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Should artists boycott the Sydney Biennale over Transfield links?

Should artists refuse to work with the Sydney Biennale – whose major sponsor has contracts to operate offshore detention centres? AAP Image/Caris Bizzaca

Sydney will host its 19th biennale from March 21. It’s one of the most significant international art events on the local calendar. But questions have arisen over its connection to Australia’s policy of interning asylum seekers who arrive by boat without a visa.

The Biennale of Sydney’s major sponsor is Transfield, a company which is also a major contractor involved in running detention centres on Nauru and Manus Island. It recently announced plans to take on more work at these centres.

My own awareness of this connection occurred in the context of my work as a Sydney-based academic and tertiary design educator.

After receiving marketing from the Biennale and a suggestion to take my students to the event I was faced with a clear choice: could I support an event funded by profits of mandatory detention, a policy slammed by the UNHCR as inhumane and non-compliant with international law? My answer: emphatically, no.

The news of Transfield’s involvement in the Biennale has been met with shock, disappointment and disgust, and the call for a boycott is gaining traction, as reported in artsHub and Excerpt Magazine recently. Artists and patrons are expressing their intent to boycott on social media, and the Biennale’s Twitter hashtag, #19BOS, is dominated by the issue.

The Biennale responded last week on Twitter and on Facebook, arguing that a boycott would “deny the legitimate voice of BOS artists”. While Transfield delivers profits to shareholders from its detention centre contracts, it is the people, some of whom are indeed artists, detained at Nauru and Manus Island by the Department of Immigration who are truly silenced. The Biennale’s comments have angered refugee advocates.

“Are you insinuating that our voice is illegitimate?” was the response last week to the Biennale from Melbourne-based organisation RISE: Refugees, Survivors & Ex-detainees.

Protest or boycott?

On the question of whether protests by artists, rather than a boycott, would generate a more engaged response, we must learn a lesson from 2012.

During the 18th Biennale of Sydney Melbourne artist Van Thanh Rudd made a protest artwork about the treatment of asylum seekers, as did Sydney artist Jacqueline Drinkall.

Drinkall’s work was staged on Cockatoo Island, the Biennale’s main venue, where, with the help of Occupy Sydney participants, she attempted to burn a $20 note in front of a Transfield logo.

Rudd, located in Melbourne, placed hyper-real sculptural representations of detainees in public spaces. This year he is a strong supporter of the boycott.

Since 2012, Transfield has increased its involvement in detention centre work.

So, for how long will the arts community accept detention-centre funding for a major event such as the Sydney Biennale?

The limits of a boycott

Transfield is an enormous business, involved in many aspects of Australian life, including public transport. Should those calling for a boycott of the Biennale also boycott public transport?

This is a fair question, and speaks to a disturbing fact. The internment-industrial-complex has become so extensive that we are all implicated in it. It is in our superannuation, our trains, our waste management, our art and more.

There is a risk of being immobilised by this totality, an effect, University of Sydney researcher Angela Mitropolous argues, of a system that fosters a constant shifting of risk and blame.

Equally though, Mitropolous suggests that our being implicated is also a source of resistance – provided we choose to rethink our responsibilities and ability to act. In this sense, while I may not be able to give up using public transport, I can resist Transfield through my work in the arts industry, a tactic that social researcher Ann Deslandes has suggested may be effective for many more of us.

In making my own decision I weighed the potential sacrifice and risk on my part for boycotting a major arts event against the conditions faced by those in detention, along with the very real prospect of things getting worse.

For me, the choice was clear. There is no way that I, as an academic, educator, and patron of the arts could use my position to support an event funded by profits made from detention centres.

Each of us has a unique position in this.

I feel particularly for those artists who signed up to the Biennale in good faith and are now confronting a difficult choice. Their decision will be influenced by the level of community support the call to step away receives, pointing to the collective nature of the effort to boycott the Biennale.

This is part of a longer project. We need to build new infrastructures of support for each other, ones that do not rely upon the enforced misery of others. We have to start that process somewhere, and for those of us who work in or participate in the arts sector, there appears to be no better time to do that than right now.

Are you an academic or researcher working on arts philanthropy and sponsorship? Would you like to write for The Conversation? Contact the Arts + Culture editor.

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