Wednesday, 4 January 2012


Photo by Immo Klink
Liberate Tate's "License to Spill" protest at Tate Britain's summer party, 2010

by Coline Milliard, ARTINFO UK
Published: January 4, 2012

Despite public protests, Tate Britain, the British Museum, the National Portrait Gallery, and the Royal Opera House are renewing their sponsorship deal with BP, which will fork out £10 million ($15.62 million) to the institutions in the next five years. On December 19, Tate director Nick Serota explained that the board had "thought very carefully about this and decided it was the right thing to do." Tate trustee artist Bob and Roberta Smith, publicly disavowed the move, but many, including the Guardian's art critic Jonathan Jones, feel that corporate sponsorship by the likes of BP is a necessary evil in the current economic climate.

Artists collective Liberate Tate has been — with Platform and Art Not Oil — at the forefront of the debate since 2010. The collective turned up with BP logo-embossed buckets of molasses at the Tate Summer party in 2010, and they are now starting a series of art commissions to "free art from the grips of the oil industry through creativity." G, an anonymous spokesman for the group, answers ARTINFO UK's questions.

You have been campaigning for two years, and together with Platform, presented Tate with a petition signed by 8,000 people asking them not to accept money from BP. What does this renewed sponsorship deal mean to you?

We had hoped that the trustees would demonstrate leadership and help take forward the art world and Tate as a public institution into the 21st century. The lack of ethical progression, however, was an expected blow given the entrenchment of BP in our cultural institutions to date.

In renewing this sponsorship deal, Tate is knowingly making itself, to some extent, complicit in BP’s many controversial operations around the world, including its tar sands extraction in Canada, the local conflicts in Papua New Guinea being exacerbated by its hugely problematic gas plant there, and its expansion into Arctic drilling with its Russian partner. Only by breaking its links with BP will the Tate board of trustees be acting in the best interests of Tate and the arts as well as affected communities, future generations, and the world we live in.

Why the focus on Tate, when BP also sponsors the British Museum, the National Portrait Gallery, and the Royal Opera House?

Tate likes to position itself publicly as a forward-thinking institution that takes climate change and human rights seriously as part of its cultural activities, so it seems particularly incongruous that it should have such an entrenched relationship with a corporate entity like BP.

[But] the issue is, of course, about oil and the wider cultural sector. There have been performances at the British Museum, and groups like Art Not Oil and Platform have chosen to engage with these other institutions, but we are committed to making this happen at Tate first and foremost. We believe Tate is supporting BP rather than the other way round. This association is damaging to Tate’s reputation and its relationship with an increasingly climate-conscious public.

You started Liberate Tate following a workshop on art and activism at Tate in January 2010, in which the curators asked you not to comment on Tate's sponsors. Do you feel that this renewed sponsorship deal means more censorship in the institution?

Some of us experienced an attempt by Tate to limit freedom of expression because of their fears about corporate sponsors. We have to assume that there are many other pernicious choices made by Tate and others due to oil money. This is not straight-forward ideological censorship, but marketised censorship that ultimately maintains the link between sponsorship and advertising at the expense of freedom of speech. Yet censorship is only one area of concern.

Your philosophy in a nutshell?

Free art from the grip of the oil industry through creativity.

How would you define your current relationship to the gallery?

Tate is the space in which we stage performances and other interventions which then resonate beyond the gallery in the art world and the public domain largely though mainstream and social media. We make provocations. Our artworks are site-specific and self-curated, necessarily situated in the honourable tradition of institutional critique, but we leave it to others to have direct dialogue with Tate itself.

How do you work with Art Not Oil and Platform?

We have a common goal and sometimes-common methods and initiatives with Art Not Oil and Platform. The art scene is very privileged to have Platform, and their research and links with communities affected by oil companies are invaluable in informing our performances. Art Not Oil are activists we greatly respect. We hope that by creating art inside the gallery we can contribute something extra and complementary to what these groups and others are doing.

Are the members of Liberate Tate anonymous? And, if so, why?

As an art collective we have a group identity which is paramount. Who we each are could become a distraction from the work we do. That is why, for example, we sometimes cover some of our faces in performances such as "License to Spill" (2010), when we disrupted Tate celebrating 20 years of their partnership with BP (against the ongoing backdrop of the Deepwater Horizon spill!) and in "Human Cost" (2011) in the Tate exhibition "Single Form." These are largely aesthetic choices though.

Some of us are artists with a public profile based around a very different set of practices and output. We include a number of staff from Tate and other oil-sponsored galleries who want to keep their jobs yet help their employer through the power of art itself.

Others are active in many walks of professional life. We are not seeking to get a name for each of ourselves or to make a living from our work as Liberate Tate so it just does not seem important most of the time, especially given our focus.

Could you tell me more about the "Tate à Tate" project? When did it come about and how do you hope to implement it?

"Tate à Tate" is an alternative audio tour of Tate, with sound works by commissioned artists, allowing anyone visiting Tate to be part of a Liberate Tate durational performance in an unsanctioned installation inside the galleries providing a problematised experience of the presence of BP within these spaces. The work takes place in three parts — Tate Britain, Tate Modern, and the boat journey in between the two. We have been lucky to work with artists such as Ansuman Biswas, Isa Suarez, and Phil England on the project.

All the recording and mixes are finished so we are now in production, and it will be unveiled in the coming months. Members of First Nation indigenous communities in Canada impacted by tar sands have already had a trial run when they were passing through London.

The Guardian's Jonathan Jones has called protests against the BP sponsorship "the stupidest and most misplaced of supposedly radical campaigns." How would you like to respond?

Yes, he said: "Why not do something useful like join Occupy? While protests around the world this year, from Wall Street to Tahrir Square, have picked the right causes and enemies, the BP art campaign is mistargeted, misconceived, and massively self-indulgent."

It is misguided to not see what Liberate Tate and our allies are doing as part of this global movement for public accountability of public institutions and for ending vested interests that are shutting down the possibilities of a better future. Many of us are active in Occupy and on Saturday 14 January, we are taking part in an afternoon event (2-6pm), "The Corporate Occupation of the Arts," at the Bank of Ideas that has been squatted by the Occupy LSX folks. We work with and in solidarity with artists and activists in the Middle East. Many oil companies like BP have a terrible track record of supporting repressive regimes like that of Mubarak that have tried to crush the Arab Spring, and sponsorship implicates art institutions in that. When you are targeting BP sponsorship of Tate, you are also supporting the uprising of Tahrir Square.

We welcome all commentators to this debate, even when what they might say is perhaps not really thought out. If you want to attack Liberate Tate knock yourself out — as Gandhi may not have actually said: "First they ignore you. Then they laugh at you. Then they attack you. Then you win."

In a time of severe funding cuts for the arts, what alternative to private sponsorship do you champion?

Firstly, for all sides of the debate around oil sponsorship of the arts, we need to know how much BP is giving Tate as it has been kept a secret. How much of the £10 million is coming Tate's way? A publicly known figure would provide a solid point of reference to discuss the value of BP sponsorship, and the practical steps in a move away from it.

Secondly, there is a difference between being against any sort of private sponsorship and being against oil companies in particular given they are some of the most reprehensible corporate entities. People have different views on the wider question of corporates and art even within the Liberate Tate collective. We would welcome a deeper and wider debate about private sponsorship models — we have never said we are against business supporting arts per se.

What we refuse to accept is that the art world has to be stuck in the 20th century in regard to how corporations are involved, especially with public galleries, when a company clearly has harmful impact on society.

Arms manufacturers and tobacco companies are no longer socially acceptable as partners. Is the art world really in total ethical stasis, not able to progress further? When we know what we do about climate change and oil, and what BP has done and how many artists and art lovers object to that, it is only a matter of time before the exclusion of oil companies is the next leap forward.

What is your next step?

There are more Liberate Tate artworks and commissions in the pipeline (sic). When Tate and the other arts giants agreed a new BP sponsorship deal, the London Evening Standard headline had a nod to our work. It said: THIS COULD GET MESSY. We quite agree.

The effort to end oil sponsorship of the arts intensifies. Our invitation for artists, art lovers, and other concerned members of the public to act to ensure that Tate ends its oil sponsorship remains open. Together we can imagine and bring about culture beyond oil, where art is put back into the service of life.

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