The biennale boycott

One of the artworks currently on show at the Biennale of Sydney is Bosbolobosboco #6, by Libia Castro and Ólafur Ólafsson. It was made in collaboration with the Sydney-based group Refugee Art Project, which since its founding in 2010 has run art classes inside detention centres and organised exhibitions and publications for artworks made by asylum seekers.

Safdar Ahmed, a founding member of Refugee Art Project, describes Bosbolobosboco #6 as ‘a biomorphic sculpture which resembles a living entity, comprised seemingly of skin or bone. It contains headphones that feature the voices of refugees visualising specific memories which emerged in dialogue with a psychologist, with reference to certain points of their departure, transit and arrival into Australia.’

Castro and Ólafsson are two of the artists who withdrew from the biennale during the boycott campaign that gathered strength between February and March this year. On 7 March, the biennale’s board released a statement announcing the resignation of Luca Belgiorno-Nettis (chairman of Transfield Holdings) as chair of the event and the end – ‘effective immediately’ – of the sponsorship arrangement with Transfield, the event’s founding sponsor. By that time, fifty-one participating artists had signed an open letter to the board, nine artists had withdrawn and two employees of the Museum of Contemporary Art contracted to work on the biennale’s installation had resigned from their positions. The boycott also received significant media attention, both locally and overseas.

The boycott campaign had a clearly defined goal: to get the biennale to divest from Transfield, its major sponsor. Transfield describes itself as a provider of ‘garrison support and welfare services’ to the Department of Immigration. Transfield announced the government’s award of their service contract for Nauru on 11 September 2012. A further contract for Manus Island was announced on 24 February this year. According to the company’s own website, Transfield runs utility maintenance, cooking and cleaning at both detention centres, along with ‘health services, accommodation, educational, recreational and religious programmes’. Security is subcontracted to Wilson Security.

Refugee Art Project was aware of, and concerned by, the biennale’s relationship with Transfield prior to the boycott. Once the boycott’s public call was made, says Ahmed, ‘we came to a decision through conversation and mutual consultation [with the artists]. This was important because although they are the principal artists, they were nonetheless new to Australia and the results of the artwork depended very much on our process of collaboration and what the refugees were bringing to the work. After discussing a range of options with the artists, we were happy to boycott the exhibition and to have the opportunity to exhibit the work elsewhere, which we were in the process of organising.’

After the decision of the board to sever ties with Transfield, Castro and Ólafsson re-entered the show.

A boycott of the biennale was never going to end the policy of mandatory detention. It was not designed to do so. It was, however, a way of focusing critical attention not only upon the policies of the Australian government but also upon the companies that profit from the implementation of these policies.

In their open letter to the board on 19 February, the signatory artists protested the event’s association with Transfield: ‘We urge you to act in the interests of asylum seekers. As part of this we request the biennale withdraw from the current sponsorship arrangements with Transfield and seek to develop new ones.’

On the weekend immediately before the open letter was published, seventy-seven asylum seekers at the Manus Island detention centre were injured and one, Reza Berati, was killed. Two Australian employees of security contractor G4S are currently wanted for questioning by Papua New Guinea police and are regarded as suspects in the death of Berati. This terrible violence brought a new urgency to the boycott campaign.

The outsourcing of state violence – policing, prisons and border control – to private companies is increasingly the norm, and not just in Australia. G4S, for example, which bills itself as ‘the world’s leading international security solutions group’, has security contracts in prisons across the world, including locally at Mount Gambier, Port Phillip and Long Bay.

‘The notion that Transfield could somehow “make a positive difference at Manus Island and Nauru”, as Guido Belgiorno-Nettis claimed in his opening address to this year’s biennale (which we did not attend) is both spurious and tasteless,’ says Ahmed. ‘He said it at a time when all security personnel on Manus Island were told to carry Hoffman knives so they may be able to promptly cut down any detainees that attempt to commit suicide by hanging themselves with bed sheets or wire.’

The same companies responsible for private policing, including Transfield, are also heavily invested in mining, oil and gas infrastructure. It’s no accident that asylum seekers imprisoned under Australia’s mandatory detention policy are routinely derided as ‘economic migrants’ – they are a scapegoat for the acute anxiety and instability caused by the enormous transfer of public assets into private ownership over the course of several decades, alongside a steady contraction of workers’ rights. It is worth noting, for instance, that in 2002 – when Tony Abbott was Minister for Workplace Relations – Transfield pursued a case in the Federal Court against the Australian Workers Union, the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union and the Electrical Trades Union for breaches of the Workplace Relations Act 1996, after workers refused to cross picket lines at Patricia-Baleen gas plant in Orbost, Victoria. The three unions were fined $300,000 by the court.

It is imperative that a renewed movement to end mandatory detention in Australia – one that includes boycotts – draws out the tangled connections between the violence meted out to asylum seekers and the increasingly punitive conditions experienced in our workplaces, both of which turn out to be, in part, the responsibility of one private company. The tactical racism of both major Australian political parties in pitting asylum seekers against a mythical white working class (the ‘battlers’ and ‘aspirational voters’) must be met with a political commitment from the Left to organising against such divisions.

A frequently-aired set of criticisms related to the biennale boycott had to do with the site of protest itself: that art isn’t, or shouldn’t be, political; that artists should have protested solely through the medium of their art and from within the biennale; that artists (or, as some prefer to put it, bullying ‘activists’ and outside agitators) have ruined arts funding forever.

People who called for artists to protest within the boundaries of the event itself repeatedly – and perhaps wilfully – misunderstood the nature of Transfield’s relationship to the biennale. Transfield derived a very specific kind of value as the founding sponsor. As artists wrote in the open letter to the board, ‘participation is an active endorsement, providing cultural capital for Transfield’. Lamentations from the political class over the generosity of the Belgiorno-Nettis family and the unfairness of the boycott are a testament to the power of this cultural capital: philanthropy apparently renders one’s business practices immune from criticism.

On 14 February, before the artists’ open letter was published, a statement went up on the Transfield website with a quote from Luca Belgiorno-Nettis:

Many Australians struggle with the problems of managing the transit of refugees to this country; this is a global challenge. The Biennale of Sydney acts as an artistic platform for dialogue around issues such as this.

Until the moment when the boycott succeeded, the argument from the biennale board was exactly this – that the event itself represented an opportunity for ‘dialogue’, even with dissenters. Of course, such dissent, transpiring under the auspices of Transfield, would have been nothing but a way for the company to keep accruing value to its brand – and to pat itself on the back for its wonderful open-mindedness.

‘In the early stages we toyed with the idea of remaining within the biennale and using it as a platform for a critique of Transfield and the government’s policy on refugees,’ says Ahmed, ‘but this would have made far less impact than the boycott proved to have.’

Art is always political – perhaps most of all in contexts which appear, on the surface, to be benign or neutral. The apoplectic reaction of politicians like Malcolm Turnbull and George Brandis to the success of the boycott was extremely telling – it seems they truly believe that art should be nothing more than decoration to hang upon the walls of the rich. (Transfield, not so incidentally, makes a good profit from renting its own art collection to clients like the Australian Industry Group, a pro-business lobby, and Thales Australia, a defence contractor.) In particular, Brandis’ letter to the Australia Council, in which he asked the funding body to punish artists and organisations who refuse or withdraw from private sponsorship, is a clear demonstration of the neoliberal world view: that art, along with everything else, is a purely commercial transaction.

‘As an organisation dedicated to facilitating the art and self-expression of those affected by mandatory detention, we believe that art can certainly contribute to the debate about refugee policy in this country,’ says Ahmed, in reference to Refugee Art Project. ‘Our art class currently involves a number of long-term detainees who have been held in detention for over four years. Our class includes an eleven-year-old boy and his fifteen-year-old sister who are in detention with their parents and four other siblings, most of whom are minors. Like the adults around them, it’s obvious these children have been affected and traumatised by the conditions of their detention. Their self-expression and agency, like that of virtually everyone we work with, provides a very powerful intellectual and aesthetic response to the camps.’

He continues: ‘We hope that the campaign against Transfield will grow and diversify to target the company on the many levels in which it intersects with people’s lives and business. This includes pressuring other art institutions to withdraw their association with Transfield, including the Art Gallery of New South Wales, the Museum of Contemporary Art and the Sydney Chamber Orchestra. A sustained boycott and divestment movement against Transfield and the other companies that profit from Australia’s detention system – such as G4S, SERCO and Toll Holdings – may be the only way for ordinary people to act on this matter, in light of the present two-party political consensus on offshore detention and the need to punish asylum seekers as a type of deterrent.’

The violence of language directed against the boycott campaign – ‘shameful’, ‘offensive’, ‘vicious ingratitude’ – directs our attention away from the ongoing physical, sexual and psychological violence that is experienced every day by asylum seekers locked up on Nauru, Manus Island and the mainland detention centres. The biennale board’s initial response to the boycott on 21 February – in which they described themselves as ‘“collateral damage” in a complex argument’ – was absurdly tin-eared. No-one on the board has died as a result of the boycott. Asylum seekers have died, and will continue to die, thanks to this country’s policies. They are not collateral damage, either – they are the intended target.


Anwen Crawford

Anwen Crawford is a Sydney writer. Her second book of non-fiction, No Document was published in 2021 by Giramondo and was short-listed for the Stella Prize.

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