Wednesday, 19 March 2014

An 'Ethical' Future for the Biennale of Sydney? 'Boycott' Artists to Draft New Corporate Social Responsibility Policy

Art, Sponsorship, and Ethics- the Case of the 19th Biennale of Sydney

By Ruth Skilbeck

The key point that has emerged from the boycott of the Biennale of Sydney by international and Australian artists who are themselves in the Biennale, is ethics, or more precisely ethical sponsorship.  This has now been acknowledged in the latest changes emerging as a result of the boycott, and its positive after effects, the latest development is that the Biennale artist's Working Group - has been invited by the Biennale Board to draw up a charter of corporate social responsibility for future biennales in Sydney.
What had become increasingly clear the more research was conducted by academics and critics (documented on this site) into the sponsorship of the Biennale, and the moral compromises expected by former corporate sponsors of the artists, is that artists and academics and critics, oppose immoral and inhumane funding sources (in this case detention camps in breach of international conventions) and will take action -in this case boycotting-  to maintain the integrity of art, by recognising that the artist and art comes first, not the sponsor. 
Far from the pessimistic outcomes predicted by a very persistent six week opposition on facebook by some local artists who wished to maintain the status quo, and not rock the funding boat (or something), what has eventuated is a real positive change for the better, that can only benefit all concerned, who have art and its future as their highest goal.
As a result of the prominent international artists' boycott, nine artists withdrew, contingent on the Biennale Board keeping the controversial funding links with Transfield, which was recently awarded a 1.2 billion dollar contract to increase its services to the refugee and asylum seeker mandatory camps (internment without trial) on Manus Island and Nauru which are in breach of international refugee conventions. Less than two weeks ago, the boycott ended when the Biennale Board severed these ties and the chairman of the Biennale, Luca Belgiorno-Nettis, who is also a director and owner of Transfield, resigned. This happened after international organisations and governments funding the international boycotting artists, supported their ethical position, and began to make moves to take out their funding.
This has been little reported as such in the mainstream media in Australia, but maybe from now on there will be more open reporting, on the issues involved. The boycott has opened up a very important and much needed discussion on art and ethics in Australia, in the international context of the art world. 

After Ties Were Cut by the Biennale Board with Detention Camps Funds
Most of the artists who had withdrawn, then allowed their works to be shown in the Biennale. I too as an art critic and writer, who was boycotting, then accepted my media preview invitation (as I have written about on this site) and went to the media preview yesterday, and heard the talks from the Biennale representatives, Marah Braye CEO- who acknowledged that "some of the world's best art comes from protest"- and Juliana Engberg Artistic Director (Curator)- who confided that she had even encouraged some of the artists to withdraw on the moral grounds, and also acknowledged what a [noble] sacrifice the boycotting artists made, as they potentially were sacrificing a career, and what a hard decision it was for some. 

Ethical Art and Artworks
I spent most time on Cockatoo Island yesterday, at the media preview, with the artists and artworks that had been in the boycott, and had withdrawn and then returned, following the severing of the Biennale Board ties with the asylum seekers mandatory detention camps funding. There were two art works, in particular, that I spent a lot of time discussing, and also participating in, as one of them, Bosbolobosboco #6 (Departure-Transit-Arrival) 2014, had a long audio component, the recorded voices of refugees recalling in words images of their journeys. 
Also Ahmet Ogut's installation, Stones to Throw, Version Two, 2014, on aspects of the effects on village children in war. Children as young as twelve being tried and prosecuted as adults under counterterrorism laws, for throwing stones at the armed military forces.

These art works are by three of the artists I have already mentioned and written of, on this site: artist-duo Libia Castro and Olafur Olafsson, and Ahmet Ogut. Neither of which works are in the exhibition guide, I assume because it was printed before they had returned to the Biennale.

I was also very interested to see other works which I will write about as well. Works by the further artists who had withdrawn on ethical grounds and then returned (Agnieska Polska, Sara van der Heide, Nicoline van Harskamp, Nathan Gray), and those two who did not return (Gabrielle de Vietri, and Charlie Sofo). I will also be writing about some works of artists who did not withdraw. Yet my primary concern, as stated throughout my reports on this site, is to write about this self nominated group who put the higher good, compassion for others, first, and who thereby represent a new movement in art which is emerging around the world, and now here in Sydney. In supporting this group of artists, some of whom do not now have their return to the biennale acknowledged in the exhibition guide, and their works are not clearly indicated, I found them by chance as I was walking alone, I will write about their works first.

I will write on these works, in articles, and in a piece on The Daily Fugue soon.
Meanwhile, today's news from the Biennale Artists Working Group (in the previous post on this site) gives a glimpse at a possible ethical and bright future for the Biennale, imagined from this excerpt from latest news from the Biennale Artists Working Group announced today (and reproduced in the previous post on the Daily Fugue):

Future of the BiennaleThe Biennale has invited the artists' Working Group to be involved in the drafting of its Corporate Social Responsibility Policy. At this juncture we would like to accept this invitation and look forward to working with the Biennale to develop new, ethical sponsorship arrangements. We see this as a positive opportunity for the Biennale to find sponsorship from corporations whose values align with those of the Biennale and its stakeholders.
Additional to our involvement in the CSR Policy, we suggest that the Board seek to diversify its membership to include independent curators, artists, critics and academics. This may assist in bridging the gap between corporate interests and those of artists and the wider arts community. ( Biennale artist's Working Group, 19.3.2014).

Blue sky is opening ahead, it seems.

Ruth Skilbeck 19.3.2014

The Daily Fugue: Sydney Biennale Artists' Working Group Clarifies a...

The Daily Fugue: Sydney Biennale Artists' Working Group Clarifies a...: An important media release, sent this afternoon, by the Biennale Artists Working Group to clarify and respond to the persistent misrepresent...

Sydney Biennale Artists' Working Group Clarifies and Responds to Misrepresentations in Mainstream and Social Media

An important media release, sent this afternoon, by the Biennale artists' Working Group to clarify and respond to the persistent misrepresentations circulating, in social and mainstream media.
Read this to be informed by the artists themselves on what they are doing and why. 



Transfield & Biennale - responses and clarification of key points
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Wednesday 19 March
Biennale artists' Working Group clarifies and responds to key points
"9 pesky artists"
51 participating artists signed the letter to the Board of the Biennale requesting that they end their funding arrangement with Transfield.
Following the Board's response, 9 participating artists withdrew from the Biennale of Sydney by the time Luca Belgiorno-Nettis resigned from his position as chairman of the Board.
Pressure from international funding agencies (government and non-government) who were withdrawing their sponsorship due to the Board's decision to remain loyal to Transfield was cited by Luca Belgiorno-Nettis and the Biennale as a factor in his resignation.
7 artists (Libia Castro, Nathan Gray, Ólafur Ólafsson, Ahmet Öğüt, Agnieszka Polska, Sara van der Heide, Nicoline van Harskamp) have, in conversation with the Biennale's Artistic Director, re-entered the Biennale are are showing their work as part of the programme. 2 artists (Gabrielle de Vietri, Charlie Sofo) have decided not to re-enter the exhibition.
Employees of the Museum of Contemporary Art have resigned over Transfield's sponsorship of the organisation, and artists are beginning to question future involvement in organisations sponsored by profits of mandatory detention.
Public Funding vs. Private Sponsorship
Public funding for the arts is administered by the Australia Council for the Arts. This is funded by taxpayers' money, much like the Australian Sports Commission or the ABC.
Private sponsorship, on the other hand, is an agreement that holds value for both parties. By funding the Biennale and the artworks within it, a corporation will gain positive brand association and an engagement program that they think will enhance their reputation and appeal. Private sponsorship is funded by the profit-making activities of that company, in this case, operating and managing the offshore detention centres on Manus Island and Nauru.
Belgiorno-Nettis Family
We acknowledge the long-standing and significant contribution of the Belgiorno-Nettis family to the arts, and especially to the Biennale. We believe that this sponsorship was a genuine desire to support the arts. However, their company, Transfield Holdings, invests in and profits from a policy that breaches international conventions on human rights, and those profits were being channelled into the Biennale. This was not something that we could endorse through our participation in the Biennale.
Australia Council for the Arts
The Australia Council for the Arts is a public institution. It operates at arm's length to the government of the day. It has no influence whatsoever on the Australian Government's mandatory detention policy. No artist, by accepting funding from the Australia Council, acknowledges any sort of implicit approval of the policies of the government of the day. Likewise, no rejection of Australia Council funding would have any influence or relation to the government's policy on asylum seekers. Suggesting that they would have any effect is like suggesting that to protest the government's stance on gay marriage, you should boycott Medicare.
The Australia Council Act 2013 says a minister is “unable to give direction in relation to the making of a decision by the council, in a particular case, in relation to the provision of support”. This ensures that the giving or withholding of arts funding is not abused as a political tool, and that politicians' pet-artists are not funded over other art projects that the Australia Council judging panel deems worthy of funding.
George Brandis
The Attorney General’s letter to the Australia Council is an attempt to shift the public focus away from mandatory detention and onto control over arts funding. If the government wants to save taxpayers’ money, processing asylum seekers quickly onshore rather than detaining them in facilities overseas would save many times more money than what the federal government spends on arts funding each year.
Bullying the Australia Council for the Arts into refusing to fund artists who have declined to compromise their own ethics by taking money that has a direct link with profits they regard as morally ill-gained, is a direct attack on artistic freedom, on freedom of expression and on democracy as we understand it here in Australia. It would completely undermine the integrity and the public utility of arts funding to make it political – to withhold money from artists who are in dissent against a certain government position.
By logical extension, George Brandis' ultimatum would see public funding stripped from a children's sports festival that refused sponsorship from a tobacco company.
"Vicious ingratitude"
Artists who withdrew made a personal choice based on conscience. As freelancers, artists are entitled to turn down contracts funded by sponsors whose values do not align with theirs. It's like any other contractor turning down a contract because they do not believe in the company's values. Art sponsorship is not welfare. Artists do not have to take money or employment if they believe it is morally compromising.
To talk about our withdrawal in terms of “gratitude” suggests that corporate sponsorships are a question of pure, disinterested giving. That’s not the case. Corporates wouldn’t bother with arts sponsorship if they didn’t believe it helped their bottom line.
Sponsorship works for the corporation by adding value to its brand, and increasingly, by helping it recruit the best talent. Arts sponsorship means they can offer terrific perks to their employees – tickets to shows, opportunities to meet and engage with artists at exclusive events, such as previews and dinner parties. They can take their key clients to see the orchestra, the opera, the Biennale. It’s real, concrete value for them.
Talking about "ingratitude" sets up a master-servant relationship that doesn't reflect what corporate sponsors gain from their relationships with artists and arts organisations.
Future of the Biennale
The Biennale has invited the artists' Working Group to be involved in the drafting of its Corporate Social Responsibility Policy. At this juncture we would like to accept this invitation and look forward to working with the Biennale to develop new, ethical sponsorship arrangements. We see this as a positive opportunity for the Biennale to find sponsorship from corporations whose values align with those of the Biennale and its stakeholders.
Additional to our involvement in the CSR Policy, we suggest that the Board seek to diversify its membership to include independent curators, artists, critics and academics. This may assist in bridging the gap between corporate interests and those of artists and the wider arts community.
Future of Philanthropy
The future of ethical philanthropy and ethical sponsorship is in no way jeopardised by the questions that have been raised by the artists, activists and refugee advocates in relation to the Biennale and Transfield. That companies will exercise a greater deal of self-scrutiny for their undertakings is a welcome development, and one that can only lead to a better situation for all. Common values are essential in the establishment of any new partnership between organisations and their sponsors. This is the beginning of greater accountability for individuals, organisations, corporations, and hopefully, eventually, government.
Protesting the Government
Many artists participate in protests against asylum seeker policy directed towards the government - they vote, sign petitions, write letters, attend rallies, and donate their time and money to supporting asylum seeker and refugee organisations. In this instance, our participation in the Biennale afforded us the position to directly affect the private industries that enable the government's policy to be enacted. These corporations are intimately bound in the government and their policies. By addressing Transfield's involvement in mandatory detention, the government was effectively targeted. The issue was brought forward in the Senate, and publicly debated by federal Ministers Malcolm Turnbull and George Brandis. This shows that the actions of the artists were effective not only in questioning the ethics of Transfield's activities, but those of the government making the policy.
Transfield
The 19th Biennale of Sydney is funded by the Transfield Foundation and Transfield Holdings.
Transfield Foundation is a joint venture between Transfield Services and Transfield Holdings.
Transfield Holdings owns a significant share of Transfield Services (11.9%), the second-largest share in Transfield Services.
Through their sponsorship arrangement with Transfield, the Biennale of Sydney received profits from mandatory detention.
Transfield's role at Manus Island and Nauru Detention Centres
Transfield Services has been providing operational services at Nauru dentention centre since August 2012. This year, Transfield Services was awarded a $1.22 billion contract to expand their services at both Nauru and Manus Island detention centres to include welfare support services, garrison, catering, transport, security, and maintenance.
No matter how well a company fulfils their contract, the very existence of these offshore detention centres is in violation of international human rights conventions.
While Guido Belgiorno-Nettis claims that "Transfield Services will make a positive difference at Manus Island and Nauru", an improvement in services would be at odds with Government's vision of the camps as a deterrent for legitimate asylum seekers.
Transfield Services has no experience in welfare support services, and reports from inside the camps indicate that they will be continuing to employ some of the staff involved in the violence of February 17.
More information
Letter to the Board and withdrawal statements:www.19boswg.blogspot.com.au
Contact
2014workinggroup@gmail.com

Monday, 17 March 2014

BIennale Artist Ahmet Öğüt (Turkey) Returns and Donates His Artist Fee to the Biennale

Tomorrow is the media preview of the Biennale and as an arts writer, following the decision to cut all ties with Transfield as per the artists boycott, I then accepted my media art writer invitation to attend the preview and participate as a media art writer in the 19th Biennale of Sydney.

Ahmet Öğüt, Biennale artist from Turkey is one of the group of artists who withdrew from the Biennale in protest at the links to immigration detention camp funds, and who also stated that he would withdraw contingent on the links not being severed. As the Biennale Board has severed the difficult ties, he has now announced that he has returned from Turkey, to participate in the Biennale as an exhibiting artist. He has announced too that he is donating his artist fee to the Biennale, in appreciation of the hard work by the Biennale team, that this has caused.

Here is a message he has sent via social media:

"I see the Biennale of Sydney’s decision to cut all ties with Transfield and Resignation of the Chairman, as a very positive development for the future of the Biennial and the role of Biennial's in general. I decided to return and participate in the Biennial, since our demand from the Biennial stated in our withdrawal letter was fulfilled. I acknowledge that this process is not easy for the Biennial team; I have donated my artist fee to the Biennial as a sign of appreciation of art workers' hard work. I think it is time to join forces together as one voice; for all artists, curators, art workers and cultural producers to create new constructive opportunities, develop further debates, and continue to be in support of the human rights of asylum seekers."

Ahmet Öğüt

17.3.2014
I may after all not be able to attend the media preview tomorrow in Sydney as I am unwell, and have publishing deadlines, and the train journey is 3 hours from here, (then 3 hours back) but I will be participating as a writer and accessing images and writing up the Biennale, for articles and my forthcoming book. This will include writing about a range of artists in and not in the Biennale, and the wider issues that this has brought into focus.   Ruth Skilbeck

Update. 18.3.14
Am attending the media preview today and now on the train. Will report on the events and post here in the next few days, on artworks and artists, with photos. RS



Friday, 14 March 2014

Full Transcript of Letter from Senator George Brandis to the Australia Council of the Arts


As The Daily Fugue has been posting the letters from various parties with interests as key stakeholders in the 19th Biennale of Sydney, here's the letter from Senator George Brandis to the Australia Council for the Arts:

Mr Rupert Myer,
Chairman
The Australia Council

Dear Rupert,

I am most concerned about the decision of the Board of the 2014 Sydney Biennale to terminate its sponsorship agreement with Transfield Holdings (Transfield).

Media reports suggest that the decision was based on representations by a small group of artists participating in the Biennale that Transfield Holdings was an inappropriate sponsor because it is a minority shareholder in Transfield Services, a company contracted to provide security services at the detention centre on Manus Island. Transfield has now withdrawn its sponsorship, and Mr Luca Belgiorno-Nettis AM, executive director of Transfield, has resigned as Chair of the Biennale.

If these reports are true, I view this situation as shameful.

Transfield has been an exemplary corporate citizen, and its record of philanthropic support for arts companies and events has few equals in Australia. Mr Belgiorno-Nettis AM, and members of the Begiorno-Nettis family, are outstanding Australians and exceptionally generous arts patrons. The decision of the board of the Biennale is an appalling insult to them.

Equally appalling is the fact that the board of the Biennale, apparently under pressure from certain individual artists, has decided to decline to accept funding from a generous benefactor, because of the political opinion of those individual artists, concerning a matter which has nothing to do with the Sydney Biennale. Artists like everybody else are entitled to voice their political opinions, but I view with deep concern the effective blackballing of a benefactor, implicit in this decision, merely because of its commercial arrangements.

At a time when government funding for the arts is, like all demands upon the Budget, under pressure, it is difficult to justify the funding for an arts festival which has announced to its principal private partner that it would prefer not to receive its financial support. You will readily understand that taxpayers will say to themselves: “If the Sydney Biennale doesn’t need Transfield’s money, why should they be asking for ours?”

Even more damagingly, the decision sends precisely the wrong message to other actual or potential corporate sponsors of the arts: that they may be insulted, and possibly suffer reputational damage, if an arts company or festival decides to make a political statement about an aspect of their commercial relationships with government, where it disapproves of a particular government policy which those commercial relationships serve.

I understand that Commonwealth funding is provided to the Sydney Biennale through the Australia Council, under a three-year funding agreement which expires in 2015. No doubt, when renewal of the funding agreement beyond 2015 arises for consideration, the Australia Council will have regard to this episode and to the damage which the board of the Sydney Biennale has done.

I refer to s.12 of the Australia Council Act 2013 (the Act), concerning Ministerial directions. I am mindful that s.12(2) contains an explicit prohibition against a Minister giving a direction “in relation to the making of a decision by the Council, in a particular case, relation to the provision of support” [emphasis added]. However s.12(1)(a) does give the Minister the power to give a direction to the Council “in relation to the performance of functions, and the exercise of powers, of the Council”. Those words are plainly wide enough to include matters of policy and funding criteria.

I would ask the Australia Council to develop a policy which deals with cases where an applicant for Australia Council funding refuses funding offered by corporate sponsors, or terminates a current funding agreement. That policy should deal with the circumstances in which such conduct would be considered to be unreasonable, and the consequences for the availability of Australia Council funding where an applicant acts unreasonably and specifically whether the consequence of such unreasonable behaviour is that Australia Council funding would no longer be available. The policy should further consider whether all future funding agreements should contain a clause that stipulates that it is a condition of Australia Council funding that the applicant does not unreasonably refuse private sector funding, or does not unreasonably terminate an existing funding agreement with a private partner.

I would be grateful if you would promptly develop a policy, addressing the issues which I have identified. I think it is preferable that any such policy be developed, in the first instance, by the Australia Council. I should indicate to you, however, that if the matter cannot be addressed satisfactorily at Council level, then I would be minded to make a direction under s.12(1)(a) of the Act along the lines indicated in the previous paragraph.

I look forward to discussing this matter with you at a convenient time in the near future.

Yours faithfully,
George Brandis


This letter has been circulating widely on social media, on facebook, and has been reproduced in art media, and mainstream media,  yet it is placed behind paywalls.
For example, ArtsHub:
http://www.artshub.com.au/news-article/news/all-arts/if-the-sydney-biennale-doesnt-need-transfields-money-why-should-they-be-asking-for-ours-198432. 
In order to view the letter you are required to take out a subscription.
I am reproducing it here for the good of the community.


Art Sponsors Have More to Lose Than Artists From Severing Ties

What is emerging in Australia from the successful Biennale Boycott by a large group of international artists, and what is has revealed is the real power of the artist and the art. The sponsors have nothing to do with this. They want to be associated with art, but their money does not create art. And now it is becoming apparent that they have more to lose than the artists from the severing of their support.
Today a report was published in The Australian that arts minister George Brandis has sent a letter to Rupert Myer chair of the Australia Council to demand a change in policy to discipline any funding recipient who "refuses funding offered by corporate sponsors, or terminates a current funding agreement."(Australian 13.3.2014)

This raises compelling ethical questions. What if the artist does not wish their art to be associated with the sponsor if the sponsor, mid way  through the funding time period, does something the artist considers to be morally reprehensible?

The success of the boycott of the Sydney Biennale by a number of prominent international artists on moral grounds has shown very clearly that artists do not need to accept sponsorship that they consider to be unethical. As artists most are well used to having little money and know how to make art on very little, depending on what the artwork is of course, they do not need to have the money of sponsors they do not support. This is sending a message back to sponsors, who for quite a time, too long some will think, called the shots, or at least they thought they did. As a statement of the Transfield company said on their website: "Art is in the shadow of industry". This is how it may appear, to the sponsors. But for artists it is different, their art is made with integrity and passion, in the private inner world, from which great art comes, and audiences can appreciate this.
Sponsors would not, and do not, support artists whose works have not passed through a filter of approval. It is eminently reasonable that artists should apply the same filters to the sponsors who benefit from having their companies endorsed by the worlds most prominent artists.

If a sponsor, mid way through a funding project, does something like take on a huge contract to run private detention camps which are believed to be in breach of human rights, what are artists who support refugees, and may even have immigration in their family background, to think or do?

These are amongst the pressing ethical questions which are emerging in Australia, as a result of the boycott of the 19th Biennale of Sydney. These questions will not go away. This is only the beginning of the discourse which has already started in other countries.

Ruth Skilbeck  14.3.2014


Sunday, 9 March 2014

World Exclusive. Sydney Biennale Artists Response to Cutting Ties with 'Detention Camps' Sponsor


Sydney Biennale Artists Response to Cutting Ties with 'Detention Camps' Sponsor


By Ruth Skilbeck,  9.3.2014

"We can still not at this moment answer on how we or the other artists that withdrew will be responding, for we have all taken a moment to observe the new situation and talk about next steps"- Libia Castro and Olafur Olafsson, Biennale of Sydney artists.

This the email message sent to me by prominent international contemporary artist-duo, Libia Castro (Spain) and Olafur Olafsson (Iceland) on their response yesterday to the announcement that the Biennale of Sydney chairman, Luca Belgiorno-Nettis, has resigned following international pressure and the boycott of artists from the Biennale, over the sponsorship ties to mandatory detention refugee camps funding. 

Belgiorno- Nettis is the chairman of Transfield the construction multinational which manages the Manus Island detention camp which came under international media scrutiny two weeks ago when a refugee inmate was murdered and 70 seriously injured when they were attacked within the compound by guards, local PNG police and service staff, according to the first hand reports, aired on Australian TV.

 Libia Castro and Olafur Olafsson are two of the nine artists who withdrew their works from the Biennale in protest. I met and spoke with them at an artist talk they gave last Thursday, and we did a photo shoot, at Sydney College of the Arts, where they are artists in residence until the end of the month.

In their talk they said that they decided to withdraw, after the Biennale Board responded to the requests of over 40 artists to sever the ties with Transfield, when the Biennale Board initially responded with an open letter statement that ‘without Transfield there would be no Biennale”. Is it the Transfield sponsor Biennale, they asked, when they had come to Sydney to exhibit their work in the Sydney public Biennale?  When the sponsor further told them that artists could discuss the issues of refugee detention, in the Biennale itself, they saw this as a conflict and compromising artistic autonomy.



Photo copyright  Ruth Skilbeck 2014
Libia Castro and Olafur Olafsson, with a Refugee Art Project representative, and trauma psychologist
and a piece of their new art work at Sydney College of the Arts, March 6, 2014.

The Artwork:

Castro and Olafsson told me they are in the process of making a new work in collaboration with refugees from the Refugee Art Project and a psychologist specializing in trauma, and I talked also with them, as they were there to record the voices of refugees for their new audio-visual and performance-based art work. The refugees will record their descriptions of images, that they remember and imagine, associated with their journeys, and these will be made into an art work which audiences can also participate in, through listening and imagining and empathizing with the voices.

Without seeing it yet this seems to fit in with the theme of the Biennale of You Imagine What You Desire. If so, these refugees may be able to imagine what they desire in a positive way, with the outcome of reaching or making a new home. Unlike those who have the unimaginably traumatic experience of finding themselves victims of "horror used as a deterrent" in the indefinite mandatory camps in Manus Island and Nauru, which have been in the news over the past few week, which is what prompted the artists to boycott the Biennale in protest.

In their artist talk, Castro and Olafsson, explained that because of the focus of their art practice, they felt compelled to take action and withdraw their work, when they found out about the connection to refugee detention camps, as they have made works in the past about and with refugees; as well as the work they are making now to show in Sydney. The artists showed an excerpt from their video works, including Caregivers, with an original operatic soundtrack, which they made on the large numbers of Ukrainian refugees, 6-8,000 per year, who are working as caregivers to ageing Italians in family homes in North Italy.

Castro and Olafsson also showed and discussed two more of their video works on relevant themes: Lobbyists, on the very large number of professional lobbyists at the European Union parliament in Brussels, with an original reggae soundtrack by an Icelandic band. This is part of their art practice working with activists.

The third work they discussed was Your Country Doesn't Exist, a video work set and filmed on a gondola in the Venice canals, a female opera singer, standing in the gondola sings against the invasion of Iraq, as the boat passes tourists, and locals, some of whom contribute to the audio, including an elderly woman's voice telling of the palace her family has lived in for the past 120 years. She was an intervention, in the actual filming, said Olafur later. She was watching us filming, she kept making remarks, "what a beautiful voice he has"... and so we started talking to her and decided to include her voice. Your Country Doesn't Exist was shown at the Venice Biennale in 2011.

Libia Castro and Olafur Olafsson’s statement about their art practice, states that their artistic practice: "concentrates on the phenomena of transition towards the post-fordist phase of political, social and cultural development. Exclusion and exploitation appear as one of the main issues of [their] critique of flexible subjectivities, under pressure of the decline of the nation-state and the rise of global markets and corporations. The artists work across media and in a variety of genres and disciplines, "from political history through gender studies and sociology". Their works are often made "in collaboration with other artists, professionals, local citizens decision makers, activists and refugees alike."

In their works they state they: "critique an injured world of non-belonging and denied participation."

Given their art practice, protesting the contexts of biennale art sponsorship becomes part of their work as artists, as a form of self-critique and critique of the art world itself. This is part of their work, and is a relevant addition to the international discourse on the themes of art and sponsorship in the post-fordist era, and in the new era following the global financial crises, the "rise of global markets and corporations."

Other prominent international artists showing in Sydney, working with these themes include Isaac Julien the acclaimed British artist, whose exhibition of new video works, straight form MOMA in New York will open at the end of the week at Roslyn Oxley9 gallery in Sydney (not part of the Biennale).

Libia Castro and Olafur Olaffsson were in the group of the Sydney Biennale artists, followed by art installers and artists who withdrew in protest at the funding of the Biennale from the profits of indefinite mandatory detention (imprisonment) refugee camps, run by the companies owned by the former chairman of the Biennale.

The ex-Chairman and Sponsor:

On Friday, the Biennale Board announced the resignation of Luca Begiorno-Nettis, chairman of the Biennale and also director of Transfield, the sponsor that has recently been awarded a 1.2 billion contract to run indefinite mandatory detention camps on Manus Island, and Nauru which have been roundly criticized by humanitarian groups, and the UN and led tothe boycott of the Biennale, by international and local artists, and art workers and critics. 

Belgiorn-Nettis resigned he said after international governments began to ask questions about why the Biennale Board was not severing its ties (presumably) given the artists protests, and also the protests of humanitarian organisations.

Luca Belgiorno-Nettis himself said on Friday 7.3.14, as published in the Guardian:

"Yesterday I learnt that some international government agencies are beginning to question the decision of the Biennale’s board to stand by Transfield."

The Government Policy

Despite the international and national criticism, including support from The Greens Party for the boycotting artists, the government announced that Australia is continuing its policies of indefinite mandatory detention.



The Artists Who Withdrew:

What will the artists do now, whether they will return to the Biennale or not, is one question that is being asked and debated amongst the artists who withdrew.
The situation is not clear, as to the wider context and the actual funding that remains, and so the artists are taking time to think about their next steps.

In the constantly evolving context of the 19th Biennale Sydney life and art are not only imitating each other but directly influencing and shaping the cultural, and also social change that will emerge from the artists protests, joining the voices of international humanitarian groups, against the inhumanity of indefinitely "detaining" (incarcerating) refugees in camps on prison islands, and also the profits, being used to fund public art events, such as the Biennale of Sydney.

This is a positive outcome, and a change for the better, a new awareness, and engagement of the Australia art world with the international context of ongoing debates about these very issues of art and corporate sponsorship. And a new form of self-critique and art world critique that is developing now in Australia. As the international artists in Sydney now show, this is part of a discussion that is happening internationally.
 But meanwhile, artists and observers are waiting to find out more, and to decide how to act on that.

This is a historic moment in which the relationship between art and funding sponsorship is being openly challenged and debated in the context of the art world and the Sydney Biennale. Whatever happens now will be watched with great interest by the international, and local, art world and will be part of an important newly significant art world conversation.

Ruth Skilbeck  9.3.2014






Text and Photograph: Copyright Ruth Skilbeck

Saturday, 8 March 2014

Australia Needs Effective Arts and Culture Ministers to Represent Australian Artists and Art

By Ruth Skilbeck

One thing which has emerged from the heated and passionate dialogue on social media and amongst Biennale artists about the sponsorship of the 19th Biennale of Sydney (2014), was the absence of political debate on this issue, and the absolute lack of a political voice in power. The Greens Party spoke out in support of artists, but there was no arts and culture minister debating the wider and local issues in detail. 

This is an extraordinary gap in Australian diplomacy and international relations. Arts and Culture is the field on which internationally the most significant representations of a country are made, and forged.
Yet in Australia, Culture is still politically equated with sport, and by sport is meant the kicking of balls, or hitting them with an implement, not the sport of rhetoric, which politicians have taken as their own, and chosen not to have a significant representation of arts culture.

What we need in Australia is good Arts and Culture ministers, who can provide leadership. Where are they?

The events surrounding and leading to the severing of ties between the Biennale of Sydney and now ex-sponsor Transfield due to controversial political allegiances and contracts to run detention camps which are in breach of human rights shocked and outraged visiting Biennale artists who withdrew in protest.

When international governments started to question the links between the Biennale and the detention camps profit connections to its controversial sponsor, the Biennale rapidly severed the ties with the sponsor, yesterday (as reported on this blog).


This shows that art and politics are inextricably linked, artists need political representation at high levels in Australia, beyond the arts administration which is not in this arena. 


For example, we urgently need sponsorship for the arts which is not connected to dubious business ties and political allegiance.

 It may seem like a contradiction to then call for political representation of artists but I believe that we do need strong leadership to connect Australian art to the wider world, and to champion the rights and needs of artists eg to cheap housing, transport, and to give artists liveable incomes. This has happened in Berlin, it can happen here.

Strong representation of art and artists, by those who are artists themselves, in politics, and a far more serious committment to the arts and culture in Australia, can only help to further the presence of art from Australian artists on the international stage, and strengthen cultural ties between arts bodies and artists in Australia and internationally.

Such a representation could forewarn, for instance, of the kinds of sponsorship that is likely to be considered controversial and unacceptable internationally and nationally by those who have a moral conscience, and act on it, which would save the kind of international embarrassment which this Biennale debacle has caused for the Australian government, and the Biennale itself.

Above all, the Australian government should not be pursuing policies of mandatory detention and cruelty which have made this such a controversial issue, which artists have had the courage and ethical sense to resist.


Ruth Skilbeck, 8.3.2014