Against the Boycott of the 19th Biennale of Sydney [#19bos]

[… some friendly notes in response to the reply by the Board of Directors of the Biennale of Sydney to an open letter by concerned artists …]

Firstly, let us say that we truly empathise with the artists in this situation.

A positive beginning: seeking to establish common ground with artists whose work will be on display at the Biennale achieves two aims. First, it invites a sympathetic response. Secondly, it helps to negate the possibility that the interests of the Biennale (or, to be precise, its governing Board) and that of participating artists — especially those who’ve expressed particular concerns about Transfield’s sponsorship — are in fact in real conflict.

Like them, we are inadvertently caught somewhere between ideology and principle. Both parties are ‘collateral damage’ in a complex argument. Neither wants to see human suffering.

Again: an emphasis upon the existence of common predicaments and concerns, the re-framing of the link between Transfield, the Biennale and the prison camps in terms of its ‘accidental’ nature, and the relegation of the debate to the realm of complex questions of ideology and principle serves to obscure the real questions being posed to the Board by artists. (Note that the use of the term ‘collateral damage’, while appropriate, may also, perhaps “inadvertently”, bring to mind the conditions from which many of the asylum seekers are fleeing, and thus serve to remind the reader that, in these contexts, ‘collateral damage’ means something rather more significant than, say, negotiating awkward dinner party conversations on the matter of the relationship between art and politics or the political responsibilities of The Artist. But this is a minor criticism.)

Artists must make a decision according to their own understanding and beliefs. We respect their right to do so.

Although there is some risk in issuing banalities such as these — artists think, reflect, act upon, and have a right to act upon their considered beliefs — it tends to underline the overall seriousness which the Board would like artists to understand it adopts in reference to their support of a potential boycott. Additionally, for those artists who merely wish to have their concerns recognised, such statements may well be sufficient to placate their conscience.

While being mindful of these valid concerns, it is this Board’s duty to act in the interests of the Biennale and all its stakeholders – our audiences, government partners, staff, benefactors and sponsors, along with all Biennale artists and the broader arts sector.

Extending the domain of concern away from asylum seekers — whose plight is at the core of the artists’ open letter — to the responsibility the Board carries with regards the many parties with an interest in ensuring its success is a significant and worthwhile endeavour. It is especially so if one considers asylum seekers and refugees as being naturally excluded from “the broader arts sector”, a position for which there is of course ample evidence.

On the one hand, there are assertions and allegations that are open to debate. On the other, we have a long-term history of selfless philanthropy, which has been the foundation of an event that has served the arts and wider community for the past 40 years.

A very worthy gambit. Re-framing the relationship between Transfield and the Biennale in terms of “assertions and allegations”, and pitting these against Transfield’s demonstrable support for the arts (and by extension the “wider community” — from which, naturally, asylum seekers and refugees are excluded), serves to foreground the worthy qualities of the Biennale and, moreover, those of Transfield. In emphasising Transfield’s “selfless” philanthropy, the statement also: a) subtly underlines the precarious nature of this support (with all that that entails for artists, both participating and non-participating) and; b) draws attention to the sense of moral obligation artists and others can and should feel in exchange for this support.

The Biennale’s ability to effectively contribute to the cessation of bi-partisan government policy is far from black and white. The only certainty is that without our Founding Partner, the Biennale will no longer exist.

This is another key point, one which displaces political responsibility onto others (government) and thereby serves to depoliticise the Biennale: to effectively remove the political rationale for participating in a boycott. It also serves to further obscure the very real, material links between the profits Transfield generates from its investments in the prison industry, on the one hand, and that small proportion of these profits which it then ‘selflessly’ uses to fund the Biennale, on the other hand. In other words, the statement recasts the purpose of the boycott in terms of altering government policy rather than seeking to sever the link between Transfield and the Biennale. A more subtle (and therefore appropriate) recognition of this fact is given in the subsequent statement, which underscores the fact that, amidst a sea of assertions, allegations, ideologies, principles, complexities and so on, opposing Transfield’s investment in the Biennale amounts to a desire for the Biennale’s extinguishment.

Consequently, we unanimously believe that our loyalty to the Belgiorno-Nettis family – and the hundreds of thousands of people who benefit from the Biennale – must override claims over which there is ambiguity.

This is a risky manoeuvre, despite the reference to ‘ambiguity’ (see above). First, it explicitly ties the interests of the Biennale to one wealthy, if philanthropic, family. For those whose fortunes, artistic or otherwise, depend upon the good graces of the Belgiorno-Nettis family, such expressions of loyalty make good sense. But what of those many more people for whom such expressions make little or no sense? A partial remedy is obtained through invoking the notion of a widely extended family: the Biennale audience. Nevertheless, the statement risks allowing critics to dismiss the Board’s statement as proceeding from a vulgar (in the sense of common, material) stake in protecting its own interests; these being dependent, apparently, upon the issuance of an oath of fealty. (The fact that Luca Belgiorno-Nettis chairs the Board is a further complicating factor.) Secondly, if one is to invoke family ties in this context, the unfortunate because inescapable reality is that asylum seekers and refugees have friends and families too, and if a utilitarian argument is to be mounted on this basis, the interests thousands of families have in ensuring their loved ones are uncaged trumps the interest one family has in appearing to be selflessly committed to the arts.

While we unequivocally state our support and gratitude for our sponsor’s continued patronage, we also extend an invitation to the Working Group to engage with us in dialogue with the purpose of finding an acceptable accommodation.

The establishment of some kind of ‘working group’ is an excellent suggestion, one which has proven in the past to be an effective means of defusing criticism of alleged corporate wrongdoing. Ideally, artists will split over the issue of whether or not to enter into a dialogue, its scope, terms and conditions. Those reluctant to commit to an actual boycott are thereby provided with an opportunity to do something ‘constructive’ (perhaps even create a work decrying the situation of asylum seekers), a pose which can be usefully contrasted with the negativity of those (probably very few, if any) artists who may choose to withdraw from the Biennale. Support for dialogue and constructive engagement of this sort can also easily be obtained from other artists and commentators, and functions effectively to undermine any notion of solidarity among artists committed to a boycott.

The Biennale has long been a platform for artists to air their sometimes challenging but important views unfettered and we would like to explore this avenue of expression, rather than see the demise of an important community asset.

Drawing attention to the role of the Biennale in providing artists with an opportunity to engage in political and social critique is a crucial tool in the counter-propaganda campaign. It assumes further importance when the penalty for refusing to do so — that is, to engage in an actual boycott of the event — means, as the Board claims, the demise of the Biennale, a “community asset” which exists only as a result of the generosity of a wealthy and influential family to whom one owes a display of loyalty.

In summary: the Board’s statement is a worthy, if occasionally flawed piece, one which will hopefully contribute to the disruption of a boycott call, rally artists and commentators in support of the Biennale, create some small degree of confusion among artists, and provide a suitable basis for a continued counter-propaganda campaign. Thus while there has been a good deal of negative public relations generated by the boycott campaign’s focus upon Transfield’s links to the Biennale, the situation is far from unsalvageable, and the coming weeks will provide many opportunities for the Board and for Transfield to hammer home the points raised in its statement:

• the link between the Biennale and the imprisonment of asylum seekers is obscure;
• the Biennale provides an important platform for artists to express political and social concerns;
• support for a boycott will do nothing to ‘free the refugees’;
• the appropriate target for protesting mandatory detention is government;
• support for a boycott endangers the future of the Biennale.

Mobilising personal and professional contacts within the culture industry to support the Biennale is an appropriate task for both members of the Board and for its PR agent [art]iculate, “Australia’s leading consultancy specialising in visual arts & contemporary culture”. Appropriate care should be exercised when cultivating such support: the most useful critics of the boycott are those able to assume a perspective independent of any reliance on the Biennale or Transfield for direct or indirect funding or support.

About @ndy

I live in Melbourne, Australia. I like anarchy. I don't like nazis. I enjoy eating pizza and drinking beer. I barrack for the greatest football team on Earth: Collingwood Magpies. The 2020 premiership's a cakewalk for the good old Collingwood.
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