Notes on various things

Research Methods in Community Cultural Development – Draft Reading List

Draft Reading list for course Research Methods in Community Cultural Development – Masters of Community Cultural Development, Victoria College of the Arts, University of Melbourne. Semester One 2015.

28th Feb 2015.

75 MB PDF of readings (one or two still to be found) here:

Week 1 – What is Research?

Booth, Wayne C., Gregory G. Colomb, and Joseph M. Williams. The Craft of Research. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2006. Chapters 1, 3, 4.

Taylor, Dena, and Margaret Procter. “The Literature Review: A Few Tips on Conducting It.” Writing Support, University of Toronto. Retrieved 19 (2008). <>.

Knott, Deborah. Writing an Annotated Bibliography (2004). Writing Support, University of Toronto. <>.

MacDowall, Lachlan. “Art and Knowledge Systems: Teaching Research Methods.” TEXT 14 (October, 2012). <>.

Sartwell, Crispin. “Appendix: Riffing on Political Aesthetics: Suggestions for Case Studies and Research .” Political Aesthetics. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2010. 245-249.


Harding, Sandra. “Introduction: Is There a Feminist Method?” Feminism and Methodology: Social Science Issues. Ed. Sandra G. Harding. N.p.: Indiana University Press ; Open University Press, 1987. 8-14.

Colectivo Situaciones. “On the Researcher-Militant.” European Institute for Progressive Cultural Policies (EIPCP). September, 2003.  <>

Bergold, Jarg & Thomas, StefanParticipatory Research Methods: A Methodological Approach in Motion [Not in reader]. Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung / Forum: Qualitative Social Research, 13 (1). 2012. Art. 30,


Week 2 – Artistic Research: Knowledge in Practice

Nelson, Robert. The Jealousy of Ideas: Research Methods in the Creative Arts. London: Ellikon 2009. (Chapter Three: Critical investigative parameters)

Raqs Media Collective. “How to Be An Artist by Night.” Art School: (propositions for the 21st Century). Ed. Steven Henry Madoff. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2009. 71-80.


Rogoff, Irit. “Practicing Research / Singularising Knowledge.” Agonistic Academies. Ed. Jan Cools and Henk Slager. Brussels: Sint-Lukas Books, 2011. 69-74.

Anonymous. “The Art of the Question: Thinking Like a Public Artist .” The Practice of Public Art. Ed. Cameron Cartiere and Shelly Willis. New York: Routledge, 2008. 219-230

Butt, Danny. “Whose knowledge? Practice-led research after colonial science.” On Making: Integrating Approaches to Practice-Led Research in Art and Design. Ed. Leora Farber. Johannesburg: Research Centre, Visual Identities in Art and Design, Faculty of Art Design and Architecture, University of Johannesburg, 2010. 13-21


Week 3 – Community

Chapple, Karen, and Shannon Jackson. “Commentary: Arts, Neighborhoods, and Social Practices: Towards An Integrated Epistemology of Community Arts.” Journal of Planning Education and Research 29.4 (April 2, 2010): 478-490.

McLean, Heather E. “Cracks in the Creative City: The Contradictions of Community Arts Practice.” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 38.6 (October 16, 2014): 2156-2173.


Joseph, Miranda. “Introduction: Persistent Critique, Relentless Return.” Against the Romance of Community. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002. vii-xxxvi.

Edmonds, Fran; Lee Darroch, Maree Clarke, and Vicki Couzens. “Ancestral Memory Out of the Shadows.” Artlink 32.2 (2012): 56-61.

Nakata, Martin N. “Concluding Remarks.” Disciplining the Savages, Savaging the Disciplines. Canberra, ACT: Aboriginal Studies Press, 2008. 218-225

Khan, Rimi. “Case Study: Creating a Profile – Reworking ‘Community’ at Footscray Community Arts Centre.” Local-Global: Identity, Security, Community 7 (2010): 134-148.


Week 4 – Debating the Social / Cultural

Lind, Maria. “Complications; On Collaboration, Agency and Contemporary Art.” Public: New Communities 39 (2009): 53-73.

Lacy, Suzanne. “Debated Territory: Toward a Critical Language for Public Art.” Mapping the Terrain: New Genre Public Art. Ed. Suzanne Lacy. Seattle, WA: Bay Press, 1995. 171-185.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. “Culture Alive.” Theory, Culture & Society 23.2-3 (May, 2006): 359-360.


Jackson, Shannon. “Quality Time: Social Practice Debates in Contemporary Art.” Social Works: Performing Art, Supporting Publics. London: Routledge, 2011. 54-86.


Week 5 – Ethics

Smith, Linda Tuhiwai. 1999. “Ethical Research Protocols” in Decolonizing Methodologies : Research and Indigenous Peoples. Dunedin: University of Otago Press. 118-122

Thornley, Jeni. “Island Home Country: Working with Aboriginal Protocols in a Documentary Film About Colonisation and Growing Up White in Tasmania.” Passionate Histories: Myth, Memory and Indigenous Australia. Ed. Frances Peters-Little, Ann Curthoys, and John Docker. Acton, A.C.T.: ANU E Press, 2010. 247-280.

Tuck, Eve, and K. Wayne Yang. “R-Words: Refusing Research.” Humanizing Research: Decolonizing Qualitative Inquiry with Youth and Communities. Ed. Django Paris and Maisha T. Winn. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2013. 223-248.


Bolt, Barbara. (under review) “Beneficience and contemporary art: when aesthetic Judgement meets ethical judgement” to be published in Exploring ethics and visual methodologies: Special issue of Visual Methodologies. Sept 2015. [reading to be distributed]

Alcoff, Linda. “The Problem of Speaking for Others.”Cultural Critique 20 (1991): 5-3

Edmonds, Frances. “Art Is Us: Aboriginal Art, Identity and Wellbeing in Southeast Australia.” PhD thesis. 2007. <>. Chapter 2: ‘Ways of Knowing’ [not in reader but available online]


Week 6 – Qualitative Research

Lincoln, Yvonna S. “On The Nature Of Qualitative Evidence.” Paper for the Annual Meeting of the Association for the Study of Higher Education, Sacramento, California, November 21-24, 2002 “10 Theses on the Archive.” Web. <>.


Mattern, Shannon. “Methodolatry and the Art of Measure,” Places Journal, November 2013. <>

Lather, Patti. “Issues of Validity in Openly Ideological Research: Between a Rock and a Soft Place.” Interchange 17.4 (December, 1986): 63-84

Beach, Dennis. “From Fieldwork to Theory and Representation in Ethnography.” Methodological Issues and Practices in Ethnography.  2005. 1-17. Studies in Educational Ethnography Vol. 11.

Marshall, Catherine. & Rossman, Gretchen.  “The What of the study.” In  Designing qualitative research (4th ed. Chapter 2, pp. 55-88). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Week 7 – Critical Research

Lazarsfeld, Paul F. “Remarks on Administrative and Critical Communications Research.” Studies in Philosophy and Social Science 9 (1941): 2-16

Butler, Judith. “Critique, Dissent, Disciplinarity.” Critical Inquiry 35.4 (2009): 773-795


Foucault, Michel. “What Is Critique?” The Politics of Truth. Ed. Sylvère Lotringer. Trans. Lysa Hochroth. Los Angeles, CA: Semiotext(e), 2007 [1978]. 41-83.

Vishmidt, Marina. “The Cultural Logic of Criticality.” Journal of Visual Art Practice 7.3 (December, 2008): 253-269.


Week 8 – Writing and Performance

Richardson, Laurel, and Elizabeth Adams St. Pierre. “Writing: A Method of Inquiry.” The SAGE Handbook of Qualitative Research. Ed. Norman K. Denzin and Yvonna S. Lincoln. Thousand Oaks; London; New Delhi: Sage, 2007. 959-978.

Cybermohalla Ensemble. “On Writing.” Cybermohalla Hub. Ed. Nikolaus Hirsch and Shveta Sarda. Delhi/ Berlin: Sarai-CSDS/Sternberg Press, 2012. 14-20

Boal, Augusto. “A Theoretical Foundation.” The Aesthetics of the Oppressed. Trans. Adrian Jackson. London; New York: Routledge, 2006. 11-43


King, Thomas. .2003. The truth about stories: A Native narrative. Toronto, ON: Anansi Press.  Chapter 1. [CBC lectures: ].

Conquergood, Lorne Dwight. 2002. “Performance Studies: Interventions and Radical Research.” TDR: The Drama Review 46, no. 2: 145-56.

Sarda, Shveta. “‘Before Coming Here, Had You Thought of a Place Like This?’–Notes on Ambivalent Pedagogy From the Cybermohalla Experience.” Utopian Pedagogy: Radical Experiments Against Neoliberal Globalization. Ed. Mark Coté, Richard J.F. Day, and Greig de Peuter. University of Toronto Press Toronto, 2007.


Week 9 – Evaluation

Gressel, Katherine. “Public Art and the Challenge of Evaluation.” Createquity. January 7, 2012. Web. <>.

Belfiore, Eleonora, and Oliver Bennett. “Beyond the “Toolkit Approach”: Arts Impact Evaluation Research and the Realities of Cultural Policy‐Making.” Journal for Cultural Research 14.2 (March 24, 2010): 121-142.


Norris, Niles. “The Politics of Evaluation and the Methodological Imagination.” American Journal of Evaluation 26.4 (December 1, 2005): 584-586.


Week 10 – Funding & the economy

There is No Now Now reader. 2014. [Letters from Biennale of Sydney 19 Artists Working Group] January 29, 2014. <>. Chapter One.

Colapinto, John. “The Real-Estate Artist.” [Theaster Gates] The New Yorker  January 29, 2015. <>


Mitropoulos, Angela. “xBorder Operational Matters: a Working Paper” <>

Slater, Josephine Berry, and Anthony Iles. No Room to Move: Radical Art and the Regenerate City | Mute (November 24, 2009). <>.

Fraser, Andrea. “A Museum Is Not a Business. It Is Run in a Businesslike Fashion”.” Art and Its Institutions: Current Conflicts, Critique and Collaborations. Ed. Nina Möntmann. London: Black Dog Publishing, 2006. 86-98.

Summary of Gayatri Spivak’s talk to the World Bank 1999

[This is not mine, but I thought it would be useful to make a stable link for this short summary that was both the impetus for my 15 years with Spivak’s work, and that has also served me well as a heuristic in my own brief forays into the international development arena. So here’s a readable version that still deserves a wide readership outside academia, the developmental attitude is perhaps only even more present now than then. I first saw this on the postcolonial list, and a quote ridden forward is the only surviving document I can find, I’d be happy to take this down and replace with a link to a better source if the Bank or the anonymous author would host it, please let me know! – db]


Date: Tue, 20 Apr 1999 12:50:13 -0400
Subject: [Gender-Law] Summary of Gayatri Spivak’s talk

Summary of the Talk to the Gender and Law Thematic Group by Professor Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Avalon Foundation Professor in the Humanities at Columbia University, New York

On April 12, 1999, Professor Spivak gave an illuminating and challenging presentation regarding working in the field of gender. She opened by stating that she did not come with a prepared paper, but was, rather, more interested in learning how to speak to Bank staff and how to have the Bank respond to what she would say. She pointed out that her remarks were being offered seriously and expressed the aspiration that they would be so taken. She noted, too, that her speaking at the Bank was a challenge to herself, and she considered her time here to constitute important field work for her.

Professor Spivak summarised her background as being a literature teacher as well as an activist for the past 10 years. She stated that during the last ten years, she has gone below the NGO level in working with communities in India, Algeria, and Bangladesh in the field of education – training teachers. She noted that if the goal of development work is indeed people, then one of the hardest lessons to learn, is that some of virtues of human existence will be found at the very bottom of society, which is the target area for change for development organisations. A question which emerges then, is, How do we approach the bottom? How can we learn from below?

The professor stated that as workers in the field of development, we should not proceed from the conviction that where we are is inherently better. If one internalises and accepts this position, then, organisations such as the Bank cannot continue to do what it does in the development field because learning from the bottom has to take priority. She realised that this position may be impractical or inconvenient for the Bank, but it was a realistic one. She questioned the definition of gender, especially approaches previously used by the Bank, but did not go further into the issue as she was informed that the Bank is working on a new gender strategy.

Professor Spivak emphasised that her remarks were being made from her experience as an activist. She stated that in her work she teaches the dominant national language and the principles of a living democratic culture within the fabric already existent in that society. She noted that in these societies where the people have learnt to manipulate incredibly complicated life systems, given also the systematic destruction and stagnation of the fabric of their societies over many centuries, often, there is more possibility for empowerment than may be realised by external workers.

Professor Spivak noted that women are the power in tribal groups. She questioned the validity of the public/private or inside/outside dichotomy in analysing issues among such groups, arguing that while this may be applicable to the middle class, this analysis did not work well at the grassroots. She also said that conventional approaches that emphasise legal rights for women may address issues of middle class or better-off women but do not touch on the problems faced by those at the grassroots. Gender is a field that goes beyond reason, and can not be analysed within the paradigm of rational expectations.

However, she stressed that tradition is not necessarily good, and change is imperative. However, assistance for such change should not take away what people have and replace it with top down schemes. Professor Spivak urged the need to look and see if there is not already a starting point within the present in the society itself, from which one can begin one’s work. One must not approach the work with the “supremacist’s assumption” that anything that exists must be bettered. The idea is to enter into and learn the traditions from inside, see what traditions can be worked with to slowly make the situation better and accepted from the inside, and to ensure that new developments are initiated from the inside. The need was to do “invisible mending” of the native fabric by weaving the different positive threads existing in the fabric. She stated that if people and not economic growth, are the motivating factor for working in gender, then we have to also realise that the change will not happen fast. Patience, she said, was critical.

Professor Spivak stated that living culture is always ahead of us. One should not think one is learning or being sensitive to another culture, but rather, one should try to forget that there is difference in culture for the time, and in this way some of one’s convictions can be changed and oneself can be open to that change. Professor Spivak also made reference to the role of using one’s imagination, as is done in literature, to envision the avenues for creating sustainable change and underscored the importance of placing one self in the other person’s (the person who is being changed) shoes – the process of “othering” as she described it.

In conclusion, the practical lessons that Professor Spivak would have for the Bank are that:

– sustainable change must come from within;
– work in this area must be approached with humility and respect avoiding the tendency to “do good with contempt in your heart” and the belief that we are in all respects better than them;
– those who seek to change must be fully prepared to be changed themselves;
– the patient learning from below must replace impatient imposition of change from above and outside; and
– sustainable change takes time, like “drops of water changing a stone, drop by drop.

In her closing remarks, the professor stated that she was interested in engaging the Bank in dialogue and that with sufficient lead time to prepare, she would be willing to return to the Bank to dialogue on issues relating to structural adjustment and gender and development.


Geographies of Professionalisation – panel for AAANZ conference 2014

Should have placed this here earlier – below the panel description for the panel “Geographies of Professionalisation”, organised by Rachel O’Reilly and myself for the AAANZ conference GEOcritical, December 2014. See the Call for Papers, abstract submissions due 29th August but we can probably take late ones until the 31st. Please propose! Email danny at

Geographies of Professionalisation

A Session Proposal for GEOCritical, Art Association of Australia and New Zealand Conference, Launceston 5-8 December 2014


Danny Butt, Research Fellow, Research Unit in Public Cultures, University of Melbourne* 

Rachel O’Reilly, independent writer and curator, Amsterdam/Berlin.

The expansion of the market for university qualifications (for artists, curators, and administrators) has combined with the rise of the international biennial/festival to produce expanded and geographically synchronised fields of professional art discourse. Professional practitioners travel in circles of international prestige, evaluated less by their development of an institutional archive and more by their relationships with contemporary producers and institutions.

The historical marker of professionalism was a certain autonomy and a disinterested, neutral, public character that distinguished itself from mere exchange-value. However, the expansion of mechanisms of professionalisation through privatised universities and cultural institutions questions this disinterest. As Samuel Weber notes, professionalism requires “a certain kind of place, or, more precisely, a certain kind of placement.” The professional is in a structural location, programmed by global forces, that formats particular places and sites in terms of their potential for profit.

The dynamics of this “placement” have been on display in actions against corporate sponsors of large-scale exhibitions funded from industries including oil and gas, mandatory detention, and speculative finance. Sponsoring corporations are actively profiting from the neoliberal and neocolonial transformation of territory, property and democratic governance. The political economy of the presenting institution supports a curatorial ideology of neutrality: a withdrawal from thinking the political as the means of holding institutional power. This neutrality is justified in an appropriation of art’s “autonomy”, yet the autonomy of the artist is never global. As Guattari describes it, “the task of the poetic function… is to recompose artificially rarefied, resingularized Universes of subjectification.”  In other words, the aesthetic work of resingularisation can be seen as moving in an opposite direction to globalising neutralisation.

This panel asks how artists, critics and curators orient themselves to the geographical imaginary of professionalisation, navigating local and global forces that produce contemporary artistic subjectivities.

Relation to conference theme (150 words)

The panel is a direct response to the question of the “geo”, asking about the planetary distribution of knowledge formations that produce contemporary art. We aim to solicit papers that engage the tension between international discourses and local sites, incorporating issues such as local and indigenous knowledges, reterritorialisation of national cultural institutions, and the rise of environmental and ecological issues in contemporary art.


19th Biennale of Sydney’s places of work

I don’t have that much to say about the 19th Biennale of Sydney as a whole — like most shows of this scale there was work I liked and work I didn’t. But the framing of the 19th Biennale — “You Imagine What You Desire” — seemed very “European” and individualist, compared to the more anthropological/comparativist “All Our Relations” of 2012. This intuition, not unrelated to the distribution of unfreedom that led to the activism around major sponsor Transfield’s involvement in mandatory detention, required sociological exploration rather than close reading. So I ran some numbers on where the selected artists live and work, and the results are graphed below.

As an aside, I think “You Desire What You Can Imagine” is more technically accurate.

Screen Shot 2014-04-08 at 9.36.37 PM

Country		Artists in	(Identifying as Indigenous)

Australia	19.50		3.00
New Zealand	1.00		1.00

Germany		10.83	
UK		10.50	
Norway		8.00	
Netherlands	7.50	
France		5.50	
Switzerland	5.00	
Poland		4.00	
Denmark		3.50	
Finland		3.00	
Belgium		2.83	
Sweden		2.00	
Hungary		2.00	
Ireland		1.00	
Austria		1.00
Turkey		0.33

United States	5.50	
Canada		2.00	

China		2.50	
Israel		1.33	

Egypt		1.00			
Republic of 
the Congo	0.33
* This is a back-of-the-envelope calculation of where artists in 19th Biennale of Sydney work, based on the attribution provided in the catalogue. Where an artist works in more than one place a fraction is applied – e.g. London and New York = 0.5 UK, 0.5 US. Artist duos and collaborations are treated as one unit unless a separate exhibition history is listed for each artist, in which case each artist is counted individually. Indigenous identification is listed where the artist has listed a non-nation-state affiliation. Mircea Cantor’s claim to work on “Earth” is not included as I see it as part of the problem. Fact-checking and improvements welcome.

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 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.