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

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