Transfield and the Board of Sydney Biennale Just Don’t Get It!
In response to a recent letter by a large group of artists for the Sydney Biennale to sever links with Transfield, the Board of the Sydney Biennale and Juliana Engberg the Director of the Biennale have expressed “understanding” but also prioritized their loyalty to Transfield. Central to their commitment to Transfield is the claim that it is not only a founding and ongoing partner of the Biennale, but that the whole of the Biennale would be jeopardised without their support. Claiming to represent the wider interests of all the other artists, employees, stakeholders, volunteers and the wider community, they claim that the show must go on. In other words, the minority view of the artists should not interrupt the “show”. But on what basis does this Board claim the authority to represent a wider community?
Transfield does have a long history with the Sydney Biennale. However, there is a difference between Transfield the family business, the founding sponsor of the Biennale in 1973, and Transfield as it now is: a massive public corporation. Franco Belgiorno-Nettis who founded the company had a strong belief in the value of art. He befriended the leading artists and curators of his day. He drew on their advice and acted in close step with their views. His son Luca does not have control over all three separate entities that now go under the original name of Transfield, but he is a direct beneficiary of their profits. He may not have the power to stop the decision to be involved in commercial management of the detention centres, but does he have the power to decline the money that would be derived from these contracts, and can he turn a blind eye to the fact that the massive boom in the Transfield share price is unrelated to being awarded the billion dollar contract to administer the detention centres? Luca clearly shares his father’s vision on the value of the arts. However, the Board of the Sydney Biennale that he chairs is filled with corporates and collectors. No artist or academic, not even a critic or a major curator is there to reflect and respond to the wider community interests.
Now is the contract that has been awarded to Transfield legal, yes, is it legitimate, still yes, as the current Coalition government stated loud and clear that this is the policy that they would implement if they won the 2013 Australian elections. The Australian Greens are the only party with any political power that has opposed the policy. Australia’s only other major party, the Australian Labor Party, has never rejected mandatory detention, they only quibbled over the process not the actual policy. So, this would mean that clearly the majority of the population supports the existence of the detention centres. However, the moral claims are not so self-evident. They do not simply follow on from legal and political victories. For instance, while there is massive media attention over this issue, it is also a blind spot in people’s every day perceptions of social reality. The general media coverage of stories about “boat people” is grotesque. It is routinely the lead story and clearly people are obsessed with the symbolic realm of border issues. However, when voters are asked about the top issues that concern them, border control is rarely mentioned. This contradiction and its repression is a deeply ingrained symptom of what I call the "invasion complex" in our national imaginary.
There can be no doubt that there is a bigger moral issue, as the UNHCR and countless health, welfare, religious, cultural and academic bodies have condemned the policy and practice of mandatory detention and described it as a violation of human rights. These “elites”, as they are often dismissed in the populist press, are represented as being out of touch. It is clear that “we” have failed to win the legal and political debates. However, this does not mean we submit to the brutality and hypocrisy of our ruling powers. Who can ignore that suffering and waste that occurs in the name of border security? Why is it, that in a time of austerity over state expenses, border security is one area where the government acts as if it possesses an open cheque-book!
And the artists are now caught in the crossfire. Engberg as Director of the Biennale is in an invidious position. I pity her predicament but find little to respect in her response. It is one thing to say you understand that this is an important social issue, and that you are willing to be supportive of artistic wishes, and another to show leadership and offer an active intervention into the radical change in the landscape in which the Biennale is now situated. This shift has occurred whether or not you think politics and art, or morality and philanthropy have anything to do with each other.
So far the public response has been in my mind been too timid and polite. A lot of fence sitting. And too much angst over personal careers and fear of not wanting to embarrass the people with power, who have in effect betrayed the artists and brought the Biennale into disrepute. I personally agree with the Australian artist Tom Nicholson’s recent comments at a public forum that the Sydney Biennale should proceed, but that there should also be a picket. Two wrongs do not make a right and two rights should not lead to a wrong. There is the right to protest and the right to make art, one should not cancel the other. If an artist or curator can combine the two, then that is what we admire in art.
In my mind Transfield, and any company that implements a government policy that is in my mind immoral, should be shunned. Tobacco companies are no longer welcome to art parties, so why should a company that profits from the gross abuse of human rights also enjoy the privilege of being cool?
Nikos Papastergiadis is professor of cultural studies and media at University of Melbourne.