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The Sydney Biennale Case: Open Letters

February 19, 2014

For more background around the boycott of the biennale please see: Should artists boycott the Sydney Biennale over Transfield links?


19 February 2014

To the Board of Directors of the Biennale of Sydney,

We are a group of artists ­— Gabrielle de Vietri, Bianca Hester, Charlie Sofo, Nathan Gray, Deborah Kelly, Matt Hinkley, Benjamin Armstrong, Libia Castro, Ólafur Ólafsson, Sasha Huber, Sonia Leber, David Chesworth, Daniel McKewen, Angelica Mesiti, Ahmet Öğüt, Meriç Algün Ringborg, Joseph Griffiths, Sol Archer, Tamas Kaszas, Krisztina Erdei, Nathan Coley, Corin Sworn, Ross Manning, Martin Boyce, Callum Morton, Emily Roysdon, Søren Thilo Funder, Mikhail Karikis ­— all participants in the 19th Biennale of Sydney.

We are writing to you about our concerns with the Biennale’s sponsorship arrangement with Transfield.1

We would like to begin with an affirmation and recognition of the Biennale staff, other sponsors and donors, and our fellow artists. We maintain the utmost respect for Juliana Engberg’s artistic vision and acknowledge the support and energy that the Biennale staff have put into the creation of our projects and this exhibition. We acknowledge that this issue places the Biennale team in a difficult situation.

However, we want to emphasise that this issue has presented us with an opportunity to become aware of, and to acknowledge, responsibility for our own participation in a chain of connections that links to human suffering; in this case, that is caused by Australia’s policy of mandatory detention.

We trust that you understand the implications of Transfield’s recent move to secure new contracts to take over garrison and welfare services in Australia’s offshore immigration detention centres on Manus Island and in Nauru. We have attached for your information, a document that outlines our understanding of the links between the Biennale, Transfield and Australia’s asylum seeker policy.

We appeal to you to work alongside us to send a message to Transfield, and in turn the Australian Government and the public: that we will not accept the mandatory detention of asylum seekers, because it is ethically indefensible and in breach of human rights; and that, as a network of artists, arts workers and a leading cultural organisation, we do not want to be associated with these practices.

Our current circumstances are complex: public institutions are increasingly reliant on private finance, and less on public funding, and this can create ongoing difficulties. We are aware of these complexities and do not believe that there is one easy answer to the larger situation.

However, in this particular case, we regard our role in the Biennale, under the current sponsorship arrangements, as adding value to the Transfield brand. Participation is an active endorsement, providing cultural capital for Transfield.

In light of all this, we ask the Board: what will you do? We urge you to act in the interests of asylum seekers. As part of this we request the Biennale withdraw from the current sponsorship arrangements with Transfield and seek to develop new ones. This will set an important precedent for Australian and international arts institutions, compelling them to exercise a greater degree of ethical awareness and transparency regarding their funding sources. We are asking you, respectfully, to respond with urgency.

Our interests as artists don’t merely concern our individual moral positions. We are concerned too with the ways cultural institutions deal with urgent social responsibilities. We expect the Biennale to acknowledge the voice of its audience and the artist community that is calling on the institution to act powerfully and immediately for justice by cutting its ties with Transfield.

We believe that artists and art­workers can — and should — create an environment that empowers individuals and groups to act on conscience, opening up other pathways to develop more sustainable, and in turn sustaining, forms of cultural production.

We want to extend this discussion to a range of people and organisations, in order to bring to light the various forces shaping our current situation, and to work towards imagining other possibilities into being. In our current political circumstances we believe this to be one of the most crucial challenges that we are compelled to engage with, and we invite you into this process of engagement.

We look forward to hearing your response and given the urgency of this issue, hope that we can receive it by the end of this week.

Thank you for your consideration.


Gabrielle de Vietri, Bianca Hester, Charlie Sofo, Nathan Gray, Deborah Kelly, Matt Hinkley, Benjamin Armstrong, Libia Castro, Ólafur Ólafsson, Sasha Huber, Sonia Leber, David Chesworth, Daniel McKewen, Angelica Mesiti, Ahmet Öğüt, Meriç Algün Ringborg, Joseph Griffiths, Sol Archer, Tamas Kaszas, Krisztina Erdei, Nathan Coley, Corin Sworn, Ross Manning, Martin Boyce, Callum Morton, Emily Roysdon, Søren Thilo Funder, Mikhail Karikis, Sara van der Heide, Henna-Riikka Halonen, Ane Hjort Guttu, Hadley+Maxwell, Shannon Te Ao, Yael Bartana

NOTES 1. Please note that in this document we use the name Transfield to refer to three branches of the Transfield brand: Transfield Holdings, Services and Foundation.



The Sydney Biennale has issued the following statement in response to the open letter from concerned artists:

Firstly, let us say that we truly empathise with the artists in this situation.

Like them, we are inadvertently caught somewhere between ideology and principle. Both parties are ‘collateral damage’ in a complex argument. Neither wants to see human suffering.

Artists must make a decision according to their own understanding and beliefs. We respect their right to do so.

While being mindful of these valid concerns, it is this Board’s duty to act in the interests of the Biennale and all its stakeholders – our audiences, government partners, staff, benefactors and sponsors, along with all Biennale artists and the broader arts sector.

On the one hand, there are assertions and allegations that are open to debate. On the other, we have a long-term history of selfless philanthropy, which has been the foundation of an event that has served the arts and wider community for the past 40 years.

The Biennale’s ability to effectively contribute to the cessation of bi-partisan government policy is far from black and white. The only certainty is that without our Founding Partner, the Biennale will no longer exist.

Consequently, we unanimously believe that our loyalty to the Belgiorno-Nettis family – and the hundreds of thousands of people who benefit from the Biennale – must override claims over which there is ambiguity.

While we unequivocally state our support and gratitude for our sponsor’s continued patronage, we also extend an invitation to the Working Group to engage with us in dialogue with the purpose of finding an acceptable accommodation.

The Biennale has long been a platform for artists to air their sometimes challenging but important views unfettered and we would like to explore this avenue of expression, rather than see the demise of an important community asset.



An open letter to Biennale of Sydney artists from the refugee community

Monday 17th February 2014

Dear Artists,

RISE: Refugees, Survivors and Ex-Detainees, is the first organisation in Australia to be governed entirely by refugees and asylum seekers.  RISE consists of over 30 different refugee communities in Australia and exists to enable refugees and asylum seekers to build new lives by providing advice, engaging in community development, enhancing opportunities, and campaigning for refugee rights.

RISE supports a complete boycott of the 19th Sydney Biennale as Transfield, a major sponsor and partner of this event, receives income from the operation of Australia’s deadly offshore internment camps for refugees and asylum seekers.

In 2012, Australian Artist Van Thanh Rudd first called for a boycott of the 18th Sydney Biennale when Transfield Services won a $24.5 million Australian government contract to provide facilities in the Nauru asylum seeker detention camp.

Transfield’s income from these operations (as of February 2014) is over 300 million dollars, and they have now won yet another contract to run “welfare services” on both Nauru and Manus Island.  At the same time, there are shocking reports of mistreatment and abuse in these camps including eye-witness accounts from medical staff, welfare officers and other former detention staff.

In addition to organisations such as Amnesty and the United Nations High Commission for Refugees cataloguing these abuses, Pakistani news outlet Dawn recently reported the story of a Hazara asylum seeker whose two siblings died in 2013 on Nauru. The family had fled from Quetta, Pakistan, after their father was shot dead in the local market.  The asylum seeker described appalling conditions in the Nauru camp, including being held in overcrowded tents with little privacy and security.  The asylum seeker’s brother was stabbed to death and his sister died in his arms from pneumonia due to inadequate treatment.  In short, Australia and Transfield have the blood of refugees on their hands.

In 2011, RISE made submission to an Australian parliamentary enquiry predicting that unchecked expansion of Australia’s privatised detention network would lead to a US-style private prison industrial complex where immigration policy would be shaped by corporations who profit from misery.  Our predictions have unfortunately come true: a report released in 2013 by the US based Sentencing Project, stated that Australia has the largest private prison population in the world thanks to its asylum seeker policy.

Participation in the Sydney Biennale sponsored by Transfield makes artists partners in a system that silences the voices of refugees and asylum seekers and profits from their misery.

If you believe that refugees are entitled to the right to protection of life, freedom, dignity and respect, we ask that you take a stand and not participate or support this event or any other event that benefits from the dirty profits of Australia’s racist, anti-refugee industry.

You can sign the Petition to the Board of Directors of the Sidney Biennale to cut ties with Transfield here.


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