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Sydney Biennale Boycott Grows

by Jillian Steinhauer on March 6, 2014

The MCA Australia is one of the venues for the Biennale of Sydney, and its zine fair is now a target of protesters as well. (photo by Eva Rinaldi, via Flickr)

The MCA Australia is one of the venues for the Biennale of Sydney, and its zine fair is now a target of protesters as well. (photo by Eva Rinaldi, via Flickr)

Four more artists have joined the boycott of the Biennale of Sydney, and the protest of arts organizations connected to Transfield, a company that manages mandatory offshore detention centers for asylum seekers in Australia, is growing.

After an open letter published in February, five artists officially withdrew from the Biennale last week. Yesterday, four more artists joined the cause, announcing their boycott in a letter posted on the #19BoS Working Group blog. The artists, Agnieszka Polska, Sara van der Heide, Nicoline van Harskamp, and Nathan Gray, write:

Our motivations reflect those outlined in the statement issued by artists Ögüt, Castro, Ólafsson, Sofo and de Vietri on February 26th, added as a reference with this letter. They close their statement by expressing their hope that others will join them in “solidarity with all those who are working towards a better future for asylum seekers.” Our withdrawal is such an act of solidarity.

The artists request, as the original boycotters did as well, that their withdrawal from the exhibition be noted both on the website and physically, where their artworks would have been displayed. The Biennale opens March 21.

Also yesterday, Transfield released a statement “addressing inaccuracies in print and social media” — an attempt to clarify the relationship between Transfield Holdings, the private company that has been sponsoring the Biennale for 41 years, and Transfield Services, the public company that manages the detention centers. The statement explains:

In 2001, Transfield Holdings floated its operations and maintenance division, Transfield Services, on the Australian stock exchange for $1.65 per share*. In 2003, Transfield Holdings sold its construction business to John Holland, which is now a part of the Leighton Group. Today, Transfield Services has 27,000 shareholders, with Transfield Holdings having a stake of approximately 12%. Transfield Holdings is no longer the largest shareholder in Transfield Services and Luca and Guido Belgiorno-Nettis ceased their directorship of Transfield Services in 2012.Transfield Holdings does not have a representative on the Transfield Services board and has no influence on the business activities or decesions of the public company.

But an opinion piece on ArtsHub, a UK- and Australia-based site that’s been covering the Biennale boycott story extensively, notes that “both Transfield Holdings and Transfield Services channel their philanthropic contributions through the Transfield Foundation.” It also points to a radio interview conducted with Luca Belgiorno-Nettis, chairman of both Transfield Holdings and Biennale Chairman, about the controversy, in which he says, “Apart from the fact we’re not necessarily wanting to disassociate with them, because they’re doing nothing wrong anyway, in our view, but we’re taking all of this flak, I think, unwarranted.”

Organizations such as Human Rights Watch have condemned Australia’s mandatory detention policy, and recent riots at two of the centers resulted in one death and dozens of injuries.

The boycott, meanwhile, has spread beyond just the artists in the Biennale. Two installers working on the exhibition walked off the job and wrote open letters explaining their decisions. Another group of four artists has called for a boycott of the annual zine fair at the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, because of the institution’s relationship with Transfield (the institution is also one of the venues for the Biennale). On Facebook, they outline their reasons in language the borrows heavily from the original Biennale boycott letters:

The MCA is sponsored by Transfield, a corporation that operates service contracts in the detention centres on Manus Island and Nauru. Transfield derives brand value through its association with the arts, and it derives considerable profit from the extra-judicial incarceration of asylum seekers. By participating in events that are sponsored by Transfield we add value to their brand. We, a small group of zine makers from Sydney, inspired by the current campaign to boycott the Sydney Biennale over its relationship with Transfield, have decided to boycott the MCA zine fair in 2014. We do not want our zines to add value to a corporation that profits from the Australian government’s indefensible treatment of asylum seekers.

The four artists — Dice Boey, Emma Davidson, Tim Ungaro, and Meg Clune — have organized an alternative zine fair for the same day as the MCA event, May 25.

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