Saturday, 8 February 2014

Why I Will Be Boycotting the 2014 Sydney Biennale- Protest Refugee Detention Centre Profiteering in Corporate Sponsorship

Why I Will Be Boycotting the 2014 Sydney Biennale- Protest Refugee Detention Centre Profiteering in Corporate Sponsorship

8.2.2014  By Ruth Skilbeck
I have written and published articles in the arts media and scholarly international journals based on my encounters with art and artists at the Sydney Biennale. This year however I will be boycotting the Biennale - in protest at the corporate sponsorship of Transfield, which has a new contract for providing services to Australian government run offshore mandatory detention centres (Guardian 3/2/2014). 
 The detention centres break international human rights law, for the treatment of refugees, as reported by the United Nations Refugee Agency (Sydney Morning Herald 26/11/2013).  
   In this article I talk about why I have decided to boycott the Biennale.

The irony is tragic, yet not worth applause, already it is stirring up and enflaming the Australian art world- boycotting of the Sydney Biennale has begun, and protest planned. This week’s news that Sydney Biennale sponsor, construction-based Transfield Services Corporation, is taking over the welfare services management of Australia’s notorious mandatory offshore detention camps, has a cynical and hollow air.

 The Sydney Biennale sponsored by Transfield, gives a sad new twist to the title of this year's Biennale- You Imagine What You Desire.

The “You” of the title sticks in the throat, who is being addressed? Now, we can think about and associate this with the plight of the refugees, who imagine what they desire- a safe future. Yet this is being denied to them by the policies implemented in the detention centres. With this new contract action of the Biennale sponsor, the refugees held on the prison islands are now a part of the fabric of the Sydney Biennale, but its sad and tragic underbelly.

They are held in limbo. Can we imagine it, the mental torment of the endless waiting, and no home. Fleeing from war and conflict, environmental devastation. This may be what some desire- those who implement the policies, and want to “turn back the boats” heedless of what happens to those in them.

But is not surely what the refugees’ desire, not what they imagined when they fled for their lives. They have endured experiences of horror and trauma that is unimaginable.
In fleeing and trying to save their lives, and the lives of their families, they have been imprisoned, and forced to live in conditions in mandatory detention in camps on Nauru and Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island, which the previous reports (despite the censorship and close-down of media reporting) describe as a form of prolonged torture.
And they are the “lucky” ones. Those less fortunate perish in the flight of exile; those whom we hear about were the one who made it as far as taking the risky journey by unseaworthy boat, the boats that are now it seems, being sunk, we do not know how. By Australian navy, towed and then broken up as they are being towed, according to the last reports. Again as the Australian media is, according to the new government edict (SMH 9/1/2014), not allowed to report on "the boats", on asylum-seeker policy and what is going on all that can be assumed is that it is horrific. And morally compromised- why else can the media not report the stories and news?
We can imagine why. We have to imagine, because reporting is now banned due to the government’s ‘closed book’ asylum seeker policy (SMH 9/1/2014)
What we do know is that many refugees have died in the sinking of the tiny boats, the ferries that leave Indonesia to mainland Australia, and that these boats are now being intercepted and “turned back”- or at least they might be, we do not know, and have no ways now of assessing the effects of election promise of PM Abbott to “turn back the boats”. A policy that the United Nations has warned Australia could be breaking refugee law (SMH 1/11/2014).  

What does “turn back the boats” actually mean? What does it signify? The Australian citizens who voted do not know. What is happening? We do not know. All we can do is imagine- and people can conveniently tend to imagine what they desire to be the case. Alternatively they might imagine a worst-case scenario. Neither is likely to be the actual truth or reality. As there is scant reporting, the voters cannot adequately assess the result of the election promises, or policy.

What we do know is that the conditions on the islands are so inhumane that they were described as akin to “concentration camps” by the employees of the Salvation Army, the Salvos, who had the previous contract to manage human welfare at the detention centres (SMH 15/11/2013).

As a senior executive with one of the charities says: ''I wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat, worried that one day we may have to face a royal commission and have to answer for the conditions under which these people were treated and which we didn't have the guts to challenge the government on.''

Based on this evidence, and the United Nations reports we can, legitimately, imagine that the conditions must be horrific. Not what many would desire, not what “You” would desire for yourself or your family. Yet what another “You” does desire- for others.

“United Nations inspection teams found that asylum seekers detained offshore at Australia's behest were kept in inhumane conditions, with children treated harshly in breach of international law.
Their scathing reports found the Nauru and Manus Island centres were focused on sending asylum seekers home rather than "promoting safe, fair and humane conditions".” (SMH 11/26.2013)

You imagine what you desire. The semantic ambiguity of the Biennale title shows the waffle of postmodernist rhetorical relativity, as the cover-up for neo-liberalism (and fascist) policy that it enables, and the cynicism behind it.

The Guardian reported that, last week, in a statement to the Australian Stock Exchange, Transfield Services announced it would be responsible for services, including building maintenance, catering, and security as well as welfare services, on Nauru and Manus Island, and that the Salvos contract of $74 m expired on 31 January 2014.

The fortunes of those involved in the Biennale from the sponsors, to the dispossessed from whom they will be (albeit “indirectly”) profiting and spreading the largesse to the selected beneficiaries of the art-world, represent and reflect the society that we live in, in all its morally corrupt inequity.

You imagine what you desire. A blatant nonsense and meaningless sentence, incapable of verification on any grounds, only those fortunate enough to be born in the “right place at the right time” have any hope of the fulfillment of their desire for a chance to live, as human beings, and have basic rights met, it is sadly ironic that the founders of Transfield are themselves a family of Italian migrants, who came to Australia and “made good”.
They are fortunate that when they imagine what they desire, that it has been turned into a “success story” in the Australian land of opportunity tradition.
The less fortunate, represented by the refugees, endure torments, and trauma, that the fortunate may refuse to imagine, and certainly do not desire, they are “branded” as the undesirables, and banished to prison islands.
Yet the system of corporations requires such inequity to make monetary profits.
This is what we should now be questioning and challenging, and boycotting.

The infinite relativity of the statement of the Biennale title, You Imagine What You Desire, now also represents moral compromise, and murky associations, which are exposed, in this news.
What is so morally objectionable, about this, is that the artists, and viewers, and infrastructures in the art world that have benefited so much from the internationalism of the Biennale, are now put into a position of being coopted to accept this morally reprehensible form of “support”, and sponsorship- note the announcement was not made earlier, in public, when artists would have the information, to decide whether to be involved or not. (Transfield announcement was this week, in February 2014, the Biennale is held early this year, starting in March 2014)  Now artists and art writers are being thrown into a position where boycott is the only possible way of not participating in, and tacitly allowing themselves to be supported by and thereby support this sponsorship.

This appears to be an underhand way of coercing and coopting the artworld, as artists are, you might imagine, amongst those most likely, as well as journalists, to be making statements, and works, in art and writing that speak out against injustice- and to support refugees and asylum seekers. Such method of underhand cooption (though it will not be well received no doubt to point it out) was the tactic used by fascists in regimes such as the rising Nazi Germany, and must be resisted.

Everyone should be able to imagine a future that they desire, a future and a life where basic human rights are met; and where the profit of a few is not at the expense of the unfortunate, even if this profit is spread amongst another select or representative group.

 We should talk about this, and also make new opportunities for artists that are independent, and do not rely on such sponsorship. When the Biennale started in the 1970s, Australia was far more isolated than it is now. It was more important therefore as a means of enabling Australian artists to participate with peers in the international art world, and it was very successful in this. Yet now, with the changes in communications and media, and more importantly with the decades of international participation in the art world, we are not reliant on the Biennale to participate in the art world. No one should be afraid of expressing their moral views, as artists, writers, or viewers, or as art collectors, no one should imagine, or fear, that they will be not supporting Australian art in the wider art world, the opposite will be the case, as to support this, is to tacitly support a nationalism, and a highly controversial current national refugee policy, which has nothing to do with the real meaning or purpose of art, which is about expression of the spirit, and freedom of expression of ideas.

As a major Biennale sponsor is now also providing major services to the detention centres, we can do more than imagine, we can find out more about what is happening there, and as we live in a democracy, as citizens and artists, insist on the implementation of humane conditions, and independent media reporting, of what is happening. This can ultimately only be of benefit to Australia, internationally and here.

Ruth Skilbeck, 8.2.2014



As a senior executive with one of the charities says: ''I wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat, worried that one day we may have to face a royal commission and have to answer for the conditions under which these people were treated and which we didn't have the guts to challenge the government on.''

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