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Antony Loewenstein on Boycotts at the Garden of Bad Flowers

Antony Loewenstein is the award-winning author of Profits of Doom (2013) and My Israel Question (2006). I invited him to come and speak at the Farm because of his knowledge of how corporations exploit and profit from catastrophe, the phenomenon known as vulture or disaster capitalism. I asked him to reflect upon the function of political boycotts within this larger economic context. Antony’s talk explored the importance of political boycotts, especially the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel and the Boycott the Biennale movement from early 2014 directed towards corporate profiteering from Australia’s offshore detention centres.

The reason this talk seemed relevant is because The Garden of Bad Flowers was one of two artworks withdrawn from the 2014 Biennale of Sydney (BOS) due to contracts between the founding sponsor–Transfield–and the Australian Government to run services at offshore detention centres. These contracts are worth 1.2 billion dollars to the corporation. Although the boycott movement succeeded in bringing about the end of the relationship between the BOS and Transfield Foundation (the charitable wing of the Transfield brand, co-funded by Transfield Services and Transfield Holdings), the BOS did not take a principled stance on the issue; rather, Transfield actually ended the relationship to avoid the negative media attention. Moreover, despite the breakdown in the relationship, the 2014 event was still funded by Transfield and their logo was displayed proudly in conjunction with the event. The artist behind The Garden of Bad Flowers, Gabrielle de Vietri, was the spokesperson for the artists involved in the boycott and she kept her work withdrawn from the event, despite the fact that many of the other artists reentered. And so it was that the artwork came to be installed at Earlwood Farm. And so it is that the issue keeps developing today, with Transfield Holdings selling their stake in the detention centre industry.

Antony spent a cold afternoon in our shed with a small but attentive audience, talking boycotts–their purpose, function, efficacy and importance within a system of global capitalism. So much was said, but I’ll just extract two key points. Firstly, boycott movements are slow and each individual action is necessarily partial. Antony walked us through the boycott movement against South African apartheid, and illustrated how the slow and accumulative effect of the boycott was one of several important fronts in the battle to end apartheid. And, he reckons that something similar is happening with the BDS movement against Israel. He made the point that while Elvis Costello cancelling his concerts in Israel is not going to end the settlements or immediately stop future bombings of Gaza, Costello’s action utilised his position to promote the movement and also he did not use his profession to add value to the Israeli economy. Gradually, such actions accumulate and gradually change emerges. Indeed, although the Boycott the Biennale movement did not continue full-strength through the BOS event, the recent call for Doctors to boycott the offshore detention centres and Transfield Holdings’ selling of shares is indicative of the accumulative nature of such political actions. Secondly, given the structure of the global economy–that corporations are becoming or have become more powerful than nations, as Antony points out in Profits of Doom– economic sanctions, financial boycotts and calls for divestment are one of the most powerful tools we have as citizens to affect real political change. We have to interrupt the flows of capital. And so boycotts are incredibly important political tools. And, indeed, the vitriolic response the call to Boycott the Biennale drew out of Australian political figures reveals the real power of boycotts.

There was much more said in the shed than can be captured in this little blog post. But it was an energising and mobilising afternoon, topped off with pizza and wine as it got darker and colder! Antony has a wide range of resources on his website, including excerpts from his books. Have a look see. Below are some snaps of the event.

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