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On the Boycott of the 2014 Biennale of Sydney

by Helen Hughes

Rallies have been held throughout Australia with activists voicing their concerns over the treatment of refugees and asylum seekers interned on Nauru and Manus Island. Photograph: Siobhan Marren/Getty Images

There have recently been calls to boycott the 2014 Biennale of Sydney due to the Biennale’s financial support from Transfield, a multinational corporation that, among many other services such as superannuation, waste management and public transport, are involved in the building and management of Australia’s offshore mandatory detention centres for asylum seekers on Nauru and on Manus Island, Papua New Guinea.

*The Australian government’s approach to asylum seeker policy, which includes the offshore processing of those who arrive through ‘unofficial channels’, is widely regarded as draconian. A bipartisan reality, it has been condemned as contravening national obligations as laid out in the 1951 Refugee Convention, as well as a variety of international human rights laws. In addition, Transfield recently won a contract from the Australian government to take over the management of garrison and welfare services in these detention centres, meaning that the one company manages detainees’ housing, security, transport, catering, cleaning, psychological and medical support. (Note that many detainees become psychologically disturbed and even suicidal during their confinement in such detention centres.)

This most recent contract between Transfield and the Australian government has demonstrated how the incremental privatisation of Australia’s on- and offshore detention centres has developed into an extremely lucrative industry. Transfield’s contracts between 2013 and 2014 amounted to a figure in the three-hundred-millions of dollars. It is a gesture that allows the government to shunt culpability for its infamous treatment of asylum seekers by placing the onus onto a private corporation, and one that gives corporations like Transfield (along with G4S and Serco) a financial incentive to maintain and even expand the mandatory detention industry — despite pressure from the international community to shut it down.

The recent public campaign to boycott the Biennale was sparked by a Sydney academic named Matthew Kiem a fortnight ago, via his blog, an entry on the online forum ‘The Conversation’, and his Twitter account. Bianca Hester, Charlie Sofo, Nathan Gray and Gabrielle de Vietri, four Australian artists invited to participate in this year’s Biennale of Sydney, then formed the collective ‘Working Group’ to lobby the Board of the Biennale of Sydney to divest itself of all financial support from Transfield, and to urge Transfield, in turn, to send a message to the Australian government to end the mandatory detention of asylum seekers. They were then joined by twenty-four other participating artists in sending an open letter to the Board of the Biennale of Sydney outlining their request in solidarity. (The letter can be read online here: http://lamblegs.wordpress.com/2014/02/19/an-open-letter-to-the-board-of-directors-biennale-of-sydney/.) In the meantime, public meetings held in Sydney and Melbourne have sought to unite the local arts communities with local refugee activist and advocacy groups in the broader campaign.

However, as the government continues to privatise its management of detention centres by handing over contracts to companies like Transfield, it becomes increasingly unclear to whom artists and activists should direct their protest, and whether or not a boycott would have any affect whatsoever. Most people would agree, though, that a boycott could not possibly make the already inhumane conditions for detained asylum seekers any worse; these conditions include the detention of children, the separation of families, and utterly inadequate mental and physical health facilities, which, according to a recent report by Amnesty International, constitute a breach of human rights. This confusion is, it would seem, the very point of the privatisation because it kickstarts an endless, and highly calculated, deferral of blame.

As a private corporation that is intricately entwined with Australian public infrastructure, Transfield is a many-headed Hydra. In this way, the Transfield–Biennale of Sydney tract is emblematic of a broader problem that is not exclusive to art and its system of patronage. The backdrop of the Biennale of Sydney, which is in its nineteenth iteration this year, does, however, provide a particularly symbolic backdrop for the staging of this protest. This year’s Biennale is titled ‘You Imagine What You Desire’ and its artistic director is the Australian Juliana Engberg, the long-time director of the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art in Melbourne, where many of the artists included in the Biennale have previously exhibited. The Biennale sets out to explore the ways in which contemporary artists imagine other worlds through acts of poesis and metaphor, and reflect on the way that contemporary art often functions as a meta-commentary on political, social and climatic contexts. This approach is clearly reflected in the work of one of the Australian artists invited to participate in the Biennale, Bianca Hester, whose poetical-political and often instructional works see transient communities forming around simple, symbolic events — like assembling in a public space, or erecting an abstract banner in front of parliament house.

Strangely enough, Engberg’s curatorial rationale was echoed in a recent statement made by Transfield in response to mounting upset over its sponsorship of the Biennale. Here, Transfield did not defend its ethical position on profiting from the detainment of those who feel compelled to leave their own countries and seek asylum in Australia, some of the most vulnerable people in the world, but rather accepted that its business was indeed ‘controversial’ and coolly accounted for this controversy by helping to fund a Biennale that ‘promotes creativity and imagination, and enables artists to express their views on controversial issues’ like mandatory detention.1 That is, while Transfield profits from the mandatory detention industry to the tune of hundreds-of-millions in the real world, the corporation helps provide a space for artists to imagine other, more desirable worlds — worlds in which mandatory detention, and companies like Transfield, do not exist — by funding platforms like the Biennale of Sydney.

Confusing the matter further, Transfield was, in fact, the founding sponsor of the Biennale in 1973. While Transfield was not building offshore detention centres on government contract in the 1970s, it was in 2012 (on the island continent of Nauru) when the 18th Biennale of Sydney, ‘all our relations’ — curated by Gerald McMaster and Catherine de Zegher, took place. That year, non-participating Melbourne-based artist Van Thanh Rudd protested Transfield’s sponsorship of the Biennale, arguing that Transfield cannot simultaneously make a profit on the ‘misery of refugees, while claiming that it supports freedom of expression in the arts’.2 This year, the Australian art community appears to be more receptive to the notion of a protest, perhaps largely due to a new secrecy-pact presided over by Immigration Minister Scott Morrison that makes attempted arrivals by boat completely invisible to the Australian public by concealing such news items from the media. This is in addition to the offshore processing policy itself, which is also a blatant form of concealment.

Art will always possess the potential to expose such injustices, to make them visible. And, as Engberg recognises, much of its power is grounded in its capacity to propose alternatives and possible ‘antidotes’. Moreover, the platform of a biennale-type exhibition, which is premised upon globality, offers a channel through which to make such injustices visible to an international community. And when this platform is ethically compromised by its funding structure, as with the current Biennale of Sydney, art can even expose this, the very contradiction of its own condition — it can critique its capitalist context whilst forming an intrinsic and complicit part of it. Engberg duly recognises this capacity of art as well, and has encouraged participating artists who feel ethically conflicted to use the Biennale to explore their concerns.

As riots continue to break out in the centres on Manus Island, resulting in one death and seventy-seven injuries already this week, the protest is of utmost urgency. And for this reason it is worth remembering that even if the Biennale did somehow manage to divest itself of funds from Transfield, that would solve the problem for art — but not the problem faced by incarcerated asylum seekers, which is evidently much graver. In this sense, the protest should be aimed jointly at the government policy and its privatisation, in which Transfield is wholly complicit, and leverage the intelligence and grace of expression with which the artists, arts workers and artistic director of the Biennale are so well equipped to communicate the message: end mandatory detention.

1. ‘Transfield Holdings Comment on Concerns Regarding Biennale of Sydney’, Transfield, http://www.transfield.com.au/news/183-transfield-holdings-comment-on-concerns-regarding-biennale-of-sydney accessed 19 February 2014. 2. ‘Supporting the call to Boycott the 19th Biennale of Sydney (2014)’, http://vanthanhrudd.wordpress.com/ accessed 19 February 2014.