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Photo: Philip Grey
The voices of the children rang out through the National Portrait Gallery: ‘We are the ones who will inherit the mistakes you make,’ they said, as onlookers quickly gathered. ‘We are the ones who can’t drink oil and can’t eat money.’
This was an action I took part in last weekend enabling a group of children to directly challenge BP, and voice their concerns about climate change. The children, who devised the intervention themselves, are members of a group called Children Against Global Warming.
It was part of a day of protests on Sunday 13 September organised by Art Not Oil, involved 16 different groups performing stunts and interventions, aimed at getting the British Museum, the Tate, the National Portrait Gallery and the Royal Opera House to not renew their sponsorship deals with BP in 2016.
Twice they stood up unannounced and occupied space at the British Museum and the National Portrait Gallery, the latter next to a BP-sponsored exhibition titled ‘The Next Generation’. At a time when their future depends on a move away from fossil fuels fast, who better placed to direct their concerns to the companies continuing to ignore these warnings than the very generation who find themselves most at risk?
Working with children can be controversial and although their performances were greeted with loud applause by onlookers, there were comments on Twitter saying the children were ‘used’ and even that they ‘should be protected from knowing about climate change’! But in having the logos of fossil fuel corporations branded over our public institutions, while these same companies continue wrecking the delicate ecology that sustains life, perhaps it’s worth taking a closer look at who’s really being ‘used’, as well as questioning some of our assumptions about children’s levels of awareness.
As a child I remember visiting the British Museum with my brother, and skidding about on the marble floor, gawking at vases the size of trucks. I doubt if we paid much attention to the glossy yellow and green logos alongside the exhibits, but this very normalisation of BP’s brand is what grants it the social license to continue as usual. It’s as if they’ve always been there, a part of the air we breathe, the background fabric that makes up the comforting certainty of life.
A documentary video covering the various actions on the day
But behind the brightly-coloured logo sits a darker reality; in the words of Cherri Foytlin, a local Gulf Coast resident from the area affected by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, BP are ‘serial-killers of life’. The spill, which is the largest ever recorded environmental disaster, took 11 human lives and the lives of thousands of marine creatures, causing irreparable damage. So is the symbol of the world’s biggest corporate criminal really something we want splashed over our public spaces?
Do we really want children ‘normalised’ to a company that continues ploughing ahead with life-destroying oil and gas exploration, despite the fragility of our climate at this pivotal time, against all of the scientific evidence? One has to wonder too what’s in it for the British Museum, who receive a paltry annual donation from BP in return, less than 0.8% of their yearly income.
Photo: Philip Grey
Prior to the action, a group of adults from the Dharma Action Network for Climate Engagement (DANCE) – a group supporting creative responses to the climate crisis – worked with the children. One of the members of the group, an associate with the National Youth Theatre, played games with them to sensitively draw out their feelings about climate change, as well as unearth what they already knew.
What we witnessed challenged us all. The children knew far more than we assumed they did, along with speaking with a rawness of emotion that reminded us all of the gravity of what we’re facing, and why it’s vital we act now. It was humbling to support their feelings to be heard, and challenging to give up control and hand over complete autonomy to them, trusting that they knew best in how to frame their own words.
As we walked into the National Portrait Gallery we felt nervous and uncertain about how security would react to us occupying the space. The gallery was crowded, but we’d had a briefing beforehand to ensure a safe space was created.
Seeing the children speak, they appeared both confident and vulnerable, with the framed portraits of senior statesmen looking down from the walls. A hushed silence cut through the room – at the end of the performance many onlookers were visibly moved. And behind them on the wall the green and yellow logos blared out, as if they’ve always been there, a simple fact of life: ‘BP Portrait Award: Next Generation’.