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.

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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 [email protected]$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.


  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.

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