Artists for Refugees: Sydney Biennale boycott victory shows that divestment works

Standard

boycott transfield

Sydney arts festival boycott successful

Van Thanh Rudd | 09-Mar-2014 : RedFlag

A public and determined boycott campaign has notched an important win for opponents of mandatory detention.  The Sydney Biennale arts festival announced on 7 March that it is cutting ties with Transfield.

The event, promoted as “Australia’s largest and most exciting contemporary visual arts festival”, might seem a world away from the horrors of Australia’s gulags. But it has long been funded by Transfield, a mandatory detention contractor.

In 2012, on the bank of the Yarra River in Melbourne’s CBD, I set fire to an artwork of mine called No Nauru. It was a response to the Australian Labor Party reopening offshore detention facilities and granting $24.5 million to the multinational corporation Transfield to provide services and infrastructure on Nauru.

Last month, Transfield again received a contract, this time worth $1.2 billion, from the Abbott government, to provide “garrison and welfare services” for Nauru and Manus Island refugee detention centres.

The relationship between Transfield and the Biennale prompted arts educator Matthew Kiem to call for a boycott of the event. His open letter, posted on social media in early February, argues that Transfield is profiting from the misery of refugees. “Profits from mandatory detention fund the Biennale”, he wrote.

A Facebook page called Boycott the 19th Biennale of Sydney quickly gained well over a thousand likes. A website of the same name bears the slogan “Boycott Sydney Biennale – Don’t Add Value to Detention – Boycott, Divest, Disrupt”.

One of the aims of the boycott was to convince the 90 artists presenting exhibits to pull out. There was a decent response – more than 30 Biennale artists formed a working group to pressure the directors to sever ties with Transfield.

A protest action in support of the boycott was planned for 24 February. It was to be held at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art – next to the Victorian College of the Arts, where a Biennale promotional event was to occur. However, in the boycott’s first small victory, the promotional event was cancelled. The protesters instead had a meeting to plan further boycott strategies.

At this stage, Biennale directors, however, remain unmoved: “We unanimously believe that our loyalty to the Belgiorno-Nettis family [owners of Transfield] and the hundreds of thousands of people who benefit from the Biennale must override claims over which there is ambiguity”, said the directors in response.

But pressure continued to build. An initial group of five artists withdrew their work, then another four. An installer, Peter Nelson, also resigned. “The relationship between the Biennale and the punitive practice of mandatory detention is a context that I feel I am unable to work within”, he said.

Eventually, the boycott proved effective. “We have listened to the artists who are the heart of the Biennale and have decided to end our partnership with Transfield effective immediately”, read the Biennale organisers statement.

[A public forum, “Artists, Boycotts and Movements”, supported by the Victorian College of the Arts Student Association, is scheduled for 18 March, 1-2pm, Cinema 2, VCA, St Kilda Rd, Melbourne.]

***

Sydney Biennale boycott victory shows that divestment works

Super funds, city councils and universities also have links with providers of detention infrastructure – one by one we will insist that they sever the connections

and : theguardian.com, Tuesday 11 March 2014

manus island camp
Transfield Services won a $1.2bn contract to provide welfare and infrastructural services at detention camps on Manus Island, above, and Nauru. Photograph: Getty

Last Friday, the seemingly impossible happened. Luca Belgiorno-Nettis, director of Transfield Holdings, resigned from his position as chair of the board of the Biennale of Sydney. He tweeted “I hope that blue sky may now open over this 19th @biennalesydney”, as the Biennale simultaneously dropped Transfield’s funding.

Despite this being a proof of the power of the boycott, and a precedent for new ways of taking action against the policy of mandatory detention, the commentariat rushed to condemn the announcement as soon as it was made. Many contributions, such as this Sydney Morning Herald piece and this one in The Conversation, put forward two theses: 1) that this was a blow for arts sponsorship and 2) that encouraging divestment from Transfield is pointless because mandatory detention is the government’s policy. Artists were dismissed as hypocrites for accepting government funding, despite the evident difference between tax-collected funding and profits from incarceration. These arguments also purposefully misunderstand the point of the boycott and deny the power of this crucial step towards disrupting the private supply chain on which Australia’s cruel “deterrent” policy depends. There is no way of separating government policy from industry infrastructure; the detention regime in Australia is a public-private partnership.

This is not about corporate arts sponsorship. The artists who jeopardised their careers, the activists who worked with them and those directly affected who called for the action all had one aim in mind. Theirs was a boycott against a system that indefinitely detains asylum seekers who arrive by boat, through a policy steeped in secrecy and violence which has already seen the killing of asylum seeker Reza Berati. Australia, the first country to introduce mandatory detention of asylum seekers, has long been a global laboratory of deterrence strategies that foment popular racism.

Transfield Services won a $1.2bn contract to provide welfare and core infrastructural services to the detention camps at Nauru and Manus Island. The attempts to distance Transfield Holdings, the private family company of Luca and Guido Belgiorno-Nettis, from these profits are obfuscations. Transfield Holdings is the second largest shareholder in Transfield Services, and while Luca and his brother no longer sit on the board of Transfield Services, that does not mean his interests are not represented. The Transfield Foundation, through which the Biennale was funded, is backed jointly by Transfield Holdings and Services. And Luca, it bears reminding, is on record as saying that Transfield is doing “nothing wrong” in profiting from mandatory detention.

Most importantly, as was emphasised by the boycotting artists, the entire Transfield brand, and not just its subsidiaries, derives value from its philanthropic activities. And while the investment in the Biennale may have been small (about 6% of its overall budget, not including in-kind), the benefits reaped were huge: it was an exercise in culture washing on a city-wide scale.

The call to boycott the 19th Sydney Biennale was made in an open letter by a Sydney arts educator, Matt Kiem. However, this was a step along a path that leads back to the Woomera protests of 2002. Renewing the commitment to dismantle the camps, in December 2013 a meeting organised by the Beyond Borders Collective in Melbourne triggered discussions of boycott, divestment and sanctions. This momentum also led to a working paper, a research and information website, a video detailing the connections between Transfield and the Biennale, and social media debates. Boycott strategies were publicly supported by Australia’s only organisation of refugees and ex-detainees, RISE, and have been called for by those in the camps at Nauru and Manus Island, the hunger strikers at Christmas island and those at Villawood whose lead we follow, and whose resistance within the camps themselves has had a massively understated role in accounts of events around the Biennale.

Those who bemoaned the end of the Transfield-Biennale relationship are wrong in believing that things end here. The Biennale’s decision to sever its 41-year ties with Transfield is proof that divestment is a reality. We believe that many people, not only a few principled artists, can see that it is hypocritical to profit from the degradation of one group – asylum seekers – to support another.

Superannuation funds, city councils and universities around Australia also have links with Transfield and other providers of detention infrastructure. One by one we will insist that these institutions divest their connections to the mandatory detention infrastructure. The artists – including those on Manus Island whose art forced them to flee in search of a better future – have shown them the way.

Sydney arts festival boycott successful

A public and determined boycott campaign has notched an important win for opponents of mandatory detention.  The Sydney Biennale arts festival announced on 7 March that it is cutting ties with Transfield.

The event, promoted as “Australia’s largest and most exciting contemporary visual arts festival”, might seem a world away from the horrors of Australia’s gulags. But it has long been funded by Transfield, a mandatory detention contractor.

In 2012, on the bank of the Yarra River in Melbourne’s CBD, I set fire to an artwork of mine called No Nauru. It was a response to the Australian Labor Party reopening offshore detention facilities and granting $24.5 million to the multinational corporation Transfield to provide services and infrastructure on Nauru.

Last month, Transfield again received a contract, this time worth $1.2 billion, from the Abbott government, to provide “garrison and welfare services” for Nauru and Manus Island refugee detention centres.

The relationship between Transfield and the Biennale prompted arts educator Matthew Kiem to call for a boycott of the event. His open letter, posted on social media in early February, argues that Transfield is profiting from the misery of refugees. “Profits from mandatory detention fund the Biennale”, he wrote.

A Facebook page called Boycott the 19th Biennale of Sydney quickly gained well over a thousand likes. A website of the same name bears the slogan “Boycott Sydney Biennale – Don’t Add Value to Detention – Boycott, Divest, Disrupt”.

One of the aims of the boycott was to convince the 90 artists presenting exhibits to pull out. There was a decent response – more than 30 Biennale artists formed a working group to pressure the directors to sever ties with Transfield.

A protest action in support of the boycott was planned for 24 February. It was to be held at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art – next to the Victorian College of the Arts, where a Biennale promotional event was to occur. However, in the boycott’s first small victory, the promotional event was cancelled. The protesters instead had a meeting to plan further boycott strategies.

At this stage, Biennale directors, however, remain unmoved: “We unanimously believe that our loyalty to the Belgiorno-Nettis family [owners of Transfield] and the hundreds of thousands of people who benefit from the Biennale must override claims over which there is ambiguity”, said the directors in response.

But pressure continued to build. An initial group of five artists withdrew their work, then another four. An installer, Peter Nelson, also resigned. “The relationship between the Biennale and the punitive practice of mandatory detention is a context that I feel I am unable to work within”, he said.

Eventually, the boycott proved effective. “We have listened to the artists who are the heart of the Biennale and have decided to end our partnership with Transfield effective immediately”, read the Biennale organisers statement.

[A public forum, “Artists, Boycotts and Movements”, supported by the Victorian College of the Arts Student Association, is scheduled for 18 March, 1-2pm, Cinema 2, VCA, St Kilda Rd, Melbourne.]

– See more at: http://redflag.org.au/article/sydney-arts-festival-boycott-successful#sthash.oQvwPoL3.dpuf

Sydney arts festival boycott successful

A public and determined boycott campaign has notched an important win for opponents of mandatory detention.  The Sydney Biennale arts festival announced on 7 March that it is cutting ties with Transfield.

The event, promoted as “Australia’s largest and most exciting contemporary visual arts festival”, might seem a world away from the horrors of Australia’s gulags. But it has long been funded by Transfield, a mandatory detention contractor.

In 2012, on the bank of the Yarra River in Melbourne’s CBD, I set fire to an artwork of mine called No Nauru. It was a response to the Australian Labor Party reopening offshore detention facilities and granting $24.5 million to the multinational corporation Transfield to provide services and infrastructure on Nauru.

Last month, Transfield again received a contract, this time worth $1.2 billion, from the Abbott government, to provide “garrison and welfare services” for Nauru and Manus Island refugee detention centres.

The relationship between Transfield and the Biennale prompted arts educator Matthew Kiem to call for a boycott of the event. His open letter, posted on social media in early February, argues that Transfield is profiting from the misery of refugees. “Profits from mandatory detention fund the Biennale”, he wrote.

A Facebook page called Boycott the 19th Biennale of Sydney quickly gained well over a thousand likes. A website of the same name bears the slogan “Boycott Sydney Biennale – Don’t Add Value to Detention – Boycott, Divest, Disrupt”.

One of the aims of the boycott was to convince the 90 artists presenting exhibits to pull out. There was a decent response – more than 30 Biennale artists formed a working group to pressure the directors to sever ties with Transfield.

A protest action in support of the boycott was planned for 24 February. It was to be held at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art – next to the Victorian College of the Arts, where a Biennale promotional event was to occur. However, in the boycott’s first small victory, the promotional event was cancelled. The protesters instead had a meeting to plan further boycott strategies.

At this stage, Biennale directors, however, remain unmoved: “We unanimously believe that our loyalty to the Belgiorno-Nettis family [owners of Transfield] and the hundreds of thousands of people who benefit from the Biennale must override claims over which there is ambiguity”, said the directors in response.

But pressure continued to build. An initial group of five artists withdrew their work, then another four. An installer, Peter Nelson, also resigned. “The relationship between the Biennale and the punitive practice of mandatory detention is a context that I feel I am unable to work within”, he said.

Eventually, the boycott proved effective. “We have listened to the artists who are the heart of the Biennale and have decided to end our partnership with Transfield effective immediately”, read the Biennale organisers statement.

[A public forum, “Artists, Boycotts and Movements”, supported by the Victorian College of the Arts Student Association, is scheduled for 18 March, 1-2pm, Cinema 2, VCA, St Kilda Rd, Melbourne.]

– See more at: http://redflag.org.au/article/sydney-arts-festival-boycott-successful#sthash.oQvwPoL3.dpuf

Advertisements

Comments are closed.