Activist art collective Liberate Tate completed a 25-hour unsanctioned performance inside Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall on Sunday, urging the institution to drop its sponsorship deal with BP, one of the world’s largest oil companies. Seventy-five black-clad protesters took part in the performance, entitled “Time Piece,” which began just before noon on Saturday. At roughly 8:45pm, Tate staff warned the performers that London police would be notified if they did not leave the gallery at the scheduled closing time of 10pm, but the group was eventually left alone and allowed to stay. The performance continued through the night as 20 of the 75 protesters stayed in the museum until Sunday afternoon.
Performers covered Turbine Hall’s sloping, 500-foot-long floor, which once housed the oil-fired turbines of the Bankside power station, with thousands of words of warning about climate change. Among the charcoal words scrawled on the floor of the gallery were passages from Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, the UN’s latest climate report, and Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate. The performance’s 25-hour duration represents a full tidal cycle on the River Thames, which is adjacent to the Tate Modern. The performance concluded on Sunday at 12:55pm, the time of high tide on the Thames, and members of the public visiting the museum applauded as the activists left.
Glen Tarman of Liberate Tate was one of the 75 performers who took part in “Time Piece,” and he is a core member of the collective. He explained to Hyperallergic that the group’s “performances can be viewed by some as primarily a protest and we are comfortable with that, but for us we approach our work in Tate as first and foremost performance art.”
He explained that this performance, the group’s longest yet, grew out of a communal decision-making process, and it marks a new phase of Liberate Tate actions. “We always knew that if Tate had not acted responsibly in relation to fossil fuel interests by the middle of 2015 our art would need to take on an even more intense nature and that taking the art museum space beyond closing time would be part of that,” he said. “In doing so for the first time, we wanted this escalation to be a more contemplative work than, say, ‘The Gift’ from 2012 when we took a 17-meter wind turbine blade into the Turbine Hall … [or] ‘Floe Piece,’ where we carried a chunk of Arctic ice from the Occupy London protest camp at St Paul’s Cathedral into Tate Modern and left it to melt on the ramp.”
Tarman continued: “One starting point for ‘Time Piece’ was the 2010 Tate workshop at which Liberate Tate was founded, ‘Disobedience Makes History.’ That workshop began with participants entering a room at Tate with books on art and activism under their seats. ‘Time Piece’ used a number of books from that workshop along with other publications and texts that have interested Liberate Tate members.
“Our process is one where ideas are developed and come together recombined when there is consensus in the collective that a work will have certain elements. These are then refined as we look at execution and further aesthetic choices. In ‘Time Piece’ various forms of time became important, including the river tides connecting the site of Tate with places and communities around the world impacted by BP.”
According to Liberate Tate, hundreds of visitors interacted with the performance on Saturday, but the Tate kept Turbine Hall closed to the public when the museum reopened Sunday and visitors had to crowd on nearby balconies to get a look at the performers.
“When people realized it was not a Tate-sanctioned work there was often a palpable sense of heightened excitement from them about the performance and their involvement in it,” Tarman said. “We didn’t expect so many people saying in different ways this is what should happen at Tate. And that applause as we left — we did not anticipate that. It was amazing!
“Tate staff approach us all the time during longer performances, often saying they cannot stay long in case they are seen by managers, but that they want to thank us, that they hate working in a place that promotes BP. We don’t expect this, but it is still very humbling when it happens — and it did on the day of ‘Time Piece’ before Tate blocked off the work to direct public access. Tate staff have now formally voted to end oil sponsorship — the senior management and Board don’t have the staff body support on BP.”
Tarman sees “Time Piece” as part of a new series of works in the struggle. “When we began, very few public institutions were breaking away from fossil fuel companies. Now, every week sees institutions of all kinds actively deciding to stop supporting the oil, gas, and coal industry,” he says. “Tate is a laggard. The art and culture sector is as a whole. It makes terrible excuses for being part of the system causing harm to the planet and people as climate change increases.”
In March of this year, Tate was forced to reveal that BP’s sponsorship brought the museum an average of just £224,000 (~$350,000) a year between 1990 and 2006, which, as Liberate Tate likes to point out, is 40 times less than the institution received from Tate Members in 2014 and represents only 0.3% of the institution’s operating budget. Next year, Tate will decide whether to continue its partnership with BP.
“Our work in the months ahead will throw more light on how Tate can do the right thing and say goodbye to BP — a stain on the arts — for good,” Tarman says. “More and more people know about the Tate BP scandal and are voicing their opposition. Listening in on conversations or in direct dialogue at performances it’s obvious that people are armed with facts and argument on ending oil sponsorship of the arts. More widely, you can see the public finds it unacceptable — not everyone, there will always be a lot of people who think art is worth backing an oil company, but a significant set of stakeholders know this is wrong and has to end. Fortunately, now artists are speaking up.”