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The Arts

Mar 17, 2014

The highly selective artistic fury of Biennale boycotters

Sydney Biennale critics are being inconsistent in attacking Transfield while ignoring other sponsors with far worse records. Just take a look at Deutsche Bank ...

Bernard Keane — Politics Editor

Bernard Keane

Politics Editor

A strange inconsistency besets the critics of Transfield Holdings and the Belgiorno-Nettis Family’s support of the Sydney Biennale.

Whether Transfield’s 12% involvement in Transfield Services is sufficient to deem that it, its staff and the Belgiorno-Nettis family have “blood on their hands” because Transfield Services successfully tendered to operate the Manus Island immigration detention facility is an arguable point. Even if you deny the legitimacy of the facility, re-established by Labor last year (Transfield Services also runs the facility on Nauru), 12% is a low threshold. On that basis, anyone working at the facility, even providing much-needed services for detainees, similarly has blood on their hands, unless they’re doing so on an unpaid basis. Still, it’s arguable.

But the fury of artists toward Transfield looks very selective given the corporate record of some other Biennale sponsors. Deutsche Bank is a major partner of the event, and even a brief look at that company’s record just over the last few years (it has a long history, reaching back to the Nazi era) suggests far more substantial grounds for concern than 12% of a detention centre manager.

Deutsche Bank is one of 16 banks sued last Friday by US regulators for manipulating the Libor interest rate, causing “substantial losses” at a number of banks sent into liquidation during the financial crisis. Several banks have already been fined for rigging Libor by the European Union, and Deutsche was the biggest, paying just less than US$1 billion for what the bank admitted was a “gross violation of Deutsche Bank’s values and beliefs”. The bank has set aside $6 billion to fund settlements with regulators.

Deutsche Bank was also one of the big sellers of credit default swaps before the crisis and continued to push them even when its executives were telling favoured clients that they were “crap”. In January, it agreed to settle with US shareholders for its role in pushing mortgage securities, after agreeing to compensate US institutions Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac nearly $2 billion in December. Along with Goldman Sachs, Deutsche Bank was singled out by the US Senate as having played a “key role in the financial crisis“.

If that cuts no ice with Biennale artists, they might be more concerned that the bank’s “corporate security division” undertook extensive spying on 20 of the bank’s critics, including shareholders and board members. And in December 2012, the bank was raided by German police over tax evasion.

By its own admission, Deutsche Bank engaged in truly remarkable levels of corporate malfeasance that helped inflict misery on hundreds of millions of people across Europe and the United States and is now buying its way out of responsibility for it. But artists who baulk at Transfield’s 12% shareholding of the Manus Island service provider are, presumably, relaxed about it.

“It’s a little hard to avoid the sense that Transfield has been targeted because asylum seekers and offshore processing is a totemic issue …”

There are other Biennale partners with mixed histories — although none of the scale of Deutsche Bank. PwC, as one of the world’s biggest auditors, has been involved in several financial scandals, such as AIG, as well as co-operating with the Putin regime in the sham prosecutions of Russian oligarchs. And what about “distinguished sponsor” Etihad Airways? It is owned by the Abu Dhabi government, a hereditary dictatorship within a federation of hereditary dictatorships where both local and foreign women can be imprisoned if they report sexual assaults and foreign workers are subjected to systematic abuse and discrimination. Last week, the United Arab Emirates government demanded the United States change a critical human rights report that noted a wide range of human rights abuses, including the abduction of a foreign activist transiting the country.

You could possibly argue, using a kind of reverse protectionism logic, that it’s OK to differentiate between Transfield and Deutsche Bank, PWC or Etihad on the basis that those are foreign companies and there’s no benefit from protesting against their sponsorship. But the Transfield boycott related not to what the company had done — it had not sold dodgy securities, or spied on critics, or manipulated a key interest rate, or worked with a human rights abuser — but to the government policy it was implementing; in the eyes of critics, Transfield could be an outstanding manager of the Manus Island facility and still require boycotting because the policy itself is the problem — a policy for which most Australians, incidentally, voted last year.

There’s no requirement for consistency in activism, of course, any more than there is in politics. Nor is inconsistency purely a problem for the artists leading the charge against Transfield — the reaction of Attorney-General and Arts Minister George Brandis typified the puffed-up hypocrisy of a man who professes to be all for freedom of speech but is now busying himself trying to find ways to cut funding from boycott proponents (when he’s not implementing the copyright industry’s internet surveillance agenda, that is). The reaction of others like Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull, moreover, resembles nothing so much as that of an organ grinder enraged that his performing monkey has turned and given him the finger.

Even so, it’s a little hard to avoid the sense that Transfield has been targeted because asylum seekers and offshore processing is a totemic issue characterised by unthinking adherence to simplistic formulations. “We will not accept the mandatory detention of asylum seekers because it is ethically indefensible and in breach of human rights,” the artists said in their letter of protest. Australia has had mandatory detention for over 20 years; it was introduced by the Keating government; mandatory detention in itself is not automatically a breach of human rights, the Human Rights Commission has stated, though it may lead to them; and it is ethically defensible if it leads to fewer people dying, which is the goal of current policy (in fact, mandatory detention doesn’t lead to fewer people on boats, but mandatory offshore resettlement clearly does).

None of those points of dispute on the complex issue of deterring people from drowning, of course, made it into the campaign against Transfield. Nor, clearly, any objective comparison of its contribution to the net level of human misery in the world with that of other firms.

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22 comments

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22 thoughts on “The highly selective artistic fury of Biennale boycotters

  1. Humphrey Bower

    Bernard, it’s not a zero-sum game. Protesting against Transfield Sponsorship doesn’t preclude reassessing other individual sponsorship agreements as well, on a strategic case-by-case basis. The corporate malfeasances you’ve outlined in relation to Deutsche Bank and the human rights abuses in connection with PwC and Eihiad are real, but clearly not as urgent for these artists as receiving sponsorship from a company that profits from running detention centres on Manus and Nauru. As for ‘blood on their hands’: there’s a difference in terms of responsibility and power between investing in and managing the centres and being employed or volunteering to work there. I agree that mandatory detention is a totemic issue but there’s nothing unthinking or simplistic about opposing it. The fact that it was introduced and maintained by Labor Governments is irrelevant: again, it’s not a zero sum game. As for offshore detention leading to fewer deaths at sea: this is a version of moral consequentialism. According to that argument, perhaps we should simply execute a few asylum seekers to deter others from making the journey? Oh, that’s right, we can do that and wash the blood off our hands by getting Papuan locals to do it for us.

  2. Wynn

    Mandatory offshore resettlement “clearly” leads to fewer people dying? Really? On the basis of what facts – that we are told boats have “stopped”? Even if this so-called “fact” can be proved, the policy is still not ethically defensible unless it is the only way to prevent deaths – which it very clearly is not.

    Crikey’s ongoing little mission to discredit the biennial boycott is quite baffling. Did the artists involved claim to be saving the world? I didn’t hear that. They chose a local issue of importance to them. God forbid anybody do anything except write op-eds.

  3. Shaniq'ua Shardonn'ay

    Sorry Bernard,I’m with Humphrey Bower. The fact that it has P@$ssed of the Libs clearly shows how effective the boycott has been.

  4. jmendelssohn

    One thing that intrigues me about the successful Transfield Services tender for Manus Island is that it was at $1.22 billion very much on the high side. There are two possibly interconnected reasons for this.
    The first is that private contractors are being paid to be scapegoats for a government policy doomed to run into insurmountable difficulties.
    The second is that when companies really don’t want to win a tender but don’t want to put the client offside, they tender too high.
    It would be interesting to know about the other tenders.

  5. David Hand

    The issue is simple and clear. It’s about boat people. It’s about attacking the Abbott government. As Shaniq’ua so eloquently put it “pissing off the Libs”.

    It’s the level left wing activism has sunk to. Like the protests about everything over the weekend.

    Yawn.

  6. AR

    Can we not agree that “subsidised artists“, by definition these daze, are useless wankers who should not be fed?
    Deutsche Bank’s Nazi link would not sit well with Nettis’ family history – it’s not even historically relevant (Ford,Prescott Shrub, the Cliveden Set et al – few in the bien pissant Establishment would want to reopen that can of worms, or even Diet of Wurms)but any artist whining for state support needs their overfed arse kicked.

  7. Brangwyn

    Mandatory detention “totemic” ? Certainly on Manus Island “disgraceful”, and carried out in our name. Such weasel words. Deaths at sea double, and treble, every time they are mentioned. MPs, including Hockey and many others weeping in the chamber – was it deaths at sea or was it children in detention? Then they go on and setup Manus Island. Remember refugees sewing up their mouths and self harming in detention centres here? Lots of weeping over that too. Those poor, poor people and now Brandis huffs and puffs because some artists take a stand over Transfield and Transfield takes its’ ball and walks off. Truly I ask you.

  8. Hugh (Charlie) McColl

    Interesting that those artists who organised the protest have achieved exactly what they set out to do and now all sorts of COMPLETELY IRRELEVANT commenters want to press their view as if it means something. Bernard, you are too late. What a shame you aren’t an artist. Arts bodies (ie. ‘the industry’) are all upset and the apple cart is lying on the side of the road, thumbing its nose at Brandis and the Abbott Government – but the horse has bolted. Hooray for the artists and fuck the industry. Nothing the government or the industry do will resolve the irreconcilable – the offshore processing / mandatory detention / jail without charges / murderous migration system is wrong, wrong, wrong and anyone associated with it has blood on their hands.

  9. scott redford

    Humphrey Bower is correct. I know this is a polemical piece made to ‘spark debate’ blah, blah, blah. But Bernard fails to mention that art is primarily a Symbolic zone, meaning value is assigned to certain gestures and art works due to how they fit into the accepted levels of value already somehow agreed upon. Of course many debate these levels of value but we need to start somewhere before we start chipping away. Or in the case of the Biennale artists bulldozing. I love them so, the only real artists left. Contemporary art as it has developed had become a totally weird zone where curators and art people wrote endless nice essays from a cozy soft left position but in reality practiced the same ethos of inclusion/ exclusion always employed by the powerful. In Australia artistic success was measured not by good art (it’s debateable how much of current art rises above contemporary art cliches) but by audience numbers, child minding centres, old people’s workshops, educational workshops (rubbish these, I did one a while ago), anything to make the politicians and sponsors happy about continued funding. I always felt this would all come to a bad end and it has. And it has in the most spectacular way! Looking back it was inevitable as it was built on such poor foundations. So yes we can debate the links to the Nazis of DB and the bank’s outrageous abuses. We can stop buying Bayer drugs or drinking Fanta (a Nazi soft drink developed to rival Coke)…and as Humphrey said we could publicly execute some asylum seekers to attempt to send a message to others not to risk their lives. But why stop there Bernard. We could boycott the UN for not stopping Iran from publically hanging gay teenagers and leaving their bodies hanging to rot! I mean everyone could boycott everyone endlessly. NO the artists of the Biennale chose to make a statement and they did it brilliantly. I mean you and Crikey are getting mileage out of it still. The artists involved will get retribution I suspect. The Transfield sponsorship was a step too far, many in art agree. And yes the whole art system needs reform and far far more transparency. Making a link between Nazis and the Biennale 9 is a bit underhanded don’t you think? Sounds like a politician’s spin. It’s like putting homosexuals and pedophiles in the same context. It’s easy spin I just did it above with reference rotting gay teenagers BUT at least I put the IMAGE into people’s heads who may not know of the subject. It’s Art, in the beginning there was the image.

  10. scott redford

    Also on the Transfield tender question didn’t Transfield donate a million dollars to the LNP? Also on subsidised artists I can assure everyone I lose money making work for big institutions and also small travelling shows. Visual art in Australia is set up so only a small number make any real living from it. Even what look like big grants are not when one considers how much money it takes to produce art for free public consumption and to,make it to any form of ‘international level’. My recent QLd Art Gallery show was seen by 120,000 people and I got an Australia Council grant of $20,000 and $12,500 from QAG artist’ fee. Now this paid for the production of maybe two large works, not anywhere near enough. So to do it properly I sold works below production costs and went heavily into debt. So i funded that show as well as the Qld Government (I don’t know about sponsorship deals with QAG at the time) and I gave free entertainment to so many people. I think this information should be made public so people can be better informed when they make out artists who get grants are somehow profiting or living the high life somehow. Also my grant money goes back into the small businesses and craftsmen I employ to make the work. I mean the money isn’t wasted somehow on these ‘spoilt’ artists. It’s an economy that circulates employment. It’s the artists though who lose the money by low or no wages. And some don’t want to do it anymore. It’s that simple.