Art & Politics

Performance : Video of 'Parts Per Million' by Liberate Tate, London, UK (2013)

The UK-based art and activist collective Liberate Tate staged this 'surprise' performance at the Tate Britain Gallery in London to critique the Tate’s long-term sponsorship deal in which it receives money from the BP Oil corporation. The Tate Gallery is one of the UK’s premier arts institutions and houses a national collection of British art owned by the British public. The Tate has received large amounts of public funding during its life.

BP Oil is responsible for massive contributions to CO2 emissions, to climate change and to environmental damage across the world. Its whole mode of operating and thinking requires that it continuously adds to global warming and the wrecking of the planet. It therefore uses sponsorship of the arts as a calculated PR move designed to expand its ‘social licence’ by buying a role as a ‘cultural actor’, paying the Tate to help change public perceptions and make BP Oil appear more responsible. This type of corporate behaviour exemplifies the neoliberal approach to business - it seeks to make as much profit as possible, regardless of any costs to the people and the planet. The Tate's cash-giving friend BP Oil does its business without any ethical responsibility whatsoever.

In 2013 the Tate re-arranged all its art chronologically and billed this new arrangement as 'The BP Walk Through British Art' show the collection’s full historical range, from 1545 to the present, in sequence. Tate then held a big official re-opening on 23 November – a kind of grand ‘House-warming Party’. BP's name and logo were showing everywhere throughout the galleries, rooms and spaces. This event gave Liberate Tate the opportunity to devise and perform this piece - a surprise intervention for the gallery Staff and Visitors.

The performance began in the ‘1840’ room, when the industrial revolution was starting to significantly increase the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide (CO2) emission levels. These are measurable in the atmosphere and are stated as ‘parts per million’ (ppm).

The performance gradually progressed from the oldest room to the room for the current era (for contemporary art). In each room (and thereby in each era) the Liberate Tate performers arranged themselves and counted aloud the increase in atmospheric CO2 ppm during that time period. In each decade since 1880 the global CO2 levels have increased to new highs - higher than any levels in the previous 800,000 years. By 2013 the global carbon dioxide levels had reached 400 parts per million, and they continue to rise.

Leading climate scientists consider 350 ppm to be the level we must reduce to very soon if our earth is to be safe for human life for generations to come. Even that is not a guarantee of our planet's future 'health', it is a ‘best estimate’ - because there are other greenhouse gases also contributing to runaway global warming (see here, and check out 'The Methane Burp'). The world has not yet come anywhere near to adopting measures that will achieve this reduction.

One of the performers, Fiona Edwards said: “Any celebration of British art that prominently bears the BP logo is also endorsing that company’s business model which explicitly involves the destruction of a safe, liveable climate. Tate Britain celebrates with a ‘House Warming Party’, but the presence of BP, one of the companies…most responsible for climate change due to its carbon emissions, makes it more of a ‘Global Warming Party’.”

Oddly, Tate’s own vision statement says that it will ‘demonstrate leadership in response to climate change’. Yet by taking dirty cash from and promoting BP Oil, Tate has put itself on the side of the fossil fuel companies that are creating dangerous climate change and massive environmental degradation. The terms 'hypocrisy' and 'double standards' come obviously to mind. The Tate's management clearly shares wholly in BP's adherence to neoliberal norms - this includes a complete absence of any ethical regard for people or planet. The Tate is so soaked in these neoliberal values and assumptions that they simply cannot see their own complicity in Big Oil's responsibility for global warming and climate change. Either that - or they can see it, but they do not care to acknowledge their own responsibility.

This is not the first instance of a prominent institution in the art world looking extremely stupid, insensitive and morally bankrupt - and it is not the last. Here is another example, involving the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA), in New York, USA.

So, the finest minds at the Tate Gallery were (and still are) unable to see through their own epic failure here - while just about everyone else can. Maybe the fact that the Chair of the Tate's Trustees is a former BP CEO (and is now active in promoting Fracking) has something to do with this ? Or maybe its to do with the fact that the Tate's Director has made it his business, over a long period, to grovel for BP's cash ?

Liberate Tate wants to ‘free’ the Tate from this shameful subservience to the dirty cash of one of the world’s major contributors to climate change.