Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.
After six years of Liberate Tate spilling oil, squirting paint tubes, flapping huge squares of cloth, counting carbon levels with our voices, learning how to give tattoos, installing giant wind turbine blades and melting Arctic ice, we learned last week that the Tate-BP relationship was over. Here’s some of what we learned from our efforts to push big oil out of the arts.
Our work on Tate is about trying to kick some of the supporting legs out from underneath BP’s chair – taking a relationship that nurtures and sustains BP and transforming it into one that was actively damaging for the company.
The oil firm takes great pains to cultivate these long-standing sponsorship arrangements as part of developing its ‘social licence to operate.’ This is an industry terms for the conditions that companies need to carry out their practices regardless of the social or environmental consequences.
BP’s business model explicitly relies on smashing through safe limitations on the extent of climate change, yet it still isn’t widely regarded as a corporate pariah. Our work in the last six years has been about embodying and amplifying that central fact. As anyone who’s ever confronted board members at the company’s AGM can attest, BP is quite slick at absorbing head-on criticism and quite comfortable with the fact that it is trashing the planet.
Photo: Martin LeSanto Smith
BP has had falling profits recently, but those profits are still enormous. The few hundred thousand pounds a year it was paying to Tate for all that greenwash was (probably) how much money it was spending on fresh fruit and danish pastries for executive meetings over the course of a year. Despite the ‘challenging business environment’, it still managed to award its CEO a 25 per cent pay rise to £8.3 million last year. And it says it’s still planning on sponsoring other arts institutions. So there’s clearly something else about the Tate relationship – and that something is relentless art interventions, extensive critical media coverage and public outcry.
So there are two possible scenarios here behind the PR spin of the official story. Tate decided it didn’t want to continue with all the bad publicity it was getting and the internal conflict it was provoking amongst staff, or BP decided that it was only getting negative headlines for the money it was paying. Either way – a great result!
Photo: Amy Scaife
While we’ve been busy trying to push Tate to drop BP, the divestment movement has blown up in different countries around the world. Addressing fossil fuel sponsorship employs an identical logic – that stigmatising oil companies is a way of undermining the power base from which they operate.
Art galleries like Tate have a similar prestige to universities, in terms of institutions that are supposed to be progressive and are widely admired, and that should be at the forefront in taking distance from companies that are fundamentally destructive. Addressing cultural sponsorship dovetails perfectly into university and faith groups divesting – it’s a pincer movement squeezing out oil, coal and gas everywhere possible.
Photo: Amy Scaife
The identity of Liberate Tate has been useful for us to position ourselves as critical but fundamentally friendly towards Tate. We wanted to be on the same side as all the many people who visited and loved Tate, but who felt uncomfortable with having oil company logos popping up all over. So we’re ecstatic that BP has been pushed out of Tate, but it would be naive to ignore all sorts of other unaddressed issues at Tate.
For starters, we’d like to see Tate join other arts institutions in adopting a fundraising policy that explicitly excludes oil money. But there are also structural issues around race and class, there’s the fact that Tate has such a disproportionate say and influence in the arts ecosystem, there’s a variety of labour issues that the PCS union has been raising, and there are issues about the ethics and impacts of other sponsors. It was recently announced that Uniqlo is a new Tate sponsor – a clothing company that has been accused of severely mistreating workers.
And given that by far the largest chunk of money for Tate comes from taxpayers, public bodies like Tate should be transparent and accountable. It’s ridiculous that Tate fought so hard at the Information Tribunal to prevent the public from knowing how much money it was getting from BP. The fact that former BP CEO John Browne is sitting for another round as chair of Tate trustees sends out a message that Tate is far more interested in cosying up to the corporate sector than it is in being responsive to the general public.
Photo: Martin LeSanto Smith
Visitors to these spaces enter with a curious and inquiring mindset, cultivating an atmosphere made for bold and challenging interventions. And, architecturally speaking, we’ve explored every nook and cranny of Tate spaces to make our work dramatically site-specific. The elegant atrium of Tate Britain surrounded by arches was perfect for us to slowly toss specially designed bank notes to flutter down to the entry hall below as part of ‘The Reveal’. It felt like Tate was a public space that was ideal for reclaiming and, for whatever reason, we were able to walk away from acts that could have been very ‘arrestable’ in other circumstances.
It’s also worth considering that from a sponsorship point of view, controversial companies pay money to have access to the ‘special publics’ – influential figures in the cultural sector, government, media and business – that these institutions attract. When you make interventions in these spaces, you’re also engaging in dialogue with that sector, and for a lot less money. And, if you want to conduct a corporate campaign, the sponsorship relationship provides all manner of opportunities to very publicly expose dirty laundry.
Photo: Martin LeSanto Smith
Art activism is sometimes sneered at by artists for being too crude and didactic, or for just committing the cardinal sin of being unfashionably socially engaged. Or it can be disrespected by activists for not being confrontational enough, or for being too obtuse in the way it approaches issues. Liberate Tate’s practice evolved so that everything was always intentioned with an aim to affect change, but everything was conceived, rehearsed and executed as live art.
Sometimes that involved some of us consciously stepping back from activist identities and allowing ideas to breathe and mutate before we felt they could be performed. Our 25 hour durational performance of ‘Time Piece’, which involved transcribing passages from books on climate, art and oil in charcoal on the floor of the Turbine Hall, started out as an entirely separate idea before it transformed into the eventual piece, with not one of the original features still in place.
We wanted to create work that casual gallery-goers would feel pleased to stumble upon and pieces that many of the staff working in Tate would feel professionally pleased to have hosted, despite the edicts on BP sponsorship from on high.
Photo: Immo Klink
When Liberate Tate really got going, BP’s Deepwater Horizon disaster was still pumping countless gallons of crude oil out into the Gulf of Mexico. As oil gushed in the Gulf, at Tate’s summer party celebrating 20 years of BP sponsorship the good and great of the art world were re-routed into the building to avoid the gallons of an oil-like substance that was poured all over the entrance. Before 2010 it was only the climate activist group Rising Tide who had carried out a series of protests under the banner of Art Not Oil, while Platform had articulated analysis that had promoted the concept of tackling oil companies and the social licence to operate.
Six years later, in the UK other groups like BP or Not BP and Shell Out Sounds have popped up to pressure other institutions like the British Museum, while big NGOs like Greenpeace have recognized the value of undermining the social licence to operate in campaigns like the successful attempt to disrupt the relationship between Shell and Lego.
Meanwhile, internationally, a fossil-free culture movement is emerging. In Norway a group of artists are making waves over Statoil’s cultural sponsorship programme, and in the US the Natural History Museum collective have been touring an exhibition that prompted the notorious billionaire climate denier David Koch to step down from the board of the Museum of Natural History. In Australia, artists and activists are saying that the integrity of the Darwin festival is being undermined by the sponsorship of a company that wants to frack in the Northern Territory. And in the week following Tate’s announcement, a Fossil Free Culture group popped up in the Netherlands, where Shell is heavily invested in many of the prominent museums. This has become much bigger than just BP and Tate: it’s about society’s rapidly changing attitude towards fossil fuels.
What if it's not us who are sick, asks Rod Tweedy, but a system at odds with who we are as social beings?
Survivors of the fire are still relying on thousands of community volunteers, writes Dan Renwick - but the failed council is plotting a comeback
The people could reach a democratic and non-violent solution if they were freed from US meddling, argues Boaventura de Sousa Santos
A decade after the start of the crash, economic power is in our hands – we must take it, writes Ann Pettifor
Nick Dowson looks at the new wave of co-ops and community groups where people are building their own truly affordable homes
Hsiao-Hung Pai meets people affected by the fire, and finds sadness and suffering mixed with a continuing wariness of the official investigations
Chris Williamson MP, winner of the election's tightest marginal, Derby North, and recently reappointed shadow minister for fire services, talks to Ashish Ghadiali about Jeremy Corbyn, the housing crisis and winning from the left
The Corbyn-supporting group is preparing for another election at any moment, writes Adam Peggs – and now has the potential to create powerful training initiatives, union links and party reform efforts
With the rise of Corbyn, is there still a place for the Green Party?
Former Green principal speaker Derek Wall says the party may struggle in the battle for votes, but can still be important in the battle of ideas
Fearless Cities: the new urban movements
A wave of new municipalist movements has been experimenting with how to take – and transform – power in cities large and small. Bertie Russell and Oscar Reyes report on the growing success of radical urban politics around the world
A musical fightback against school arts cuts
Elliot Clay on why his new musical turns the spotlight on the damage austerity has done to arts education, through the story of one school band's battle
Neoliberalism: the break-up tour
Sarah Woods and Andrew Simms ask why, given the trail of destruction it has left, we are still dancing to the neoliberal tune
Cat Smith MP: ‘Jeremy Corbyn has authenticity. You can’t fake that’
Cat Smith, shadow minister for voter engagement and youth affairs and one of the original parliamentary backers of Corbyn’s leadership, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali
To stop the BBC interviewing climate deniers, we need to make climate change less boring
To stop cranks like Lord Lawson getting airtime, we need to provoke more interesting debates around climate change than whether it's real or not, writes Leo Barasi
Tory Glastonbury? Money can’t buy you cultural relevance
Adam Peggs on why the left has more fun
Essay: After neoliberalism, what next?
There are economically-viable, socially-desirable alternatives to the failed neoliberal economic model, writes Jayati Ghosh
With the new nuclear ban treaty, it’s time to scrap Trident – and spend the money on our NHS
As a doctor, I want to see money spent on healthcare not warfare, writes David McCoy - Britain should join the growing international movement for disarmament
Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India
Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India, by Shashi Tharoor, reviewed by Ian Sinclair
A Death Retold in Truth and Rumour
A Death Retold in Truth and Rumour: Kenya, Britain and the Julie Ward Murder, by Grace A Musila, reviewed by Allen Oarbrook
‘We remembered that convictions can inspire and motivate people’: interview with Lisa Nandy MP
The general election changed the rules, but there are still tricky issues for Labour to face, Lisa Nandy tells Ashish Ghadiali
Everything you know about Ebola is wrong
Vicky Crowcroft reviews Ebola: How a People’s Science Helped End an Epidemic, by Paul Richards
Job vacancy: Red Pepper is looking for an online editor
Closing date for applications: 1 September.
Theresa May’s new porn law is ridiculous – but dangerous
The law is almost impossible to enforce, argues Lily Sheehan, but it could still set a bad precedent
Interview: Queer British Art
James O'Nions talks to author Alex Pilcher about the Tate’s Queer British Art exhibition and her book A Queer Little History of Art
Cable the enabler: new Lib Dem leader shows a party in crisis
Vince Cable's stale politics and collusion with the Conservatives belong in the dustbin of history, writes Adam Peggs
Anti-Corbyn groupthink and the media: how pundits called the election so wrong
Reporting based on the current consensus will always vastly underestimate the possibility of change, argues James Fox
Michael Cashman: Commander of the Blairite Empire
Lord Cashman, a candidate in Labour’s internal elections, claims to stand for Labour’s grassroots members. He is a phony, writes Cathy Cole
Contribute to Conter – the new cross-party platform linking Scottish socialists
Jonathan Rimmer, editor of Conter, says it’s time for a new non-sectarian space for Scottish anti-capitalists and invites you to take part
Editorial: Empire will eat itself
Ashish Ghadiali introduces the June/July issue of Red Pepper
Eddie Chambers: Black artists and the DIY aesthetic
Eddie Chambers, artist and art historian, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali about the cultural strategies that he, as founder of the Black Art Group, helped to define in the 1980s
Despite Erdogan, Turkey is still alive
With this year's referendum consolidating President Erdogan’s autocracy in Turkey, Nazim A argues that the way forward for democrats lies in a more radical approach
Red Pepper Race Section: open editorial meeting – 11 August in Leeds
The next open editorial meeting of the Red Pepper Race Section will take place between 3.30-5.30pm, Friday 11th August in Leeds.
Mogg-mentum? Thatcherite die-hard Jacob Rees-Mogg is no man of the people
Adam Peggs says Rees-Mogg is no joke – he is a living embodiment of Britain's repulsive ruling elite
Power to the renters: Turning the tide on our broken housing system
Heather Kennedy, from the Renters Power Project, argues it’s time to reject Thatcher’s dream of a 'property-owning democracy' and build renters' power instead
Your vote can help Corbyn supporters win these vital Labour Party positions
Left candidate Seema Chandwani speaks to Red Pepper ahead of ballot papers going out to all members for a crucial Labour committee
Join the Rolling Resistance to the frackers
Al Wilson invites you to take part in a month of anti-fracking action in Lancashire with Reclaim the Power
The Grenfell public inquiry must listen to the residents who have been ignored for so long
Councils handed housing over to obscure, unaccountable organisations, writes Anna Minton – now we must hear the voices they silenced
India: Modi’s ‘development model’ is built on violence and theft from the poorest
Development in India is at the expense of minorities and the poor, writes Gargi Battacharya