Thoughts on the Biennale Boycott

By March 9, 2014Politics

6a00d83452507269e201127908b88728a4-800wiA record of my thoughts from a conversation across two Facebook posts about the outcome of the boycott campaign by some artists/activists to get the Sydney Biennale to divest from links with Transfield Holdings, a subsidiary of which runs the Australian detention centre in Nauru and which was last week awarded a billion-dollar contract to run the Manus Island detention centre. Names not mine changed and comments not mine largely paraphrased.

This may not be interesting for anyone, but I’m keen to record my thoughts on this away from Facebook.

On Friday afternoon I posted on Facebook a link to an article from the Guardian Australia Sydney Biennale chairman quits over company’s links to detention centres, with the comment: “Fantastic successful boycott campaign by these artists and activists – a demonstration of what people can achieve when we stand together on a principle.”

Someone I knew from uni (let’s call him Dillon) who works in the arts, posted a comment, opening up a discussion and suggesting an alternate side that the outcome means the venue had lost a large revenue stream and that the focus should be on getting Transfield to get out of Manus rather than “destroying an entire industry”, suggesting that the aim of the boycott was perhaps misplaced and that the outcomes would do more harm to the Arts Industry than to the government’s refugee policy.

It’s a fair point of dicsussion, I think. I replied:

Hi Dillon, I’m sorry if this outcome affects you negatively. I’m also not sure thought that conflating the outcome to ‘destroying an entire industry’ is accurate.

Mainly I’m wondering however if you’ve thought about how we would encourage Transfield to ‘dissolve their stake in Manus’? Given they’re a massive corporation, with very few points of entry into the direct consumer market, how are people supposed to make their voice heard?

In my experience, you can convince governments and corporations to do the right thing by a) making them look bad, or b) giving them an opportunity to look good. In this instance, it seems to me that in order to get Transfield to divest from involvement in Manus, or the offshore detention of asylum seekers in general, the only way to do it is to target their reputation, which in turn affects their business.

I’m wondering whether Transfield were the major target here anyway. Like corporations such as Serco and Haliburton, Transfield don’t seem to have any direct contact with people – they get large-scale contracts in infrastructure, defence, etc. Biennale is a public event, and in that sense owned by the community, and the artists who present each year. Also, it’s the artists who chose to withdraw their participation, based on their own views, which led to the outcome. Are we criticising artists for taking a moral stand on an issue?

Overall too (in this long and not too coherent argument) it was the Chairman of Biennale/Transfield that resigned – he had a choice to make, he could have moved for Transfield to divest from Manus, or quit as chairperson of Transfield. But he didn’t. He chose to expunge himself and Transfield from the Biennale – because at the end of the day, involvement in the Arts for Transfield was a PR exercise and when it came down to people versus profits, they chose profit.

Rant ends šŸ™‚

Today, Dillon continued the discussion by tagging me in a comment on a link he shared from a SMH article:Ā Arts kicks own goal in Biennale of Sydney stoush and risks vital clash,Ā saying how the article better expressed what he was trying to say. He pointed out that he could see both sides, and he’s very opposed to how Australia treats refugees and asylum seekers, but that the unintended consequences on the arts industry could be bad.

The article contains, in part, the following:

“The arts are the only loser in the Biennale of Sydney’s decision to sever ties with founding sponsor Transfield, and its chief executive Luca Belgiorno-Nettis’ resignation as Biennale chairman.

“No artist ever changed the world by writing a letter or signing a petition. But artists have changed hearts and minds through their work and their creativity.

“An active and creative response to the plight of asylum seekers would have done far more for this issue.

“All bets are off now and any arts manager in Australia looking for the sponsorship dollar should be pretty nervous.

My reply:

Hi Dillon. I like to think that I understand both sides too, but I agree with one a lot moreĀ The article just reinforces my view.

I think in this article there’s an interesting and not too helpful conflation of the Arts and Artists versus the Arts Industry, two different things, and an odd assumption that artists should not be political actors if they choose. Is this the ‘price’ of government/corporate philanthropy? There are plenty of artists who do not rely on these income streams.

The article criticises the boycott action for what it didn’t do and wasn’t about, rather than what it did and was. It’s a common way to attack targeted boycotts, like this was, but it’s a bit of a hypothetical straw man I think, moving away from reality of the action and its outcomes. Anyway, there are already many separate actions and campaigns out there already targeting companies like Santos, Woodside and NewsCorp. The article also tells people how and what they should be doing if they want to be activists – seems to be a bit of a theme running through here.

I think there’s a bit of push-button fear-mongering too, in talking about the potential consequences – again, like a warning: ‘if you want to keep your money, don’t be political or bit the hand that feeds you.’ It kinda reminds me of those ultra-conservative commentators who campaign against marriage equality by saying it will lead to bestiality.

I think you’re right that this event will have consequences beyond itself – absolutely everything does. But I like to think that fear of negative consequences should never lead me to shy away from something I feel is right. I’d rather focus on the hope that the positive consequences will far outweigh them.

It doesn’t always work out like that for me – fear is a powerful opponent – but I try.

Happy to keep discussing, especially constructively. I always find it useful to test what I think about things by discussing them like this.

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