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Sydney Biennale artists speak out on Transfield sponsorship

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As the debate about Transfield’s sponsorship of the Sydney Biennale continues on social media and at meetings among artists around the country, we asked four artists whose work is to be shown at the Biennale to answer some questions about their participation.
Artists Bianca Hester, Nathan Gray, Gabrielle de Vietri and Charlie Sofo have been organising responses from fellow participating artists in a protest against Transfield’s involvement.
Yesterday they wrote an open letter to the Biennale board calling for it to cut ties with Transfield.
Hester, Gray, de Vietri and Sofo have responded to our questions collectively.
When did you first become aware of Transfield’s involvement in the Biennale of Sydney?
We became aware of it after the call to boycott was issued on February 4. Friends, artists and members of the refugee advocacy community began to send messages through social media and by posting essays online. Once we began to understand the connections, we felt compelled to respond, to generate dialogue, and to inform ourselves as much as possible.
If you had known about the sponsor’s involvement in running off-shore detention centres would you have accepted the invitation  to participate?
No, but that being said, ignorance is not a defence. This has taught us the importance of checking the sponsorship arrangements of the organisations we work with and taking more responsibility for our relationship with institutions.
Do you have sympathy for Juliana Engberg (BOS artistic director) in inheriting a sponsor of 40 years when she took on the Biennale directorship and presumably did not know of its involvement with the detention centres?
We have deep empathy for Juliana Engberg and the situation that she is in. The pressure that we are feeling must be amplified for her. She has a responsibility to over 90 local and international artists who have spent the last year working towards this. We maintain the utmost respect for Juliana’s artistic vision and acknowledge the support and energy that the Biennale staff have put into the creation of our projects and this exhibition. We acknowledge the difficult position that this puts Biennale staff, other sponsors and donors, and our fellow artists in, many of whom have expressed their disgust with the government policy of mandatory detention and off-shore processing.
Do you agree with Engberg’s suggestion that it’s better to debate the issue within the BOS rather than shut it down and silence debate?
Asking this question presupposes that there are only two ways to deal with this issue or that there is a “proper” place for discussion. This is a polarising logic that we feel is unproductive. None of us can control where this discussion and debate takes place – it will take place wherever people feel it needs to.
Mandatory detention is an issue that strikes at the heart of our society and at what we as a community have let occur in this country. We see the horror of it and we are disturbed on a human level. This is precisely why there is so much energy in the debate. We must encourage debate in all sectors and allow that debate to flow wherever it does – both ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ the framework of the Biennale – whether we like what is being said or not.
One of the defining strategies of the current government is silence and silencing. Generating noise, debate, protest and disruption of the machinery of secrecy is a way to counteract this silence.
How/where/when/with whom is the debate and dialogue you call for being conducted?
Currently it is being conducted across many platforms. There is strong debate between many of the artists represented in the Biennale, and there is discussion between the artists and the Biennale. The public debate began on social media and is expanding into the public sphere. This week public meetings were called in Sydney and Melbourne to bring together artists, arts workers, refugee advocates  and activists. Attended by hundreds of people, they were platforms to share information, ideas and support to develop multiple and effective ways to send a message to the Australian Government and Transfield Services that we will not support the mandatory detention of asylum seekers.
We’ve also held meetings with the artistic director, Juliana Engberg and the CEO of the Biennale, Marah Braye. We’ve spoken with a Transfield representative to clarify questions that we had about the recent contract with the government and about the relationship between Transfield Services, Transfield Holdings and the Transfield Foundation. We talked to a representative of the Salvation Army regarding the termination of their welfare contract on Manus Island. All these conversations were in-depth, complex, frank and productive. We have also spoken to a range of refugee advocacy groups and activists. These conversations will continue amongst us and in public. We’ve compiled and distributed the outcomes of these meetings to other participating artists and in our information sheet that is now public.
As a group our first action was to contact as many of the 94 participating artists as possible. We’ve tried to provide information to these artists, many of whom are coming from overseas and may not have been aware of the situation. A number of them have been responding with a range of ideas as to how to respond and many have contributed to the open letter we sent to the Board of the Biennale.
In this letter to the Board of Directors we request that they join us in engaging this issue, and that they withdraw from their funding arrangement with Transfield.
Have you discussed the issue with Engberg, the BOS board or Transfield management?
Our meeting with Juliana Engberg and the CEO of the Biennale, Marah Braye, on 13 February was very helpful. They were supportive of our concerns and encouraged us to take whatever steps necessary to engage with this issue.
One of those steps has been to send the open letter to the Board of Directors of the Biennale of Sydney. That was sent on 19 February and we are waiting for their response.
We are also in the process of setting up a meeting with the Chairman of the Biennale and Transfield Holdings executive director, Luca Belgiorno-Nettis.
Some artists not participating in the BOS have called for a boycott of the event. What is your response?
We understand the position of those who have called for a boycott – it was the initial action that brought the issue into our consciousness. It was a spark that has created a lot of energy and noise. Some artists may be considering withdrawing as an option, while others are considering other types of actions. Some are planning  to remain in the Biennale and adjust their work to respond; others are not engaging with the issue outwardly. All forms of participation are valid and in no way do we suggest a singular approach. As a group we advocate for multiple forms of action, creative  and critical thinking and consulting with a wide range of parties.
For many of us, the response from the Board to our open letter will be crucial in determining how we proceed. There is a widespread  desire to act on this issue by the artists involved. However, complex problems call for equally complex solutions. What we want right now is for this debate to develop in whatever way it can and for intelligent and sophisticated strategies to be generated. This asks those involved to challenge themselves as critically as they can and to start developing productive ways to deal with the bigger issue – which is the mandatory detention of asylum seekers. We must not lose focus on this as the bigger context here. Ultimately we want the mandatory detention of asylum seekers to cease, and we will be looking for the most effective way to contribute to this.
Do you think this call for a boycott is shooting the event and all artists in the foot in that it not only threatens the event but might inhibit corporate sponsorship of the visual arts in the future?
No, it has already created important dialogue, and brought out issues which have been submerged as of late. We have to tackle difficult questions because they ultimately lead to more complex forms of thinking and practice.
Are the artists at the meetings you have attended focusing their anger and call for action/dialogue/debate on the BOS or on Transfield?
There are so many diverse positions being taken. The overall anguish expressed in these meetings relates to the Australian Government’s policy of mandatory detention. The driving concern is: what can we do that is ultimately the most productive for those who are suffering at the other end of this chain of associations – for  asylum seekers in mandatory detention? We feel that this is the central question that must drive any action.
Have you considered directing protest at Transfield itself to seek their withdrawal from the event?
There are already a number of protests being directed towards Transfield initiated by a range of groups. We are trying to take responsibility for what we can do within our industry, with the connections we have, from the position that we hold as participating artists. Our aim is to put pressure ‘up the chain’ so that the Biennale as well as Transfield are compelled to demonstrate leadership on this. The letter we have written to the Board is the first step in this process. In our letter we ask:
“We appeal to you to work alongside us to send a message to Transfield, and in turn the Australian Government and the public: that we will not accept the mandatory detention of asylum seekers”.
We are at stage one of the process at the moment.
How many BOS artists have you contacted and how many of them support your call for dialogue and debate?
There are 94 artists in this Biennale and we managed to make contact with 63 of them. Of those, 35 have signed the open letter to date and are engaged in ongoing discussions with us and each other.
Many have noted that it’s easy to have a strong opinion and call for a boycott of the Biennale if you are not a participating artist. Is it more complicated to consider the issue if you are a participant?
It is understandable that in our position we’d be called upon to act. It is complex, but we’re not interested in comparisons between who is in the more difficult situation when contrasted with the horrors of indefinite mandatory detention. The community is creating a response and it is our responsibility to listen and act  in good faith. That being said, we’re artists and we are probably best equipped to act with the skills we’ve developed; creativity, invention and critical thinking.
What message do you want to get out to the wider community?
We will not accept the mandatory detention of asylum seekers.
Our primary concern is that the Australian Government is held responsible for the inhumane policy that they are currently involved in. We want our leaders to take responsibility – including our political leaders, our corporate leaders and our organisational leaders – as we attempt to take more responsibility for ourselves related to this issue. If they won’t do it then we must step up and start inventing ways to effect change and inspire or compel others to do so too. That is the bigger project and this is only the beginning. We ask that all Australians consider this a shared responsibility.
Read our interview with Biennale artistic director Juliana Engberg
Read Helen Razer’s take on the boycott calls
[box]Featured image: Cai Guo-Qiang, Inopportune: Stage One, 2004, Installation view of the 17th Biennale of Sydney (2010) at Cockatoo Island[/box]

8 responses to “Sydney Biennale artists speak out on Transfield sponsorship

  1. Transfield’s standing is not helped by the views expressed by Luca Belgiorno-Nettis in his interview in the SMH News Review of 18 January in which he promotes his newDemocracy Foundation and his vision of guided democracy.

  2. But the offshore detention centres are a very good idea. These policies supported by both Labor and Coalition are saving countless lives potentially lost at sea.

  3. These bleeding hearts make me sick. This government was voted in with a mandate to stop the boats. Their policies are working. Australia needs to protect its borders, not allow any and every wannabe to come and live here just because they want to. There’s a queue, and for every queue jumper another misses out. If these artists want an open door, perhaps they’d like to take on 20 boat people each, feed, clothe and pay for their medications, their welfare etc. That would sort the wheat from the chaff.

    1. I’m sure many, like me, would “take on” some boat people to varying degrees . . . but they’re hidden from us, so we can’t.
      Your move.

  4. Was heartening to see so many people from the artistic and intellectual circles of Melbourne today at the Emergency Refugee Rally, many of us moved to tears by the atrocities that are occurring on Manus and other outposts of Australia’s very own Gulag Archipelago. As someone who is interested in art and attends exhibitions as an audience member I will be supporting the boycott, but think it is great that these artists who are participating in the BOS are engaging with the issue in an intelligent and sensitive manner. Keep up the good work!

  5. Look the fact is we actually don’t still need the Biennale of Sydney. All ours efforts and all our unpaid commentary will only breath a little of our oxygen into the corpse. And the powerful and wealthy will be able to return to business as usual. Just like why Putin released Pussy Riot, he’ll arrest them later when the world has moved on. The apologists for the BOS have made a decision to side with ‘art’ as they know they’ll win. Other artists just put there heads down and mouth nice words and continue on raking in the patronage. Anyone seen the movie Mephisto? The problem is Contemporary Art itself. We are led to believe that contemporary art is a harmless catch all phrase for any art made now. It’s not! Contemporary Art is a marketing phrase now used by auction houses and government agencies to promote their high priced goods and the tourist potential of the international contemporary art bandwagon. It’s time for young artists to sweep the whole edifice aside. Just stop engaging, stop giving your bodies as raw material for others to process into audience figures and metadata. The only impact we can truly have to stop. Use social media and You Tube to circumvent the system which in my view is corrupt and paternalistic. I mean if the National Gallery of Australia can tell me the artist publicly that a work is mine when it’s isn’t then anything can happen. In truth contemporary art can be any object plonked in an arty environment. So really the individual artists are interchangeable. In fact Julian Engberg and Transfield should just make all the works under made up names. The actual objects don’t mean much, they are like props in a bad movie. Interchangeable just as international capital wants it.

  6. If artists start to boycott Biennales (like Sydney Binennale ) connected to breaking human rights,
    soon it wont be any Biennales left !!!
    check also by Biennalist art format :
    THE NEXT DOCUMENTA SHOULD BE CURATED BY A TANK about documenta Kassel and proximity of weapon industry :
    Author of the Month @ GAM @ ZKM Museum Karlsruhe
    Can an Art Show Like dOCUMENTA Be Dangerous ?
    Biennalist ( Istanbul / Venice // Manifesta / Sydney / Athens / Berlin )
    Artists questioning Biennales intentions including work on gentrification , colonialism , connection with weapon industry. alcohol education etc …
    by Biennalist 2010( with academy Emergency Art Sydney )

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