Last night in a widely publicised move, Luca Belgiorno-Nettis stood down as director of the Board of the Biennale of Sydney. For the ten artists who announced their withdrawal from the festival, this may seem to be a victory over the chosen subject of their indignation, but the nature of this victory should be seen as a superficial one.
What has transpired here is an archetypal standoff. It was never going to be any different. Initially, 41 artists voiced concerns over Transfield Services’ sponsorship ties to the Biennale. Next, five of those artists chose to act on their concerns and withdraw from the event. This took a letter of concern and transformed it into an ultimatum. By that stage, the opportunity for constructive discourse had passed; ultimatums are to negotiation what Godzilla was to urban planning.
Many facts got lost in the wash of emotions. As was pointed out in a release by Transfield Services, it has never had financial ties to the Biennale. Through the Transfield Foundation, a joint charitable project with Transfield Holdings, Transfield Services fund projects in Indigenous development education. Transfield Holdings direct their philanthropy to arts and cultural projects. The sticking point is that Transfield Holdings hold a minority stake in Transfield Services. Amongst other services to industry, mining and construction, they hold the contract to provide garrison and logistics contracts on Nauru. In recent days it was announced that they would be taking over the same contract on Manus Island from G4S. At no point was Transfield Holdings in a position to support or oppose the decision to pursue detention centre contracts on Manus Island, they haven’t had a representative on the board since 2012.
The only link between the rightly-scrutinised immigration detention centres and the 19th Biennale of Sydney is via the 12-percent stake that Transfield Holdings retains in Transfield Services. Transfield in turn provides a reported 6.1-per cent of the Biennale’s budget. Some of this goes towards artists’ fees. Myself and several others have described this link as tangential. Others have described it, I believe misleadingly, as ‘intimate.’
What will happen next? Will Australia’s offshore detention centres at Nauru and Manus Island be closed? Unlikely. Will Transfield Services stock take a dive? Again, unlikely; it’s been stable all week. Two things are certain – the 20th Biennale of Sydney will be looking for a new corporate sponsor, and a lot of potential patrons of the arts in Australia will reconsider whether they want to open themselves up to similar levels of scrutiny and personal attack as Luca Belgiorno-Nettis has. They might just take their patronage and their collections elsewhere. The ten artists who have now boycotted the Biennale face a dilemma. Will they return to the Biennale, presumably cap in hand, having started a chain of events that have compromised its financial future? It would seem morally inconsistent for the artists involved to return to the Biennale now that it is largely publicly funded. Should they return to the Biennale, it would not be without irony that their pay cheques would be substantially coming from the very government whose immigration policy they have so vociferously opposed.
For those who want to pressure for actual change from the federal government, consider the following: two years ago, the 18th Biennale of Sydney attracted over 600,000 visitors. It is a three hour drive on the Hume highway from Sydney to Canberra, where for most of the Biennale’s running period, Federal Parliament will be sitting. Imagine even 60,000 well-heeled art fans at the base of Capital Hill, now that would be a protest. If your political convictions and your protestations are not worth a three hour drive, then they’re not really worth much at all. Take your anger and your protests to the heart of the matter, where they will have most effect. Protests and Boycotts of an art festival, well intentioned though they may be, are a vastly peripheral issue. Consider the words of Ice-T, ‘Don’t hate the player, hate the game/ N-ggas,sharpen your aim.’
These are heady times in Australian politics and culture. Heady times call for calm heads, but ultimately, they have not prevailed. Right now in Australia there is much to be angry about. That doesn’t mean that we need to support all expressions of that anger. Indeed, in this instance, well-intentioned anger appears to have been more destructive than anything.This morning, the protesting artists may have woken up feeling vindicated by the superficial victory of their brief protest movement. Australia may have lost one of its most loyal patrons of the arts, and some 2,000 asylum seekers will wake up in tents on Manus Island and Nauru. For them, nothing will have changed.