Great Art – But Without The Blood Money
People wandering through Vauxhall Park yesterday between 5 and 7 would have seen, on the hottest day of the year, a circle of people clad entirely in black and trying on black veils. If it weren’t for the ten or so mysteriously shaped objects hidden in bin liners and the nervous smiles, any passerby would have been forgiven for thinking they’d come across an inappropriately located wake. Were someone to have stopped and enquired what the strange crowd were doing they would have been told they were an acting company preparing a play. This would have been a lie. We weren’t an acting company, but we were about to stage a performance.
Ten minutes later, after a brief taxi-ride across the Thames, and we were walking two by two, in a slow and solemn parade. We had unwrapped mysterious packages to reveal ten black oil drums, branded with the bright green BP logo, and filled to the brim with a thick, black, smelly liquid. We were heading for the Tate.
Our austere procession clashed well with the glamorous summer dresses of the guests arriving for the Tate’s summer party, an exclusive event to celebrate, amongst other things, twenty years of BP’s sponsorship of the gallery. As the lines of veiled figures moved closer, guests and security seemed completely dazed by the sight, staring transfixed the first pair came right to the entrance and sloshed thick black molasses all over the pristine white Portland stone. They watched unmoved as we threw tin after tin of black sludge down the stairs towards the gallery doors, and we threw bags of duck feathers burst in the air, floating down and lodging themselves in the spill.
One incredibly posh lady shouted “cowards” and tore the veil off one activist’s head, before her husband took her arm and led her away saying “leave it dear, they’re just imbeciles.” By the time anyone else had reacted, the black figures were gone.
Far away from the austere activists in black, two more activists, dressed in flowery summer dresses and bright smiles, had walked (perhaps suspiciously slowly) towards the entrance of the gallery, showed their tickets and walked inside to the lavish champagne gala. After nibbling canapés and sipping free drinks for a while, a dark black substance began to leak from beneath their dresses. The girls had rubble bags filled with oil attached to their thighs with strap-on harnesses (making it perhaps the first impromptu, queer, oil-based performance installation Tate Britain have ever experienced.) Initial attempts to contain the spill from the dresses were unsuccessful and soon the leak had turned into a full-blown gush, with oil unstoppably spreading across the gallery floor.
The distinguished guests started to notice, the camera phones came out and their were hushed whispers of “darling, darling is this…art?” The reply came, “I think they might be…protesting.” Whilst the aficionados in the audience tried to figure out whether they were witnessing art or activism, a mess or a masterpiece, Tate staff rushed to contain the spills, both inside and out. Both on the gallery floor and the entrance, tissues came out to try and contain the spill (an effort only marginally more pathetic than BP’s own in the Gulf).
One of the Tate cleaners spoke with me afterwards. While journalists tried to find a story about protesters leaving the staff to clean up, he was more than happy to be a part of it once he knew what it was all about. “It’s good that people do things” he said, “it makes people listen.” He used to work in Brazil for an oil company, involved with alcohol based oil derivatives. In other words, with molasses in the oil industry. Not only that, but he even worked in biological clean up.
Institutions like the Tate, the National Theatre, the Royal Opera House, the Science and Natural History Museums and the National Galleries are wonderful things, rightly cherished by the British public. This is exactly the reason why BP and others want to be associated with them – so that when we see a green flower logo or a yellow Shell we think of culture and paintings and theatre rather than oil slicks, climate change and crimes against humanity. This connection must be broken. As oil companies continue to obliterate eco-systems, turbo-charge climate change, displace indigenous communities, destroy rainforests and kill, torture and intimidate those who oppose them we will not let our cultural institutions use their bright and shiny reputations to clean up oil corporations’ poisonous activities. As long as they do, they are complicit in their crimes.
If nothing else, our performance that night proved that art can be messy and dangerous and provocative and angry and beautiful without tainting itself with blood money. It demanded that creativity should take as a precondition, as a deal-breaker, freedom from complicity in crimes against the planet and its people. It said, very simply, that if we want to continue to paint landscapes, we must have a landscape to paint.