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.