When President Trump announced the US departure from the Paris Climate Accord on 1 June 2017, his enjoyment at walking over the efforts of national delegations and hundreds of pressure groups across the world who fought for that deal was palpable. I was in Paris in December 2015 during the negotiations, when the possibility of a global agreement was merely that, a fragile potential. Trump’s manoeuvre displays the Accord’s fragility even now, and underscores the challenge repeatedly chanted by activists at UN Climate Change conferences: government agreements alone cannot solve the climate crisis while multinational corporations remain unaccountable.
In Paris, many major fossil fuel companies were targeted by protests. At the Louvre, in the final days of the talks, I joined hundreds of people to demand that the gallery sever ties with oil company sponsors Total and Eni. We were gathered out of concern both for the climate as well as the contaminating presence of the oil company in the gallery, and its potential to toxify the community of artistic practice of which we are part. When oil companies enter the gallery, all our ethics are at stake.
Inside the gallery’s main foyer, beneath the infamous glass pyramid, 10 performers (myself included) launched an intervention in which, barefooted, we slowly walked outwards from a pool of oil-like molasses, spreading the imprint of the oil sponsors more visibly through the gallery space, beyond their crisp logos engraved on the walls. Following the performance, police arrested all 10 of us, and from inside jail in Paris, we sneakily uploaded a video to Youtube explaining our actions.
Neither argument nor aesthetics were without precedent: as part of the UK-based art collective Liberate Tate (2010-ongoing), many of us have been practising a blend of art and activism as a powerful intervention in oil sponsorship relationships within both the spaces and the discourses of the contemporary art museum. In 2016, after six years and 16 artworks in which we called on Tate to drop BP as sponsor, Liberate Tate was successful. We showed that strategic art interventions can bring about change.
Our artworks included Human Cost (2011), performed, unsanctioned, inside Tate Britain’s ‘Single Form’ exhibition: a lone male nude lay motionless in a foetal position on the polished stone floor; two figures dressed in black poured an oil-like substance over his body from BP canisters, marking the first anniversary of the BP disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. In 2012 we performed The Gift: the assembly of a 16.5-metre-long wind turbine blade inside Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, and the presentation of this artwork as a ‘Gift to the Nation’ under the 1992 Museum and Galleries Act.
In 2015 we produced several performances, ramping up the pressure of our campaign, including Time Piece, a 25-hour durational performance where 100 performers transcribed rising waves of texts on art, oil and climate up the slope of the Turbine Hall; and in Birthmark, an ongoing project that originally responded to Tate Britain’s ‘BP Walk Through British Art’ display, performers receive a permanent tattoo of the parts-per-million of carbon dioxide in the year of their birth, followed by a ‘<’ guillemet, indicating the ensuing, dangerous rise within their lifetime.
What happens when artists produce political work? Either it is exhibited by a gallery, or the artists take the means and production of display into their own hands. For Liberate Tate, the display takes place through unsanctioned interventions within the gallery space. For others, this unsanctioned display might be found in the street, or other spaces somehow understood as ‘public’. Gregory Sholette’s new book Delirium and Resistance (Pluto, 2017) is a timely contribution to this ongoing global conversation between several generations of art activists around the ways in which their practice weaves between the contexts of art display, political campaigning and social movements.
Sholette traces an important genealogy of practice grounded in the historical influence of the Situationist International and incorporating significant contemporary contributions ranging from the Art Workers’ Coalition, a movement of artists which challenged New York galleries on racism and sexism as well as resisted the Vietnam War, or Critical Art Ensemble, a collective tackling multiple social issues through commissioned art exhibitions, through to Gulf Labor Artist Coalition (Sholette is a member) which challenges the problematic labour practices in the construction of Guggenheim Abu Dhabi through confrontational dialogue with Guggenheim New York.
Sholette embraces the complex, creative and political opportunities afforded by collaborative practice, as radical reaction to the relentless focus on the ‘artist as auteur’ still pushed by countless art schools. By working collectively, artists can offer prefigurative models of real democracy. Certainly for Liberate Tate, the practice of working together was fundamental to the success of the campaign to end BP sponsorship of Tate. When BP persuaded Tate directors to sign a five-year contract in 2011, shortly after our initial spate of performance interventions, they may have thought a five-year slog would dissuade us of our aim. It was the power of collectivity that enabled Liberate Tate to outlive BP at Tate, and remove the guise of social acceptability ascribed to a multinational company by a major art institution.
I have often wondered: when we talk of ‘social practice’ or ‘socially engaged art’, where and when do we start talking about social change? Sholette criticises the genre of social practice for making ‘the social itself a medium and material of expression’, rather than a malleable process in which to take action. This is precisely the challenge to artists and activists, however they self-identify, facing today’s set of political, social and environmental challenges: not merely to make art about the political, or even within the social, but to make art that can radically alter the social and political possibilities presented to us.
Sholette sees a troubling shift over the last decade from interventionist art to a socially-engaged practice that seeks small-scale remedies to many of Western society’s malaises, from bees declining to social housing in disrepair. I would counter that this hasn’t been the sole result of artists engaging with politics outside the gallery. Looking at the aesthetics of highly-effective British political campaigns, from UK Uncut to Sisters Uncut, Liberate Tate and Art Not Oil, and indeed in the US, the role of art in Occupy Wall Street itself, there is also a trajectory from interventionist art to powerful visual cultures driving strategic political campaigns.
Back in Paris – which Trump visited last week and where he suggested that he might reconsider his withdrawal from the Accord – a new collective Libérons Le Louvre have since emerged with a set of striking performance interventions, continuing to pressure the art establishment to stop serving the interests of the corporations responsible for the climate crisis. In March, calling for an end to the sponsorship deal with Total, activists scattered the museum’s marble staircase with black scarves and shirts, in a choreographed performance that evoked an oil spill. The role of artists and galleries to shape and embody cultural and political shifts remains a contested and fertile domain.
Main Image: Liberate Tate, Human Cost, 2011, performance documentation. Photograph: Amy Scaife
Mel Evans is a writer, activist, artist and part of Liberate Tate. Her book Artwash: Big Oil and the Arts (Pluto Press, 2015) examines the function and impact of oil sponsorship. She has been involved in climate activism since 2005.