Anthropocene sat down with Mel Evans from Liberate Tate to discuss art, activism and why it is absolutely necessary to remove corporate sponsorship from cultural institutions.
By The Editor 01/04/2016
How did Liberate Tate come to be? And what significance does the Tate have to you?
Liberate Tate began in 2010 when the Tate Adult and Learning program staff commissioned an event by the artist John Jordan from the Laboratory of Insurrectionary Imagination. The staff sent him e-mails saying “Don't talk about the sponsors at the event” and this is what he chose to use as the basis for the workshop. He presented the workshop participants with this e-mail and said “What do you want to do in response?” and so some of the original members of Liberate Tate who were workshop participants responded by saying “Actually we want to challenge Tate on its BP sponsorship”.
A couple of months later BP's Deepwater Horizon disaster began and there was this massive global critique of the company and the horrific impact it was having. At the same time it became very clear what the role Tate played in covering up the harm that BP was causing when Tate held their annual summer party celebrating 20 years of BP sponsorship. A group of us met with these workshop participants and together we created this performance intervention for the party and that performance intervention saw hundreds of international media hits around the world. In the performance, I alongside another woman snuck in 10 litres of oil-like molasses into the centre of the party and spilled them inside. We created a big splash with that. Liberate Tate started because of what Tate did as an institution and its own process within itself. It also started with BP's actions as well and what the company was doing and the evidence of the harm that the company was causing. It absolutely was born out of Tate and BP rather than out of anything outside of that.
The disjuncture between Big Oil and art is particularly highly felt at Tate. I think because when you go there and that's still the case right now – there are BP logos in the galleries. When you see them it jars – particularly around the work of artists like Joseph Beuys or the Surrealist collections as well as different landscape paintings. There is so much that the presence of this Oil company - that has caused so much harm - alongside the art does. And when people go to a gallery – we're all engaging in a visually literate way. We're really examining everything we see and bringing together meaning; and the logos can never sit outside of that. They're never in a neutral space. They're always sending these messages of “Okay BP causes this harm over here but somehow it’s alright because it’s alongside all this prestigious art”. So there was something always very particular about Tate and about the total dissonance between BP and the way that Tate presents itself as an institution: the socially engaged art in its programming, the writing and studies of different staff members and curators within the institution – there was this feeling that BP sits particularly uneasily inside Tate.
To many, corporate sponsorship seems to be a necessary part of survival in the arts, how do you envision the autonomy of international arts institutions?
The idea that arts institutions cannot survive without corporate sponsorship is a total lie that’s been made up by not only the corporate sponsors themselves but also the more conservative or neoliberal politicians that promote it. It fits within this very conservative neoliberal agenda whereby the corporate is all and the corporate is the centre of all social life. But actually in the UK, Canada and Australia corporate sponsorship is this very minimal amount of support for the arts. In the UK the bulk of arts support comes from the state and from a set of private donations (trusts and foundations). At Tate specifically you can see that about 30-40 percent of their income comes directly from the state itself, another 30-40 percent comes from their trade and income (from the cafes, the shops, ticket sales) and then the rest is largely trust and foundations; and another set of State support via the Arts council, Heritage fund etc. The idea that corporates are somehow responsible for keeping gallery doors open around the world is a total fabrication. It is a very different context in the US that historically has this idea of what they call ‘philanthropy’ (but is of course advertising). That is much more embedded in the structures there - but none the less oil sponsorship in particular is a tiny tiny amount that you could very easily wipe out of all arts institutions all around the world and it wouldn't cause any problems whatsoever - and that’s exactly what needs to happen.
How is the audience and artwork affected by the ethical and moral choices of galleries and museums?
Both artists and visitors are put in a really complicated, ethical position when big institutions like Tate, The British Museum, the Guggenheim or the Smithsonian in the States – when these big institutions with a lot of power and a lot of say force much more vulnerable artists and people with no influence and visitors to accept the ethical decisions that they make over what are often public spaces and publicly funded. These are spaces that should be preserved for social debate and critical thinking. And that’s exactly what they purport to do. However they can't do that if they're going to be compromised by the presence of oil company sponsors and what that does for the potential for debate inside those spaces. It’s absolutely urgent that we do remove oil companies from these spaces in order that we can have a very real and necessary conversation about climate change and about what the future might look like and how we might shape it in a way that really in our culture today arts spaces and gallery spaces are some of the only public spaces we have to have those very important conversations.
The “Anthropocene” is the definition of a new geological era – human influenced on a global scale. How do you see the artist and the role of the arts defined in this period?
It’s about understanding our own relationship to the earth basically. It’s about ecology. And artists have a particular role with ecology because we are always working with different materials, we are always imagining what the future might look like - shaping things, and we're very engaged in that process of interaction with everything around us in the environment. It’s not only necessary for artists to engage in a thoughtful way, in a responsive way around what the Anthropocene is and what it means. But also in what you could call a more active or activist way of looking at “okay what are we making here, what future are we making here – that’s what we ask as artists “what are we going to create” and that requires that we do engage in a process of thinking “well what is our role to intervene in this era?” because in some sense what the Anthropocene refers to is a history of racist colonialism that needs urgently to be repaired and it refers to the start of the industrial revolution and the process of climate change and the terrifying consequences that we face. So as artists we have a very important role in responding to what the Anthropocene is and reshaping the way this era is taking us.
Your book is entitled “Artwash”. Can you define this term?
Artwash is the process whereby a company - an oil company - buys advertising space within a gallery in order to cover up its negative public image. And at the same time it does its own kind of performance. It performs this role of good corporate citizen that it desperately wants to take on in order to maintain trust in its consumed publics which it relies upon on a daily basis in order to continue its profitable operation. The word 'artwash' in a way responds to notions of 'greenwash' or 'pinkwash' or the ways in which different companies or governments cover the harm that they're doing with either green policies or policies that support women or lgbt people. It’s actually taken directly from one of the PR specialists that advised some of the oil or fossil fuel sponsorships that I've been looking at. It was actually one of these PR specialists that warned corporates: “Don't simply try to 'artwash' yourself” – but that’s of course exactly what they are doing.
In your book you mention the co-option of cultural spaces by Big Oil. Similarly there runs a risk for the environmental debate to be co-opted by celebrities (arts or otherwise) and even by the corporations themselves. How do you prevent the neutralisation of the debate and when is it necessary for action/ intervention to take place?
For Liberate Tate it’s always essential for intervention to be a core part of what our artwork is. There's no way our artwork could simply be commissioned in a gallery space or wherever because the actual work is the intervention and is that unknowable performance - because however much you rehearse you don't know what will happen on the day. That’s important because that’s how change is possible. We've absolutely opened up a debate around oil sponsorship of the arts in the UK and around the world through our work and we've also opened debates about the role of the arts in response to climate change and the role of oil companies in creating climate change. We've opened up lots of different debates however that’s always been centred in a very clear and specific campaign aim which was to end the sponsorship deal between Tate and BP which we've managed to do - which is incredible! But that’s been the important thing that we've held on to the whole time – we're not only starting a conversation here, we're making real change.
Working as both artist and activist, how do these roles correspond to each other?
Liberate Tate is a collective of people who are artists, activists, both and everything in between. One of the ways that works is because there are these parallels between live art and direct action. Both live art and direct action really focus on the body and on the body and space. For direct action it’s often about the vulnerable body – blocking the way and stopping greater harm from taking place. In live art it's often centred upon physicality or identity, and also vulnerability in certain ways. There are also parallels of process whereby it's about finding your way into a specific space and responding to that space in a very crafty or artistically responsive way. There are also massive differences between activists and artist's practice and that’s been something that we've been very keen to explore and evolve our own practice in response to – often activists can be quite focused on very very particular quantifiable outcomes and a very fixed process to get there. Whereas artists can be much more loose and will allow one question to lead on to another and for something to build from one place to the next. We've also been conscious to draw from what works for us and seek out this balance where we have a very loose creative process where we only perform works once they are ready at the same time as having very clear campaign aims.
Liberate Tate reclaims and reproduces the Gallery space as a site for institutional critique and democratization – how has performance enabled this shift?
In Liberate Tate's performances we are very conscious that we are opening up this space of dissent within the gallery. We would not make performances outside the gallery - we would always make them inside in order that this space of difference, or questioning or critique was live. For example in our performance Hidden Figures in 2014 we were playing this game with a 64sqm black cloth. Loads and loads of visitors that day particularly children immediately got the game and came and played. That kind of porousness has been really important. Making work that is participatory in order that that conversation is spread and swarms through the gallery. That the reaction that is “objecting to the sponsor” is then passed around and exercised by lots of people. At the same time we will always write a letter specifically to staff explaining what we are doing. We've worked with the PCS union that represents a lot of the staff that work inside the Tate at a gallery floor level. That interaction also is central to the work. This isn't about a confrontation with individual staff members - this is about the decisions makers at the top that are forcing their decisions onto everybody else who within the gallery are actually unhappy with the situation. So it’s working on that level. This question of co-optation is really difficult because we became aware of it with our work The Gift in 2012 where we smuggled in a 16.5 metre wind turbine blade into the Tate Modern turbine hall. After that performance the documentation of the performance was accepted into the Tate archive, which is interesting because if suddenly we are in the Tate archive are they somehow absorbing or co-opting the impact of the work? That became a real question for us – how do we maintain a level of un-comfortability for the decision makers at the top of the staff body of Tate? That’s where works like Time Piece in 2015 where we stayed in the Gallery overnight having been threatened to be removed by police or Birthmark where we did real live tattoos inside the Tate Britain come in. These are performances where we really push the boundaries of what Tate can easily absorb, what the institution can easily accept to continue in its space. It's important to continue to keep pushing that boundary of “we're not something that can come and immediately leave”, we are a real challenge to the status quo at Tate.
What kind of reaction do you receive from the public and from the institution?
The reaction from the public and staff during performances is really interesting. Often members of the public who are visiting the gallery will think that it’s been programmed because they see this artwork and they see an interpretation panel. And it's only once they've read the interpretation panel or spoken to someone they'll say “ah okay” (or depending what the performance is). Not being too obvious is really important to us because it’s about leaving that space for visitors and audiences to work out for themselves the meaning of the piece and what’s going on. How it is an objection and “Ah right this hasn't been sanctioned, this hasn't been invited” - that tension has been really important because then people have their own process of understanding of why artists might object to BP sponsorship. With staff – well, we know staff, we know people who work in the shop and the library, and invigilators and curators and in the learning department. This is all part of the community of people making socially engaged work in the UK so it’s not a separate group. We've also where we can tried to support “EqualiTate” and the PCS Union. There's always been this fluidity in interaction with the staff body. It’s been about reiterating that it’s the decision makers at the top who hold the sway.
Your performances regularly feature molasses and morbidity, can you tell us about their significance?
There is a sombreness to the performances and there is a morbidity. That started as a response to BP's environmental destruction. The veils were a way of providing anonymity for performers and therefore a sense of unity during the performance – a way of acting together as a collective. At the same time as holding on to this sadness in the harm that BP is causing and particularly the impact of the BP Deepwater Horizon is ongoing now. The fisher folk and the people who live along the gulf coastline in the States - their lives will be affected forever by this. Not only from the health impact but also the impact on their jobs and so on. There is a sadness that was central to the start of the work that we were making. At the same time there is something about making a dignified intervention, we're not rushing in and seeking out a highly charged confrontation but moving very calmly and slowly and finding that as a performer you're going to keep on going no matter what questions or obstructions you might come across. In that calmness there is a lot of power to continue the performance and hold a contested space.
Looking back on Liberate Tate's performances, which one stands out for you?
We've made almost 20 different performance interventions over 6 years and in many ways there’s so many that invoke strong memories. When we stayed the night in the Turbine Hall during Timepiece, which was a 25 hour occupation of the Tate Modern Turbine Hall. Over a hundred people using willow charcoal transcribed text on art and climate change and the oil industry all up the slope of the hall between high tide on the Saturday until high tide on the Sunday – creating this rising tide of words pushing for change on all of these issues. That was a really powerful and emotional performance to be a part of. Partly because of the way the space changed as we occupied it. We initially started to take the space and visitors started to notice what was going on. By the end of the day there were so many people who had interacted with the artwork and interacted with the debate that the space had shifted and it had become this very momentous and ritualistic space. We stayed overnight because we were told that the police would forcibly remove us but when we didn't leave, Tate chose not to go ahead with that action. I think it was partly because they didn't anticipate that we had stashed in our belongings a compost toilet that had enabled us to make it through the night without having access to their toilets. That was our trump card at midnight on Saturday night. That performance was really incredible – the duration in holding the space for that long. Online, millions of people engaged with that performance, it was very alive at that time.
What impact does the current dissolution of sponsorship between BP and Tate have on other deals?
Just 2 weeks ago we found out that Tate are going to drop BP sponsorship which is amazing, we've been pushing for this for so long and we've been trying to make this happen alongside a whole bunch of other groups who are calling on the British Museum, Royal Opera House and National Portrait Gallery – who have all got BP sponsorship deals. As well as the Science Museum, Royal Shakespeare Company and a whole load of Shell sponsored institutions in the UK, Norway, the US and groups around the world who are part of the Fossil Free Culture movement. We're still a part of the whole network and movement and we're still going to be pushing alongside those other groups for these institutions to break their deals as soon as possible. We really hope that the British Museum, the Royal Opera House and National Portrait Gallery in particular will tip over the edge pretty soon because they had signed a deal around the same time as Tate five years ago with BP. BP wanted to create a big song and dance about its sponsorship even though it was this tiny tiny tiny amount they were actually putting on the table. It remains to be seen this year. It’s still early in 2016 but we really hope that those institutions will budge soon.
Mel Evans is an artist and activist associated with the arts collective Liberate Tate.
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© Anthropocene Magazine 2016