For an art festival that claims to be “inclusive”, the Kochi Biennale Foundation (KBF) sure proves to be otherwise. Case in point: The controversy over not paying those who worked on the current edition to install the artworks. Two weeks before the current edition comes to an end (on March 29), the Foundation was served a legal notice dated March 18, by Appu Thomas, on behalf of Thomas Clery Infrastructures and Developers Pvt Limited, contractors hired by KBF.
The company alleged that KBF owes them money to the tune of Rs 77,59,277. Calling KBF’s manner of functioning as “unprofessional and haphazard”, it alleged that there was no proper documentation, works were not sanctioned on time and that KBF was well aware of the cost escalations. Furthermore, it goes on to threaten legal action.
On March 23, KBF responded to this legal notice issued by Appu Thomas. But, for a reputed organisation accused of non-payment, the tone of their legal notice was more telling - of keeping someone in their place, and that they should be grateful for what they have received.
How KBF’s response reeks of elitism
In its legal notice on March 18, Thomas Clery Infrastructures and Developers Pvt Limited mainly addressed three works it undertook: The Pavilion at Cabral Yard, Sue Williamson’s ‘Messages from the Atlantic Passage’ and EB Itso’s ‘Developmental Mobility’, both at Aspinwall House in Fort Kochi. While Sue’s artwork required plumbing work, EB Itso’s work required a 3.5-ton heavy tyre to be hung.
KBF, in turn, called the legal notice and the subsequent Instagram account (called justicefrombiennale18_19) to draw attention to the issue, “disinformation”. It said that the payments had been made and that they would respond legally, something they are perfectly well within its rights to do so.
Denying the allegations made against it, the notice sent by KBF’s lawyer says that the people who sent the initial notice have “no right to comment or state on my client’s administrative capacity and fiscal prudence”.
One of the points Appu Thomas raised in his legal notice to KBF was the absence of a written agreement or a work order. The notice stated that KBF had asked Thomas Clery Infrastructures and Developers Pvt Ltd to start working “without any written agreement or work order, though you (KBF) promised that these documents would be executed in due course of time”.
While KBF made it clear in their notice that they never intended to document the work in the first place, the disrespect was abundantly clear when it stated that “the client (Appu Thomas’s company) is akin to someone who erects tents, pandals and scaffoldings for household functions like weddings etc on payment”.
“My client instructs that they had never entered into a contractual obligation with your client because as far as my client is concerned your client is only a small-time facilitator who arranges and erects hired infrastructure on demand and for payment,” KBF’s notice read.
What’s striking in the dismissive tone taken by KBF is that ‘such’ people are undeserving of documentation, and are no more than handymen, who are available anywhere, and deserve nothing except daily wages.
Appu Thomas’s notice stated that the Pavilion at Cabral Yard, which required certain preparatory work, was prone to cost escalations if it were to be executed in a short time frame. However, it did not elicit any response from KBF. Appu also stated that although KBF had requested for an alternative design to the concept model by the architect, the Biennale’s curator Anita Dube had rejected this proposal.
To this, KBF’s response - “your client had no status other than following instructions for which he was more than amply compensated” - almost sounds like a favour.
The cherry on the cake, however, is KBF reminding Appu Thomas and the workers that it is not “within his rank or station”.
“My client also requests you to advise and remind your client (Appu Thomas) that he is only a works facilitator, who has been entrusted with Biennale work and it is not within his rank or station to preach to the Trustees of KBF or to their representatives especially after enjoying their patronage,” it states.
Incidentally, the theme for the 2019 Biennale - ‘Possibilities for a Non-Alienated Life’ - claims to be inclusive; but for now, KBF makes it abundantly clear that a non-alienated life may remain just that — a possibility.