My weekly Guardian column is below:
But a major sponsor is Transfield, a company used by the Australian Federal Government to handle refugee services and which therefore profits from the asylum seeker industry on Nauru and Manus Island. This association has caused refugee activists to call for a boycott of the Biennale.
Sydney design academic, Matthew Kiem, recently penned an open letter to visual arts teachers to send a strong, public message to the Biennale that association with a company like Transfield was ethically unacceptable. He wrote in part:
The most appropriate response to this situation is to boycott the Biennale. While this may feel as though we are giving something up, it is in fact one of the best opportunities we have to make a material impact on the supply chains that permit the detention industry to work. We are in a particularly strong position here given that our decisions could have the effect of redirecting a significant number of students, income, and kudos away from [this event] and towards other kinds of experiences and discussions … A strong response this year is the best way to ensure that future Biennales are not funded through [companies associated with asylum seeker detention].
Kiem told artsHub that “we can and should be putting pressure on the Biennale organisers to find other ways of funding art.”
In the last week I’ve seen countless high profile refugee activists writing on Twitter that they intend to boycott the event and will encourage supporters and the public to follow suit.
Thus far the Biennale has stayed relatively quiet on the matter, though last Friday tweeted:
Naming and shaming corporate sponsors of cultural events and products has a long and noble history. London’s Tate Modern is backed by BP, causing British activists to stress the corporation’s questionable environmental practices. This year in Australia the Minerals Council, in an attempt to sex up and soften its image, is sponsoring a popular commercial radio program. Online protest was guaranteed.
Actor Scarlett Johansson recently found herself in the crosshairs of pro-Palestine advocates because she backed Sodastream, a company with a factory in an illegal settlement in the West Bank. Her reputation has taken a hit and the role of Palestinian workers under occupation received global attention. Other firms operating in the West Bank, while brazenly saying they don’t fear future boycotts, are naive if they don’t think similar actions will soon affect them.
In America recently the gender equality organisation Catalyst awarded weapons manufacturer Lockheed Martin for “supporting women’s advancement”. I know there were a number of employees at Catalyst who expressed dismay at the tragic irony of praising a corporation that sells technology to some of the worst abusers of women in the world, such as Saudi Arabia. Separating politics from ethics is impossible.
Meanwhile, back in Australia, a critical social media campaign against the Biennale, currently developing organically, has the potential to embarrass the event and highlight the often vexed question of corporate sponsorship of artistic and cultural events. If the boycott grows, it won’t be the first time that these tactics have been employed in Australia over funding.
Tasmania’s Ten Days on the Island festival faced outrage in 2002 when it was announced that Forestry Tasmania would be a sponsor in 2003.Artists boycotted, including novelist Peter Carey, and the move caused a vital debate about the ways in which organisations, often with a problematic public image, aim to alter perceptions by backing arts events. Principled participants have a potential choice; be involved and risk being seen as complicit or remove themselves and remain pure. In the real world, such decisions, especially for artists who need and crave exposure, are not easy matters.
Although it’s true that Transfield has a long history of backing various artistic forms, the last years have seen a conscious choice to enter the world of asylum detention. Both Serco and G4S know how financially beneficial this is.
The exact nature of Transfield’s work is mired in mystery – a press release on 29 January merely referred to Garrison Support Services and Welfare at both Manus Island and Nauru – but it’s clear that management sees further opportunities with Tony Abbott’s government; Canberra has a bottomless pit of money to “stop the boats” and punish refugees.
The links between the Biennale and Transfield are not hidden – the chairman of the Biennale, Luca Belgiorno-Nettis, is also an executive director at Transfield.
Is this really the kind of corporation to which a leading arts event wants to be associated? What message does this send to the wider community? Should it be acceptable to earn money from the grubby business of imprisoning asylum seekers while at the same time backing glittering artistic works?
I’ve asked the Biennale to address these contradictions. “Our understanding”, they write, “is that the detention centres on Manus Island and Nauru are run by the Serco Group, which is not a Biennale sponsor.” This is incorrect; Serco has no known involvement.
“If any sponsor were found to be directly involved in the abuse of refugees, or anyone else for that matter, we would naturally reconsider our relationship.”
The statement continues: “Transfield Services has been a long time supporter of the Biennale. They supply food, clothing and other provisions to a number of industries and government projects. They are a listed company with high ethical standards and a publicly stated code of conduct.”
Addressing the call to boycott the event, “we believe that the campaign is well intentioned but misguided.” I ask about the potential social media campaign against them. “Many of us at the Biennale hold strong views on the refugee issue,” they argue. “We would not knowingly associate with the abuse of a disadvantaged group like the refugees. We believe that any action to hinder the Biennale would damage the ability of 94 artists to exhibit their work and gain exposure for their talent. That would be regrettable.”
How the Biennale and related events are funded should be key public questions, especially in an age where far too many companies want to mask their dirty profit-making with shiny, artistic treats. It is our responsibility to demand better.