Protest as Practise

Issue #10: The Many & The Few - Assembling the political

In an industry that is falsely predicated on contemplative distance, and in an age where isolation is woven into our technology, we must as artists deliberately reinforce our connections to one another and the power of our collective bodies to shape the world we live in.

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In 1973, political scientist, Gene Sharp, published a list of one hundred and ninety-eight methods of nonviolent action as a reference list for engaging in transformative civil acts11. The list reveals the power of the body (especially in collectivity) to obstruct, declare, withhold, disappear, dismantle, deliver and perform. It contains commonly practiced methods such as sit-ins and strikes, as well as more niche ideas, such as lysistratic non-action and mock funerals.2

While it is a recurring concern of contemporary articles and panel discussions, Sharp’s list does not distinguish between actions considered “creative” and those not. History’s examples show that Leymah Gbowee’s lysistratic methodology or environmental activists fax-bombing of the logging industry3 could be seen in many ways in a similar light as, say, the legal impact of Vernon Ah Kee’s video tall man (2010)4, or the social repercussions of Amy Spiers’ campaign / artwork Miranda Must Go (2017).5 Sharp’s tactics are as useful to the disenfranchised worker or full-time activist as they are to the politically-minded artist who wishes not merely to reflect or represent the world we live in, but to actively bring about social change through their work.

My own practice as an artist had always centered around problem-solving issues of connectivity and communication. My early work included a set of relationship contracts, neatly filed in alphabetical order, a series of bed buddies, a stripped back sequence of social gestures performed repetitively in the gallery space. A three team footy game.

It wasn’t until 2014 that I was forced to question what effect these whimsical gibes at the human condition were having (or not having) on our deeply unequal world. In my final month of preparations for the 19th Sydney Biennale, Australia’s most prestigious contemporary art event (and my biggest career opportunity thus far), I was sent a short message from a friend with a link:

The link revealed that the principal sponsor of the Sydney Biennale, Transfield, was negotiating a major multibillion dollar contract with the Australian Government to take over the operation of the immigration detention centres on Manus Island and Nauru.

Within days, the predicament had about half of the show’s line-up in desperate intercontinental deliberation as to what response we could offer as artists. Sharp’s methods would have been a useful reference at this point, but we worked up our own list: Should we silently picket the grand opening? Should we turn back the boats filled with art patrons coming to dock at Cockatoo Island? Should we add a disapproving note to our didactic panels, modify our work, or make new work altogether?

How much power did we have? We were not sure, but what happened next tested this question. Unable to reconcile the complicity of our participation, five international and local artists, including myself, withdrew from the exhibition (Method #79. Producers’ boycott). A few days later, four more artists withdrew.

We made sure that our absence was felt. That our withdrawal was understood as a refusal to value-add to the Transfield name: a refusal to embody their ethics and to endorse Australia’s cruel immigration policy through our participation.

Brandis threatened to pull funding. Turnbull denounced our vicious ingratitude.

Under pressure from the media and international funding agencies, Luca Belgiorno-Nettis, the Chair of the Biennale, who was also the co-director of Transfield Holdings, resigned from the Biennale Board, withdrew his combined 11.3% stake in Transfield Services, and revoked the licence to use the Transfield name and logo, causing share prices to plummet, super funds to withdraw, Transfield to change its name to Broadspectrum and be bought out by Spanish company Ferrovial, which announced the end of their contract with Australia’s detention industry shortly thereafter.

While we considered it in depth, we concluded that a sanctioned response from within the exhibition—even the most acerbic piece of institutional critique—would not have been an appropriate response to the problem. And it could not possibly have contributed to the devastating economic impact on Transfield that our withdrawal did. I realised that our participation in the systems of wealth, commerce, enterprise building and gentrification resound loudly amongst our communities. The way in which we participate in placemaking or identity-building shape us and shape the next generation of artists after us.

Three years later, this became a founding belief of the Artists’ Committee, an informal association of artists and arts workers that makes collaborative public interventions around the intersection of money, ethics and culture.

When the Artists’ Committee received information that the NGV was entering into a new contract with Wilson Security—a firm known for its extensive serious human right abuses against children, women and men on Manus Island and Nauru—we looked to our toolboxes as both artists and activists.

After petitioning the NGV (Method #2. Letters of opposition or support), and receiving evasive responses, we understood that polite correspondence was too easy to ignore. While the Biennale boycott hinged on a conspicuous withdrawal of presence, this time we wanted to test the limitations of our bodies in creation as well as in resistance. We planned a series of unsanctioned performative actions in response to the Gallery’s collection, program and building. Our bodies were to deliver our voices, perform our opposition and enact change. In their scale, impertinence and embodied presence, these interventions were inspired by the work of UK artist-activist collective, Liberate Tate.

We shrouded Picasso’s famous Weeping Woman in reference to the abuse, and the cover-ups of abuse, committed by Wilson Security (Method #29. Symbolic reclamations). With the painting veiled in a black cloth, we silently stood guard. Management panicked around us, shutting down the galleries. What a troublesome paradox that this painting—one that was designed to remind us of the suffering of families torn apart—is watched over by the same company that oversees the torture of children, women and men in Australia’s offshore prisons.

Despite national media coverage, the gallery was silent. The following week, the NGV’s famous moat turned deep red (Method #26. Paint as protest) and Wilson’s insignia was plastered on the building’s public facade. Each action was choreographed, scripted, set-managed, costume-designed, rehearsed and documented. Constructed as artworks, these acts also featured essential elements of nonviolent civil disobedience: police and worker liaisons, a buddy system, welfare checks and codes of conduct.

In a following intervention, the gallery’s entrance was obstructed, becoming the site of a sculptural participatory performance (Method #34. Vigils) where a single cellist played a mournful tune composed by Manus Island detainee, journalist and filmmaker, Behrouz Boochani.

After these widely reported attempts at dislodging the systems that keep a corrupt company protected and profiting, still we heard nothing from the NGV. We reached out to artists of the NGV Triennial, and instigated discussions that led Candice Breitz and Rafael Lozano-Hemmer to rename their works Wilson Must Go , and Richard Mosse to modify his work to include an statement from Behrouz Boochani (Method # 122. Literature and speeches advocating resistance). Designed to put the NGV on the international cultural map, the Triennial also became a springboard to report on Australia’s horrific treatment of refugees and people seeking asylum, with local and international newspapers and art journals covering the protests and detailing the brutality of our immigration regime.

It is clear that our work here is not done. Wilson Security is still guarding our culture and apparently still enforcing the incarceration of women, children and men on Nauru. Wilson Security is still pervasive throughout Victorian Government departments, agencies and institutions. Of course, this is not the only example available to us where money, culture and ethics collide: the meddling of Rio Tinto in Melbourne Museum’s educational displays; the quiet collaboration between the Ian Potter Museum and coal and pokies giant, Wesfarmers; the outrageous new multibillion dollar partnership between America’s biggest weapons manufacturer, Lockheed Martin and the University of Melbourne. Culture and education are edifying associations for companies who need to purchase their social licence to operate. The Artists’ Committee has resolved to focus on a small slice of this, within our scope and arena.

I acknowledge that we act from a position of privilege—and it is one that the Artists’ Committee exploits intentionally, while asking: what are the ethics of leveraging this privilege? Our actions have been guided by calls for solidarity from people detained on Manus Island and Nauru. We have been spurred by their strength, humanity and determination. They are now in their two hundredth day of continuous protest. And we are planning our next move.

Maybe Method #30 or Method #165 might do the trick. Whatever tactic we choose, or whether we invent a new one, we have learnt that there is one thing that no social movement can do without. We have no choice but to turn up together. In an industry that is falsely predicated on contemplative distance, and in an age where isolation is woven into our technology, we must as artists deliberately reinforce our connections to one another and the power of our collective bodies to shape the world we live in.

Works cited:
1 Gene Sharp, “198 Methods of Nonviolent Action” in The Politics of Nonviolent Action, Porter Sargent, Boston, 1973. Also available online

2 Lysistratic nonaction is the withholding of sex for political reasons, named after Lysistrata, the character in Aristophanes’ play about a woman who set out to end the Peloponnesian War by urging women to withhold sex from their husbands until peace was negotiated. Not just an act that happens in fiction, this cunning strategy was successfully employed by Liberian women lead by social worker Leymah Gbowee in 2000 and helped bring an end to the Liberian civil war.

3 A method whereby a continuous loop of entirely black paper is faxed to the office of choice to tie up communication lines and exhaust ink supplies.

4 tall man (2010) is a four-screen video installation documenting a crisis in race relations on Palm Island, an Aboriginal community off the coast of Far North Queensland.

5 Miranda Must Go (2017) is a project by artist Amy Spiers that questions the popularity of the “white vanishing myth” associated with the geographical and cultural landmark, Hanging Rock. In favour of a continuous retelling of fictional disappearance, the Miranda Must Go campaign directs attention to the real losses and traumas at Hanging Rock: the dispossession of Aboriginal people and destruction of culture which actually took place.