The Biennale boycott and diversity of tactics

[UPDATE: please note that links to this article were previously being blocked and deleted from Facebook. This now appears to have been fixed.]

On Monday night, 17 February, a meeting was held at the College of Fine Arts in Sydney to discuss Transfield’s involvement in the 19th Biennale of Sydney. Despite the intensity and diversity of opinions at play it seems fair to say that a productive discussion was had. Credit for this must go to the organiser Zanny Begg, facilitator Wenny, and all those who participated.

In my view, a key achievement of the meeting was to clarify the relation between Transfield and the Biennale. Despite the distinctions that the Biennale and Transfield have made between different corporate entities the record of documents we saw indicates that Transfield as a whole is managed as a brand whose philanthropic arm is used to offset the risks involved in its commercial activities.

The significance of this was brought home by Biennale artists themselves. As they explained, Transfield is not simply funding the Biennale, they are accruing cultural value from the work and affective investments of artists. In other words, artists, and everyone else who helps to produce the Biennale, are contributors to Transfields brand.

I don’t mean to suggest that everyone who attended the meeting accepts this. My feeling, however, is that a majority of people did. For these people the problem of the Transfield-Biennale alliance is clear and demands a response. This means that the substantive question at play is now one of tactics: what is the best way to  break the link between the Biennale and the detention industry?

The second half of the meeting involved proposals and discussions about action. I won’t address any of these specifically, but I would like to offer some criteria against which to assess their effectiveness.

The first point to make is that RISE, the only autonomous, refugee run organisation in Australia, supports a complete boycott of the Biennale. If you are someone who claims to take the voice and experiences of refugees seriously this call cannot be ignored.

Affirming this, I would suggest that we cannot shy from making our response as strong as possible. There is simply too much at stake for those in detention to make this a protracted or compromised effort. A firm and unequivocal response is needed, one that makes it clear that people working in the arts sector will not tolerate funding from the profits of detention.

What might this mean? Here I would look back to the point made by the Biennale artists. If we help to produce the Biennale we help to contribute to Transfield’s brand.

It is important to acknowledge the diverse range of actors involved in producing the Biennale. Obviously there are artists and Biennale organisers. Volunteers and other less recognised forms of work are also crucial to the event, and would be just as implicated in Tranfield’s accrual of value. Educators, writers, and discussion amongst audiences is also key to bringing people to venues and promoting its value.

A key point to acknowledge here is that even critical engagement with and in the Biennale would still constitute a means of adding value to the event. This is what is insufficient about a critique of refugee policy within the Biennale. As Alana Lentin argued at the meeting, not only is there an obvious hazard in funding critique of detention through the profits of detention, the very inclusion of such a critique in the Biennale itself only works to make Transfield appear more ‘reasonable’ in what it is doing.

My suggestion then is that the greatest power we have in this situation lies not so much in withdrawing our diverse ways of producing value, but in redirecting them. An impression has emerged, to which I believe I partly contributed, that a boycott entails doing nothing. Against this, I suggest that we rethink a boycott as an act of shifting our creativity, energy, and ability to produce value away from Transfield and into activities that promote the interests of refugees and an end to mandatory detention.

In practical terms this could mean many things. For writers it may of course mean writing in support of a boycott and the more general issues at play. For educators it may entail teach-ins or discussions with students about the nature of corporate philanthropy. For volunteers it may mean helping to organise activities such as meetings, information sharing, events, or exhibitions. For artists it may mean a endless variety of creative actions. All of this and much more is indeed possible to do in ways that avoid becoming part of the Biennale and would constitute an effective redirection of cultural capital away from Transfield.

The idea of redirection can be thought in terms that go beyond the Biennale. Design philosopher Tony Fry uses it as a way of rethinking futural direction in political terms. It speaks to the imperative of building ways of sustaining ourselves that are not dependent upon destructive processes. It is way of reframing the point made by Angela Mitropoulos regarding new infrastructures that would be built through changes to border policies. In simple terms, the idea is to direct our energies towards what we want to grow, and away from what we wish to disappear.

In this sense, if we are serious about ending mandatory detention, our tactics, in their diversity, must be about directing cultural capital away from Transfield and towards a future we actually desire.


For more information please see our list of collated links.


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