Revitalising artistic activism in the age of art-wash

We must be looking to artistic interventions that are inclusive, transformative and embody true solidarity, writes Chris Garrard

February 23, 2022 · 7 min read
A choir in colourful outfits with arms outstretched The Stop Shopping Choir perform for ‘Joe’s Pub’ at the Public Theatre in New York. Photo: John Quilty

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Maybe we don’t need more artworks about icebergs. Or, more specifically, maybe we don’t need more fragmented blocks of ice left to melt poignantly in our city centres. As the impacts of climate change intensify, perhaps it’s time for us to shift away from artworks that tell a story of climate change as some kind of distant spectacle – and one that is too often filtered through a lens of whiteness. Just as polar bears have become a universal icon of global warming, these ice-themed artworks have too often promoted a narrative of climate crisis unfolding in icescapes where the voices of impacted peoples are confined to the margins.

From my own experience of creative activism, I know that art-making can offer much more to the climate justice movement. Jay Jordan, artist and coordinator of the Laboratory of Insurrectionary Imagination, said in a recent interview: ‘The role of artists in the climate justice movement is not to show the world the movement, is not to represent the problems. The role of artists is to be involved in organising that movement itself and in creating new forms of resistance, and in thinking about the movement as a material.’ That is to say, we must move beyond thinking of art as a decorative add-on to protest – and to instead approach it as a means for activism. This isn’t just a nice sounding idea but a necessary strategy. When major polluters instrumentalise art – by sponsoring our museums and galleries in order to ‘art-wash’ their tarnished brands – we have to reclaim it and discover the ways in which our own art-making can build power.

Beyond spectacle

This is the value of art as a form of activism. We might still create spectacles in public space but it’s when our interventions go beyond ‘spectacle’ that they also become transformative and political with a small ‘p’.

One of the groups that first inspired me to get involved in creative activism – and the campaign against oil sponsorship – was the art collective Liberate Tate. In 2012, they carried a wind turbine blade into the ‘Turbine Hall’ of Tate Modern in London in response to the gallery’s sponsorship deal with the oil giant BP. Once installed without permission, the turbine blade was both familiar and out of place, an industrial artefact and an unofficial sculpture. What made it a particularly effective intervention was that it was presented formally as a gift to the gallery’s collection, submitted with all the necessary paperwork. What Liberate Tate had created was simultaneously a sculpture, a performance, a protest and a gift. Great art – and great activism – subverts and breaks the rules at the same time.

Much of my own creative activism has been with the group BP or not BP?, which also uses art and theatre to oppose fossil fuel sponsorship of cultural organisations (see Red Pepper #228, ‘Greenwash’). From a large-scale Trojan horse wheeled into the courtyard of the BP-sponsored British Museum to a powerful sculpture created during an overnight occupation of the museum’s Great Court, we’ve explored many approaches. Your perspective starts to shift when you lie in a sleeping bag on a museum floor while others around you carefully create casts of their bodies throughout the night.

Openness and flexibility

While our performances do need to be carefully planned, they also incorporate a degree of openness and flexibility. Often, there might be a story or structure, a set of songs, tactics or techniques, that all form a toolbox to be drawn upon when inside a sponsored space, rather than a step-by-step guide. It can be rewarding when we embrace this openness within our creative actions.

Great art – and great activism – subverts and breaks the rules at the same time

So, rather than trying to pin down what should happen in each individual moment, they become more like an improvisation in public space, where security guards and those passing by become our fellow performers. Just as musicians and actors improvise together, impactful protests can emerge from a group that is collectively figuring out where to go next or finding the new creative question to ask. As the author and activist James Baldwin wrote, ‘The artist cannot and must not take anything for granted but must drive to the heart of every answer and expose the question the answer hides.’

In recent years, I’ve also had the opportunity to sing and perform with Reverend Billy and the Stop Shopping Choir, a group that embodies this approach in a powerful way. Based in New York, they weave together music, activism and direct action, which unfolds in theatres, bank lobbies and at the gates of oil refineries. Outwardly, they are a radical anti-consumerist choir singing original songs about extinction, climate crisis and migrant rights, led by an Earth-worshipping preacher dressed in a bright pink suit. But the choir is also a community in which the underlying relationships that allow for spontaneity in performance are also those that underlie a culture of solidarity that flows from their shows into everyday life and activism.

Reimagining activism

The power of the actions I’ve been involved in – whether it has been with the Stop Shopping Choir, BP or not BP? or other groups – often comes from this openness and a desire to reimagine the familiar ways of approaching activism. Perhaps the most effective actions have been those that also used art-making as a way to open up space for solidarity.

Alongside BP or not BP?’s Trojan horse, there were talks and workshops taking place right across the British Museum and led by representatives of frontline and impacted communities. The group has held several ‘stolen goods tours’ at the museum, centring stories of imperialism and the voices of those calling for stolen objects to be returned from the museum’s collection. We need to keep finding new ways of engaging with and responding to climate change as a racist crisis with its roots in colonialism.

So maybe we don’t need to distinguish between ‘art’ and ‘activism’ quite so much – there’s a lot to be gained from applying the tactics and techniques of one to the other. But we need to expand the ways in which our art-making can also become a form of solidarity. Our creative activism can give expression to the values that have too often been absent from our movements, to become more inclusive and transformative. As the climate crisis intensifies, the challenge is not to simply make more art about climate change. It’s to make art that creatively and collaboratively strengthens the demand for climate justice – and embodies it too.

Chris Garrard is a composer and climate justice campaigner

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