be read with that in mind.

Last Monday 17th February, a number of artists participating in the Biennale published an open letter to the board of the Biennale of Sydney, asking for the board to “withdraw from the current sponsorship arrangements with Transfield and seek to develop new ones.” Rather than a simple call to cut ties as the letter has been reported in the mainstream media, the letter extends past the question of financial sponsorship, asking the Board to join with the artists in “an opportunity to become aware of, and to acknowledge, responsibility for our own participation in a chain of connections that links to human suffering.” It was always unlikely that Biennale Chair Belgiorno-Netti would rescind sponsorship from a company in which he has an executive role. However, the artists’ invitation to consider the injustices at Nauru and Manus Island has also been ignored by the Biennale’s Board of Directors, who responded that withdrawing from the sponsorship agreement was impossible,  and that “the only certainty is that without our Founding Partner, the Biennale will no longer exist.” The board’s immunity to ethical responsibility is reflected in their language where they position the artists and themselves as “‘collateral damage’ in a complex argument”, though describing themselves as damaged in relation to the horrific plight of those detained by the Australian Government is quite obnoxious to say the least. This non-response leaves the artists with the decision of how to respond and whether or not to withdraw their work from the exhibition.

I do not write as someone with any expertise in the politics of asylum seekers and mandatory detention, but I have participated in large-scale exhibitions, and as an art school teacher of over 15 years have worked with a number of artists who have also participated in these exhibitions and been subject to their politics. What I think should be emphasised in this conjuncture is that the problematic for artists and artworkers extends past the particular issue of refugees and asylum seekers, as urgent and present as this issue is. It implicates the entire funding structure of large-scale exhibitions, which rely on corporate money of ethically and politically dubious provenance. In 2012, artist Van Thanh Rudd protested the 18th Biennale of Sydney against Transfield’s activities on Nauru. Also in 2012, activists protested the sponsorship of the Asia Pacific Triennial by coal seam gas and mining company Santos. The recent exhibition Melbourne Now’s principal partner is Mercedes-Benz, a part of the Daimler Group who are involved in missile production among other military activities. The overwhelming majority of the budgets for these large exhibitions are for services such as catering, insurance, promotion, and other logistics – a comparatively smaller amount makes it to actual artists and their projects (in some cases, artists participate without funding at all). To participate in these exhibitions is to be in an industrial-cultural machine that is largely immune to the specificity of artistic inputs, a machine that fulfils a diverse range of goals for capital and the state regardless of the quality of the work. It is also an issue that extends to universities and art schools, whose financialisation; growing investment from private capital and involvement in military technologies means those of us drawing salaries in that sector are in no privileged position to criticise the support artists receive. As Brynn O’Brien wrote in response to Kiem’s original call, “the value chains of detention… permeate our lives in unexpected ways – through our bank accounts, superannuation funds, investments, and workplaces and… their sponsorships of organisations and events we hold dear.”

Some commentators have questioned the boycott as a strategy, with Helen Razer characterising it as a tactic that “absolves the art world from responsibility”, allowing artists “to feel as though they have done something by doing nothing.”  Razer’s article headline suggested that artists were divided on the issue, however I’ve yet to find an artist who does not want the Transfield funding to be removed. How to respond to the fact that this funding exists brings a dilemma for the artists. In my view, RISE’s letter requesting a boycott is an accurate reading of the political situation from an outside observer: although the artists receive a tiny proportion of the Biennale’s total funds, they have the strongest position from which to effect change in the event, as their position in the Biennale is based on their ability to make a statement with their work. A withdrawal of these works would limit or hopefully have a negative impact on the reputation laundering that Transfield Services are looking for from the Transfield Foundation, and in turn from the Biennale. In general terms RISE’s call for a boycott must be affirmed. It is unfortunate that those commentating the potential of artistic contributions outside the boycott have sought to judge whether a boycott “would have any affect [sic] whatsoever”, as Helen Hughes does for Frieze in an otherwise helpful account. There is no neutral position from which a boycott’s outcome can be judged in advance, and to do so participates in the same kind of self-justifying calculation that allows the Biennale to take Transfield’s money, or for all of us to ignore our participation in an international culture of inhumane detention. The options as I see them for both artists and audiences are to 1) join the boycott and publicise one’s participation (i.e. make one’s withdrawal a contribution to the Biennale); 2) do something else to respond to the issue; or 3) take a position more like the Board’s own and wring one’s hands and hope that the problem goes away.

However, even affirming the boycott, joining it is not necessarily a straightforward decision for participating artists, because the political force of contemporary art production only takes shape within its institutional context of critical legitimation and audience engagement – coverage of a work’s ‘message’ through mass media channels, for example, usually does not amplify the force of art. The arrival of the Biennale’s economic involvement in a national news story has shifted dialogue around the exhibition into formats that involve many people with limited connection to the contemporary art world, and the polarised discussions are more like the marshaling of facts and opinion in the mass media and the house of elected representatives, rather than the art world’s more comfortable terrain of proliferating individualized experiments with form and tone. This may be appropriate, but it also seems to give the artists little room to articulate the politics of our complicity, which is ironic given the focus from all sides on the artists’ actions. Even for those few artists deeply interested in institutional and economic machinations as an object of study, one would not expect them to find their most effective contribution to democratic debate inside this version of parliament’s Question Time – they are more likely to seek to escape those constraints to propose other modes of engagement. It is notable that the most prominent artist to make an individual statement on the Biennale so far has been Richard Bell, the self-described ‘propagandist’ who is experienced in the Aboriginal Legal Service, and knows the hardest edges of political force first-hand. Bell says that he would solve the Transfield dilemma directly by making work about the issue, if he were invited. But few artists are prepared for this kind of linguistic argy-bargy the way that Bell is, whether by temperament, training, or content of their work.

Even if Bell were involved, the political problem for the Biennale artists is that their works are not collectively that meaningful: each work uniquely holds the possibility of force that comes from the artist’s ability to resist the imposition of default forms and to give their own form to their work. The reason curatorial statements in (and reviews of) large-scale exhibitions like the Biennale are so routinely weak is because artists’ works are so diverse, and en masse stand for not very much at all, as opposed to coordinated political actions that become more effective as they scale. An artist participating in the boycott as called from outside calculates that they will make the biggest impact on the politics of mandatory detention by rescinding the Biennale’s opportunity to reach a large-scale audience through their usual means of statement-making, and to instead join with a collective withdrawal proposed by others. While this would certainly be a simple calculation for any artist who did not explicitly foreground political issues in their work (that is, their withdrawal would create more impact than their work), the irony is that the artists most likely to join the boycott are those who do foreground political issues, and they would give up the most impact in the short term by rescinding their participation. [Note I am talking about giving up their political position, rather than talking about professional careers, though no doubt some artists will also be conscious of this]. It may be that, following Bell, not participating in the boycott and making another intervention instead would be a political calculation made by the most highly-politicised artists, rather than the least politicised.

Of course, in the wake of the call for a boycott that possibility of “another intervention” has a somewhat higher threshold to be considered adequate or successful than we might have thought before the call, and before the last weeks’ horrific events on Manus Island. The self-congratulatory statements by the Biennale and curator Engberg that they magnanimously provide a platform for debate are hard to take seriously: the public programme for this Biennale notably downplays political concerns, and without the call for a boycott the funding issues that go to the very core of artistic production and distribution would not have been on the table, any more than APT7 would have hosted a ‘dialogue’ on fracking undertaken by their major sponsor Santos. That said, I do not think it helps to say in advance that the exhibition is fatally co-opted as a site for discussion, any more than we might say that other financial entities like Facebook, Twitter or universities are fatally co-opted a site to critique those organisations’ practices.

If the artists are truly the best-placed to affect the role artistic works and institutions play in the politics of detention in which we are complicit – and I believe they are – then our first response should be to support their responsibility to give their own form to any action, whether that involves joining a boycott or doing something else. That is the way artists contribute to the aesthetic field where the political can be thought and felt. While Kiem says that his call for a boycott’s main aim is to “pressure [the] Biennale to fund this without resorting to profits made from mandatory detention”, it is notable that the most extensive media coverage and responses from the Board have emerged from the actions of artists themselves in their open letter, precisely because they are already engaged in the exhibition’s institutional production. This is in keeping with the history of political controversy in the contemporary art field – where artists, rather than curators or institutions, have been at the forefront of questioning art’s complicity with capitalist and state oppression. In teaching and supervision, I have long had the experience that applying external pressure to artists to conform to a political activity is one of the ways that art’s affective capacities are diminished and the political potential of artistic activity is suppressed.  Particularly if that pressure comes from salaried academics, if not so much from independent activists, with whom artists are often more comfortable talking with ‘on the level’.

This is not to justify the autonomy of art in a naive way, or to insulate artists from critique. Actually the opposite is true, it is the relative autonomy of artistic production and its lack of conformity to established political-economic modes of understanding that enable more robust critique. This lack of conformity expands the possibility for critical analysis of both the completed works and the artists’ positions in their full political and economic context. But it is also because of the institutionalisation of this critique (whether it is made in work or the withdrawal of work) that it has operationality and valence, it is not a finger-pointing exercise from outside. As Andrea Fraser describes it, it is “this very institutionalisation that allows institutional critique to judge the institution of art against the critical claims of its legitimising discourses, against its self-representation as a site of resistance and contestation, and against its mythologies of radicality and symbolic revolution.” For some artists the morally corrupt platform that constitutes the 19th Biennale of Sydney will fail to hold their work, and they will withdraw. For others, the presence of death and injustice that Transfield brings is now part of the site where their work is presented, and that work will inevitably be joined to Transfield, a pairing that will supplement the works in question and the Biennale as a whole for good or for ill. As critical viewers and supporters of the arts, I believe our most useful role is to affirm the responsibility artists take with their work; to learn to perceive their interventions in their singularity; and to apply rigorous scrutiny to their interventions within the protocols they adopt. Whether Biennale of Sydney artists withdraw or do not, I am looking forward to learning from them in how to respond to this political conjuncture and the ethical and moral deficits that constitute our cultural institutions more broadly.

Thanks to Bianca Hester, Deborah Kelly, Ruth DeSouza and others who offered comments on an early draft of this piece, all errors are my own.

Stuart Hall

So much to reflect on from Stuart Hall’s passing – when I did my masters work on class analysis his intro to Culture, Media and Language was a methodological manifesto, and the more I think back over his work the more thoroughly sociological it seems, despite his humanities training and his thorough distaste for the field’s lack of reflexivity: “It would have been extremely interesting… to have heard the sociologists confronting the sociology of their own discipline…” “When I was offered a chair in sociology, I said, ‘Now that sociology does not exist as a discipline, I am happy to profess it.'” His intellectual gift to me was to take a historical line through discursive/institutional formations, most importantly including academic ones, and bring them to the nub, to hold the massive forces of puissance/connaisance in the figure that holds a situation:

“the various discourses … of individual “rights and duties” of “free agents” of the “rights of man” and of “representative democracy” – in short, the whole enormously complex sphere of legal, political, economic and philosophical discourses which compose the dense ideological complex of a modern capitalist society, all stem from or are rooted in the same premises upon which the market and the ideas of a “market society” and of “market rationality” are founded…. It is also crucial that “ideology” is now understood not as what is hidden and concealed, but precisely as what is most open, apparent, manifest – what “takes place on the surface and in view of all men.” What is hidden, repressed, or inflected out of sight, are its real foundations. This is the source or site of its unconsciousness.” (1977)

Such economy and poise. Perhaps this relates to Hall’s ambivalence around the similarly gifted Foucault, who pushed a contemporaneous argument further into formalism than Hall’s focus on the British nation would accept.

As for a lot of other people, Hall was my gateway to Gramsci and then to Marx; his reflections on the institutionalisation of academic practice were the forerunner to my interest in Spivak (who edited the quote above) and to my own forays into academic administration: without Hall I never would have entered the university as a place to work. Ironically, while I learned a lot from Hall’s grappling with the Caribbean, I never quite hooked into his specifically ‘cultural’ discussions in the way that I would later find in the critiques in anthropology and art. There is perhaps a generational angle here, where the efforts to open the university to working class culture had already begun turning student communities into the bottom line by 1990, in a way that made the study of white academia’s others more like appropriation than valorisation. Or maybe in the white colonies “culture” seemed more broken and different, and oppressive.

But Hall seemed to me more circumspect than most of his cultural studies followers in his choice of cases, and resisted overidentification with the object of study – just when it seems that his political commitment to grasp the street was taking the reader with him, his self-consciousness (connected to living black in academe?) intervened and left us aware – even just through a reserved tone – that the articulation of the intellectual to their own political location was not something to impose, it just was, and actually none of us were ready to understand him in the totality he sought. A life ‘without guarantees’: not a model to be followed but a singular example of how to practice living, moving and thinking between the institutionally handed-down world from the past and the new times unfolding in the future. Rest in peace, teacher.

Foucault, writing, collectivity

Yesterday on Facebook a scholar/writer I love asked for examples of ‘live’ academic writing to share with students, and a whole thread emerged with a range of wonderful practices that appear self-conscious of writing and how this form stimulates readerly movement outside the dull calculations of academic evaluation. It’s a particularly pertinent discussion as I confront a year of writing ahead, having opted out of work on both the Unimelb ARC postdoc (though I still hope to stay with the unit) and running the front end of my brother’s business, two forms of more institutional work which I also consider writing in the broad sense, that have held me in place during the move to Australia. I have about about 150K words of unpublished material on my hard drive, at least some of it good but many parts starting to go stale as my own interests keep moving, and I’ve learned the hard way that working on one’s own old project is no easier than working on someone else’s. Our cheap semi-rural living arrangements mean that I can live off meagre savings for this year at least, and so I should see if I can rearrange the best of what’s there into some kind of platform for future activity that complements the ongoing collective work with Local Time and the Old Folks Association.

Everyone I’ve talked to seems enthusiastic about this plan, even envious (those in tenured positions perhaps the most), but for me the prospect is less enjoyable than terrifying and a little bleak. Writing, in the practical experience of individually authoring a world at the keyboard, is not my vocation, and it is unclear to me whether I can do anything useful with it. Yes, I have done more of it than most people, but I have also spent a lot of my professional life not doing it, and I think I am generally better at it when I understand how it sits within larger and more collective projects. For me the question of ‘liveness’ in writing is also a question of genre and how genre is institutionalised. Working in the fine arts I understand that the historical role of the avant-garde artist is to contribute to collectivity through their own uniquely innovative movement (production) that is read by the critical community into possible institutional transformation. But I also sense among students from the last few years that this model is worn out, if it was ever available to many anyway, and that fulfilling one’s responsibility to the conditions under which work is understood requires a more explicitly social mode of practice. This is easier in collective work, however demanding the behind the scenes interactions of this can be.

The critical brain advises that writing is of course already social by definition, but the way in which that sociality is foregrounded or not has a lot to do with ‘liveness’ and through that liveness to questions of audience, distribution, and the institutional effect of work. I was put in mind of that by the Focuault interview that did the rounds of my Facebook yesterday. Foucault is totally in his element here, escaping the constraints of a boring and skeptical interviewer, consolidating his methods epigrammatically: “refusal, curiosity, innovation.” But it reminded again how little interest Foucault shows in presenting the supports of his own practice, such as his comment on Heidegger that it is important to him to have authors “with whom one thinks, with whom one works, but about whom one does not write.”  This dynamic mirrors the practice that of many artists, where keeping influences undercover (consciously or unconsciously) is integral to work’s readability as world-making, where one can gain pleasure in giving oneself over to the work. It also perhaps accounts for how Foucault’s name/works can be used to bracket a methodology, as it did in my own doctoral work, and how Foucault can generate a mountain of secondary literature, almost none of it matching the subtlety of Foucault’s own output (Butler and Spivak being the exceptions that I know best).

Foucault’s suppression of his sources makes his work highly “readable” in contrast to my other critical guides: reading Spivak or Derrida for example, is to be constantly drawn outside the text and into the world, these authors prevent the reader from giving to the author the responsibility of narration that Foucault is happy to take on. In other words, Foucault’s way to pull apart the author-function is to describe how it doesn’t matter who is speaking, whereas Derrida’s very form makes untenable the enclosure of a text that could be considered authored in a traditional way. Foucault is “right”, as he almost always is, and a certain conservatism in his voice, in the architecture of his position (though not his analysis itself) ultimately makes the work more “effective” in the realm of political necessity which was always his target. Foucault is my favourite teacher of the need to strategically escape diagnosis, but from Spivak I’ve learned that if we paid more attention we could discover that this is a collective activity that has already happened to us without trying, a much more rewarding position and I think a more formally effective one when the care of the self is continually stimulated in a very different way to Foucault’s era.

I admire Foucault’s old-school public voice of authorship – the English language version is both a form in which I was trained and one in which the larger-scale dissemination of productive ideas happens still. But unless one is committing oneself to that scale of authorship institutionally, (for example to describe The Order of Things, The Archaeology of Knowledge, or The History of Sexuality), one’s writing will have a much more intimate set of relationships, particularly in the context of the Internet’s rupture of institutional knowledge, where an author is a click away. My own goal with writing has been less to affectively shift around the conceptual apparatus of the political body (as if I could) than to find and deepen relationships with particular others whose own projects I can continue to work with and for, without having to not talk about those writers or to those writers. Citation practices as demonstrated in feminist work are fairly central here, and there is also a generational aspect of the invention of the WWW during my early 20s. My own form of writing is really more a form of reading, as those who receive my Facebook links probably know all too well. The intuition underpinning my work at the moment is that reading/viewing/listening communities are less lonely than communities of entrepreneurial producers stimulated by academic or commercial markets. Bringing about these readerly communities is the function of critical writing as I understand it. So this year will not be measured on the autonomy of my writerly self through strategic deinstitutionalisation as Foucault seems to advocate, but through the autonomy and resilience of the bonds of critical intimacy forged through work. That will involve some new habits and practices, this series of notes may continue to be one of them.