As an organisation that combines arts, activism and research with a pretty hefty focus on the damage caused by UK oil companies, we were super-excited to have a flick through the third issue of an online arts magazineMAKE8ELIEVE, that aims to “build international connections by publishing creative interpretations of one topic per issue.”
It’s a 254 page, full colour labour of love, with submissions from many different artists with a dizzying variety of practices. Campaigners on oil issues would do well to have a browse and draw inspiration from the creativity of the contributions rather than falling back on what can become quite a tired pallet of images and associations that evoke the impacts of the global oil industry.
It’s particularly great to see Liberate Tate‘s dramatic participatory and unsolicited The Gift that took place in Tate Modern last July, and involved the installation of a 16 metre wind turbine blade as a reaction to Tate’s ongoing and increasingly controversial sponsorship relationship with BP. You can browse this stunning publication below (Liberate Tate can be seen on pages 151-161), or visit the MAKE8ELIEVE site for more info on the artists.
“The fact that BP had one major incident in 2010 does not mean we should not be taking support from them.” Nicholas Serota, Director, Tate.
On 14 January 2012 Liberate Tate carried out another unofficial performance highlighting Tate’s complicity in BP’s ongoing controversial oil extraction practices around the world. At 6.30pm at the Occupy London protest camp at St Paul’s Cathedral four veiled figures dressed in black lifted a 55kg chunk of Arctic ice onto a sledge and walked it in procession across the Thames on the Millennium Bridge and into the Tate Modern Turbine Hall.
ecoartscotland is a resource focused on art and ecology for artists, curators, critics, commissioners as well as scientists and policy makers. It includes ecoartscotland papers, a mix of discussions of works by artists and critical theoretical texts, and serves as a curatorial platform.
Image left: Bidon arme (Loaded Drum), 2004 Romuald Hazoume Right: Treebike – image from the International freecard alliance for World Environment day, 5 June 2009
An exhibition that I stumbled upon accidentally a few months ago has stayed with me. On a visit to the Irish Museum of Modern in April 2011 I came across African artist Romuald Hazoume’s very thought provoking and surprisingly enjoyable installations of ‘masks’, sculptures, documentary film and photography work.
"Mon Général", 1992 by Hazoume
Romuald Hazoumè, one of Africa’s most important visual artists, creates playful sculptures and masks made from discarded plastic canisters commonly found in his native Benin (a small country neighbouring Nigeria) for transporting black-market petrol (known as kpayo) from Nigeria. As can be seen in his image (above left) these jerry cans are expanded over flames to increase their fuel-carry capacity, sometimes to excess resulting in fatal explosions. Hazoume’s work richly references mask making culture from his African heritage to commenting on his country’s predicament of being caught up in the day-to-day and often unacknowledged misery of the global fossil fuel industry. His work is engaging on very many levels and to a wide audience; from children who love the use of his found objects to adults that can see the political concerns in his work, to others who see a continuation of identity expressed in local materials made into masks. ‘Hazoumé has used the cans as a potent metaphor for all forms of slavery, past and present, drawing parallels with the vessels’ role as crucial but faceless units within commercial systems, dangerously worked to breaking point before being discarded (Tate Modern, 2007)
From across this side of the planet my own work attempts to touch some of these concerns too. My long term project the hollywood diaries to transform our conifer plantation to a permanent forest has real long term energy returns as we are very shortly to discontinue use of oil for our home heating (a common and increasingly expensive form of domestic heating in Ireland) and use our never-ending supply of forest thinnings. In fact, I was startled to learn recently from my forestry contacts, that our ongoing selective harvesting to keep the forest vibrant and encourage the native tree seedlings to flourish, will mean that we’ll have 70 tonnes of wood every three to four years from our small two acres!! Crikey!
The image on the above right, Treebike, is a pointer to this month’s global day of cycling, Moving Planet lead by Bill McKibben and his global 350.org organisation to invite us all to get on our bikes this Sept 24th, 2011. I’ve always been amazed at the huge response to these events and how often the arts help mobilise such activities.
‘Circle September 24 on your calendar–that’s the day for what we’re calling Moving Planet: a day to move beyond fossil fuels…
On 24 September we’ll be figuring out the most meaningful ways to make the climate message move, literally. We’ll show that we can use our hands, our feet, and our hearts to spur real change. In many places, people will ride bicycles, one of the few tools used by both affluent and poor people around the world. Other places people will be marching, dancing, running, or kayaking, or skateboarding. Imagine the spectacle: thousands of people encircling national capitals, state houses, city halls.
But we won’t just be cycling or marching–we’ll also be delivering a strong set of demands that can have real political impact.”
Note: some of you might be aware that I have returned to art college to undertake in-depth research on experimental film and ecology in the last year – if you want to follow along, my research site is www.ecoartfilm.com
I’ve recently created a small film sketch on how our small conifer plantation is being transformed, comments welcome!!
An Arts & Ecology Notebook, by Cathy Fitzgerald, whose work exists as ongoing research and is continually inspired to create short films, photographic documentation, and writings. While she interacts with foresters, scientists, and communities, she aims to create a sense of a personal possibility, responsibility and engagement in her local environment that also connects to global environmental concerns. Go to An Arts and Ecology Notebook
In May 2010, a group calling themselves Liberate Tate released black helium balloons carrying ‘oil-slicked’ dead fish and model birds to the upper airspace of Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall during the gallery’s BP sponsored birthday party. A movement was born. Gushing from floral skirts, spilling elegantly from giant white eggs, jetting from paint tubes across the floor of the iconic Tate Turbine Hall, the flood of oily resistance that followed has generated a fierce debate in the art world around oil, ethics and sponsorship.
Impressed, PLATFORM stepped up to argue the case, launching the campaign Licence to Spill, with support from over 171 artists. We argue that the oil corporations’ stamp on these hefty cultural institutions buys it a badge of acceptability, a social licence to operate. This quietly smooths over decades of ecological damage and devastating impacts on communities that are living with oil extraction.
In January 2011, during five days in a Central London art space, we will exhibit artifacts, images and videos from the work of the Liberate Tate collective, and host workshops to actively engage the public. We will explore the power of aesthetic interventions to disturb, re-vision and re-form the relationships between artist, institution, sponsor and viewer. This project is about celebrating resistance to big oil sponsorship deals. It’s about creating a dynamic and exciting space for people to learn, discuss, make, plot, strategize and empower themselves. We believe art is not just a mechanism to reveal the world, but also a force to change it. We will widely promote and advertise the event to ensure that the mainstream art world engages with the issues, and that their is a visible point for new people to get involved in whatever way they can.
In a time of massive public funding cuts in the we know this campaign is going to face critics. But if artists fold at the feet of big oil when they flash their cash, who exactly do we expect will stand up to them?
Chinese artist Ai Weiwei carpeted the floor of the Turbine Hall with 100 million porcelain seeds and invited the public to walk across them.
But within days of the work’s grand unveiling, staff reported a fine dust rising from the seeds as people crunched them underfoot. According to health and safety experts, prolonged exposure to the dust could exacerbate conditions such as as asthma.
More from the Guardian on the relationship of BP to the Tate Modern…
Tate director Nicholas Serota needs to consider this risk carefully. Does his institution want to be associated with one of the world’s biggest single sources of pollution? One that has actively lobbied to undermine clean energy, pouring huge sums into industry groups that campaign to lower carbon taxes and weaken climate legislation? BP’s alternative energy business is a plaything of former boss Lord Browne that has been consigned to the corporate rubbish tip. For these reasons and others, BP is certain to remain the focus of environmental resistance and public anger for years to come. Similarly, those who choose to lend the company an air of acceptability by receiving corporate sponsorship will continue to be seen as legitimate targets for protest around the world. This movement is still in its infancy, but will only gather in strength.
I got invited to a facebook event the other day. It was a protest. It instructed attendees to wear black and march up San Francisco’s Market Street in a statement against the ongoing BP oil spill. And for the first time in my adult life, I found myself wondering “Why protest?” Nothing makes a statement quite like hundreds of thousands of crude oil flooding the gulf. No amount of marching equals the dramatic impact of the loss of marine life and fisheries. The spill is not suffering from a lack of media coverage: it’s a constant point of discussion on blogs, television news broadcasts, The Daily Show. In the same way that the Exxon corporation has become synonymous with the Exxon Valdez spill, so this spill will haunt the reputation of BP, and justifiably so. Why march? Why not, say, collect natural fibers for booms and send them to the gulf, to aid in the cleanup effort?
I had a similar reaction to Rising Tide’s recent “Liberate Tate” action. The organization sent a letter to Tate Modern Museum officials, stating:
By placing the words BP and Art together, the destructive and obsolete nature of the fossil fuel industry is masked, and crimes against the future are given a slick and stainless sheen.
It goes on to threaten:
Beginning during your 10th anniversary party and continuing until you drop the sponsorship deal, we will be commissioning a series of art interventions in Tate buildings across the country. Already commissioned are Art Action collective, with a birthday surprise at this weekend’s No Soul For Sale event, and The Invisible Committee, who will infiltrate every corner of Tate across the country in the coming months.
That No Soul for Salesurprise involved hanging balloons of oil in several Tate galleries and littering them with dead birds, forcing portions of the exhibition to close. The blogs Liberal Conspiracy, Art Threat and Indymedia UK touted the action as powerful and appropriate. In the meantime, museum workers were attempting a cleanup of their own artful oil spill.
PLATFORM London argues:
A decade ago tobacco companies were seen as respectable partners for public institutions to gain support from – the current BP Portrait Award at the National Portrait Gallery was previously sponsored by British American Tobacco. Now it is socially unacceptable for tobacco to play this public role, and it is our hope that oil & gas will soon be seen in the same light.
The Liberate Tate action is the brainchild of John Jordan, a former co-director of PLATFORM and the co-founder of the Laboratory of Insurrectionary Imagination (Labofii). It’s his feeling that arts funding should come from “taxes not corporations,” despite the fact that the British government is reducing arts subsidies. While “Liberate Tate” has no alternative-funding actions planned, Jordan cites’ the Tate’s budgetary silence: “Even if we did find other funders who could take their place, we would never know how much were talking!” In the meantime, “Liberate Tate” will continue to pummel the museum with insurrectionary actions.
I live in California: my taxes don’t fund the Tate. I can similarly not regard the Tate as my neighbor. But I am an employee of a San Francisco museum, and as such I can’t help but feel a bit of sympathy for the Tate, a bit of shock. Seriously? We’re going to punish art institutions for the crimes of its funders? And simultaneously: seriously? BP is just now starting to use natural fiber booms? Why shouldn’t corporations fund initiatives that seek to reconcile their most grievous errors, like Tate’s Rising to the Climate Challenge? Or are the taxpayers to shoulder the burden of cultural advancement, as they will shoulder the burden of the oil spill’s ecological cleanup?
To be fair, Jordan took the issue up with Tate officials directly before beginning the “Liberate Tate” campaign, engaging with director Nicolas Serota via a forum led by the Guardian, and emailing director Penelope Curtis,
Does what takes place outside the citadel that is Tate not feature in the decision-making of the Ethics Committee? If not, is that Committee held back from doing what is right by legal restrictions forcing it to act only in the interests of Tate itself? If so, how can we help change that situation?
This in response to Curtis’ statement that
Without BP’s support Tate would be less able to show the collection in a changing and stimulating way.Given that the majority of Tate’ s funding is self generated, it is necessary for the gallery to work across a wide range of corporate organisations and the sponsorship policy is regularly reviewed by the Trustees. The points you raise are important ones.
Jordan is well versed in disobedience against art institutions: the Nikolaj Copenhagen Contemporary Art Center dropped a workshop led by the Labofii when it became clear the the resulting “tools of civil disobedience” were to be used in COP15 actions. The Art Center feared a clash with the City of Copenhagen, a funder of the museum. Similarly, participants in Labofii’s “Art and Activism” workshop at the Tate Museum learned largely about actions against Tate and its funders, specifically because the Tate stated, in workshop preparations, that it could not host any such actions. The resulting insurrection hung a large “Art Not Oil” sign under the Tate’s “Free Entry” welcome.
In an age where environmental artists are using their skills to solve problems both cultural and ecological, are protest and disobedience really the most useful tools in the box? Or are they just the most dramatic? If there are artists working in soil health, reforestation, and urban gardening, can we not also have administrative artists? Where are the massive bureaucratic art “actions”? And, finally: who would be willing to donate 10 pounds to the Tate for every 5 pounds of BP funding dropped from its budget?
The strategy is to create enough of a mass movement to make people feel it’s OK to make changes in their life, and to give Ed M. the kick in the pants he requires to move forward. I’m not sure how successful the event was in achieving that. It was great to get the front page ofThe Guardian and a page in The Sun but because news of the event was sprung on most people yesterday, the event seemed a little thinly attended. It didn’t feel like the mass movement we need – not yet anway. It felt mostly like people a bit like me.
It’ll be interesting to see how many people have signed the pledge online…
[Takes a look]
6,472 so far. Less than one in ten thousand.
It may be early days, but given how well it was publicised, and the readership of media partners, The Sun and The Guardian, I would say that’s a little disappointing but I’ll leave the last word to the hardcore transitionist at the end who said, “When you see lots of other people getting involved it gives you confidence that you’re not a freak, you’re not out on your own.”