Demon of Transfield: Sponsorship, the Arts, and Detention Centres

Transfield Services is a diversified corporation with fingers in many a pie. This month, it was announced that Australia’s Abbott government had awarded a $1.22 billion government contract to the company to run detention centres on Nauru and Manus Island. The ethicists moaned as the shareholders cheered: shares rose by 20.81 per cent on the announcement. For 20 months, the contract will cover “garrison and welfare services”, an interesting choice of words showing how well the fortress culture has been entrenched.

Transfield steps into the muddied shoes of the UK-listed G4S security firm, which did its best to botch up its operations in handling the detention complex on Manus. It has, apart from its record of chronic financial mismanagement, the death of an inmate, Reza Berati, and the injuries of up to 80 others, on its corporate conscience. As for the chief executive of Transfield, Graeme Hunt, the company’s experience in running detention facilities at a seemingly more placid Nauru will be deemed valuable. In Hunt’s words, “we know we can bring much of that knowledge and our practical approach to Manus Island for the benefits of all stakeholders.” The only ones with no stake to hold will be, naturally, the asylum seekers.

So far, so bad, but another previously unacknowledged angle came out this month. The company is also connected with sponsoring the arts in Australia. Prominent on the list is the Sydney Biennale, which will be commencing on March 21.

Interest in the links was sparked by a discussion from Sydney-based tertiary design educator Matthew Kiem. “After receiving marketing from the Biennale and a suggestion to take my students to the event I was faced with a clear choice: could I support an event funded by profits of mandatory detention, a policy slammed by the UNHCR as inhumane and non-compliant with international law? My answer: emphatically no.”

Artists Bianca Hester, Nathan Gray, Gabrielle de Vietri and Charlie Sofo then established a “Working Group” to encourage a divestment campaign that would encourage organisers to scratch Transfield while making the company change its tack on mandatory detention. Twenty-four other artists joined them in a letter to the Board of Directors dated February 19.

The language of the letter is hardly incendiary. These artists are not bomb throwers – they know they need sponsors, and don’t want to come across as too enthusiastic in biting the hand that feeds them. “We would like to begin with an affirmation and recognition of the Biennale staff, other sponsors and donors, and our fellow artists.” Juliana Engberg’s “artistic vision” is given a nod of middle class respect. “We acknowledge that this issue places the Biennale team in a difficult situation.”

The revelations of Transfield’s involvement presented the artists “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.”

Interestingly enough, the letter makes no mention of the biggest bugbear of them all, the Australian government, which has provided Biennale funding via the Australia Council. Artists proved obliviously silent at the last Sydney Biennale, when the then Labour government began to create the machinery of offshore processing with reactionary gusto. Evidently, you see it or you don’t.

Transfield finds itself at the forefront of a profitable industry. Processing human lives, categorising them into dry, static categories that deny, rather than affirm life, is big business. It is bureaucracy by privatised fiat. This is enlightening in its crudeness – asylum seekers make money for most of the parties, whether you are a privatised security firm keeping detainees away, or people smuggling rackets trying to get people in.

The art industry has become the giant leach of business, and it is hardly surprising that diverse, corporate practice should find itself hugging artists and pampering egos. The exhibits tell us more about their sponsors than they do about the work. The entire creative industry has become corporatized, and the Sydney Biennale is no exception. It is co-opted creativity, the handmaiden to a world of sponsorship, finance and backers. Traditional kings and courts have gone, but they have left the cold personality of Transfield to pad out the books.

Naturally, such matters of ethical disentangling are both childishly simple and fiendishly complicated. Complicity and collaboration can be both. The muddle is reflected in the origins of the Sydney Biennale, which began in 1973 with the support of none other than Transfield co-founder Franco Belgiorno-Nettis4. His son, Luca, is the chairman of the biennale board. The company also has its tentacles of sponsorship across the spectrum of arts in Australia, be it the Art Gallery of NSW, or the Australian Chamber Orchestra.

It should therefore come as little surprise that the Board has shown no interest in pursuing the course of divestment or finding another sponsor. In its response last Friday, members decided to side step the messiness of Manus and extol the sponsorship, soiled as it might be. The board members had been “inadvertently caught somewhere between ideology and principle.” “The only certainty is that without our founding partner, the biennale will no longer exist.” The response, in a manner typical of boardroom thinking, presents a false fait accompli – assuming that no other sponsors would step in. If not us, then nothing.

It can be argued that entities such as Transfield are not rotten to the core – they, after all, provide a range of services, not all of the carceral, banging up type which treats people as the fodder of population control. But that is what makes it insidious. Investing in such a company as Boeing doesn’t mean you are only helping the production of civilian craft. A good deal of killing – or at the very least the manufacture of those means – goes into it as well. You can be guaranteed that somewhere along the line, proceeds are going to be propping up a war.

Divestment strategies can work, though they can be inconsistent and sporadic. Other sponsors or donors can be sought. A code of conduct examining the merits of each sponsor and the origins of finance should be mandatory. That practice is far from new, though it can be difficult to enforce given the noise money can make. Instead, opponents of this strategy argue for something far more demeaning, the fig leaf for the collaborationist. In Luca Belgiorno-Nettis’ words, “The Biennale of Sydney acts as an artistic platform for dialogue around issues such as this.” Sponsor detention centres, and allow artists to portray the fact with ironic reflection.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne and can be reached at: bkampmark@gmail.com. Read other articles by Binoy.