Friday, 14 March 2014

Postcard from Perth 16

WA Reflections on Theatre, Culture and the Arts

Postcard from Albany/Beyond the Biennale/An Artists' Manifesto

I’m writing this from scenic Albany, about 400k’s south-east of Perth, or just around the corner on the rugged coast of the Southern Ocean, in the region known as The Great Southern. Tim Winton grew up here, and it’s the setting (code-named ‘Angelus’) for a good deal of his early fiction. More recently Kim Scott’s dazzling historical stream-of-consciousness novel That Dead Man Dance imaginatively reconstructs the early years of Aboriginal-European contact here: a unique and short-lived cohabitation and collaboration in the context of the whaling industry on the shores of King George Sound. For twenty thousand years before that, the Kalgan River was a meeting place for local tribes.

Today’s headline on the front page of the Albany Advertiser proudly announces: ‘Plan for City as FIFO Base’; and the story beneath it outlines a plan ‘created by a businessman and former resident’ to relocate one thousand fly-in-fly-out workers currently commuting between Perth and remote inland mine sites. Apparently it’s being enthusiastically embraced by local businesses, but depending on who you talk to it’s either a shot in the arm for the local community or a social and environmental disaster.

The photo above it is headed ‘Anzac Structure Looks Bigger than Ben Hur’ and shows a bird’s-eye view of the National Anzac Centre currently being constructed on Mt Adelaide nearby. Work on the site is apparently behind schedule, and the photo was allegedly taken by a Go-Pro attached to a drone. According to the report on page 3, ‘a flood of politicians’ visited the site on Tuesday to unveil the logo; a photo shows a group of men in suits with gold ties admiring a sign on an A-frame featuring a nine-pointed star (representing the States and Territories plus New Zealand), with some scaffolding just out of shot in the background. Another article on page 2 reports on angry tweets by local journalists who were also invited on Tuesday and then denied a tour of the site. I’m not surprised, judging by the drone photos, which show little evidence of building work apart from an impressive cage of scaffolding. The Centre is due for completion in August (just in time for the start of the First World War), but I reckon they’ll be pushing it to open by 1 November, when the first convoy of Anzacs departed from King George Sound below (‘a defining moment in this nation’s history’ according to the visiting Federal Minister for Veterans’ Affairs).


I first visited Albany about ten years ago with a group of actors researching a verbatim theatre piece about asylum seekers in WA. It was during the Howard era, and a community of Afghanis on Temporary Protection Visas (which denied them permanent residency or the possibility of applying for family reunions) were living in Albany, working at the abattoir and playing for the local soccer team. Our contact was a local member of Rural Australians for Refugees who arranged a few interviews for us with the Afghanis and their supporters in the local community. We also visited the abattoir and interviewed the manager, who wanted them to be granted permanent residency because he needed the workforce and was sympathetic to their plight. Finally we interviewed a couple of members of the local council who’d been involved in an internecine battle with reactionary fellow councillors over a motion in support of the Afghanis being allowed to stay.

How times change.

Now the Abbott Government is reintroducing the cruel regime of TPV’s (charmingly re-titled ‘Temporary Humanitarian Concern Visas’) for asylum seekers already in Australia – together with (following a craven volte-face from Kevin Rudd before the election) an even more cruel regime of indeterminate offshore detention on Nauru and Manus Island (both of which suffer from human rights abuses, democracy deficits and chronic poverty) without hope of ever being resettled in Australia for those who arrive by boat from now on. These are reinforced by a similarly cruel regime – carried out in the form of a military operation and cloaked in the official secrecy claimed for a matter of 'national security' – of intercepting and boarding boats, physically intimidating and punishing their traumatized passengers, putting them on lifeboats and towing them back to Indonesia, without regard for their well-being or the sovereignty of Indonesian waters. All in the name of ensuring that no more ‘unauthorized’ boats ‘threaten’ our own sovereignty; no more ‘queue jumpers’ or ‘economic refugees’ are rewarded for getting here ahead of ‘genuine refugees’ whom ‘we choose’ to resettle from UN camps; the ‘business model’ of ‘people smugglers’ is ‘broken’; and no more asylum seekers drown en route.

Fear not, dear reader. I’m not going to rehearse the arguments and counter-arguments here. Suffice to say that my father arrived in Australia by boat as a Jewish refugee in 1939. Apparently on first sighting Fremantle docks he asked the captain to turn the boat around and take him back to Nazi-dominated Europe. Instead they continued on to Melbourne, where he was labelled an ‘enemy alien’. He found work (and avoided detention) by pretending to be Swiss. Smart guy.

For my part, I’ve never understood why anyone who wants to can’t apply for permanent protection or residency anywhere, regardless of where they come from or how they got here. I think it’s called ‘freedom of movement’ and crops up somewhere in a document called the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that was ratified by something called the United Nations in 1948 under the leadership of someone called Doc Evatt, a former Australian Attorney-General. In fact I think there’s also something in the same document about ‘the right to seek asylum from persecution’, together with ‘not being subject to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile’ or to ‘torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment’. Perhaps the current Attorney-General can enlighten me.

As for the alleged ‘moral dilemma’ involved in letting asylum-seekers in ahead of refugees from UN camps or preventing them from drowning on leaky boats: punishing them in order to deter others seems both morally contradictory and practically ineffective, at least if the evidence of previously failed efforts to criminalise the innocent (like the prohibition of alcohol or the war on drugs) is anything to go by (not to mention the fact that these innocents are fleeing for their lives). On the other hand I’ve never understood why this ‘dilemma’ couldn’t be more simply and effectively addressed by (a) uncoupling the numbers of ‘unauthorized’ asylum seekers from our ‘authorized’ intake of refugees, and (b) establishing a regional agreement with neighbouring countries whereby anyone seeking asylum who arrives there (typically in Malaysia or Indonesia) can be quickly and humanely processed and safely brought here – to the largest country in the region, with the smallest population and the highest per capita income – where, with a little temporary assistance in terms of language, housing and healthcare, they can join and contribute to our economy (much like my father did, and thousands like him).

But perhaps I’m being naïve. In fact didn’t some ‘expert panel’ appointed by the previous government come up with something similar that was selectively cherry-picked by the same government and then sanctimoniously torpedoed by the Coalition and the Greens because it might involve ‘human rights abuses’?



Back here in Albany, I’ve been following with interest the current controversy over the sponsorship of the Sydney Biennale by Transfield Holdings. In case you haven’t been following this: Transfield Holdings has a 12% share in Transfield Services, who have been awarded the contract to manage detention centres on Nauru and Manus Island (where one asylum seeker was recently beaten to death and scores of others injured and intimidated by locals under the supervision of security staff). The holding company retains a seat on the board of its subsidiary; the founder of Transfield was also a founding patron of the Biennale.

A group of 51 artists wrote a letter to the Biennale Board calling on it to sever its ties with Transfield. After the directors of both the Biennale itself and the Museum of Contemporary Art (its principal host venue) defended the sponsorship, ten artists withdrew their work from the Biennale in protest. Criticism ensued from various media commentators. The Board then suddenly announced that it had ‘listened to its artists’ and was ending its partnership with Transfield. This followed the resignation of the board chair, Luca Belgiorno-Nettis, who is also the director of Transfield Holdings, a former director of Transfield Services, and a member of the founding family of both Transfield and the Biennale.

Victory for the artists, you might think, against a tangled web of corporate and government complicity in an inhuman refugee policy (let’s not mince words). But no, chorused the commentators (in a hysterical orgy of word-mincing) along with various leading arts managers – whose organizations also turned out to have sponsorship deals with Transfield (including the Australian Chamber Orchestra and the Art Gallery of New South Wales) – followed galumphing by the Minister for Communications Malcolm Turnbull and the Attorney-General George Brandis. Who would have thought a bunch of protesting artists could reap such a whirlwind?

Some of the responses were indeed ludicrous, especially given the space they received. The relationship between Transfield Holdings, Transfield Services and the Biennale was ‘tangential’ and the artists’ victory ‘superficial’, according to ‘a Law and Journalism student’ – whose ‘friends argue a lot about art and current affairs’, and who was given a full-length opinion piece on the topic (for which he gets a spectacular fail from me in both subjects). According to several commentators, the Biennale had been ‘forced’ to separate itself from Transfield and Belgiorno-Nettis ‘forced’ to resign (when in fact he could have chosen to divest himself of shares in Transfield Services instead of putting profits ahead of ‘philanthropy’). In his own words, he’d been ‘vilified with insults’ that were both ‘naïve and offensive’ (although he himself stated in his resignation that ‘last year’s popular election vindicates this detention policy’, and went on to claim in a radio interview that Transfield Services had done ‘nothing wrong’ – which some would say were also pretty naïve and offensive things to say). However, according to Turnbull, Belgiorno-Nettis was ‘a sort of latter-day Medici’ and the ‘vicious ingratitude’ of the artists had ‘driven a stake’ through the Biennale that ‘could spell the end for the event’  (despite the fact that Transfield sponsorship amounted to 6% of Biennale income).

When it came to the artists themselves, things got more revealing. According to one commentator, artists in general were ‘a herd of cats’, and ‘arts activism from Guernica to Pussy Riot’ was ‘sans strategy’, ‘chaotic’ and had ‘a lack of agenda’. The effectiveness of boycotts in general was scorned (even by so-called left-wing commentators) in flagrant denial of the evidence (South Africa anyone?). ‘No one ever changed the world by writing a letter or signing a petition’, one of them proclaimed (I’m sure Amnesty International would be interested to learn that, not to mention Martin Luther). According to another, these artists in particular were ‘bleeding hearts’, whose ‘well-intentioned anger...appeared to have been more destructive than anything’. (All this despite the fact that they had articulated a lucid strategy of divestment and achieved exactly what they set out to.) However, the artists themselves were ‘the only losers’, who had only succeeded in ‘raising the risk premium’ on ‘private philanthropy’ (which in this case was precisely the point, but in all other respects was a hysterical exaggeration, and in any case failed to comprehend that – unimaginably it seemed – the artists were acting according to principles beyond self-interest). Conversely, according to yet another commentator, ‘it didn’t really cost them anything’, and they ‘probably gained some self-satisfaction’ or were even in it for ‘international publicity’ in ‘a shrewd career move’ (this last is beneath comment, even from me). On the other hand, the artists were accused of being ‘morally inconsistent’ or even ‘hypocrites’ who now faced a ‘dilemma’ (that word again!) in returning to the Biennale or accepting government funding in future (this from various ill-informed commentators, who evidently failed to grasp the difference between public money collected by the tax department and distributed by funding bodies that have nothing to do with the current government's detention-centre policy, and corporate profits derived from the management of those very detention centres). Moreover, the cost of their actions would now be somehow ‘born by taxpayers’ (a common complaint against artists, which conveniently ignores the fact that they’re taxpayers themselves). Artists in general should ‘stick to expressing themselves through their art’, according to the general manager of another arts organization sponsored by Transfield (who would be wise to follow his own advice and refrain from telling his employees what to do as private or public citizens). Meanwhile, arts managers that ‘negotiate with those who don’t agree with their sponsorship choices’ (i.e. artists) were compared to governments that ‘negotiate with terrorists’.

Finally, in a genuine act of terrorism, the Attorney-General wrote to the Australia Council describing the outcome as ‘shameful’, ‘an appalling insult’ to ‘an exemplary corporate citizen’, and ‘the effective blackballing of a benefactor merely because of its commercial arrangements’. The letter directed the Council to ‘develop a policy’ that ‘deals with’ organizations who refuse or terminate corporate sponsorship (presumably by depriving them of funding): a spectacular flouting of ministerial propriety and failure to grasp the elementary principles of arm’s-length funding, for which this Attorney-General should immediately resign.

A hysterical orgy of word-mincing, mud-flinging and sabre-rattling, then, which reveals two things: (a) far from being ineffectual or inappropriate, the Biennale artists’ actions hit home, and hit a deep nerve; and (b) the reaction by all and sundry reveals the patronising contempt for artists (in this, not unlike asylum-seekers) held by those in power, from government ministers and corporate executives to arts organisation boards, directors, administrators, arts journalists, media hacks, and even some fellow artists – a contempt which leads to outrage when the worm turns.


The solidarity between artists and asylum seekers should come as no surprise. It’s the solidarity of minorities, groups, collectives or communities that are systematically deprived of power. I’ve been thinking about this since my time at APAM, and touched on it in my Postcards from Brisbane. There’s simply no doubt of it now in my mind, when I think about the social status, average income, employment prospects and, above all, lack of voice in decisions regarding their own affairs that artists have in our society. I mean Australian society specifically, for I don’t believe that a controversy of this kind would even be a controversy in Europe, where artists are at least treated with a modicum of professional respect. In American society, I suspect, artists are similarly despised and even mistrusted – unless of course they also happen to be celebrity entertainers. Elsewhere around the world, of course, they are persecuted – and in some cases, even flee to places like Australia seeking asylum.

The specific issue here (the response to Transfield’s sponsorship of the Biennale) has been repeatedly described as ‘complex’. In reality, as with all such so-called ‘wicked problems’, the problematic nexus between arts companies, corporate sponsorship, business and government is indeed ‘complex’, but the issue itself is simple. The detention policy is an abomination, those who implement and profit from it indeed ‘have blood on their hands’ (if that phrase means anything at all); those who accept sponsorship from them are compromised (as is inevitably the case to some degree with all forms of sponsorship); and artists and audiences have a right to conscientiously object to this form of ‘collaboration’ (I’m deliberately using the word here to evoke a different form of ‘power-sharing’ from the artistic kind). Indeed they have the right to abstain from and protest against any form of sponsorship or policy they feel compromises their freedom or values, as the Biennale artists have done.

More recently, an environmental protest group has threatened to stage a protest at GOMA this weekend against the gallery’s sponsorship by Santos (a mining company engaged in fracking for coal-seam gas who were recently fined for contaminating an aquifer in the Pillaga in northwest NSW with uranium). The protesters are targeting an installation by Cai Guo-Qiang (which I reviewed in an earlier Postcard from Brisbane) that ironically features an artificial pool of clear water, which they are proposing to temporarily ‘poison’ (presumably with a dye). The gallery has issued a statement supporting their right to protest peacefully as long as the safety of artworks and public are respected, but has called in the police to enforce this and refused to end its sponsorship agreement.

So far.


As artists and citizens, we live in testing times. In this country, and under this government, the situation is urgent with regard to human rights, social justice and environmental sustainability; war, conflict and largely man-made disasters loom large elsewhere around the world, and we’re all implicated as international citizens in an increasingly globalized world.

As the man said: what is to be done? On the issue of asylum seekers: everything possible until the current cruel and inhumane policy is overturned. On other fronts: responsible divestment from corporations that do harm is a not a bad starting point. Evil prevails when good people do nothing.

On the issue of giving and getting more power for artists: both top-down and grassroots action are required. In essence: those with power need to share it, and those who lack power need to seize it, wherever, whenever and however they can. In my view, this is the basic moral and practical principle to be applied in what is an essentially political question, in the arts and elsewhere.

To be more specific: I call for more artists to take and be given positions of power in existing arts organisations, including biennales, galleries, companies, venues, festivals, funding bodies, teaching and training institutions. I also call for more permanent salaried positions for artists as the core staff of arts companies. I stress the word ‘artists’, rather than arts managers and administrators (with no disrespect intended to the latter, who have their own essential skill-sets and provide their own essential services to the arts). In the context of the performing arts, I particularly include performers in the preceding recommendations, as key artists in those art-forms. In general, I recommend part-time and shared positions, to give more artists a share in that power, and allow them to continue to work as artists, rather than simply being absorbed into the ranks of management and replicating the status quo.

Beyond this: I call on more artists to seize the initiative politically and professionally, act on their own behalf, and set up and run their own organisations. The same goes for other marginalized groups: from workers and the unemployed, to young people, the elderly and disabled, women, members of sexual or cultural minorities, regional and remote communities, Aboriginal people and even – why not – asylum seekers and refugees.

That’s it. My Albany Manifesto.

More reviews on Perth arts and theatre next week.

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