This February, the Istanbul-based artist Ahmet Ögüt took part in a conditional withdrawal from the Biennale of Sydney due to its connections to Transfield Holdings—a corporation linked to the management of two immigrant detention centers on the small, distant territories of Nauru and Manus Island. Australia has one of the world’s most stringent asylum policies: anyone seeking to reside in the country must have a valid visa on arrival or risk imprisonment for an indeterminate period of time. Amnesty International has described the conditions of Australia’s detention centers as overcrowded and lacking in mental health resources. On February 27, a riot broke out on Manus Island, claiming the life of an Iranian asylum seeker, Reza Berati, and seriously injuring several others. The tragedy triggered an onslaught of foreign press, bringing to light the repressive conditions thousands have faced and will continue to endure for the foreseeable future if Australia upholds its current mandatory detention policy.
For this month’s editorial letter, I spoke with Ögüt about the political demands he and other biennale artists made, which led the biennale to sever ties with Transfield. Ögüt subsequently rejoined the biennale, which opened on March 21.
Marisa Mazria Katz: Before opting to conditionally withdraw from the 19th Biennale of Sydney (BoS), what steps did you take to express to the organizers of the event your concerns about Transfield’s sponsorship?
Ahmet Ögüt: The links between Transfield and mandatory detention were first brought to our attention through an article published in February on the Australian border politics–focused website Crossborder Operational Matters. Afterward, several artists participating in the biennale were targeted via emails from the public calling on them to boycott the event. On February 9, the BoS’s marketing and sponsorship department sent a quickly prepared Q&A with a few false and misleading lines to all participating artists downplaying and obscuring links between the biennale, Transfield and Australia’s mandatory detention policy. In response, local and international participating artists started corresponding to decide what next steps should be taken. This discussion led a group of BoS artists to issue an open letter on February 19 calling for the biennale’s board to “act in the interests of asylum seekers” and therefore to “withdraw from the current sponsorship arrangements with Transfield.”
The letter was initially signed by 21 of the 94 participating artists—with another 25 subsequently adding their names. Within days, more than 1,000 people signed a public petition supporting the artists’ demands. The board’s response was intransigent. “Without Transfield,” it explained, “the Biennale of Sydney would cease to exist.” Furthermore, the board stated, “Artists must make a decision according to their own understanding and beliefs.” This sentence, in particular, turned the matter into an individual one, effectively sidestepping the issue of collective responsibility.
MMK: Your collective action not only received a substantial amount of media attention but was also addressed in the Australian Federal Parliament. Were you at all surprised by the waves the action created?
AO: We managed to engage a substantial group of artists to take part in the withdrawal in a short amount of time. The participants, who included equal numbers of international and Australian artists, were able to communicate quickly. The balance between the two groups meant that we were able to analyze what was happening internationally while also being sensitive to how it was being received within Australia. International media attention was important as a counterbalance to mainstream Australian media, which does not typically present progressive positions on asylum seekers. Meanwhile, we directly addressed the government with our statements from the very beginning.
I was sure our action would start a chain reaction but didn’t expect it to happen as quickly as it did. On March 4, the issue was raised in the Australian Federal Parliament, with Senator Lee Rhiannon (of the Greens, an environmentally focused party) moving forward a motion in support of the artists. It was subsequently defeated by the major parties, but it was clear that the campaign made the government anxious. The heavy-handed response by the minister for the arts, George Brandis, who wrote a letter to the Australian Council for the Arts indicating that he would seek to punish any arts organizations that rejected corporate funding on the basis of ethics, ignited a big discussion. One of the most clearly articulated responses came from Roger Benjamin, a professor of art history at the University of Sydney, who wrote an article titled “We Should Value the Biennale Protest, Not Threaten Arts Funding.”
MMK: Luca Belgiorno-Nettis, executive director of Transfield Holdings, resigned from his position as biennale chairman on March 7. How did you react to this news?
AO: If we were not persistent in our demands, the biennale chairman would likely continue to think he could maintain both credibility in the art world and profits from an ethically indefensible policy. After we went one step further and nine of us decided to withdraw, the pressure had been effectively exerted. (Transfield Services shares dropped 9 percent during the campaign.) It was now time for Belgiorno-Nettis to make a decision: either stay at the helm of the biennale, protecting a long family tradition (his father founded the biennale in 1973), or retain 12 percent of the $1.2 billion contracts associated with the mandatory detention of asylum seekers. I was not surprised by his decision, but it came more swiftly than I imagined.
The chairman’s resignation helped pave the way for a more peaceful opening week, but it seemed clear that his choice was not made in favor of arts and culture but rather motivated by maintaining profits connected to mandatory detention. Right after his resignation, seven of us decided to participate in the biennale after all, since the demands we made in the withdrawal letter were fulfilled. I acknowledge that this process was not easy for the biennale team. Therefore I have donated my artist’s fee to the biennale as a sign of appreciation for the art workers’ labor.
I am aware that Transfield money was already being used to fund this year’s biennale, despite the declaration from the board that ties had been severed with the founding partner “effective immediately.” I made sure my participation and the production fees associated with my work were covered by other international funding agencies. I also negotiated a new venue for my work (Sydney’s Cockatoo Island). An earlier curatorial decision had placed it at the biennale’s other exhibition space, the Art Gallery of New South Wales, which is presided over by Belgiorno-Nettis’s brother Guido, who is a joint managing director of Transfield Holdings.
MMK: How do you think artists can have the most impact? Is it by reflecting on a political situation (such as the detention centers) within their work or through nonparticipation (by withdrawing from an art event compromised by the political situation)?
AO: Since I make no distinctions between art and life, I don’t see a need to choose one of these two options. I rather see it as fusion of both. For me, the argument that “all money is dirty” should not be used as an excuse to deliberately compromise social responsibility. Simply providing space for criticism is an attempt to place all the responsibility on the shoulders of the artists. Institutions and curators should share this collective responsibility by being critical, in a creative way, of their own administrative structures and bureaucratic agendas. Artists have a right to act, when necessary, beyond the body of their works—if the institutions and their funders undermine their social values and basic human rights.
MMK: How do you think the success of the biennale protest might translate to Manifesta, which is currently under fire for holding its event in St. Petersburg?
AO: Manifesta has a different political debate than other biennials because it is not associated with a specific city. Manifesta can choose which European city it would like to be stationed in, and each time, whether it is in Cyprus or Slovenia or St. Petersburg, it evokes an entirely different experience. Despite concerns about the Russian government’s violent and repressive policies, and in the wake of the annexation of Crimea, Manifesta’s team has decided to keep the biennial in St. Petersburg. The roving event will need to come up with challenging diplomatic solutions while maintaining autonomy beyond the limits of Russian law. Freedom of expression should not just be conveyed in the exhibition but should also be visible in the public component of the event.
Our active refusal and resistance in Sydney had an immediate resonance around the world. Chto Delat? was closely following and supporting our case before announcing its withdrawal from Manifesta 10. The Russian collective’s withdrawal followed Manifesta chief curator Kasper König’s statement, in response to the most recent calls for a boycott, that his contract permits artistic freedom only within the limits of Russian law. Our decision to withdraw from the Biennale of Sydney came on the heels of its board’s similarly unsatisfactory response. I am curious to see if other artists taking part in Manifesta 10 will respond as we did in Sydney, collectively.
MMK: Who gets to boycott? Can people other than the artists (such as the audience) interact with the boycott?
AO: The term “boycott” implies something different from what we presented, which was a series of demands. Boycott is a destructive act that cuts off the opportunity for dialogue. Making demands is a constructive act and allows space for antagonistic negotiations. That said, anyone aware of the concept of shared responsibility can take part in an action. In our case, the demand to sever ties with Transfield was taken up by just a few. The reactions to our demands were varied; some remained silent, some got offended, some stayed undecided, some got lost in the complexity, some felt insulted, some watched from a distance, some judged harshly and some took immediate action. In this case, the main actors were not only artists, curators and patrons but also the audience, art workers, critics, journalists, academics, activists, students, interns and volunteers. For instance, exhibition installers Diego Bonetto and Peter Nelson also walked off the job over the issue.
MMK: If the chairman of the biennale hadn’t stepped down, what would you have hoped the audience’s reaction to the biennale would have been?
AO: I believe more artists would have withdrawn and there would have been massive protests both inside and outside of the biennale. Certainly the number of visitors would have plummeted. From Sydney’s Town Hall to Melbourne’s Federation Square, thousands of Australians attended at least 600 vigils across the country on February 23, lighting candles and protesting mandatory detention in the wake of the death of 23-year-old Kurdish asylum seeker Reza Berati inside the Manus Island detention center. After protests like these, the biennale was likely to lose its international credibility as well as its audience’s trust.
MMK: Has this at all shifted dialogue within Australia around detention centers and the country’s immigration laws?
AO: We have shown what we can achieve as artists when we make political demands and act collectively. Now it is time to join forces with Australians to create new, constructive opportunities to further develop debates around the country’s immigration policies, continue to support the human rights of asylum seekers and carry out our call to end Australia’s policy of mandatory detention in light of the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and other international agreements.