Creating Without Destroying: Climate Activism as Art

by Chris Garrard

The ‘Art Not Oil’ coalition uses creative means to protest oil companies’ sponsorship of the arts. In the process, it looks for new ways to make climate change—a notoriously difficult issue to engage with—seem less alien and overwhelming.

First published: 30 September, 2014 | Category: Activism, Climate Change

As our understanding of the threat posed by climate change improves, new forms of activism are emerging to help tackle the issue. Notable initiatives include the divestment movement, which lobbies large institutions to stop investing in the fossil fuel industry, and the ‘transition movement’, which promotes sustainable living in local communities. Meanwhile, NGOs such as Greenpeace, along with grassroots activists, continue a tradition of non-violent direct action. But how can art, and art making, be a part of the climate activism landscape?

Art Not Oil is a coalition of campaign groups for whom art is both the tool and the target of climate activism. Through music, theatre and performance art, they challenge the sponsorship of cultural events and arts institutions by oil companies, shining a spotlight on a number of ethical dilemmas that we can no longer afford to ignore.

The foremost of these ethical concerns relates to the way BP, Shell and others use arts sponsorship to falsely present themselves as generous and responsible. The arts world is awash with unethical cash, from arms manufacturers and mining companies to hedge funds and investment banks. However, the urgent need for action on  climate change—and the complicity of fossil fuel companies in blocking this action—has led members of the Art Not Oil coalition to prioritise oil sponsors. BP alone is responsible for 2.5% of all historical carbon emissions and, at a time when avoiding runaway climate change requires that we leave roughly two thirds of known fossil fuel reserves in the ground, is pursuing new extractive projects.

Normalising catastrophe

Oil sponsorship amounts to a ‘cultural greenwash’, a form of cheap advertising. It allows oil companies to propagate their brand identity and, more broadly, the notion that our society can continue to rely on fossil fuels indefinitely. Oil giants are able to secure these reputational gains in exchange for meagre contributions to our arts institutions. For example, BP’s donations to the Tate Galleries, the British Museum and the Royal Opera House make up less than 1% of each institution’s overall budget, but in return, BP is able to adorn walls and walkways with its logos and slogans. Nestled beside a Constable painting or a Viking helmet, the BP logo latches onto a world of cultural excellence, overwriting its associations with the slicks of Deepwater Horizon and the Canadian tar sands.

You might argue that most visitors to these institutions overlook the logos on walls and in brochures. If that were true, it is a wonder BP insists that its logo be displayed as a quid pro quo for sponsorship. There is something insidious about the word ‘BP’ appearing 19 times in the Tate Britain’s 24 page exhibition guide. At a time when BP should be stigmatised for its contribution to greenhouse gas emissions, its largely unquestioned yet widespread presence in respected cultural institutions helps to normalise the company’s brand. BP purchases its ‘social license’ to operate, and in so doing, continues to put our society’s future at risk.

A related ethical concern stems from the way oil sponsorship erodes the integrity of art itself, and the political or moral values it embodies. Today many of our concerts, exhibitions and arts institutions are perceived as a commercial good by figures in the political and business world—something to be bought, sold and sponsored as a cultural commodity and a vehicle for self-promotion. Measures of ‘artistic quality’ and ‘success’ have become increasingly quantitative. Yet despite this trend, the arts and culture sector is still seen by many as a social good and a space for politically engaged debate and critical thinking. Indeed, the Southbank Centre’s ‘Women of the World’ festival (WOW) and the V&A Museum’s ‘Disobedient Objects’ exhibition on civil resistance show just how subversive the arts can be in an institutional setting. There is clearly a tension here between a politically engaged art, which aims to challenge and inspire the viewer, and a pattern of sponsorship that, far from shifting the cultural ground, secures recognition and social acceptance for corporate benefactors. 

The players

One of Art Not Oil’s member groups, ‘BP or not BP’, campaigns through theatre. It began life in 2012 by carrying out Shakespearean ‘stage invasions’ in response to BP’s sponsorship of the World Shakespeare Festival, hosted by the Royal Shakespeare Company. With some adaptation, Shakespeare’s own words on morality and justice were used to interrogate BP’s environmental and human rights record as part of short performances—‘Is this a logo I see before me? Or art thou but a prison of the mind, a false creation…?’ The group has grown from its Shakespearean beginnings to hosting massive ‘flash-hordes’ of Vikings at the BP-sponsored British Museum, a performance that was recently featured on Channel 4 News.

The ‘BP or not BP’ campaign is about exposing BP’s wrongdoings, thereby challenging the oil company’s efforts to bolster its reputation through its arts sponsorship.  At the same time, though, one of the strengths of ‘BP or not BP’, and of the Art Not Oil groups generally, is that they respond to the limitations of oil sponsorship by creating their own dissident art. The troupe refers to its members as ‘actor-vists’ because the commitment to performing and providing theatrical encounters is at the heart of what they do. They recognise the value of the experience they offer as well as the message they aim to convey. This approach resonates with what art theorist Susan Sontag identifies as distinctive about a work of art:

A work of art encountered as a work of art is an experience, not a statement or an answer to a question. Art is not only about something; it is something. A work of art is a thing in the world, not just a text or commentary on the world.

Viewed in this light, art as a form of activism has two dimensions. It is ‘Political’ with a capital P by virtue of the specific message conveyed; song lyrics might give voice to a protest or a painter can satirise iconic images of political leaders. However, it is also ‘political’ with a small p as a result of its potential to shift consciousness through new experiences and opportunities to participate. In an environment dominated by sponsored and corporate art, exploring new artistic forms or simply making new work that intervenes in the existing system is itself a radical political act. Art making, as a means for climate activism, needs to address both of these parts: the message and the experience.

Another group in the Art Not Oil coalition is Liberate Tate, a performance art collective that confronts BP’s relationship with the Tate galleries. Its performances have included a nude, curled up figure being coated with oil in the atrium of Tate Britain and delivering a wind turbine blade to Tate Modern’s turbine hall as a gift to the gallery’s permanent collection. Legislation dictates that museums are obliged to consider gifts, and by invoking this law, Liberate Tate affirmed the blade’s identity as art. These performances have a clear message of protest in relation to BP’s sponsorship of the Tate but, by playing with notions of what does and does not qualify as art, cause a disruption that demands a deeper level of engagement. Working with the oil industry watchdog Platform, Liberate Tate has brought pressure on The Tate to reveal the size of BP’s financial contribution after the figure was redacted from a freedom of information request. The group’s most recent performance at Tate Modern, called ‘Hidden Figures’, drew attention to this issue by creating a human version of Malevich’s ‘Black Square’, evoking the black redaction mark over the hidden figure. Platform is currently involved in taking Tate to court over its arguments for keeping the figure secret, something that would not have been possible without the growing support and publicity that Liberate Tate’s performances have brought.

Reverend Billy and the Stop Shopping Gospel Choir’, a New York-based group, have taken this arts-based approach to climate activism in an original and quirky direction. Starting life as a protest against consumerism, they adopted the style and structure of a charismatic church, with an enlivened preacher and spirit-filled choir. Sermons on big oil or the ‘devil of Monsanto’ are met with shouts of ‘Amen!’ or ‘Earth-a-lujah!’ In the past, they have visited branches of Starbucks and the Disney Store in order to ‘exorcise’ the cash registers. There is an explicit message of protest but it is the act of bringing an unrestrained art making into unexpected spaces that is counter-cultural and taps into the radical potential of their performance art. As Reverend Billy recently discovered, simply bringing singing and sermons to a bank is radical enough to get you arrested. While the choir members have contrasting backgrounds, spiritual beliefs and experiences as activists, they are united around a common, creative expression of their activism. In reality, ‘the church of stop shopping’ is not simply a parody of religion but the positing of a new kind of church, which is not shaped by doctrine but by respect for the Earth and social justice.

Partly influenced by the Stop Shopping Choir, a group of musicians and activists set up Shell Out Sounds, a vocal group which drew attention to the ethical questions around Shell’s sponsorship of the Southbank Centre in London. One particular issue they highlighted was how in 2009 Shell made a contribution to Nigeria’s ‘Joint Security Force’ seventeen times larger than the amount the Southbank received from all its corporate sponsors put together. Like its partner groups in Art Not Oil, Shell Out Sounds employed a creative form of ‘bearing witness’ by bringing a free, unrestrained art making to the institution in question. For Shell Out Sounds, this meant bringing music and song relevant to Shell’s ethical record to the intervals of Shell-sponsored concerts at the Royal Festival Hall. On one occasion, they smuggled themselves inside the concert hall to give a pop-up performance which was met with applause and even positively reviewed by music critics attending the concert. Following their six choral interventions, and pressure from groups such as Rising Tide and Platform, the Southbank Centre announced in 2013 that Shell would no longer be sponsoring the Southbank’s high profile ‘Classics’ series concerts. To celebrate the end of the relationship, Shell Out Sounds arranged for a seat at the Royal Festival Hall to be officially dedicated to Ken Saro-Wiwa, a renowned activist who was at the forefront of the people’s movement against the oil industry in the Niger Delta.

Shell Out Sounds’ performances are both a protest against oil sponsorship and an affirmation of the value of art as something that should be accessible to all. There are no auditions or selection procedures to join Art Not Oil’s campaign groups. This means that all members, regardless of their experience or training, can be involved in the creative process and bring new ideas. Its performances also promote accessibility to a wider audience by bringing unsanctioned creative expression into the spaces of more established, and sometimes elitist, cultural traditions.

Activism as art

The experience of Art not Oil groups shows how, when climate activism is approached as a creative, potentially artistic, form of expression, new ideas and possibilities for shifting the narrative around climate begin to emerge. The catharsis and collective confidence that can be gained from working in this way, by creatively expressing shared values, can be enormously beneficial for both the individuals involved and their cause. We can explore the climate issue as something intimate and personal, rather than as something alien and often overwhelming. The more deeply an individual or group goes into a particular mode of expression, the more their values will be reflected in the artwork they create, giving rise to a highly textured and original form of activism.

What this thread of art making demonstrates—whether it is Reverend Billy and his choir or the performances of BP or not BP—is the benefits of making art that resonates with our own personal values. It is not that all climate activism should be thought of as ‘art’, but that by approaching it as a creative act, we can explore the new kinds of experience climate activism can offer and the new ways messages can be expressed. Susan Sontag again:

To become involved with a work of art entails, to be sure, the experience of detaching oneself from the world. But the work of art itself is also a vibrant, magical and exemplary object which returns us to the world in some way more open and enriched.

Our climate activism needs to return people to ‘the Earth’, more open and enriched, more sensitised to the ethical dimensions of effectively responding to climate change. By promoting a new consciousness through music, theatre and art, Art Not Oil exposes the ways that oil sponsorship distorts and deceives. But it is by adopting the creative language of the institutions they hope to change that it affirms the value of art as an experience for all, one that speaks to our contemporary situation and that cannot be bought.

Chris Garrard is a composer, musicologist and an active member of the Art Not Oil coalition. He has composed music that explores themes of social and environmental justice and has also written articles about musical aesthetics, glaciology and oil sponsorship of the arts.

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