Last week five artists (Libia Castro, Ólafur Ólafsson, Charlie Sofo, Gabrielle de Vietri and Ahmet Öğüt) withdrew from their participation in the forthcoming Sydney Biennale, which opens on 21 March 2014. It was the second step in a movement of a total of 41 artists that tried to raise their concern around the involvement of Sydney Biennale founding supporter Transfield. Involved in ‘complex’ activity in the construction of offshore immigration detention centers, after they took over from equally controversial G4S Security, Transfield is now put in the center of an ‘ethical’ debate sparking off ideas on ‘how to respond’ as an artist, or ‘how not to’ as an institution.
I feel it is important to pause at the moment these five artist have created, a moment of transformation that looks easy and banal from first side, but in fact hints at the very core of both their own practice and what the curatorial outline of the Sydney Biennale proposes, namely that of using their practice of ‘imagination’. For the artists their act considers further speech, to become invisible, to deviate political or any rules at all, and to ‘withdraw’ or ‘to boycott’ as a positive and productive movement in times where also cultural infrastructures cannot resist anymore the involvement of bodies so embedded in problematic social and economic developments. For the Sydney Biennale there is silence and a full personal embrace of the family that stands at the start of the chain of uncomfortable events.
Unfortunately, the possibility of the boycott is transformed only in a pure evasive maneuver of ‘not wanting to talk’, offering only a marginal voice or opposing the positive virtue of ‘creating a true dialogue’. Where it needs a response as much as ‘lead up to’, the boycott is quickly discarded as too much of an instrument against politics, whilst in fact it can become an exciting political tool arguing for little more than visibility or speech alone. Subsequently, the boycott offers a break of both artistic and institutional work, and yes perhaps even political practices themselves.
Two more examples come to mind in which the boycott is hijacked, stopped or discarded and thrown out of the window together with the promise of a dialogue. Last week Professor Judith Butler had to withdraw from a talk at the Jewish Museum, as she was pressed and marketed as a voice in favor of the Israeli boycott. She felt the talk had become impossible since it was contaminated with only concentrating on her ‘distorted political views’, leading away from a conversation around Kafka. It became soon an essential debate online in which she responded firmly expressing her own concerns on the devaluation and understanding of the boycott: “Whether one is for or against [the boycott movement], it seems important to recognize that boycotts are constitutionally recognized forms of political expression, affirmed by international law as well. That means that one cannot exactly outlaw a boycott, even if one opposes it with great vehemence, without trampling on a constitutionally protected right. We are seeing several efforts now to curtail speech, to exercise censorship.”
The second example took place some 1000 miles from Kiev at Sochi’s 2014 Olympic Games. The high-profile event became the most successful Olympic Games ever for the Dutch team, winning a total of 24 medals. As a bonus ice skate all-rounder Ireen Wüst (herself openly bi-sexual by the way) became the most successful Olympic athlete in Dutch history. However, a few weeks before the realization off all this orange wonder, discussions around the exact political delegation travelling to Sochi became a hot topic in Dutch public debate. Despite the messages and talks instigated by individuals and organisations to withdraw from a high profile political representation, the government instead decided not to listen and send the Prime Minister, the King and Queen, the Minister of Sports and other high-ranking officials. It was to become the most serious delegation ever. Advocates of human rights were appalled by the decisions, but the delegation remarked that the only way to ‘stimulate a dialogue’ is to engage, invite and leave for Sochi. Withdrawal is always unproductive.
During the last few days before the opening, Prime Minister Rutte managed to squeeze in an appointment with Putin in which he would promise to ‘engage in a dialogue on human rights’, but his firm words were eventually snowed under in subtropical Sochi. We never saw any report or summary of those conversations, no result on speaking about ‘human rights issues’, or even the smallest hints towards those. Instead, Putin visited the Holland House, sponsored by Dutch company Heineken and the party house for Dutch fans. In the camp of the Dutch athletes, there coaches and supporters, silent on anything but ‘the immense success of Sochi’.
With Orange sunglasses on, the golden party continued deep into the night, to wake up the next morning, hopping on a plane and queuing to shake hands in ongoing congratulations. It became the most successful Games ever and the Russians did a tremendous job. Well done.
But what happened to the dialogue that was so eagerly promised? How to continue a conversation when ‘the stakeholders’ are gone home and the party is over? These are just some silly considerations, but what had happened in the closed off Dutch camp is significant if we think about the promise of a boycott. The instrument of boycott was in fact hijacked by the political representational delegation. Sending such a heavy delegation, one could only embrace the seriousness of activating ‘important human rights discussions’. The initial calls for boycott were left ‘offside’, only able to wait what the political body would develop or address.
In the end nothing was developed, not only because the orange/golden celebration took over, also because there was no public debate on any of the human rights discussion promised earlier. The hijack was complete in the sense that the political representation took the instrument never to give it back to the organisations and individuals that initiated its use in the first place. That in itself is scary to think about, let alone that the Dutch are now only left with celebration while many streets close to or within Europe start to turn red.
But it seems we seriously and urgently need to reconsider what we mean by a ‘dialogue’, so often used in advocating for the refusal to engage in a boycott. The Dutch would not boycott since it would take away the opportunity for a dialogue and now the Sydney Biennale funders respond that the Biennale is exactly the platform to ‘have the dialogue’, every artist then should contribute individually on how they want to shape such a dialogue. But is this indeed the only way to have a dialogue, or has or understanding of what a dialogue can do completely changed? Has the term itself become completely devalued only to be used as apolitical instrument that has left everyone undecided, compromised, concessionised?
Moreover, as the Dutch political delegation hijacked the boycott, in a similar way the Biennale organisation does the same, performing as a platform that only yields to historical sponsorship agreements and democratic power. The platform of the biennial undermines any possibility of creating a voice here, by leaving the only opportunity possible that of the dialogue without collectivity. In fact by not recognizing the marginal voices of five artists they use the instrument of democratic power in which ‘the excitement of installing the other 200 artworks still’ becomes a quantifying argument of deleting any relevance to the artists statement. The marginal have little voice in true democracies.
Surely there is a role to get into the details of what Transfield exactly is doing there and how it affects the involvement in art funding as well, but these are not the fields I feel the five artists are debating. This is exactly where we see a shift or transformation happening, as the opportunity of the dialogue seems to be only able to talk about ‘politics’ rather than addressing its infrastructure or ‘to act politically’ as an artist (the classical boundaries between ‘art and politics’ or ‘political art’). The boycott however is able to ‘act politically’ without being too representational. They can be combined as well, in a practice that speaks about the atrocities as well as using political means and tactics to express these. The boycott on itself however is the perfect instrument, if used well, to act as a visualizer and perhaps, the only form of imagination that is left.
Reading the Biennial framework then becomes even more frightening. “It reminds us that powerful art is not divorced from the cultural conditions, political, social and climatic environments in which it is generated”. If indeed we could explain this boycott as a ‘divorce’, I am curious to see how the probably marginalsed voice of the five artists finds it residue at the opening of the Biennale.
What the boycott does as an instrument is to promise a dialogue, not affirming its presence is to eradicate the very dialogue you wish to stimulate and in fact will always leave to a devaluation of ‘a cultural asset’. I feel the boycott can consider carefully both the moments before and after the boycott itself as more important than the centre of the boycott itself. The source of any content of the boycott becomes almost irrelevant, as it is the action before and after we should pay attention to.
Demise and retreat is possible, even for biennales that feel they are as valuable as water for hundreds of thousands of people. In fact, Biennales, Institutes and artist disappear whole the time, actively or not. Institutional risk or history is worth nothing if at the moment it matters most, speech is turned away. The withdrawal, or boycott, can become productive. Especially when the contemporary situation is met with new terms.
If speech is silenced over the existence of ‘cultural assets’ we are a long way from home. The crack that these five artist have now offered, are not engaging by itself a debate over content on the matter, what it does offer is the only way out to become visible and to access the imagination of how something can look like when it breaks down. Just as it did for the people on Istiklal street in Istanbul, the square in Kiev, the private homes of Ugandese gay people. As long as these acts of withdrawals can offer a void, an opportunity to speak, and are met only with the response of the impossibility to act, the real power of a boycott can never be understood. For the Biennale it’s the easy way out. The people affected by Transfield ‘complex’ involvement are less lucky. For a Biennale that entitles itself ‘You imagine what you desire”, I fear for the definitions and possibilities of that very imagination and desire in the future.
 Response of Judith Butler to her cancellation of her talk: http://www.insidehighered.com/quicktakes/2014/02/24/judith-butler-withdraws-talk-jewish-museum