An art educator’s open letter to colleagues about detention profits and the Sydney Biennale

schainI write as a Sydney-based design educator.

The 19th Biennale of Sydney is sponsored by Transfield, a company contracted to run Australian detention centres, which they do on a for-profit basis. Transfield Services Ltd recently announced plans to take on further work at the Manus Island and Nauru detention centres.

This means that profits from mandatory detention fund the Biennale.

Clearly, 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 detention funded cultural events and towards other kinds of experiences and discussions.

Working with colleagues to make this a group decision, and conveying this to the organisers of the Biennale (as letters and/or petitions) would multiply the impact even more.

A strong response this year is the best way to ensure that future Biennale’s are not funded through the enforced misery of others.

UPDATE: Click here for related links and latest developments.

An art educator’s open letter to colleagues about detention profits and the Sydney Biennale

30 thoughts on “An art educator’s open letter to colleagues about detention profits and the Sydney Biennale

  1. this is great Matt ! I really hope the Biennale organisers take notice! I tried to get things rolling in 2012 with a few of the artists but nothing seemed to eventuate. Anyway here’s my artwork protest re-posted in solidarity:

  2. Q. says:

    I still don’t understand why boycotting biennale would impact sponsors. They don’t make money off this but give money to the arts. “best opportunities we have to make a material impact on the supply chains that permit the detention industry to work.” This doesn’t materially impact the supply chains, whether you go or don’t go. You are going on a leap to say they make a profit from the Nauru detention centers without any numbers or figures.

    It is like me boycotting the Chinese New Year parade because Google has a float on it. Me not going to the parade won’t impact google’s financials. Your heart is in the right place but your logic and mind is not. Let’s say you do manage to get thousands not to show up then all you have done is forced Biennale to have a smaller budget next year or get a new sponsor. It doesn’t impact the sponsor though in any way.

    1. A says:

      wouldn’t getting a new sponsor suffice? it would send a message to both the biennale organisers and Transfield denoting the wider public’s lack of support to such activities

  3. Matt says:

    The goal here is to pressure Biennale to fund this without resorting to profits made from mandatory detention. I think this should be seen as part of a wider movement to withdraw all and every kind of support from the means of implementing this policy. Part of this means actual physical stoppages, but I think it should also involve isolating those who benefit from these policies by removing any moral or symbolic cover for what they do.

    In this sense, while the Biennale nothing like a ‘key stone’ target, it does is a legitimate and remarkably accessible part of the detention-for-profit complex, particularly – and this is what was meant by ‘best opportunities’ – for people who work as art or design teachers. I think most artists and punters would also feel disturbed to know how the event is funded, and I think that disturbance speaks to a moral pinch that shouldn’t be ignored.

    But lets talk about some the interests at play here. Obviously there is a symbolic benefit that accrues from being seen to support a cultural event. Symbolism is easy to malign, but it is still undeniably a means of allowing economic capital to circulate. This is why companies spend so much on marketing, and why sponsors logos tend to show up everywhere. Symbolic capital is what leads to people buying art merchandise (books, prints etc), and of course art itself.

    To deny or ignore the efficacy of symbolic impact would be particularly bizarre in a discussion about an art exhibition. Not saying Q is, but if there are people who use this argument they are either very, err, confused, or wont be going to the Biennale anyway.

    But for those who like their material interests more material, Transfield also get a tax kickback for supporting the Biennale (links below). They are in effect earning money from the cultural legitimacy of this event. If we threaten this in both symbolic (giving the event a bad name) or material (artists and volunteers withdrawing labour) terms, we provide an incentive for the Biennale to find and reward other backers.

    In this sense, ending the Biennale-Transfield alliance would indeed hurt the bottom lines of people who think that bottom lines are more important than being complicit in human rights abuses. I think this is achievable, and if we can do it in this case it would provide impetus for progressively higher impacting actions.

    Also, you just don’t support things that are funded by the profits of human misery. That’s not what good people do.

    Click to access register-of-cultural-organisations-roco.pdf

  4. S says:

    I agree with you Matt, but I also agree with Q. Your silent protest will do nothing and it just makes it easier for them to ignore you. All you are boycotting is your fellow artists. You need to take your protest to them. Go to the Biennale with your protest on. I mean otherwise how far do you take boycotting Transfield- are you going to stop catching public transport or not use power….?

  5. Sponsors sponsor to achieve promotion and goodwill. They do so, often, at times when their public profile is otherwise non existant or negative.

    The way to affect a sponsor like this, to the point where they listen, is not to boycott the event they sponsor, but to focus on them specifically with a counter campaign, one outside of the event. This could be a clever, subversive art movement that highlights their activities and causes controversy, etc…but one that clearly deliniates the Biennale and their hard work, from the Sponsor you dont agree with.

    It would be best if the Biennale practised more ethical sponsorship partnerships, and kept on top of current affairs and moral stances of the sponsors, partners and supporters they have, but they sadly haven’t. Lord knows how little funding goes into arts events…it is extremely difficult to get sponsorship, but yes it is sad when souls are sold, but last time I checked, the Biennale wasn’t funding any detention centres. It’s a bad situation but perhaps can be improved for the next event without drastic action that would hurt the events sustainability.

    Art is freedom of expression, so I say take to the paintbrushes, get deep into the Biennale and explode the issue from within and from all sides! Kapow!

    1. petersch says:

      The Biennial IS Transfield. Transfield is not merely a sponsor. It is owned by the family who founded the Biennale in 1976, one of whose members chairs the Biennale board. There is no accountability, no ethics committee, just a machine feeding itself.

  6. Matt says:

    How is this a silent protest S? You’ve just read a public statement calling on educators to declare an intention to boycott. This statement has been viewed, at last count, 1,523 times in less than two days, and there are people on FB and Twitter already declaring they wont go. I did a media interview today, after which the journalist said he would be taking comment from the Biennale organisers. This should be out tomorrow. I think that level of un-ignorability is a pretty good, and not very silent, achievement. Would relying on just another critical art work have made the same impact? (I don’t mean to suggest we can’t do both. Done in the right way they are complimentary)

    I don’t understand why it is unreasonable to ask people not to accept money from the detention industry and to not validate the work of those who do. Many artists do actually agree on the need to take action here, including Van Tanh Rudd and Dexter Fletcher. Along with many others, when I think about artists being hurt I prioritise thinking about artists (and non-artists) in detentions camps before I worry about those who are free to participate in international festivals and have the choice of accepting detention industry money. Are there not legitimate questions of priorities, complicity and integrity to ask here?

    In terms of strategy around public transport, funnily enough I think that it is actually not a bad (even if for the moment unlikely) thing to think about. If we could shut down a city that would certainly be effective agent for change. But I’m sure we’d both agree that there are massively different questions of choice and organisation between an optional, biannual art event and what is for many an everyday necessity. It would probably also be best played as a strike, implying that it is a question to work on with transport workers, similar to how this, qua art thing, is good to direct at people who work in the this industry. The transport question would also require the kind of social skills and solidarity networks that are built through smaller, more accessible opportunities, like this one. I’d suggest that the current unfeasibility of a transport strike is not really a sound justification for supporting the Biennale-Transfield alliance. Lets break that link first and then talk about the next step.

    Thanks Alex, much appreciated.

  7. Matt says:

    “I say take to the paintbrushes, get deep into the Biennale and explode the issue from within”

    I think Van Thanh Rudd (to his credit) did exactly this at the last Biennale. Like he literally SET AN ARTWORK ON FIRE to make a point about complicity (see the first comment).

    It led to none of this …

    “the Biennale practised more ethical sponsorship partnerships, and kept on top of current affairs and moral stances of the sponsors, partners and supporters they have”

    Instead, Transfield has taken on MORE(!) detention centre work, making the Biennale MORE COMPLICIT!

    The worsening of this situation is not V.T. Rudd’s fault. He did all he could in that situation. However, we, right now, have to take responsibility for what this experience suggests i.e. that attending and adding work to the Biennale does not lead to a change in behaviour of its organisers. We have to do something more powerful and, clearly, withdrawing our support IS a more powerful act.

    This is what I mean by taking this seriously. We have to do something that unequivocally demonstrates that we reject the Biennale-Transfield alliance. Yes arts funding is a problem, but it has to be lobbied for it in an honest and ethical way. In this terms it is categorically unacceptable to submit to funding via mandatory detention.

    The stakes at play here are clear. Unless we make a strong response right now in two years time things are likely to be even worse (even if things were slightly better it would still actually be really bad). This is why a boycott + making critical works OUTSIDE and in opposition to the Biennale-Transfield alliance is the most appropriate response.

    1. Hi Mimi, there’s no scarcity here. This website has been documenting the extent to which mandatory detention has become implicated in many areas of our lives. Various people are responding to that implication that is closest to them. In Matt’s case, this is because he works in the arts. In other cases, people are requesting that their superannuation funds divest from Transfield Services. Is there a sporting event that you regularly go to which has some kind of involvement? It would be great to find out!

      1. I think it’s a great strategy to search for Transfield’s influence across all areas of industry and culture. I’d love to know of any sports related event that Transfield has influence in. When we become aware, for example, of Transfield’s sponsorship of the arts and its contract with detention centres, it naturally sparks further investigation. I was not surprised to find a couple of years ago that Transfield had deals in Laos during the 90s (if I recall correctly) to build dams – they were exploiting cheap labour and kept under cover the horrible working conditions for the locals. They’ve also had a few Australian military hardware contracts etc.. However, these investigations in the short term can become quite exhausting and can dissipate the potential of an immediate petition or boycott that has a very clear target and range of complicity (ie the Biennale). In focusing on the biennale arts event, it can also reveal to the broader population how politics/art/economics are always sitting hand in hand, and that those from ‘outside’ art circles can have just as much (if not more) input to the debate and potential for change. Abolishing the horrible treatment of refugees will take the mass action of people from all types of jobs, professions, industries etc, not just the art world.

  8. brynnobrien says:

    The ways in which we are implicated in the industry and networks of internment may not always be obvious. My research on the value chains of detention has shown how they permeate our lives in unexpected ways – through our bank accounts, superannuation funds, investments, and workplaces and, as others have demonstrated on this site, their sponsorships of organisations and events we hold dear.

    The purpose (for me) of making these connections is not to shame or coerce anyone into any particular action. It is primarily to make explicit the often abstruse link between the profits of detention and their beneficiaries. It is also to highlight the moral choice available to us in deciding whether or not to benefit from such an enterprise, even indirectly. Developing our understanding of moral choice in this context, and corresponding moral risk, is central to addressing the vast infrastructure of detention, and our many, varied complicities in legitimising it.

    I am an outsider to the community in and around which these discussions are taking place. I am very glad to see the conversation happening and I hope it stretches well beyond this event and this sector. Many thanks to Matt and Angela for kicking it off.

    If those of us who object to mandatory detention do not attempt to oppose its infrastructure through whatever practical means are available to us, who will?

  9. That’s nicely put Brynn. Though on ‘blame,’ coming at it from research on management, contracts and infrastructure (not the art world, that’s Matt and others), the question about risk-shifting (and blame-shifting or liability) is at the very centre of the organisational forms we’re talking about.

    That’s why these systems are organised in the ways they are, from sub-contracting to limited liability to PR-risk management strategies. Arts sponsorship does not exist outside of these terms or the balance-sheets of companies.

    This will be an unavoidably uncomfortable conversation for many of us to have because it is about the ways in which risks and liabilities are allocated. Though I struggle to understand what could plausibly weigh against the risks taken and borne by those who are detained for no crime.

    Still, as discomforting as these conversations might get at times, by implicating us all in the mechanics of mandatory detention, these systems make it possible to refuse to materially support it by taking practical steps. On your last point I completely agree.

  10. Peter says:

    Why can’t a boycott be creative? And not just creative for artists but for everyone. 5 ferry stops = 5 places where people who decide not to support the Biennale of Sydney can take part in a number of artist run workshops and discussions. From my experience as an artist and an educator, one thing that trumps seeing good art is striving to make good art (or even if we make good art I believe the strive that lead to it can be better still). I’m sure with collective powers we can make one of Sydney’s best pop up art schools! And how empowering for the audience to make the art and become the artist who also has a voice for those who cannot be heard.


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