Parts Per Million performance in Tate Britain
Should a prestigious art gallery take and launder dirty money?
When is a House Warming Party more like a Global Warming Party? When you are Tate and you promote BP — Liberate Tate
This month we have seen the worst typhoon ever recorded hit the Philippines, several thousand dead. It was followed by a large number of tornadoes in the US, which caused extensive damage. A few days ago, six month’s rain was dumped on Sardinia within a couple of hours, causing widespread flooding. Unreported by the mainstream media, a deadly cyclone slammed the Puntland region of Somalia, wreaking havoc on an already vulnerable population.
Thursday, environmentalists walked out of the UN Climate Talks in Poland in protest at the failure to make progress and the influence on the talks of Big Coal, Big Oil.
Today, fifty veiled figures dressed in black carried out a performance art installation entitled ‘Parts Per Million’ throughout a series of rooms in the ‘BP Walk Through British Art’ at Tate Britain during the art gallery’s official re-opening. The piece critiqued the role that Tate is playing in exacerbating climate change by bolstering the public perception of BP through its long-standing sponsorship relationship.
The art at Tate Britain was reordered chronologically this year. The Liberate Tate performance began in the ’1840′ room, when the industrial revolution started to significantly impact emission levels, to the present day room with contemporary art created as carbon dioxide levels reached an all-time high of 400 parts per million (ppm). Leading climate scientists consider 350 ppm to be what must be returned to in this century for earth to be safe for human life for generations to come. In each room the Liberate Tate performers arranged themselves in a different configuration and counted aloud en masse the increase in atmospheric carbon ppm during that time period.
‘Parts Per Million’ is the tenth performance at Tate by Liberate Tate: a group that has become internationally renowned for artworks aimed at ending the relationship of Tate and other cultural institutions with oil companies.
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 data shows is most responsible for climate change due to its carbon emissions, makes it more of a ‘Global Warming Party’.
The national collection of British art housed at Tate Britain — art owned by the public — was re-branded the ‘BP Walk through British Art’ in May: in the very week it was announced carbon dioxide levels had reached 400 ppm. A report published earlier this week estimated that BP was responsible for 2.5% of global historic emissions.
Terri Fletcher of Liberate Tate said:
Tate’s vision statement says that it will ‘demonstrate leadership in response to climate change’. Yet oil companies like BP are actively looking for ways to expand their markets and find new reserves at a time when the world needs to be dramatically reducing the amount of fossil fuels that are being burnt. By actively promoting BP, Tate is positioning itself on the side of the fossil fuel companies that are actually creating dangerous climate change.
There is growing concern from artists, Tate members and visitors that Tate is providing support to a corporation creating climate chaos and forcing climate-conscious gallery visitors into an uncomfortable position if they want to enjoy art at Tate (the mission of the art museum is to promote public enjoyment of art). Last year Tate said in a reply to a freedom of information request that it had received more representations raising concerns about BP’s sponsorship than any other issue since the oil company became linked to the gallery in 1990.
The ‘BP Walk through British Art’ is just one element of oil company branding at Tate. There are presently 33 BP logos at Tate Britain and in recent months this number has gone up to 42. Evening Standard art critic Brian Sewell asked: “I wonder if BP realises how sick of its initials some of us are? Not only is there now a BP Walk, but there are BP Displays of Turner, Blake and Moore, and BP Spotlights too. Are we soon to buy BP sandwiches in the BP café, drink BP water from the BP waterspout, and dry our hands on BP paper in the BP loo?”
Since 1990, when BP first attached itself to Tate and its collection, much has changed: the scientific evidence of climate change due to burning hydrocarbons and the negative social and environmental impacts of oil companies, BP in particular, is now clear and far more widely known amongst the public, including art lovers.
Tate has placed BP sponsorship “under review”. BP has dominated the Tate Members Annual General Meeting (AGM) for years.
In 2012 Tate Director Sir Nicholas Serota promised Tate members ethical alternatives would be explored so that Tate trustees had a choice not to continue BP sponsorship. A progress report is due at the 2013 AGM on 6 December.
Lord Browne, chair of Tate’s Board of Trustees, is former head of BP, an adviser to the government, a key proponent of fracking and directly involved with the company that was fracking in Balcombe.
Liberate Tate is an art collective exploring the role of creative intervention in social change dedicated to taking creative disobedience against Tate until it drops its oil company funding.
Previous performance art at the Tate has included:
- ‘The Gift’: a 16.5 metre, 1.5 tonne wind turbine blade installed in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall in an unofficial performance involving over 100 members of Liberate Tate (July 2012).
- ‘Human Cost’: a performance in Tate Britain on the anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon explosion (April 2011) when a naked member of the group had an oil-like substance poured over them on the floor in an exhibition that was part of ‘BP British Art Displays’.
- ‘Dead in the water’: a contribution to Tate Modern 10th Birthday celebrations (May 2010) by hanging dead fish and birds from giant black helium balloons in the Turbine Hall.
- ‘License to spill’: an oil spill at the Tate Summer Party ‘celebrating 20 years of BP support’ (June 2010).