Art & the Oil giant, an interview with Liberate Tate

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Bring me home, please

Today is the last day to witness All Rise, the week-long performance from Liberate Tate at the Tate Modern gallery. Filming devices strapped on to their chest, performers are reading aloud sections of the transcripts of the trial which started in February in New Orleans and sees BP stand accused of gross negligence over the Deepwater Horizon disaster, the largest accidental marine oil spill in the history of the petroleum industry.

The performance marks the third anniversary of the disaster but it also questions the sponsorship of Tate by the oil multinational. Each day, three different performers are whispering courtroom transcripts from the BP trial. The videos are streamed live for anyone who can't make it to the Turbine Hall and other exhibition rooms of the institution.

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Liberate Tate, All Rise, 2013. Photo credit: Amy Scaife

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Liberate Tate action at Tate Britain, 2011. Photo credit: Amy Scaife

Two years ago Liberate Tate performed Human Cost in the Duveen Gallery in Tate Britain, where a naked man curled up on the floor had oil poured all over him. And last year the group delivered a 16.5 metre wind turbine blade to the gallery, along with documents officially gifting it to the nation as piece of art. '

Strangely enough, Tate itself triggered the artistic protest. Liberate Tate was indeed founded during a workshop in January 2010 on art and activism, commissioned by Tate. When Tate curators tried to censor the workshop from making interventions against Tate sponsors, even though none had been planned, the incensed participants decided to continue their work together beyond the workshop and set up Liberate Tate.

Now the performance interested me for two reasons: the trial against BP isn't receiving the major international coverage i would have expected (even though the damages to human health and the environment are still very much felt, even though the clean-up is far from being finished and even though the local communities are still struggling to recover from the economic devastation.) The second reason is that, like many people working in art, i find it difficult to make up my mind: is it really so bad to take some dirty money to support the art community? Do we really have a choice in these harsh times of cuts in the art funding?

Mel Evans of Liberate Tate has kindly accepted to answer my questions about the performance.

Liberate Tate has been protesting since 2010 but has been achieved so far?

Well, over 300 artists and cultural workers have signed their name to letters calling on Tate to drop BP sponsorship in the press. Over 8000 Tate members and visitors have petitioned Nicholas Serota to end the sponsorship deal with the oil company. And, at the 2012 Tate Members' AGM, a full hour of the session was filled with diverse voices calling for Tate to disclose more information on the sponsorship deal and heed members' perspective on it. For Liberate Tate, their performance interventions are now held in Tate's archive: a mixed response, but a recognition of significance nonetheless. More and more artists have gotten on board with the call for change, including Conrad Atkinson who has numerous works at Tate, and Raoul Martinez, who has been exhibited as part of the National Portrait Award. Beyond this, we regularly hear tell of Tate staff at all levels sharing our concerns with BP sponsorship at Tate.

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Liberate Tate, All Rise, 2013. Photo credit: Amy Scaife

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Liberate Tate, All Rise, 2013. Photo credit: Amy Scaife

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Liberate Tate, All Rise, 2013. Photo credit: Amy Scaife

Because of Liberate Tate, I (and i'm sure many members of the public) am now acutely aware of the sponsorship and entering the exhibition space with a sense of guilt...

Liberate Tate doesn't intend to make anyone or any visitors feel guilty: our slogan is Love Tate Hate Oil.

We want to raise the question, what does a future look like beyond oil? What role does culture have in shaping oil? And what democratic processes are available in a public body such as Tate to question the social legitimacy given to an oil company whose global impacts are devastating lives and livelihoods? We welcome anyone's participation in this questioning, and this gathering of momentum to push for a shift in this cultural sphere. The arts have moved away from tobacco and arms sponsorship; likewise they will shift from oil, we simply insist it is sooner rather than later.

But it is not a sense a guilt we wish to generate, but rather one of possibility - often this is the question the arts often ask, how do we understand the world, how might we understand it differently, and what might we make possible. Just because oil is a feature of our every day lives does not mean we cannot question it - in fact it is when something is so pervasive that we must consider it more.

In these times of cuts in public funding, corporate sponsorship seems to be a reasonable option. What right do we have to judge Tate and decide where they can and cannot take the money to produce and exhibit contemporary art?

Pressure on arts institutions to make deals with corporations is certainly premised by the Tory-Lib Dem government as justification for the cuts. The opportunity for sponsorship and the impact of the cuts is felt very differently according to organisations sizes however: smaller arts organisations have lost everything through the ACE cuts, and have little opportunity for corporate sponsorship, because business is only interested in the notoriety of allegiances with big name institutions. With Tate as the key example, all of their corporate income from events and sponsorship amounts to a minimal percentage of their overall income. Tate has refused to dispose figures on the BP deal, but we estimate it to be £500,000 - a minuscule slice of Tate's budget. From Tate's own figures we know they still receive about 35% state funding, and raise almost half via Tate Enterprises in their shops, cafes and restaurants. The picture of the corporate knight in shining armour saving the flailing arts institutions is a total misnomer. It is in fact the CEO of Tate Enterprises Laura Wright who has led the way in securing Tate's financial stability.

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The tip of a turbine blade is carried over the Thames from St Paul's Cathedral by Liberate Tate for the artwork The Gift in Tate Modern's Turbine Hall 7 July 2012 Credit: Martin LeSanto-Smith

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The Gift performance by Liberate Tate Tate Modern 7 July 2012. Credit: Ian Buswell

Last year, Tate wasn't too pleased about the wind turbine blade that you offered them as a gift. How is Tate reacting to this year's performance?

The Gift was probably our most confrontational performance to date. It was certainly the largest! Over a hundred people and a 16.5 metre wind turbine blade...It feels good to go in absolutely the other direction with All Rise, and make a work that is quiet, small, unobtrusive. All Rise is really about the ripples a performance can make. Over this week we've drawn in audiences from around the world who can watch the three performers move around Tate Modern via live stream every day 3-4pm GMT+1. On the first day Tate staff questioned what we were doing, but now we have been told no-one will interfere. Visitors notice us and ask questions as performers pass them in the gallery, or stop and listen to the legalistic text of the trial whispered by the performers, but we're not obstructing anyone in any way, so I think there's little grounds to ask us to leave. Tate might also be aware that should they eject us, we have news media on speed dial. Overall, allowing this piece to grow into the space has been great, and unlike The Gift, we're able to bring our questions back to the terrible harm still being felt since the BP Gulf of Mexico disaster, at the same time as inviting Tate visitors, members and staff into a conversation with us.

What do you say when people claim that BP has no influence about what is exhibited in the galleries anyway?

It's very hard for us or them to make an absolute measure on BP's curatorial influence. The presence of a sponsor can censor silently even if not directly - any cases of which would be surely fiercely hidden from view. Several artists note numerous cases in which they have seen BP related censorship take place. Liberate Tate was itself founded during a workshop at Tate in which BP sponsorship was raised when staff sent an email to the organiser stating "to be aware that we cannot host any activism directed against Tate and its sponsors". Beyond that. I see the question also being about, what impact does BP have on Tate by its presence and association? What does Tate become, despite presenting itself as a politically savvy, progressive institution, by association with BP?

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And what can we, general public, do to help 'liberate Tate'?

Go to Tate and raise the questions. Write to Tate. Make art about BP at Tate. Speak to Tate staff you know and ask them what they think. This is an art movement for change that affects us all as artists on some level - we have a stake in the values that influential contemporary art institutions uphold, and it is for us to shape those values in our work. See you in the gallery, challenging the presence of BP in whatever creative way you see fit, be it on feedback forms or something more adventurous! And get in touch at liberatetate [at] gmail.com or @LiberateTate on Twitter if you want to connect with us and what we're trying to do.

Thanks Mel!

If you've missed All Rise, i'd recommend that you check out Tate à Tate, Lib­er­ate Tate's altern­at­ive audio tour of the Lon­don Tate gal­ler­ies.
Also check out Platform London's book The Oil Road - Journeys from the Caspian Sea to the City of London, it's available on Amazon.com and amazon.co.uk.

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