Human rights and the art world

April 14, 2014

Van Thanh Rudd reports on a campaign to pressure the Biennale of Sydney to break its partnership with a corporation that operates prisons for immigrants and refugees.

IN MARCH 2014, the Biennale of Sydney, an internationally renowned contemporary art event, achieved something quite historic. It severed ties with its founding sponsor, Transfield.

Transfield--an Australian infrastructure giant--was found to be partially funding the art event with the profits made from the offshore detention of refugees. Its lucrative, murderous deal with the Australian government's expensive "border protection" industry fueled the anger of artists, arts workers, refugee activists and art lovers from around the world.

But the Biennale's groundbreaking decision came not from within a boardroom meeting. It was propelled directly through a boycott campaign organized by artists, arts workers and refugee activists.

What Is the Sydney Biennale?

The Biennale of Sydney is an international festival of contemporary art, held every two years in Sydney, one of Australia's major cities and tourist destinations. It is the largest and highest-attended contemporary visual arts event in the country. It is one of the longest running exhibitions of its kind and was the first biennale to be established in the Asia-Pacific region.

Refugees protest at Manus Island Detention Center, 2012
Refugees protest at Manus Island Detention Center, 2012

About 500,000 people are known to attend the event each two-year period. The Biennale for 2014, which runs from March 21 to June 9, is called "You Imagine What You Desire" and is directed by Juliana Engberg.

The Link Between Transfield and the Biennale of Sydney

Transfield, with the support of the federal and New South Wales governments and the city of Sydney, formed the first Biennale of Sydney in 1973. Every two years since then, Transfield has been a major sponsor. Like many large corporations, they see art and cultural philanthropy as important in establishing their brand as humane, drawing attention away from blatant exploitation of labor and the gruesome types of industry they're involved in, such as imperialist weaponry and now refugee detention.

What Is Transfield?

Transfield (Transfield Services and Transfield Holdings) is a multibillion-dollar multinational corporation, providing operations, maintenance, asset management, capital management outsourcing and infrastructure development in Australia, New Zealand, the Americas, the Middle East and Asia.

It is now responsible for refugee support and welfare services on Nauru Island and Papua New Guinea's Manus Island. In 2012, it received $24.5 million from the previous Australian Labor Party Government to provide various services and infrastructure on Nauru Island's refugee detention facility. Just recently, in 2014, it received a $1.2 billion contract from the current Liberal Party government, headed by Prime Minister Tony Abbott, to run both Nauru and Manus Island detention centers.

The company started operations in 1956 building dams, bridges, power stations and tunnels such as the Sydney Harbour Tunnel and Brisbane's Gateway Bridge. In the 1080s and '90s, Transfield won contracts worth billions in building warships for the Australian and New Zealand military.

Australia's Detainment of Refugees

Some refugees who manage to escape conflict in countries such Afghanistan, Iraq and Sri Lanka unfortunately end up as victims of Australia's racist border protection racket. If they manage to get even as far as the region off the southern Indonesian coastline by boat, they can be towed back by Australian border patrol, and find themselves in extremely isolated prison-like conditions for an unknown period of time.

The Australian government is currently holding more than 1,300 refugees at a detention center on Manus Island (Papua New Guinea) under harsh and humiliating conditions designed to pressure them to return to the countries they fled. Refugees have protested peacefully against their indefinite detention and the conditions at the center since December 2013.

According to a recent report by Amnesty International, protests inside the Manus Island detention center descended into violence on February 16 and 17, when a private security firm attacked the protesters, resulting in the killing of one asylum-seeker--a 23-year-old Iranian man Reza Berati--and injuring at least 62 others. This criminal negligence carried out by the Australian government is a clear breach of international human rights law.

But the current Liberal Party government, along with its mouthpiece, Rupert Murdoch's anti-refugee News Limited press, convinces the majority of the people in Australia, that refugees who arrive by boat are untrustworthy, unskilled, aggressive and inclined to carry out terrorist acts against the Australian mainland.

Successive Australian governments have indefinitely detained refugees who arrive by boat. This has been a very contentious issue in Australian politics over the last 25 years. Ever since the Australian Labor Party (ALP) introduced mandatory detention in 1992, refugees have suffered immensely. The Australian ruling classes in successive decades, in partnership with both the major political parties (ALP and the Liberal Party), have indeed cultivated a fear of refugee "boat people" amongst a large section of Australia's working class.

The common justification for this fear generally corresponds to the deterioration of the economy. When there are job losses, job insecurity, increasing poverty and higher costs of living, refugees are deemed a threat to peoples' living standards. Attention is, for the most part, diverted from the real cause of economic downturns--the global financial and industrial oligarchies.

What Does Transfield Obtain Out of Its Sponsorship of the Arts?

As mentioned earlier, Transfield, like many large corporations see art and cultural philanthropy as important in establishing their brand as cultured and on the cutting edge of contemporary artistic endeavors. This helps draw attention away from their blatant exploitation of labor and the gruesome types of industry they're involved in such as imperialist weaponry, and now, refugee detention. The Transfield Foundation (joint initiative between Transfiled Holdings and Transfield Services) declares on its website, "Our distinctive approach to philanthropy reflects Transfield's heritage, pioneering spirit and belief that progress is achieved by outstanding organizations and collaborative partnerships."

But Transfield's "heritage" is riddled with profits made from human misery; a far cry from its claims of a "distinctive approach to philanthropy" or its "pioneering spirit". In 1997, Transfield, was contracted by the Victorian State government to build a $2 billion Melbourne City Link road toll way in a joint venture with Japanese firm Obayashi. As a result of unsafe working conditions, a construction worker died on the job, and another later committed suicide as a result of his inability to save his workmate, and the strenuous courtroom battles against the venture capitalists.

Earlier in 1989, Transfield won a $5 billion Australian Government contract (up until then, the largest private contract in Australia's history) to build eight Royal Australian Navy frigates. Only two years later, in 1991, the Australian Government deployed several of its navy warships to the Persian Gulf to show its unwavering support for the brutal U.S. invasion of Iraq. Transfield, along with the Australian government was complicit in the murder of millions of Iraqis.

The Call to Boycott

As a visual artist, I had been concerned over the Sydney Biennale's partnership with Transfield before the multinational had taken up refugee detention contracts with the Australian Government. I was especially concerned over its lucrative deals with the Australian military, as mentioned earlier in this piece. In 2012, the Australian corporate media reported that Transfield had won a $24.5 million contract from the Australian Labor Government to provide infrastructural services on the newly re-opened offshore detention facility on the island of Nauru. I then initiated a Facebook page called Occupy/Boycott/Protest the 18th Biennale of Sydney. I also set fire to an artwork of mine called No Nauru on the bank of Melbourne's Yarra River.

A refugee activist from RISE (Refugees, Survivors and Ex-detainees) assisted me in this action, and another artist based in Sydney, Jacquelene Drinkall, set fire to a $20 note in the vicinity of the 18th Biennale in protest. Unfortunately, this call to boycott and protest the major art event didn't extend beyond a small number of non-Biennale artists and refugee activists.

But the growing concerns over refugee rights would increase through a change of government. The further right wing Liberal Party was to win the next federal election held in September 2013, and as many refugee activists know, the harsh treatment of refugees was about to become even more brutal.

In December 2013, the Melbourne-based Beyond Borders Collective triggered discussions on possible boycotts, divestments and sanctions of Transfield's relationship to refugee detention, leading to comprehensive research papers and social media debates around the connections between Transfield and the Biennale.

Then, early in 2014, a fresh call to boycott the 19th Biennale of Sydney came from Sydney-based arts educator Matthew Kiem, stating that this is "one of the best opportunities we have to make a material impact on the supply chains that permit the detention industry to work." This call proved to be very effective, and caught the attention of the media, and the increasing attention of local and international artists and refugee activists.

A number of social networking sites grew out of this call. The major ones being a Facebook page called Boycott the 19th Biennale of Sydney, and a website of the same name--which also has the call Don't Add Value to Detention--Boycott, Divest, Disrupt. A number of organizational meetings for artists, arts workers and refugee activists were set up to provide a focus for the growing campaign.

One of the major roles of the boycott had been to convince the 92 artists set to exhibit in the show to withdraw their artworks until the Biennale severs its ties with Transfield. The call emphasized to the Biennale artists, that by exhibiting in the Biennale, they were giving consent to Transfield's profit-making from the misery of refugees.

There was a decent response. Twenty-eight Biennale artists formed a working group to pressure (but not boycott) the Biennale directors to sever ties with Transfield. There was no movement from Transfield or the Biennale directors. Crucially, five artists; Charlie Sofo, Gabrielle de Vietri, Libia Castro, Olafur Olafsson and Ahmet Ogut announced their withdrawal on February 26. They were joined not long later on March 5 by Agnieszka Polska, Sara van der Heide, Nicoline van Harskamp and Nathan Gray. The growing media attention had been very beneficial to the boycott at this stage, as well as the fact that many fans of the biennale were deciding not to attend the event.

Early Reactions from the Biennale Directors and Transfield

The Biennale had been on the back foot. In a recent response letter from the Biennale organizers, all that they could resort to was standard middle of the road rhetoric such as "[W]e are inadvertently caught somewhere between ideology and principle. Both parties are 'collateral damage' in a complex argument. Neither wants to see human suffering."

And another part of the letter said "[W]e 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..."

In short, the Biennale directors supported the company that profits off the misery of refugees.

Early Reactions from the Art World

Early arguments against the boycott came from sections of the Australian art world. One of the arguments was based on the idea that a boycott can destroy crucial arts sponsorship. Lyndon Terracini, artistic director of Opera Australia argued that, "As an artist I find it very disappointing that a small number of artists would jeopardize the livelihood of many others and undermine the future of an event that's meant so much to so many over the years."

This is clearly a wrong argument to make when immediate action for refugee justice is needed. The argument is based simply on the idea that the life of an art event, through necessary private sponsorship, is held higher in value, than the lives of humans wrongly detained in far away prisons. It is also flawed because it places importance on the privatization of arts funding, which ultimately, as we could see through this boycott campaign itself, restricts freedom of expression.

Another argument against the boycott went a little like this: Why isolate one private company when the government should be targeted for its polices of mandatory detention? Lieven Bertels, the Sydney Festival director, noted that while artists had protested about funding from a business that had ties to offshore detention centers, they had not raised concerns about funding from the government.

This is a flawed argument because it tries to isolate the roles of government and big business in this neo-liberal economic climate. Consider here that it is a private company that is receiving $1.2 billion of government money – or more precisely, the people of Australia's money derived through taxation. It therefore misses a major role of a boycott too--to expose the deep interconnection between government and corporations.

The Surprise Victory

A few days after the Biennale artists withdrew their art, two casual workers withdrew their labor from the Biennale installation process several weeks before the opening. While good news, and encouraging for the small movement, there seemed much more work to do, especially in persuading all 92 artists to withdraw their work. Transfield and the Biennale appeared as though they would not break their historic relationship. I, myself thought the boycott of the biennale would last at least to the next one in 2016. Yet to the surprise of many, including those in conservative quarters, Luca Belgiorno-Nettis, Transfield Holding's director abruptly resigned as chair of the Biennale of Sydney.

Belgiorno-Nettis openly declared this was a result of pressure from the boycotting artists and refugee activists. This despite his ongoing views that Transfield has committed no wrong doing in profiting from mandatory detention.

This was clearly a victory for the boycott! And a small but effective step closer to achieving justice for refugees in detention. It is also a great indicator that higher levels of political consciousness and confidence can be attained in such unexpected, short periods of time.

The Biennale has now severed its 44 years of direct financial and in-kind support from Transfield. Even though the financial contribution was only 6 percent of the overall Biennale budget, the boycott campaign argues that the company was gaining far more value out of a brand association with high culture. In other words, the Biennale acted as a kind of a pure white smokescreen, detaching Transfield from its historic role as a profit-guzzling giant.

Conservative Reaction

The government's minster for the arts, George Brandis said on ABC Radio National: "I don't think that arts companies should reject bona fide sponsorship from commercially sound, prospective partners on political grounds--I don't."

Brandis has since written to the Australia Council for the Arts (official arts funding body of the Government of Australia) asking it to develop a policy that would deny funding to events or artists that refuse private sponsorship.

This conservative, baseless argument sees artists as eternally grateful for any sort of funding; we should bow our heads in a show of gratitude to private sponsors because they will always come to our rescue from the inevitability of poverty! This view expects one major thing: that artists and arts industry workers are naturally divided, selfish and amoral, and would cower to the powers that be.

The boycott campaign has shown that this categorization of the arts industry can be broken. Moreover, it shows that it is against our interests for the arts to be financed by private firms – and that we should fight against the threats that the Australian arts minister poses. And those threats are real, and in historical context, they fit within the overall context of Australian political economy. The Australian government, like its predecessors are continuing on with their programs for the privatization and outsourcing of public assets such as health and education. The current government has the same plan for the arts. We can stand up and fight this attack on public property and freedom of expression, and demand full government funding of the arts.

The Bigger Picture: The Australian Services Union Resolution

The growing confidence of the boycott spread to other industries where Transfield operates, such as in superannuation. A few days ago the Australian Services Union (ASU) called on industry superannuation fund HESTA to divest from Transfield Services and advised its 20,000 members around the country how they can stop their retirement savings from being invested in Transfield Services. The social and community workers the union represents, do not want their retirement savings used to support a system of mandatory detention of asylum seekers.

This union activity was a great development and demonstrates the power of seemingly separate workers coming together and expressing the same political goal against the same target. This points to a relationship based upon a common set of interests. Firstly, like wage and salary earners housed in the Australian Services Union, artists and art industry workers by and large, sell their labor power as the only means of survival beyond the dole. According to studies conducted by the Australia Council for the Arts, a clear majority of artists earn no more than $20,000 per year. About two-thirds have to work secondary jobs to finance their art careers.

We are therefore in the same pool, and broadly within the same class. And we have a common adversary--the interests of private capital. We have more in common with the workers in the ASU, with the artists, teachers, parents and laborers from other countries that are trapped in Australia's refugee detention system, than with Transfield Holding's director, Belgiorno-Nettis.

Transfield has very different goals to us as it serves the interest of private capital. As a private, multi-national corporation, it will no doubt be bathing in the glory of a $1.2 billion Australian government deal, on top of the mega profits it has gained over the decades of its global operations. The company, like so many others of its kind, don't draw their massive profits from their adventures in arts sponsorship. Sure this may help sell their brand, but they survive because of the labor they've exploited here and overseas. From war ships, dams, oil rigs, harbor tunnels and now refugee detention--these infrastructures are built through the wage labor of thousands of workers. And on top of this, it has the ability to manage the superannuation funds of many more workers.

Fighting against the powers of corporations such as Transfield using the method of a boycott not only creates sharp, attainable victories against reactionary forces, but it also clarifies and exposes the fact that we are living within a class-based system, where the best chances we have of fighting for social justice, comes through out collective strength as arts workers, not as artists that stand above others. Leave that to the wealthy elites.

First published at Red Wedge.

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