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Artists and Activists Sing, Spill “Oil” in Anti–Fossil Fuel Protests at the Louvre

Activists in formation outside the Louvre today (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic unless otherwise noted)
Activists in formation outside the Louvre today (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic unless otherwise noted)

PARIS — As leaders from around the world met here for a tenth day of climate change policy negotiations, more than a hundred activists and members of several art collectives gathered at the Louvre this afternoon to highlight the institution’s ties to the fossil fuel industry. Beginning around 12:30pm outside the museum, performers dressed in black held up umbrellas with letters spelling out the phrase “Fossil Free Culture.” Another, smaller group managed to gain access to the museum’s atrium beneath its famous glass pyramid. Inside, the artist-activists performed a routine in front of onlooking visitors that involved creating an “oil spill” on the museum’s floor and walking through it barefoot, waving umbrellas and singing as they went. All 10 members of the group involved with the indoor performance were detained and arrested by police.

When it comes to climate change, there’s no shortage of villains for activists to target, from climate-denying politicians to evidence-hiding corporations to “hackademics” for hire. So why should a museum enjoyed by nearly 10 million visitors a year deserve a place on that notorious list? “When fossil fuel companies sponsor the arts, they put their logo on arts and culture to try and clean up their image. They try to buy a social license to operate,” Chris Garrard, one of the organizers of today’s protest, from the UK group BP or not BP?, told Hyperallergic. “But in order for people to have discussions about how we can move forward as a society, we can’t have fossil fuels as part of our cultural institutions.”

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Umbrellas painted with the Total and Eni logos on them (click to enlarge)

“The Louvre is sponsored by Eni and Total, two of the six major oil companies in the world,” said Not An Alternative’s Beka Economopoulos. “Our museums have been captured by private interests, particularly fossil fuel sponsors. This action is part of a new and rapidly growing movement to liberate museums and culture from fossil fuels.”

As noon struck — the planned start time of the protest — the Louvre was under high security. French police had barricaded the entrance to the perimeter of the grounds, performing thorough checks of all visitors and turning away protest organizers they had previously ID’d. Inside the fencing, French soldiers patrolled the grounds toting large visible weaponry, a common scene in the city following the November terror attacks.

Guards and protesters in front of the Louvre
Guards and protesters in front of the Louvre

After an impasse of half an hour, the Climate Guardians, a theatrical protest troupe from Australia, arrived at the barricades. The group, whose members dress as angels to symbolize guardianship of the environment, has made quite a splash at the climate negotiations and quickly attracted a large crowd of onlookers as they posed for photos. Somehow, during the commotion, the 20-odd umbrella-toting artists and activists managed to sneak in. Lining up in front of the Louvre’s iconic glass pyramid, they unfurled their message, the black umbrellas evoking contrasting imagery of oil spills and shelter.

Accompanying the visual performance was a song:

Oil, money out of the Louvre move move move / Total, Eni au revoir. Allez, allez, allez.

To wrap up the performance, an activist holding an umbrella with the Eni logo on it stepped across a symbolic red line, representing the struggle of frontline communities against climate injustice. The organizers then read the following statement aloud to the crowd in English and French:

We are here because the Louvre is sponsored by the oil companies Total and Eni. Now is the time to keep big oil out of our museums and galleries because we need a culture beyond oil. We stand in solidarity with indigenous activists and campaigners because their rights have been downgraded in the COP21 text.

As this announcement was made, news began to spread of the other, riskier action unfolding inside the museum. Peter Grant, from Boston, witnessed the intervention. “The activists took their shoes off and, going around in a circle, started spreading an oil-like substance on the floor and singing,” he said. “There were a lot of people waiting to buy tickets, and the action caught a lot of attention. Many tourists were surprised and thought this was some show the Louvre was putting on.”

Activists performing inside the Louvre (photo by Clara Paillard)
Activists performing inside the Louvre (photo by Clara Paillard)

“The oil footprints mark the scene of crime, implicating the institution in the fossil fuel system and the climate crisis,” organizer Yates Mckee, also from the US, told Hyperallergic, referencing the work of other artists like Allora and Calzadilla as inspiration. “It’s not so much that we’re coming in and making a mess of the museum; we’re making visible what’s already at work in the museum and its connection with the industry.”

“When we do a performance in a museum, we are also reclaiming the space for the public,” says Garrard. “It’s a political statement to make art in that space, and we’re trying to liberate museums from being stolen by corporations and corporate interests.”

As the performers attempted to leave the premises, French police encircled and arrested them for the unauthorized performance. The activists were held for six hours and were told that they could be charged with “degradation of cultural property.”

Members of the Climate Guardians
Members of the Climate Guardians

The day’s actions are part of a broader, growing movement to liberate cultural institutions from ties with the fossil fuel industry. Groups from all over the globe gathered earlier in the week to organize the protest, as well as share strategies and engage in collaborative long-term planning. This coalition included the US-based G.U.L.F., Not an Alternative, Occupy Museums, and the Natural History Museum; the UK’s Art Not Oil, BP or not BP?, Liberate Tate, Platform London, Science Unstained, Shell Out Sounds, and UK Tar Sands Network; Stopp Oljesponsing av Norsk Kulturliv from Norway; and others from Brazil, Ireland, Australia, and France.

A planning meeting
A protest planning meeting earlier in the week

“We’ve been supporting and echoing each other’s work, so that our groups don’t stand alone,” Ragnhild Freng Dale from Stopp Oljesponsing Av Norsk Kulturliv told Hyperallergic. “For us, now we’re not just a little group in Norway. We’re part of a bigger global movement for a fossil-free culture. That’s heartening.”

Hyperallergic contacted the Louvre for a comment on the day’s proceedings. So far no response, but we’ll keep you posted. We did manage to catch one worker’s reaction, courtesy of Not An Alternative’s Josh Yoder, who recalled a museum manager yelling as the group was being ejected from the atrium: “No manifestations inside the museum — it’s an affront to the culture!”

The Fossil Free Culture movement would no doubt find that statement ironic.

Tickets scattered by the protesters
Fake money scattered by the protesters
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At the site of the protest
Protesters in front of the Louvre
Protesters in front of the Louvre (photo by Emma Cassidy | Survival Media Agency)
Protesters in front of the Louvre
Protesters in front of the Louvre (photo by Emma Cassidy | Survival Media Agency)
The Climate Guardians and the protesters
The Climate Guardians and the protesters (photo by Emma Cassidy | Survival Media Agency)
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