On Saturday 14 October 2017, the moats outside Melbourne’s National Gallery of Victoria ran red. The protest, conducted by a group of artists and art workers known as the Artists’ Committee, was part of a campaign to highlight the NGV’s unethical commercial relationship with Wilson Security. As well as providing security services for the gallery, Wilson was the security contractor for the Australian government’s offshore detention facilities on Manus Island (2014–17) and, still, at Nauru (2012–?). The protests sought to make visible these hidden linkages and the consequences of complicity.
Four months later, the NGV announced that its contract with Wilson, brokered by the Victorian Government Purchasing Board, would not be extended. Ergo, the actions taken to expose the gallery’s implicit endorsement of state violence were effective. For the NGV, the association with Wilson had become too hard to justify, especially in light of the inaugural NGV Triennial’s focus on statelessness and asylum. Indeed, the exhibition’s advertising campaign included posters and billboards featuring images from commissioned artist Richard Mosse’s Incoming, arguably cashing in on asylum-seeking to attract a record number of visitors – and to attract philanthropic funding from donors wanting to see, as one benefactor was overheard calling it, ‘refugee art’.
As a member of the Artists’ Committee, I was tasked with pouring red dye into the filters at the bottom of the famous water wall, close to the gallery’s entrances. This proved tricky: the dye congealed at the top of the glass panelling, meaning the water turned only a faint pink; onlookers could only see the dark red pooling above if they strained their necks. The action was carefully planned, including preparing for possible visual failures, but we didn’t expect this particular eventuality. In hindsight, our unsuccessful attempt to dye the water wall red served as an apt metaphor for the co-determining relationship between economies of visibility and liquidity. Specifically, how art and its relational images fluctuate in their viewable accessibility, not only in the physical space of the neoliberal museum, but also when liquidified into monetary value, becoming shapeless and formless within a hidden and unseen economic realm.
When architect Roy Grounds was commissioned to redesign the gallery facade in 1959 he intended to maximise ‘the use of water [as] a means of softening the austerity of the building’s exterior’. In a Meanjin essay published in April 1961, art academic FA Philipp links the gruff architectural aesthetic of the NGV to prison projects still common in the Western architectural vernacular:
The architect’s remark (Age, February 22), ‘I have done everything to play down the architecture’, throws some light on the strangely negative character of the long and low bluestone facade which will face St. Kilda Road, its horizontal mass emphatically pierced only by the large entrance arch. The association of barracks and gaol offers itself readily and has been voiced with some apprehension. This association is neither foolish nor superficial. On viewing sketches, plans and model, one is indeed reminded of that fine Victorian specimen of the colonial tradition, the Old Melbourne Gaol in Franklin Street. One is led further back into the past: to the colonial phase in New South Wales; to Sir John Soane and the ‘Romantic Classicism’ of the early 19th century; to the ancestors of this romantic classicism, the works of the great French Utopian architects of the Revolutionary period, especially their bold and forbidding prison projects, and the still extant descendant of these works, Peter Speeth’ s prison for women in Würzburg (1809–10), with its massive stone walls, block-like severity and great looming archway.
The NGV was set up to cultivate public interest in classical European civilisation, but it also served another function: building Victoria’s identity during an economically prosperous time. The institution was founded in 1861, just over a decade after Victoria gained independence from New South Wales. The new colony was dominating the world’s gold market and needed a way to flaunt its sudden wealth. It was also a time when racial classifications inscribed onto First Nations peoples were in turn being inscribed onto new migrants, many of whom were assimilated into the resource extraction industries that sustained colonial power dynamics. For these reasons, the NGV’s historical foundations are inevitably rooted in a penal colony’s class anxiety and white fragility.
Since the gallery’s 1960s redesign, it has worked hard to remake its image as a contemporary, fashionable and internationalist institution. This comes through in self-referential terms: for example, in 2002, the gallery adopted the corporate-style short form ‘NGV Australia’ and ‘NGV International’ to hide the anachronistic ‘National’ – a reminder of the colonial state. It plans to revisit the past this year, by recreating the gallery’s inaugural 1968 exhibition, The Field.
In his 2011 essay ‘Art Museums in Australia’, Daniel Thomas notes another unfortunate colonial legacy that still blights our state art institutions: the use of the British terminology of public ‘gallery’ – rather than ‘art museum’ – which has long confused parliamentarians and foreign art collectors alike. The former have assumed that government ‘galleries’ are commercial businesses in need of occasional subsidy, not cultural, educational and research institutions in need of permanent sustenance; the latter have occasionally approached our state or regional ‘galleries’ in the hope of buying works.
The NGV was given its name in 1875, when a distinct national identity was only just starting to emerge, but was still very much grounded in notions of empire. This unfiltered desire to aspire towards Britishness – and the class anxiety underpinning such a desire – is also apparent in past programming, such as the JMW Turner exhibition that marked the launch of the new St Kilda Road venue. Unsurprisingly, the phenomenon of the European white male ‘blockbuster’ has continued to recent times, with Degas and Van Gogh retrospectives occupying the Winter Masterpieces series for the past two years. The arrival of current director, Tony Ellwood, in 2012 saw a shift towards modernism, but still within the realm of white ‘masters’, such as Andy Warhol (positioned as an aesthetic foil to Ai Weiwei, a crowd favourite with Western audiences) and the easily consumable, colour-drenched works of David Hockney.
The NGV wields notions of cultural transformation to deploy a particular image of itself as an institution and of the audience/community it supposedly serves. Despite efforts to promote itself as critically aware and self-reflexive, a bastion of diversity and inclusion, the NGV is professionalised towards a Western ‘cosmopolitan’ sensibility.
The NGV’s contract with Wilson exposes the limits of this self-reflexivity, revealing instead the gallery’s complicity in racist and dehumanising immigration policies. When artist-run initiatives Bus Projects and TCB Art Inc. voiced concerns about the NGV’s security contract, they were both seemingly dropped from Triennial EXTRA (the gallery’s ten-night festival featuring ‘100 artists and designers from thirty-two countries’) despite previously being in discussions around participation.
Here, the speculative value of art is enacted as proxy politics: the institution’s response to critique was in line with ongoing regulatory processes of securitisation and privatisation in state art museums (‘privately owned museums are on the rise and they’re dramatically changing the cultural landscape,’ notes Kathryn Brown in The Conversation, citing examples such as the Louis Vuitton Foundation in Paris and Russian billionaire Leonid Mikhelson’s collection, while the future of Powerhouse Museum as a public institution has long been in doubt). These two processes, both of which are bound up with neoliberal financial flows, occur within a political community that, in the words of Barry Buzan and Ole Waever, ‘treat[s] something as an existential threat to a valued referent object and … enable[s] a call for urgent and exceptional measures to deal with the threat.’ The valued referent object in this case is the NGV’s brand at large, and the urgent measures taken include the transformation and reorganisation of racist strategies within the neoliberal institution.
In Dark Matters, US sociologist Simone Browne defines her concept of ‘security theatre’, in which appearance and gesture are marshalled through architectures of risk evaluation, profiling and obedience. Browne’s theory is useful for understanding the performance and performativity of security in museums, insofar as guards are not able to prevent attempts to steal or attack artworks any more than ordinary citizens are.
New and accepted ways of engaging with art allow for, and often invite the public to touch, sit or lie down on artworks, and the non-materiality of digital formats (such as video projections and VR gaming environments) are inviting new kinds of interaction. This means there is no risk of an original artwork being damaged irreparably, as it no longer exists solely in its exhibition format; the artwork’s value lies, in part, in the contract that allows for its presentation by the gallery.1 Here the de-materialisation of the artwork occurs in correlation with the de-materialisation of the viewer. One of the takeaways from the recent Facebook–Cambridge Analytica scandal helps illuminate parallels in the current climate for art at the NGV: if the product is free, so the Silicon Valley saying goes, then it’s not the real product – you are.
The condition of access to the gallery is not only the surrendering of yourself as a quantifiable figure – a visitor statistic in the institution’s end-of-year report – but also surrendering your role as a mere observer. Audiences are increasingly coerced into participatory art in these spaces: take, for example, Yayoi Kusama’s installation at this year’s Triennial, where the visitor was encouraged to take a flower sticker from the gallery attendant and place it somewhere in the room. Suddenly, your action is the art; you are the work, or as much a part of it as anything else in the gallery. This is a contemporary phenomenon mined and represented by artist Hito Steyerl, who is hotly tipped to receive a solo exhibition at the NGV in the near future. In her 2015 essay ‘The Terror of Total Dasein’, Steyerl talks about a ‘desirable’ state of human presence that is to be engaged with or occupied through an activity, but never hired or employed. She considers this an ‘economy of presence’ in the art field, which facilitates easier quantification and monetisation.
There are, of course, always limits to how much a person can participate in art that is made for participation, though it’s not always easy to tell who is providing the rules of engagement – the artist or the institution? But with this participatory turn comes a shift in the role of security in cultural spaces: their job is no longer just the safeguarding of material artworks (the public can now interact with them), but also the policing of public spaces to stop them from becoming sites of dissent.
In the wake of the Artists’ Committee’s campaigning and their work being brought to broader attention by Triennial artists Candice Breitz, Rafael Lozano-Hemmer and Richard Mosse, the NGV used its displayed artworks and security services to limit the threat of ongoing protest. A few days before a scheduled follow-up action – this time a guerrilla cello performance called ‘Break the Silence’, planned for the NGV foyer – bollards were quickly erected, filling all unoccupied spaces between Xu Zhen’s enormous sixteen-metre reclining Buddha and a large seven-metre dome structure, a collaboration between furniture designers from Brazil’s Estudio Campana, artists from Larapinta Valley Town Camp and Alice Springs-based designer Elliat Rich. One has to wonder whether the timing was coincidental or deliberate; if it were the latter, it would be laughable considering the spectacular display it created.
SOMEBODY’S WATCHING ME AT THE NGV
Candice Breitz – Facebook
18 December 2017
I’ve just entered the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne to spend time looking at the exhibition. As I entered the main door, the Wilson security guard posted at that door audibly got on his walkie talkie to tell someone I was entering the museum: ‘She’s carrying a “Refugee Rights Bag”,’ he told the person on the other side. The museum has me under surveillance. I’m going to see the exhibition anyway.
Further to my most recent post (above) and earlier posts this week:
I had a quiet chat with the friendly Wilson security guard ‘M,’ whose name I won’t reveal. He was courteous and apologetic. He told me that he and his colleagues were under strict instruction to report anyone who looked like they might have ‘political overtones,’ and especially anything to do with the ‘whole refugee thing.’ I asked him what it was that had made his colleague call up to report me, in particular, to security central. He pointed at my tote bag, the official tote bag of this year’s Australian national pavilion at the Venice Biennale, where Tracey Moffatt was Australia’s representative artist. On one side, the bag reads ‘Refugee Rights’ (this was the side that was visible as I walked into the museum). On the other, it reads ‘Indigenous Rights.’ ‘That’s the kind of thing we’ve been told to look out for, anything with a political message’ he explained, pointing at the bag. This is not about M. He was just doing his job, and he could not have handled the awkward moment with greater dignity. It is about matters far larger and far more ominous. I hope dearly that this man will not lose his job over this, but I’ve never been under surveillance by a museum I was exhibiting in before, and I will not pretend that I do not find the situation repressive.
This contraction of public space was felt viscerally by those involved in the protests. Breitz, along with some Artists’ Committee members, reported being surveilled as they moved around the museum.
Being followed is always an intensely uncomfortable experience, no matter where you are or who you are. It’s worth noting, however, that those who reported being followed in this instance were white, profiled for being explicitly involved in activism, or at least appearing so. It’s a wholly different experience to everyday racial profiling in Australia. The practice of policing unruly, resistant bodies follows logically from Australia’s history of violent settler colonialism and its present refusal to grant First Nations people their sovereign rights. And, of course, it’s another manifestation of the racism underpinning the state’s punitive immigration policies.
Similar dynamics are at play in the recent militarisation and expansion of the Victorian police force and the increasing use of brutal ‘public policing’ tactics. Both are justified through a state-constructed, often nebulous moral panic about immigration – at times it’s fearmongering about marauding ‘African gangs’, while other times it’s Chinese students ‘spying’, or ‘queue-jumping’ asylum seekers. Recent years have also seen greater policing of social movements (especially those focused on Indigenous and refugee justice), either through the deployment of paramilitary-style riot police, or legislation that criminimalises dissent. These seemingly fragmented developments point to state-directed techniques that are, in Sydney academic Angela Mitropoulos’ words, ‘encoded in a lucrative fear about the imagined future of “the white race” and its colonial properties’, particularly when confronted by resistant or unruly bodies.
It’s important to recognise the connection between surveillance practices at public cultural institutions and broader state security decisions. One can see, for instance, similar processes at play in the expansion of prison facilities in the west of Melbourne. Ongoing since 2016, these ‘investments’ have been accompanied by increases in police numbers and a push for tougher sentencing, both of which will result in, according to Corrections Minister Gayle Tierney, more people behind bars, and thus more jobs within the carceral complex.
Max Haiven, director of the ReImagining Value Action Lab, talks about securitisation as a financialised term to ‘reduce risks’. In his framing, it’s about controlling a threat one supposedly possesses. In the Australian context, the notion of ownership and/or possession is especially fraught with colonial and genocidal processes, combined with an insatiable desire for capital accumulation. In her essay ‘Bodies That Matter: Performing White Possession on the Beach’, Aileen Moreton-Robinson examines this through analysing white Australian cultural practices that ‘reiteratively signify that the nation is a white possession’. Similarly, WEB Du Bois, through his lived experience and context, understands that ‘whiteness is the ownership of the earth, forever and ever, Amen!’
For all these reasons, Australian state museums – as possessive/collecting institutions – are entangled with the forced occupation of Aboriginal lands and the dispossession of Aboriginal peoples; racial injustice is embedded within their very foundations. This manifests in a number of ways: for example, the relegation of ‘diversity’ to shallow, short-term frames of visibility, or the temporality and precarity of works being collected and displayed, or the artists given space in public programming. We also see a prioritising of forms of ‘representation’ based on how white artists might depict (and in turn benefit from) traumas of ‘the other’. And so institutions are able to justify and rationalise systemic racism through economic determinants and the language of security, even in those instances when they are simultaneously offering platforms to people from under-represented backgrounds.
As my friend Texta would say, these platforms are very rarely offered in a way that doesn’t pressure First Nations artists and artists of colour into becoming palatable to a largely white audience. These racial-gendered limitations are viscerally felt, as are the strenuous psychological dimensions of racism and sexism in cultural spaces purporting to be diverse and inclusive.
The ‘panel industrial complex’ is a prime example of how galleries like the NGV are at once aware of the prestige of being ‘diverse’ and ‘inclusive’ and yet knowingly coopt particular bodies. Panel events provide institutions with cheap/free labour, yet don’t require long-term insurance in the same way that material artworks do. In other words, they offer access to forms of intellectual, emotional and social labour that can be sold and capitalised upon, quantified and monetised. The fetishisation of critical discourse was visible in the curation of Triennial Voices, a collection of writings and recordings launched alongside the Triennial exhibition. Interestingly, some essays, such as Morehshin Allahyari and Daniel Rourke’s ‘3D Additivist Manifesto’ and Allahyari’s ‘The Distributed Monument’, were simply reproduced for this platform, even though they can be freely downloaded from Allahyari’s website. There was also an experimental documentary on the speculative Guantanamo Bay Museum of Art and History, accompanied by an essay by Derek Gregory on Guantanamo Bay as an Agambenian ‘state of exception’. Pair this with a powerful interview with Behrouz Boochani and you have something that resembles a formula for institutional self-criticality – but without the necessary reflection on how the institution had also perpetuated carceral logic.
It’s worth noting that the University of Melbourne was a sponsor for Triennial Voices, allowing for research billed as scientific innovation to occupy prime online real estate alongside highbrow critical theory and writing. This occurred in spite of the university’s previous partnership with Wilson Security and its budding partnership with Lockheed Martin – the world’s largest weapons manufacturer – one that will lead to ‘laboratories [that] operate on the frontline of applied research and development’ (to facilitate overseas war profits, a link made clear by student activists from Lockout Lockheed, who are calling for the university to terminate all relationships with the weapons manufacturer).
Here lies the true power of these circulatory dynamics of financial, cultural and symbolic capital, which shift on the whims of those who profit materially: even when confronted and held to account, cultural institutions can simply reorganise and rebrand practices under the guise of critical self-reflection. When the NGV dropped Wilson Security in February this year, no-one working in museum security actually lost their jobs – the contract is instead being passed onto SecureCorp, owned by Hong Kong-based Guardforce group, appointed as the NGV’s long-term security services provider (a provider not without its ethical issues). Mitropoulos, in ‘Bordering Colonial Uncertainty’, writes:
Divestment campaigns – particularly in a context where the negative or repressive application of law is, at the same time, a positive financial gain for corporations and shareholders – are as much about breaking financial links as they are about addressing the filial bonds of whiteness. The aim of divestment is, simply put, to eliminate the value of detaining people, since it’s that value which drives the expansion of the detention industry, in Australia and elsewhere.
Grassroots action was necessary to make visible the hidden links between the NGV, racist detention policies and profit-driven motives of securitisation. But the pervasive whiteness that structures the ‘public’ served by the NGV, and by extension the ‘public’ served by the government, must also be scrutinised and confronted. The NGV, like similar cultural institutions, responds to critiques with the bare minimum of action. Additional pressure is required if they are to take more meaningful steps, such as addressing multiple publics (not just upper- and middle-class patrons), ending exploitative working conditions and practices (for example, precarious contractual labour), and adopting new modes of accountability and ethics that are made clear to audiences and employees alike. This means that if cultural institutions in Australia truly desire to champion the liberatory potential of art and associated radical politics for social change, they can embrace this opportunity to do so through a full review of their internal processes and public-facing operations, with the purpose of decolonising them. This involves publicly recognising the institution’s charged legacies and conditions of coloniality, and how that history has filtered into hiring practices, casualised labour, exhibition curation, acquisition policies, artist commissions, brand image and corporate partnerships. Dropping Wilson Security is just the start.
Through participating in the Artists’ Committee campaign, I realised that, while the image will not save us, the visual can be used as a tactic. It’s important to differentiate between tactic and strategy in grassroots action, as the spectacle of the image allows people to organise and mobilise in a certain way and to counter-narrate struggle. What is the subterranean content that makes certain images matter to the world, and others not? How can we use that to our benefit?
But the symbolic potential of the image is not to be fetishised, and neither should artistic activism be heralded as a silver bullet. If images of people on Manus Island and Nauru resisting the violence inflicted upon them is not enough to push more of the Australian population into taking action, then art by Australian artists that attempts to ‘raise awareness’ about refugee trauma will not either. This critique applies to creative protest more generally, too, such as by the Artists’ Committee: how can we better decentre the white gaze and uplift underrepresented voices and experiences more effectively and sincerely? Importantly, the Artists’ Committee did not operate on its own: we received a lot of support from other direct action collectives, as well as those who documented beautiful and moving images for us, and everyone else who held the space alongside us.
The campaign attempted to move the focus from the idea of ‘innocent refugees’, which tends to function as an appeal to white saviourism – it is paradoxical that no-one on Manus and Nauru is actually afforded the luxury of innocence, and that the twisted truth of Australia’s racist reality should be so deeply complicit with its representations. No doubt this speaks to the need to think ethically about how images are circulated and given meaning in public spaces – in museums, in popular media, in activist campaigns, on social networks. We must ask: to whose benefit are these images? We must also question whether they continue the institutionalised silencing of First Nations and people of colour voices of self-determination and their capacity to bear witness to their own lived experiences.
This essay arises from important conversations, ideas and actions with many friends over an extended amount of time: Artists’ Committee comrades, with particular love and thanks to Trish Roan and Gabrielle de Vietri for their comments on this piece; TextaQueen and Nine Yamamoto, whom I want to credit as two inspiring friends who are perceptive and generous and have been immense influences in thinking of and around these themes, Giles Fielke for editorial help and generative conversations that guided the intellectual basis of this piece.
I would also like to acknowledge the work of the amazing grassroots organisation RISE: Refugees, Survivors and Ex-detainees – volunteer, donate or support their #SanctionAustralia campaign at riserefugee.org.
1. This may be traceable to the ‘aesthetics of administration’ constructed by conceptual art of the 1960s, and may also explain why there is suddenly an enthusiasm to revisit the art of that period.
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