The Point is to Change It

Trump’s trashing of the Paris Climate Accord makes it clear: we can't be satisfied with art about the political, art must change it

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.

‘No Trump, Yes Paris’ projection organized by Greenpeace, Warsaw, 5 July 2017. Photograph: Konrad Konstantynowicz, Flickr, Creative Commons

‘No Trump, Yes Paris’ projection organized by Greenpeace, Warsaw, 5 July 2017. Photograph: Konrad Konstantynowicz, Flickr, Creative Commons

‘No Trump, Yes Paris’ projection organized by Greenpeace, Warsaw, 5 July 2017. Photograph: Konrad Konstantynowicz, Flickr, Creative Commons

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.

Liberate Tate, Human Cost, 2011, performance documentation. Photograph: Amy Scaife

Liberate Tate, Human Cost, 2011, performance documentation. Photograph: Amy Scaife

Liberate Tate, Human Cost, 2011, performance documentation. Photograph: Amy Scaife

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.

Liberate Tate, The Gift, 2012, performance documentation. Photograph: Martin LeSanto-Smith

Liberate Tate, The Gift, 2012, performance documentation. Photograph: Martin LeSanto-Smith

Liberate Tate, The Gift, 2012, performance documentation. Photograph: Martin LeSanto-Smith

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.

Liberate Tate, Time Piece, 2015, performance documentation. Photograph: Martin Le Santo-Smith

Liberate Tate, Time Piece, 2015, performance documentation. Photograph: Martin LeSanto-Smith

Liberate Tate, Time Piece, 2015, performance documentation. Photograph: Martin LeSanto-Smith

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.

Night-time guerrilla projection onto the Guggenheim Museum, New York, 27 April 2016, carried out by Gulf Labor Coalition, Clobal Ultra Luxury Faction, Occupy Museus and The Illuminator. Courtesy: Global Ultra Luxury Faction (GULF), The Illuminator.

Night-time guerrilla projection onto the Guggenheim Museum, New York, 27 April 2016, carried out by Gulf Labor Coalition, Global Ultra Luxury Faction, Occupy Museums and The Illuminator. Courtesy: Global Ultra Luxury Faction (GULF), The Illuminator.

Night-time guerrilla projection onto the Guggenheim Museum, New York, 27 April 2016, carried out by Gulf Labor Coalition, Global Ultra Luxury Faction, Occupy Museums and The Illuminator. Courtesy: Global Ultra Luxury Faction (GULF), The Illuminator.

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.

Molly Crabapple, Our Lady of Liberty Park, 2013. Courtesy: the artist, Creative Commons

Molly Crabapple, Our Lady of Liberty Park, 2013. Courtesy: the artist, Creative Commons

Molly Crabapple, Our Lady of Liberty Park, 2013. Courtesy: the artist, Creative Commons

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 an artist and campaigner with Liberate Tate – an art collective that has organized unsanctioned live-art interventions in Tate galleries. She is the author of Artwash: Big Oil and the Arts (Pluto, 2015).

Most Read

From a tribute to Straub/Huillet to Valerie Massadian’s portrait of teenage motherhood, the turn to real situations and...
Japan’s growing number of art festivals tread a precarious path between state-sponsored leisure-culture and soft-power...
Fifty years after the term was coined, a show in Samos reflects on ‘the unlikely liaison between love and politics’
In the Rocky Mountains resort town, boutique facades hide the remnants of a surprising counterculture 
Pussy Riot members detained; Pope.L launches ‘Flint Water Project’; Ghetto Biennale participating artists announced
Arsenale and Giardini, Venice, Italy
SoundCloud has been invaluable to the new music community for both documentation and discovery – now the audio-...
The extraordinary life of the late, great, gallerist and collector Alexander Iolas
Various venues, New York, USA
At a time of instantaneous information and fetishized immersivity, artists are evoking scent as an alchemical, bodily...
With her current show at Gasworks, London, the Kuwaiti artist shares some influential images
20 years after Hong Kong’s handover to China, a new generation of artists dive into the city-state’s unknown futures...
‘Klassensprachen’ engaged artists, writers and publishers in soul-searching around the interlinking of class, language...
In lieu of institutional support, artists are working together to achieve a remarkable self-sufficiency
From being citizens to lovers, the most important things in life can’t be professionalized. Is it time for some...
From an inflatable anti-capitalist dragon to the shattered shadow of Robert Burns: highlights from this year’s...
The City of London’s annual sculpture park reveals the complex interplay between global corporations, urban space and ‘...
Romare Bearden, Pittsburgh Memory, 1964, mixed media collage and graphite on board, 22 x 30 cm. Courtesy: © Romare Bearden Foundation / DACS, London / VAGA, New York 2017
Successfully layering a broader socio-historical narrative onto a period of radical non-conformity, this is an...
Trump’s trashing of the Paris Climate Accord makes it clear: we can't be satisfied with art about the political, art...
With a strong surrealist strain, and including a welcome number of female artists, highlights from the 48th edition of...

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

April 2017

frieze magazine

May 2017

frieze magazine

June – August 2017