Institutional Reform: Art as Anti-Statecraft

Sumugan Sivanesan


In December 2015, the #FossilFreeCulture movement announced itself with a performative intervention at the Louvre in Paris. Timed to coincide with COP21, the United Nations climate change conference, the intervention is part of a transnational divestment campaign to ‘liberate’ museums from corporate sponsors that constitute polluting extractivist industries. The campaign to have the 19th Biennale of Sydney cut ties with sponsors profiting from Australia’s offshore migrant processing regime can also be discussed as part of a recent trend in artist-led movements agitating for institutional reform.

These practices recognise the museum, the collection and the biennale as a site of struggle that is ideological, cultural and political-economic. Thus conflicts arise around what is ultimately the purpose of a given institution; either as a public good that collects and exhibits cultural objects, develops knowledge and reflects society’s concerns or as a corporate tool. Mel Evans, author and a founder of the UK based art-activist collective Liberate Tate, argues that cultural sponsorship has become an essential operation for oil companies, enabling them to remake their public image in the wake of disasters such as BP’s Deep Water Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. Evans likens these forms of spending to money laundering, or what she terms ‘artwashing.’[1]

Major art institutions are part of a constellation of power that according to David Joselit connect ‘valuable cultural capital associated with sophisticated philosophical discourse to mass appeal and bald financial power.’[2] Joselit cites Ai Weiwei as an artist who uses his celebrity and status to critique the Chinese Government and facilitate acts of art-activism. Jodi Dean concurs that such institutions are ‘combined and intensified expressions of power’[3], however notes the emergence of groups affiliated with #FossilFreeCulture such as Occupy Museums and The Natural History Museum, who are concerned with how such consolidations of power can be challenged:

Just as the museum is a site in the infrastructure of capitalist class power—with its donors and galas and named halls—so can it be a medium in the production of a counterpower infrastructure that challenges, shames, and dismantles the very class and sector that would use what is common for private benefit.[4]

Institutions that facilitate the coming together of cultural objects, historical narratives, philosophical concepts, the wealthy elite and their political interests can be understood as instruments of statecraft—the skill of governing, effecting and maintaining power. The formulation of counterpower through these same institutions is its antithesis.



#FossilFreeCulture launched with the performative-intervention ‘Big Oil Out of Culture’ at the Louvre on 9 December 2015, which challenged the appropriateness of the prestigious cultural institution’s corporate sponsors, the energy giants Total and Eni. The event was described by organisers as a ‘coming-out party’ for an international coalition including the groups Art Not Oil (UK), BP or not BP? (UK), GULF (US), Liberate Tate (UK), Not An Alternative (US), Occupy Museums (US), Platform London (UK), Science Unstained (UK), Shell Out Sounds (UK), UK Tar Sands Network (UKTSN), Stopp Oljesponssing av Norsk Kulturliv (Norway), The Natural History Museum (US) alongside other artists, activists and campaigners from around the world.[5]

Having been widely publicised beforehand, ‘Big Oil Out of Culture’ attracted a large number of supporters to the museum’s forecourt on a surprisingly bright and clear December day. Here potential participants were confronted with heavily-armed police turning away anyone they thought might be involved. Trickling past, a number of performers eventually assembled in front of the museum’s iconic glass pyramid entrance and in formation they opened black umbrellas painted with letters that spelled out ‘FOSSIL FREE CULTURE.’ They began to shuffle as they sang a sombre melody: ‘Total and Eni, au revoir, allez allez allez / Oil money out of the Louvre, move, move, move.’ A long stretch of red cloth was unfurled on the ground in front of the group, a meme-like symbol taken up during COP21 to represent the minimal necessities for a just and liveable planet. On the day, #redlines signalled solidarity with frontline indigenous communities whose concerns were at the time being erased from consecutive drafts of The Paris Agreement.


‘Big Oil Out of Culture,’ Paris, December 2015. Credit: Author ‘Big Oil Out of Culture,’ Paris, December 2015. Credit: Author


Before the performers were eventually escorted out, the organisers held a short assembly powered by ‘people’s microphone’ to announce that inside the Louvre a smaller affiliated group had just poured an ‘oil spill’ on the museum’s marble floor, marking the museum’s lobby with oily footprints. The insiders, including Mel Evans, were arrested and taken to a police station on the outskirts of Paris. They were released several hours later without charge after it became apparent that the spill was made of molasses.

Paula Serafini in her study of environmental artist-activist groups in the UK notes that ‘uncommissioned’ artworks such as the one described above go beyond institutional critique by bringing uninvited real protest, rather than its representation into the museum, temporarily re-appropriating space and breaking the consensus of the museum and its sponsors.[6] Groups such as Liberate Tate and Shell Out Sounds claim a relation to the institution that is interstitial, neither inside nor completely outside, exploiting the way institutions are made available simultaneously for the public and for corporate uses. Notably, the performative interventions of these groups often occur in the lobbies, forecourts and other such spaces in galleries and museums that are used as public thoroughfares or meeting points; the interstitial architectural spaces within institutions.

Although performances such as ‘Big Oil Out of Culture’ may not be acknowledged or historicised through the institutions they concern, they are readily recognisable as artworks due to their theatrical modes. In contrast, the campaign to have the 19th Biennale of Sydney cut ties with its chief sponsor Transfield after the company was awarded government contracts worth $1.2 billion to provide services in Australian-funded detention centres,[7] was a different order of activity, but in many respects entailed art work.


19th Biennale of Sydney boycott campaign, 2014. Credit: Unknown 19th Biennale of Sydney boycott campaign, 2014. Credit: Unknown


To briefly recap, the campaign kicked off after a design educator, Matt Kiem, published an open letter to his peers outlining his reasons for refusing to take his students to the upcoming Biennale.[8] Kiem’s letter was re-published in arts and academic outlets and quickly spread amongst the local Sydney arts community. A working group of artists intending to exhibit in the Biennale formed to consider the matter and soon after issued an open letter to the Board of the Biennale of Sydney requesting that it cancel its sponsorship arrangement so as 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.’[9] The issue triggered heated discussions in social media and quickly escalated in the press. A series of meetings were held in Sydney and Melbourne to discuss the entanglements between Transfield Holdings, whose founder Franco Belgiorno-Nettis also founded the Biennale. The company’s current Managing Director, Franco’s son Luca Belgiorno-Nettis, was also the chair of the Biennale’s board. In the weeks leading up to the Biennale, nine artists withdrew from the event, alongside staff and volunteers. Under pressure from ‘international agencies’[10] the Biennale did eventually cut ties with its founding sponsor and accepted the resignation of Belgiorno-Nettis from its board.

Whilst many of the groups that are part of #FossilFreeCulture physically intervene in institutions, the move to boycott the Biennale was an act of strategic withdrawal—of ‘non-participation.’[11] The activity in the weeks leading up to the opening of the event might be best understood as a kind of public inquiry. Rather than invest one’s imagination into the means of production and presentation, the various discussions, fora and texts produced in the lead up to the Biennale effectively intervened in the political imaginary; refuting the ‘fatigue and fatalism’[12] of Australian border discourses by attempting to sever the ‘supply chains’ that bind cultural production, government policy and corporate renumeration. The controversy was dramatically heightened by the openly hostile reaction towards the boycotters in the media from the arts minister at the time, George Brandis, and then communications minister Malcolm Turnbull. Annabel Crabb incisively summarised these events in a satirical review of Biennale Shitfight, ‘a bold, confronting series of interconnected performance works,’[13] published in the days before the ethically-cleansed Biennale opened with most of the boycotting artists now participating:

The piece was designed to unfold publicly over several weeks, tracing the escalation through social media of the ‘revelation’ that the Biennale’s major sponsor, Transfield Holdings, was tangentially involved through a subsidiary in the construction and maintenance of offshore mandatory detention facilities, all the way through to a full-scale battle scene with the federal government.[14]



In March 2015, the artist collective and mobile museum, The Natural History Museum (NHM), released a letter signed by leading scientists, Nobel Prize winners and prominent public figures urging museums of science and natural history to cut their ties with fossil fuel industries. The letter singles out David Koch, an oil magnate and leading donor and trustee of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington and the American Museum of Natural History in New York, who has also spent over US $67 million to fund groups denying climate science.[15] Another petition to ‘Kick Koch off the Board’[16] drew over 400 000 signatures and in January this year, at the height of this popular pressure, Koch stepped down from the American Museum of Natural History.


The Natural History Museum, rally outside the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, Washington 2015.  Credit: Natural History Museum The Natural History Museum, rally outside the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, Washington 2015.  Credit: Natural History Museum


The NHM cut their teeth in grassroots activism; organising collectively, engaging with communities and learning-by-doing—conditions that are typical of what writer and theorist Yates McKee identifies as ‘art after Occupy.’[17] Unlike the Biennale artists, the NHM are not necessarily putting their personal careers on the line by forcing museums’ boards to compromise. Rather, the collective registered with the American Alliance of Museums to become a real institution,[18] a novel approach to the necessity of artists having to professionalise. When thinking about all these cases together it is evident that the artists concerned are effective organisers; building alliances and support systems laterally and transnationally, across a range of professions and communities and developing strength in networks to break the consensus of governments, corporations and art institutions.

Writing from Berlin while Europe is in the midst of a refugee crisis, I have noted that artists and activists such as Mathias Jud and Christoph Wachter[19] are looking towards Australia, anxious about whether its immigration model will be adopted here—indeed, Germany’s far right have already publicly embraced Australia’s border policies.[20] Confronting the prospect of a dystopian worldwide borderscape, it is significant that major institutions like Berlin’s Haus der Kulturen der Welt are putting their weight behind refugee self-organising initiatives,[21] empowering communities and networks to push back against this encroaching global regime.
Mathias Jud and Christoph Wachter speaking on the panel ‘Border Visions’ at Transmediale,  Haus der Kulteren der Welt Berlin, February 2016. Credit: Author. Mathias Jud and Christoph Wachter speaking on the panel ‘Border Visions’ at Transmediale, Haus der Kulteren der Welt Berlin, February 2016. Credit: Author


Climate change is arguably a different order of planetary crisis that nonetheless implicates borders. To echo the thematic of this year’s 20th Biennale of Sydney, climate change indicates a future that is ‘just not evenly distributed.’[22] Nations contributing the least to CO2 and Greenhouse Gas emissions often bear the brunt of its effects, such as low lying Pacific Island nations like Nauru and Papua New Guinea, where Australia has established detention centres. Climate change and border policies interact to keep populations vulnerable and render life precarious, and not just for humans. Against the indeterminacy of the consequences of species extinction and changing weather patterns, borders are the epistemological and sometimes geographical means—the ‘forcible frames’[23]—by which states affirm their political consistency and exercise sovereign power to determine whose lives matter.

With this in mind let’s turn to Australia, which despite the commitments it made in Paris does not appear to be taking serious steps to reduce its CO2 emissions. In September 2009 the G-20 agreed that government subsidies to fossil fuel industries should be phased out, given they have ‘encouraged wasteful spending and harmful emission.’[24] During COP21, New Zealand led the initiative for subsidy reforms, however Australia did not participate. According to David Holmes of Monash University, this was hardly surprising given that:

Australian taxpayers subsidise the fossil fuel industry to the tune of to A$182 per taxpayer every year. A gigantic sum of $9.4 billion over the next four years will be handed out to the most profitable fossil fuel companies in Australia.[25]

In an article published in July 2015, Holmes describes how the Abbott government directed the Clean Energy Finance Corporation to cancel $2.1 billion in subsidies from profitable wind farm initiatives to prop up an ailing coal industry.[26] Another report, quietly released soon after the Australian delegation returned from Paris, revealed that the nation’s emissions had risen over 2014–15 despite consumer demand remaining level, implicating its means of energy production.[27] Days later, Environment Minister Greg Hunt approved the expansion of the Abbot Point coal port near the Great Barrier Reef, potentially opening access to the proposed Adani Carmichael coal mine. According to the global climate campaigner, if Adani were ever to utilise this coal deposit it would be certain that a 1.5–2°C global warming target would not be met,[28] ensuring irreversible ecological breakdown and the disappearance of several Pacific islands. As such, the discrepancy between what ministers say in high-profile conventions such as COP21 and what they do to accommodate industry lobbyists is a matter of statecraft, worthy of further public scrutiny.

Safe spaces

An embassy traditionally functions as a state within a state: a host country characteristically allows the embassy control of a specific territory, a system that enables the occupation and creation of new spaces in other lands.[29]

It’s curious that this year’s 20th Biennale of Sydney proposes to unfold across a series of embassies (Spirits, Non-participation, Disappearance, The Real, Stanislaw Lem, Transition, Translation) that are ‘transient homes for constellations of thought.’[30] According to Artistic Director Stephanie Rosenthal, these will be ‘safe spaces’ for convening and thinking through ‘our interaction with the digital world, displacement from and occupation of spaces and land, and the interconnections and overlaps between politics and financial power structures.’[31]

The device of the embassy frames the Biennale as a cluster of metaphoric enclaves and ‘in-between spaces’ that allow artists to sit at a virtual and conceivably critical distance from the statecraft the event facilitates. The controversy of the last Biennale exposed a significant disjunct between interacting government policies and corporate interests and a concern for global civil society that these international art gatherings presume. Will anyone take up the reformed Biennale’s apparent offer of immunity to deepen an inquiry into these contradictions?

Richard Bell, Embassy, 2013, installation, 5th Moscow Biennial.  Credit: Yackov Petchenin, courtesy of Moscow Biennial Art Foundation, Russia,  the artist and Milani Gallery, Brisbane Richard Bell, Embassy, 2013, installation, 5th Moscow Biennial. Credit: Yackov Petchenin, courtesy of Moscow Biennial Art Foundation, Russia, the artist and Milani Gallery, Brisbane


Notable for this discussion is the inclusion of Richard Bell’s homage to the first Aboriginal Tent Embassy established in Canberra, 1972, which the artist has described as the world’s longest running protest and most enduring performance artwork.[32] The Aboriginal Tent Embassy is emblematic of what I mean by anti-statecraft; an ad-hoc protest camp on the lawns of Parliament House that subverts the authority of its institutional other as it simultaneously attracts, intensifies and enacts counterpower. Bell’s oeuvre is a strident criticism of race relations in Australia and he was reliably direct in his response to the Biennale boycott, stating: ‘If I was in the fucking thing, I’d make a work about it.’[33] When Bell’s artwork, Embassy, arrives at the 20th Biennale of Sydney after it has been exhibited and activated around the world, what will be its institutional technique? Is it a representation or is it the real thing? Perhaps this is a question we will be asking more often as social movements arise through art.



[1]   Mel Evans, Artwash: Big Oil and the Arts, London: Pluto Press, 2015.

[2]   David Joselit, After Art, (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2013): 91.

[3]   Jodi Dean, ‘The Anamorphic Politics of Climate Change,’ e-flux journal, January 2016, accessed 21 February 2016,

[4]   Ibid.

[5]   Art Not Oil, ‘100s take part in protest performance at Louvre Museum over oil sponsorship,’ 9 December 2015, accessed 21 February 2016,

[6]   Paula Serafini, ‘Prefiguring Performance,’ Third Text, vol. 29, iss. 3 (2015):195–206.

[7]   Ben Butler, ‘Transfield soars as $1.2b detention contract win gives shares $80m lift,’ The Sydney Morning Herald, 24 February 2014, accessed 21 February 2016,

[8]   Matt Kiem, ‘An art educator’s open letter to colleagues about detention profits and the Sydney Biennale,’ xborder, 4 February 2014, accessed 21 February 2016,

[9]   #19BoS Working Group, ‘Open Letter to the Board of the Sydney Biennale From Participating Artists,’ 19 February 2014, accessed 21 February 2016,

[10] Jonathan Shapiro,‘Anti-Transfield artists are hypocrites: Carnegie,’ The Australian Financial Review, 10 March 2014, accessed 21 February 2016,

[11] A reference to Karen Mirza and Brad Butler’s ongoing ‘Museum of Non-participation’ which asks how withdrawal can be made visible, critical and active. The artists will bring this inquiry to Artspace for the Biennale of Sydney 2016. See:

[12] Caroline Wake,‘What will you do?’, RealTime, iss. 126, April–May 2015, accessed 21 February 2016,

[13] Annabel Crabb, ‘Critics are raving about Biennale’s big hit,’ The Sydney Morning Herald, 16 March 2014, accessed 21 February 2016,

[14] Ibid.

[15] The Natural History Museum,‘An Open Letter to Museums from Members of the Scientific Community’, 24 March 2015, accessed 21 February 2016,

[16] Kick Koch Off the Board, 2015, accessed 21 February 2016,

[17] Yates McKee, ‘Art after Occupy,’ OpenDemocracy, 15 August 2014, accessed 21 February 2016,

[18] Angie Koo, ‘The Natural History Museum,’ City Atlas New York, 15 December 2015, accessed 21 February 2016,

[19] Cubechat, ‘QUT Emare residency: Christoph Wachter & Mathias Jud present Landung in Australien,’ 25 March 2015, accessed 21 February 2016,

[20] Amos Roberts, ‘Being Australian gave me street cred at a neo-Nazi rally in Germany,’ The Guardian, 13 October 2015, accessed 21 February 2016,

[21] In March 2016 Haus der Kulteren der Welt will host a three day congress, ‘Civil Society 4.0 – Refugees and Digital Self Organization.’ See:

[22] 20th Biennale of Sydney, ‘20th Biennale of Sydney unveils initial artist list and exhibition program presented across seven “Embassies of Thought,”’ (press release, 28 October 2015), accessed 21 February 2016, content/uploads/sites/5/2013/05/20BOS_MediaKit_20151028.pdf

[23] Judith Butler, Frames of War: When is Life Grievable? (London and New York: Verso, 2009): 185

[24] International Institute for Sustainable Development, Global Subsidies Initiative, n.d., accessed 21 February 2016,

[25] David Holmes, ‘Two days in at COP21—what has Australia pledged?,’ The Conversation, 2

December 2015, accessed 21 February 2016,

[26] David Holmes, ‘Australia’s ‘Carnival of Coal’— can you feel the love?,’ The Conversation, 18 July 2015, accessed 21 February 2016,

[27] Guardian staff, ‘Australia’s carbon emissions are increasing, government report shows,’ The Guardian, 26 December 2015, accessed 21 February 2016,

[28] Graham Lloyd, ‘Abbot point coal port expansion project has strict rules on sediment,’ The Australian, 26 December 2015, accessed 21 February 2016,

[29] 20th Biennale of Sydney (2015): 2.

[30] Ibid: 1.

[31] Ibid

[32] Richard Bell speaking at the New World Summit 6, Utrecht University, 29–31 January 2016. See:

[33] Van Badham, ‘Richard Bell: “Asylum-seeker policy is a manifestation of Australian racism,”’ The Guardian, 21 February 2014, accessed 21 February 2016,

Sumugan Sivanesan is an anti-disciplinary writer, researcher and artist. His interests range across: Contemporary Art and Activism, Media Theory, Multispecies Politics, Queer Theory, Tamil Diaspora...


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