The Biennale Boycott

This article was originally published on The Monthly blog on 11 June 2014

Far from the squalid conditions on Manus Island and the death of Reza Berati, Sydney threw open its galleries in March for the nineteenth installment of its Biennale, which closed on 9 June. Front and centre was the question of dirty money, after several artists staged a boycott against key sponsor Transfield due to the company’s involvement in running detention centres in the Pacific.

As the government unfurled its secretive Operation Sovereign Borders I’d felt impotent and ineffectual. I’d begun to avoid the news until someone told me it was safe to look. And then in February I began hearing about the artists’ boycott.

I was a bystander, someone who was simply waiting for larger events to turn the tide of public opinion. But I didn’t realise how complicit me and my money were. My superannuation is littered across six different funds and I have no idea what companies it might be invested in. My savings are with a Big Four bank.

Through research and a series of letters, the boycotting artists forensically exposed the financial ties that bind together unwitting individuals, like me, and the victims of corporate and government policy.

It’s perhaps fitting that the Biennale’s hub is Cockatoo Island. For the past three months, its brutal history as a convict outpost in the middle of Sydney Harbour has been buried beneath artworks erected on its wharves and in its heritage-listed buildings.

Edgy events like the Biennale are a magnet for savvy businesses who want to be associated with the glamour that radiates from the art world. ‘They get to bring their clients to swanky events, they get to have their logo plastered all over Sydney for three months,’ Gabrielle de Vietri, a boycotting artist, explains. ‘They’re getting a lot of kudos out of what they’re doing.’  This form of ‘culture washing’ gives otherwise controversial corporations a bump to their reputation and their balance sheets. It makes sense that the artists who have contributed to the art world’s cultural capital are now trying to reclaim it.

The Abbott government is none too pleased with the activist artists. It sees boycotters, like unionists, as potential threats to its preferred image of Australia being ‘open for business’. A ban on environmental boycotts is on the cards and George Brandis appears willing to do something similar in his arts portfolio.

Meanwhile, de Vietri says arts workers and artists have quietly withdrawn from events at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art, which is also supported by Transfield, while the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art in Melbourne has explicitly distanced itself from Transfield and is reviewing its own sponsors’ business dealings. De Vietri and fellow boycotting artist Nathan Gray, for their part, are going through all artist prizes and sponsorship arrangements with a fine-tooth comb.

They hoped to set an example for others, and perhaps they have. Since the boycott, members of industry super funds HESTA and UniSuper have lobbied for an end to investments in companies linked to mandatory detention. The NAB bank is now in the sights of activists because of its relationship with Transfield. The success of consumer boycotts against ANZ’s support for Tasmanian pulp mills means it’s not implausible that the NAB might capitulate.

While the boycott of the Biennale has not changed the mind of the majority – recent polling shows overwhelming approval for boat tow-backs – it’s at least given hope to the minority who are disgusted and, until recently, were in despair.

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