Art and Oil in a Cool Climate (pt.2)

Further to my comments about Platform/Liberate Tate’s Tate a Tate audio guides in the post preceding this one, I want to attempt (belatedly) to unpack some thoughts about another of Liberate Tate’s 2012 interventions, The Gift. I was unable to experience this event first-hand, so my responses to it have been shaped by my access to its documentation — specifically to two videos posted online, the first by Linkup Films, the second on “Vice News” . (You can click on the links to view the films before reading the commentary that follows — or, since there’s some contextualising preamble first, you can wait until I get to The Gift itself, at which point the links will be embedded again.)


What interests me here is specifically the conjunction of (that which is called) activism and (that which is called) art in Liberate Tate’s practice. Their approach suggests a certain frustration and/or boredom with conventional protest methods (placards, marches, etc.), and a determination to combat the Tate with its own tools – those of contemporary art. The implication (which Tate a Tate made explicit) is that these activists are seeking to act as (or to spur on) the “awakening conscience” of Tate – but that in order to be persuasive they need to demonstrate an understanding of Tate’s own business which is equal (or ethically superior?) to that of the institution itself.

I have every sympathy for this laudable approach, but as a critic I’m also very interested in the fact that – and the ways in which – art and activism are different things. Activism is and must be predicated on the assumption that specific interventions can have a material, causal impact on political realities (“because we have manifested protest or dissent about a particular issue, you are compelled or constrained to act differently…”). Conversely, art might be defined as an activity that stands aside from the everyday causal chain – indeed is explicitly “framed” as separate from it (since it is the framing and naming that makes it definable as art). Though it might well prompt thought and reflection in the viewer/reader/spectator, we cannot predict precisely what kind of response an individual will have to an artwork, let alone what “real world action” the individual might be prompted to take – though this is not to say that such action will not occur. (I am making some pretty big generalisations here, obviously, but bear with me… For more detailed consideration of these propositions about art, see Jacques Ranciere’s essay “The Paradoxes of Political Art”, which I am drawing from here, albeit fast and loose…)

Now, art might usefully be in cahoots with activism, insofar that its role is often to affect or challenge our habituated perceptions of the world around us — to oblige us to look at things from an alternative angle or perspective. Alterered perception might very well be a necessary pre-requisite if an individual is to be prompted to take action on a particular issue (“I’d never thought of it like that before… hmm… this has consequences for me…”). But the paradox is that art itself does not and cannot prompt specific action — where activism precisely seeks to.

As I write this, I’m conscious that – considered in the abstract – these statements may seem to be creating a problem where there maybe wasn’t one to start with. But let me be more specific, and turn to some particulars of Liberate Tate’s art-activist practice as it has developed over the last few years. The group’s first action, License to Spill (June 2010) is the one that reads most readily as an activist gesture:


This action took place shortly after the catastrophe of BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and occurred at the threshold of Tate Britain — just as, inside the building, a party was being held to mark the 20th anniversary of BP’s sponsorship of Tate Galleries. In this context, even without explanatory text, the image and the statement could hardly be clearer: pouring a messy, oil-like substance all over the place from cans labelled with the unmistakeable BP logo, Liberate Tate were “bringing the spill home” and confronting Tate with the implications of their too-cosy relationship with BP.

The action was tailored to attract press attention, which it certainly did, thanks to the boldness and clarity of the image. But I would argue that, precisely because it reads so clearly and unambiguously as “activist protest”, License to Spill might be tricky to classify as “art” in any richer, perception-affecting sense.  It says, in effect, “we are angry about this” (justifiably so!), and in that respect it is close kin to the protest placard.

But skip forward a couple of years, and Liberate Tate’s actions seem to tend increasingly toward the “artistic” end of the dichotomous spectrum I’ve been proposing. Indeed, quite unlike the mess on the steps of Tate Britain, the Tate a Tate audio tours (made in collaboration with Platform and Art Not Oil) are invisible to the general public. In order to experience them, one needs to make the quite conscious decision to seek out the relevant website, download the content, and take oneself to the Tate Galleries to experience the recordings in situ. It’s difficult to imagine that anyone other than those already in sympathy with the creators’ aims and concerns would go to all this trouble (unless, perhaps, they were assigned as reviewers, or sent by their teachers?). In effect, then, Tate a Tate was largely designed to preach to the choir, and as such has an extremely limited impact in terms of “activism” per se.

One should not, of course, underestimate the value of preaching to the converted: it happens in church every week, and its function is to build and consolidate a sense of shared identity and commitment. One should be careful, however, not to merely keep repeating the same messages that one’s congregation has heard before. For me, the audio-tour of Tate Modern felt too obvious and too familiar in its statements about oil sponsorship of the arts – and its various pronouncements bore only a rather tendentious relationship to the paintings it invited participants to look at. As such, it was (again, for me) far less affecting and memorable than the tour of Tate Britain, with its creative conceit of imagining the whole building as a “Panaudicon” (because the Panopticon of Millbank Penitentiary once stood on this site), and of looking through paintings to hear things that are removed in time and space from the immediate surroundings of the gallery, but are being (re)connected to it. As I explained in some detail in the previous blog post, my perceptions and perspectives were challenged and altered by this experience. This was art doing its work, in supportive relation to (an already assumed sympathy with) activism.

Which brings me to The Gift – an action I have huge admiration for, and which fascinates me in part because its relationship to the art/activism dichotomy is so awkwardly blurred. On the face of it, this has all the trappings of an activist intervention: a group of like-minded protesters descend on Tate Modern at a prearranged time and force their way into the Turbine Hall to “deliver” a “gift” that the gallery has decidedly not asked for. Unlike License to Spill‘s molasses, however, the delivery itself — a decommissioned wind turbine arm — bears no clear visual or symbolic connection to the issue being protested (i.e. oil sponsorship of the arts). Of course, the links are there as soon as one stops to think about it for oneself — i.e. an implied support for renewable energy sources over the continuing extraction of fossil fuels; an alternative kind of “gift” to the moneys solicited from BP. There is also a linguistic pun at work here (a wind turbine arm for the turbine hall of a former power station), and of course a referencing of a whole history of objets trouves that have been reframed as modern / contemporary art – from Duchamp’s urinal on down. The windmill arm, like the urinal, is an everyday object which is conventionally valued only for its uses, but which, when de- and re-contextualised within the frame of art, becomes manifestly useless. Instead, attention is invited to its particular form, colour, contours – as an unlikely sculptural object. Liberate Tate, playing the art game to the hilt, even presented the gallery with the legal papers required to submit an artwork to the national collections: the turbine blade, these papers proposed, should be newly defined as both an art object in its own right and as documentation of a performance action (i.e. the thing delivered stands in as evidence of its delivery). Tate was thus legally compelled to consider whether or not the item should be accepted for its collections. Eventually they declined it, although the smarter move would probably have been to accept it (the institution would thereby have  absorbed and accommodated protest against itself into its own narrative – but perhaps that would also have been to give too much recognition to the issue being protested?).

From an artistic point of view, I find all this fascinating – and it’s almost tailor-made for seminar discussion with students (I’ve used these videos in class on two or three occasions already). But the question of definition remains: is this indeed an activist gesture, if the thing being protested about remains obscure or unclear without supporting explanation? Had I been an innocent bystander at Tate Modern that day, unfamiliar with Liberate Tate’s objectives, I would have seen a group of (mostly white) young people forcing their way past a phalanx of security guards (many of them people of colour), in order to bring in and assemble a large white object in three component parts. I could probably be forgiven for not even realising that the large white object was a wind turbine blade, unless someone told me — and I could certainly be forgiven for not realising that this strange event had anything to do with oil.

The videos themselves illustrate the issue with great clarity. In the first, the event is framed in a way that very much emphasises the aesthetic dimensions of the event and object. There is even a stirring musical score – apparently performed live on Millennium Bridge during the approach, as well as being used non-diegetically to overlay the video edit.  Here, no explanation for the event is offered until close to the end of the film, at which point a voice-over connects the action with the Damien Hirst exhibition that was then taking place in Tate Modern’s pay-per-view galleries. It is suggested (not unreasonably) that the values of art having become confused with the value of money. In this context, we are therefore invited to read the arrival of the wind turbine as being – quite literally and pointedly – art for art’s sake  (i.e. art should be valued in terms of its invention and ingenuity rather than by its price tag). No mention is made of oil at any point in the film: the issue simply does not feature.

In the second video, right from the first caption, a much clearer connection is made between the delivery of the blade and the stated activist objectives of Liberate Tate. The form of the video, placed on an internet “news” site, is that of a documentary: as such, it eschews the consciously aestheticized form of the first video in favour of appearing to offer a relatively unmediated window into the planning of, and motives behind, the performance. Indeed, we hear the event’s orchestrator, Tim (no last name is given, in keeping with the group’s general preference for anonymity),  explaining that The Gift has been conceived as a self-conscious alternative to “holding a placard up”: despite appreciating the value of such traditional activist methods, he feels unsatisfied and creatively unfulfilled by them. It’s worth noting, however, that the placard at least has the advantage of being explicit about what is being protested. The further one moves across this putative spectrum between that which is clearly activism and that which is clearly art, the more open to personal interpretation one’s gestures become.

I would argue that, as a performative gesture, The Gift remains radically ambiguous in its meaning and intentions unless it is clearly underlined by supplementary, explanatory text (as this second video does). There is of course a distinguished artistic pedigree for the art object or performance standing in crucial juxtaposition to a title or verbal statement (one thinks, for example, of conceptual art works such as Michael Craig-Martin’s An Oak Tree – which without its textual component is simply a glass of water). But if we’re proposing that the action needs to be read in relation to a statement, then we’re again underlining the status of this work in relation to a genealogy of conceptual/performance art. Is it also, categorically speaking, an activist gesture? Or might we might argue that The Gift borrows and performs the combative trappings of a protest action, but ultimately treats them artistically, in terms of mimetic quotation (just as it also quotes/invokes interventions in the history of art by Duchamp et al) ?

To put this another way… Might it not be the case that some readers/spectators (perhaps those more drawn to the first video than the second) might find the explanation about oil sponsorship entirely redundant to an appreciation of the gesture itself? Potentially, such a spectator might feel that the quality of intrigue that characterises the unadorned gesture has in some way been spoiled by the supplementary explanation of it (rather like a good joke being spoiled by a poor punchline.)

So what exactly makes this an activist gesture? License to Spill succeeded in those terms through the visceral and timely clarity of its statement about oil: its demand on Tate was crystal clear. Conversely, the Tate Britain end of Tate a Tate succeeded as an aesthetic, perceptual experience by importing reflections on the history of oil exploitation into the pristine cleanliness of the gallery. Yet whether in terms of art or activism, The Gift is not clearly “about” oil at all – unless one is told that it is. It is, more obviously, an artistic gesture that cleverly invokes a history of iconoclastic artistic gestures. So it is surely a moot point whether or not it succeeds in Tim’s stated aim of asking Tate to “have a little think” about its relationship with BP.  In purely causal terms, what Tate’s representatives actually had to think about was what it would mean to accept (and to provide storage for) a wind turbine blade, as part of their art holdings. And there is, I would venture, an important difference between the question of sustaining a sponsorship deal, and the question of dealing with an unsolicited gift. It’s even possible that the latter might distract attention from the former: in having to deal, unwillingly, with the awkward material object, Tate might actually be less inclined to deal thoughtfully with the more indirect, reflective questions (around alternative energy sources and alternative sponsorship strategies) that The Gift also purported to be asking.

I would underline here my own sense that The Gift was a rich and intriguing performance action. My reflections on the questions it throws up, however, have led me towards a sharper sense of the tricky questions that artist-activists such as Liberate Tate have to process. One needs to be very clear about what the particular objectives of any given gesture might be – whether political and/or aesthetic – because, again, activism and art are not the same thing, though they may well prove complementary. Without such clarity, one risks making category errors and, perhaps, assuming a certain causal efficacy where only open readership pertains. Jacques Ranciere makes a similar point in terms that seem particularly pertinent to The Gift (even if they may not ultimately apply):

“In ‘activist’ art nowadays a clear trend has emerged that relies on the reality of occupying an exhibition space as a way of proving the real effects of the social order.  [Such gestures characteristically draw] on the combined effects of the self-evidence of sculptural presence, action in the ‘real world’ and rhetorical demonstration. But it may well be that . . . the more [art] professes to be engaging in a form of social intervention, the more it anticipates and mimics its own effect. Art thus risks becoming a parody of its alleged efficacy.” (Jacques Ranciere, “The Paradoxes of Political Art”)







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One Response to Art and Oil in a Cool Climate (pt.2)

  1. Pingback: Art and Oil in a Cool Climate (part 2) | Activist Performance: Gestural Notes

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