Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Four More Artists Withdraw from the 19th Biennale of Sydney

March  5th   2014

After much consideration we: Agnieszka Polska, Sara van der Heide, Nicoline van Harskamp and Nathan Gray, have decided to withdraw our works from the 19th Biennale of Sydney, because of its relation to Transfield, a company involved in the Australian government policy of mandatory detention.

Our motivations reflect those outlined in the statement issued by artists Ögüt, Castro, Ólafsson, Sofo and de Vietri on February 26th, added as a reference with this letter. They close their statement by expressing their hope that others will join them in “solidarity with all those who are working towards a better future for asylum seekers.” Our withdrawal is such an act of solidarity.

We have requested the Biennale that our withdrawal be registered on their website and signposted at the physical site of exhibition, so that this action will not be unnoticed.

With Regards,

Agnieszka Polska, Sara van der Heide,  Nicoline van Harskamp and Nathan Gray
Contact: 2014workinggroup@gmail.com    

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Statement of Withdrawal from 19th Biennale of Sydney

26 February 2014

We are five of the 41 artists - Libia Castro, Ólafur Ólafsson, Charlie Sofo, Gabrielle de Vietri and Ahmet Öğüt - who signed a letter to the Board of the Biennale of Sydney in relation to their founding sponsor, Transfield.

We make this statement in light of Transfield’s expanding management of Manus Island and Nauru immigration detention centres. We act in the wake of the death of Reza Berati from inside Manus Island detention centre on February 17. We are in urgent political circumstances with a government that is stepping up their warfare on the world’s most vulnerable people daily.

We have received indications from the Board of the Biennale and Transfield that there will be no movement on their involvement in this issue. In our letter to the Board we asked for action and engagement, but we are told that the issue is too complex, and that the financial agreements are too important to re-negotiate.

And so we make this statement from a critical juncture of political urgency and artistic autonomy.

This is a statement of our withdrawal from the 19th Biennale of Sydney.

We have revoked our works, cancelled our public events and relinquished our artists’ fees. While we have sought ways to address our strong opposition to Australia’s mandatory detention policy as participants of the Biennale, we have decided that withdrawal is our most constructive choice. We do not accept the platform that Transfield provides via the Biennale for critique. We see our participation in the Biennale as an active link in a chain of associations that leads to the abuse of human rights. For us, this is undeniable and indefensible.

Our withdrawal is one action in a multiplicity of others, already enacted and soon to be carried out in and around the Biennale. We do not propose to know the exact ethical, strategic or effective action to end mandatory detention, but we act on conscience and we act with hope.

We have chosen to redirect our energies into multiple forms of action: discussions, workshops, publications, exhibitions and works that will continue to fuel this debate in the public sphere. In this, we stand with our local and international communities that are calling for the closure of Australia’s offshore detention facilities. We ask for their active support in keeping this issue at the forefront of our minds, in the warmest part of our hearts, in the most urgent of discussions and in the most bold of actions, until the detention centres on Manus Island and Nauru close.

We withdraw to send a message to the Biennale urging them, again, to act ethically and transparently. To send a message to Transfield that we will not add value to their brand and its inhumane enterprise. Finally, and most importantly, we withdraw to send a message to the Australian Government that we do not accept their unethical policy against asylum seekers.

We ask that the Biennale of Sydney acknowledge the absence of our work from the exhibition. As the Biennale has offered to provide a platform and support for our dissent, we request that our withdrawal be registered on the Biennale website and signposted at the physical site of our projects. In the pervasive silence that the Government enforces around this issue, we will not let this action be unnoticed.

We act in solidarity with all those who are working towards a better future for asylum seekers. We hope that others will join us.

Libia Castro
Ólafur Ólafsson
Charlie Sofo
Gabrielle de Vietri
Ahmet Öğüt

Contact: 2014workinggroup@gmail.com

Friday, February 21, 2014

Biennale of Sydney Board - Response to Working Group

NB: This was sent to the Artists working Group via the press, it was unsigned, however it has been widely quoted from in the press. At this point we have not received a written response to our concerns over the founding sponsors involvement in the Australian government's policy of offshore mandatory detention.

4.30 PM, 21 FEBRUARY 2014

21 February 2014

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

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.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

PRESS RELEASE Artists Working Group

Wednesday 19 February 2014

Artists respond to call for Biennale boycott

Artists invited to exhibit in the 19th Biennale of Sydney have issued an open letter (attached) to the Board of Directors of the Biennale of Sydney requesting they withdraw from their funding arrangements with Transfield.

Signed by 28 Australian and international artists, the letter states the artists’ opposition to the Australian government’s offshore immigration detention centres in Nauru and Manus Island (PNG). These centres are managed by the operations, maintenance and construction company, Transfield Services. The Biennale of Sydney is funded by the Transfield Foundation (a joint venture of Transfield Services and Transfield Holdings) and Transfield Holdings (a shareholder of Transfield Services).

The artists’ opposition is on the grounds that mandatory detention is in contravention of Australia’s binding obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention on the Rights of the Child; and their concern about being funded by an arts organisation whose sponsor is profiting from the policy.

Artists were appealed to in a call to boycott the exhibition, issued early February 2014, which was sparked by the expansion of the company’s role in the offshore immigration detention centres into garrison and welfare services.

“We are taking this very seriously. Some artists are reconsidering their participation, and others organising different forms of protest from within. A significant group of Australian and international artists have agreed that an open letter to the board is a constructive step forward,” spokesperson for the group, Gabrielle de Vietri, stated. “Still other artists have proposed to join with the Biennale team in an effort to develop alternative modes of fundraising.”

In Sydney and Melbourne this week artists, advocacy groups and activists are mobilising to share information, ideas and support to develop multiple and effective ways to send a message to the Australian Government and Transfield Services that they will not support the mandatory detention of asylum seekers.

Open Letter to the Board of the Sydney Biennale From Participating Artists

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, Mikala Dwyer, Rosa Barba, Sara van der Heide, Henna-Riikka Halonen, Shannon Te Ao, Hadley+Maxwell, Ane Hjort Guttu, Yael Bartana, Emily Wardill, Agnieszka Polska, Bodil Furu, Eglė Budvytytė, Eva Rothschild, Annette Stav Johanssen, Synnøve G. Wetten, Tori Wrånes, Siri Hermansen, James Angus
- 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 art-workers 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, Mikala Dwyer, Rosa Barba, Sara van der Heide, Henna-Riikka Halonen, Ane Hjort Guttu, Hadley+Maxwell, Shannon Te Ao, Yael Bartana, Emily Wardill, Agnieszka Polska, Bodil Furu, Eglė Budvytytė, Eva Rothschild, Annette Stav Johanssen, Synnøve G. Wetten, Tori Wrånes, Siri Hermansen, James Angus


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. Please refer to our information sheet for our understanding of how these are linked.

Transfield, the Biennale of Sydney and Australia’s Asylum Seeker Policy

The Australian Government is currently enacting a policy that sees asylum seekers who arrive in Australia by boat removed from Australia and transferred to detention centres in Papua New Guinea (Manus Island) and Nauru. Under the current government, these asylum seekers will never be granted refugee status in Australia, but instead held in indefinite mandatory detention under conditions that have been described by former employees as 'like a concentration camp'. [1]

Mandatory detention of asylum seekers contradicts the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to which Australia is a signatory. [2]

According to the Australian Human Rights Commission Report published in October 2013: “The commission has raised concerns over many years that the system of mandatory detention leads to breaches of Australia’s International human rights obligations. Australia has binding obligations under article 9 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and article 37 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child to ensure that no one is subject to arbitrary detention. The Commission’s concerns about Australia’s system of mandatory detention are shared Internationally. The United Nations Human Rights committee has repeatedly found Australia to be in breach of its international obligations under article 9 of the ICCPR” [2.2]

The construction and operations company Transfield Services Ltd were paid over 302 million dollars to provide Operational and Maintenance Support Services for Nauru Regional Processing Centre from 2013 - 2014 [2.3]. They have recently also been awarded the contract to deal with detainee welfare at both off-shore detention centres. The details of this contract are still in the process of negotiation with the Department of Immigration and Border Protection and will be finalised by late February 2014. [2.3.1]

Contrary to the statement issued by the Biennale in their Media Q&A of February 7 2014, Serco manages Australia’s on-shore detention centres [2.4], but does not manage Australia’s off-shore detention centres. Transfield does. [2.5]

Transfield Services’ role in the mandatory detention of asylum seekers on Nauru and now Manus Island is profiting from an Australian government policy that violates the human rights of some of the world’s most vulnerable people. Amnesty International claims that the conditions on Manus Island violate the Human Rights prohibition against torture [2.6] and that the “Regional Resettlement Arrangement has resulted in a host of human rights violations.” [3] In a report following a visit to Manus Island in October 2013, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, stated that “the UNHCR was deeply troubled to observe that the current policies, operational approaches and harsh physical conditions at the RPC [Regional Processing Centre] do not comply with international standards.” [4]
The Biennale of Sydney's founding sponsor is Transfield. The Biennale’s sponsorship comes specifically from the Transfield Foundation which is a joint venture between Transfield Services (listed on the Australian Stock Exchange) and Transfield Holdings (a shareholder of Transfield Services). [4.1] It is common for large companies to have different arms for different purposes (philanthropy, investment and operations). But there should be no doubt cast on the deep association between the different sections of the company. They are linked financially, they share members of staff and they use a single brand: Transfield. This is the principle brand that is promoted by the Biennale of Sydney.

Human rights breaches from the camps on Manus Island and Nauru include the separation of families [5], detention of children, inadequate medical and mental health facilities [5.1]. Asylum seekers being detained on Nauru and Manus Island “are being subjected to a regime of coercion and intimidation and living in appalling conditions in a deliberate bid to force them to go home.”[6] The government acknowledges that “previous experience has shown that offshore processing of asylum seekers can have serious consequences for both physical and mental health.” [7]

Responsible since August 2012 for catering, cleaning, security and transport at Nauru detention centre, Transfield Services announced on 29 January 2014 that “its contract with the Australian Department of Immigration and Border Protection to manage Offshore Processing Centres will be expanded on an interim basis” and that “the Company will now be responsible for Garrison Support Services and Welfare at both Manus Island and Nauru.” [8] Chief Executive of the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre Kon Karapanagiotidis says the move will put asylum seekers at risk. He says Transfield is ill-equipped for the job. "They have no qualifications or experience in welfare. So to place a construction company on Manus Island and Nauru with thousands of refugees who suffer post-traumatic stress disorder, are suicidal, suffer depression and anxiety, where self- harm and suicide attempts are a daily occurrence. It's a recipe for disaster” he states. [9]
Transfield Foundation board member and chairman of the Biennale Luca Belgiorno-Netti states that the Biennale of Sydney “was the first to present to wide audiences the art of the social change movements which transformed Australian society in the late 1970s and early 1980s." [10] While we greatly appreciate Transfield's founding role in the Biennale and the part it plays in many aspects of Australian cultural life (including supporting the Art gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW) and the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA), we do not feel the current decisions are in keeping with this history of the Biennale as a progressive cultural institution.


UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees)

UNHCR report on Manus Island detention centre:
UNHCR report on Nauru detention centre:

The summaries are good on those reports, or here is the news article that sums up: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2013-11-27/unhcr-report-on-nauru/5118588

AHRC (Australian Human Rights Commission)

Here are some useful overview reports from the AHRC:

The AHRC 2013 'snapshot' is useful:

For specific information about the role of 'welfare' that Transfield is taking on (which was previously undertaken by the Salvation Army), see points 14 - 17 of this: https://www.humanrights.gov.au/sites/default/files/document/publication/HR_standards_immigration_detention%20%284%29.pdf

On the legal issues about transfer of asylum seekers to 3rd countries see:

The Law Council of Australia
The Law Council’s submissions provide a good summary of recent changes to immigration policy: http://www.lawcouncil.asn.au/lawcouncil/index.php/current-issues/immigration-detention-and-asylum-seekers
Full report here:

A summary by the Law Council of relevant international law:


Asylum seekers, refugees and human rights: snapshot report, Australian human Rights Commission, 2013, p.6, accessible at: https://www.humanrights.gov.au/sites/default/files/document/publication/snapshot_report_2013.pdf


Telephone conversation with Media and Communications, Transfield Services, February 11, 2014

Serco manages and operates nine on-shore immigration facilities in Australia on behalf of the Department of Immigration and Border Protection. http://www.serco-ap.com.au/our-services/our-work/immigration-services/

Telephone conversation with Media and Communications, Transfield Services, February 11, 2014




It is stated on the Transfield Foundation’s website that this philanthropic venture is “a joint initiative between Transfield Holdings and Transfield Services”





Department of Immigration and Border Protection contract to be expanded (Jan 2014) http://www.transfieldservices.com.titan.imagin8.com/index.php?action=view&view=178379&pid=106950
In Transfield Services 2013 Annual Report, the company states that their “work with the Australian Department of Immigration and Citizenship in Nauru highlighted the team’s ability to deliver large, logistically complex operations under time pressure” indicating that they provide more than “the provision of food, clothing and other welfare services”, as stated in the Biennale of Sydney’s Q&A sent to artists of the 19th Biennale on 9 February 2014