Interviews

Liberate Tate Activists Look Back on Six Years of Fighting BP Sponsorship

Liberate Tate, "License to Spill" (2010) (photo by Immo Klink)
Liberate Tate, “License to Spill” (2010) (photo by Immo Klink) (all photos courtesy Liberate Tate)

Last month, BP announced that it will end its 26-year-long sponsorship of Tate. The agreement provided just a tiny fraction of the annual operating budget for the British museums group — which operates Tate Britain and Tate Modern in London, as well as Tate Liverpool and Tate St. Ives — but gave the oil giant extensive public exposure and positive brand associations through events and exhibitions, like Tate Britain’s BP Walk through British Art and the BP Art Exchange program. But in 2010, after the founding of the artist collective Liberate Tate during a workshop on art and activism at Tate, the sponsorship deal became an increasingly controversial subject of public debate.

Liberate Tate, "Human Cost" (2011) (photo by Amy Scaife)
Liberate Tate, “Human Cost” (2011) (photo by Amy Scaife) (click to enlarge)

Over the course of the past six years, members of Liberate Tate — in concert with other cultural activist organizations — staged a series of performances and protests demanding an end to the sponsorship deal. Most of the actions took the form of unsanctioned performances inside Tate Modern and Tate Britain, from a miniature oil spill at the institution’s summer gala (“License to Spill,” 2010) to attempting to gift the museum a 54-foot-long wind turbine blade (“The Gift,” 2012) and setting up a tattoo parlor in the galleries, where each performer was tattooed with the atmosphere’s carbon dioxide level the year she was born (“Birthmark,” 2015). When the decision to end the agreement was made public, Liberate Tate had been preparing for its most elaborate and confrontational series of actions and performances as BP and Tate considered whether or not to renew their agreement for another five years.

Though staff of BP and Tate were quick to assert that the protest performances and souring public opinion of the fossil fuel industry had nothing to do with the decision, Liberate Tate considers the decision a great victory. With BP on its way out at Tate, energy and momentum are shifting to ridding four other major London cultural institutions (the British Museum, the National Portrait Gallery, the National Theatre, and the Royal Opera House) of the oil company.

Hyperallergic spoke with Mel Evans and Kevin Smith, two longtime members of Liberate Tate, about the collective’s development during its six-year campaign, how it planned its most iconic performances, and what’s next now that Tate has been liberated.

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Benjamin Sutton: Did you have any inkling the decision to end the sponsorship was coming?

Mel Evans: Completely took us by surprise. We went into this year expecting that we’d have to wait until the end of the year for the announcement to come, and that was really weighing on us because we had that sense of, “Oh, you know, it could be that we get there, but it could be that we find out there’s another five years.” Those two extremes were weighing on our souls. Then for it to come so soon in the year feels like this crazy sort of relief.

Kevin Smith: We were fully expecting that we’d have to just escalate it like nobody’s business over the course of this year, because we felt like discussions were being made hurriedly, but more ongoing and weren’t necessarily definitive at this point. We had a whole bunch of plans of how we felt we needed to go in a more determined fashion.

BS: Was there a turning point in your campaign or a moment when it seemed like Liberate Tate’s message really started to gain traction?

KS: I would say the first point of traction would be the Tate Summer Party, where we did the “License to Spill” performance. That garnered an awful lot of international media and felt like it was really putting it on the map. I think there was a sense of, we can do this, and then all of a sudden at the end of that year is when they announced the five-year deal renewal. At that point there was enough motivation and energy and creative satisfaction for people to pull together and hunker down in a war of attrition with Tate. And with a lot of the performances after that, it felt like we got more into a groove of what we were doing, how we were executing it, and what we were putting out there. It was only in the last year that we started having discussions about what it would mean for us on a personal, emotional, political, and creative level if BP did renew the five-year sponsorship.

Liberate Tate, "Birthmark" (2015) (photo by Martin LeSanto-Smith)
Liberate Tate, “Birthmark” (2015) (photo by Martin LeSanto-Smith)

ME: They had a tough year in 2010. It was, for them, sudden and awful, and it was such a crystallization of the problem — the fact that they were having this party in June 2010, celebrating 20 years of BP sponsorship, while the Deepwater Horizon spill was ongoing. The press hits to our interventions there were just off the scale. So they issued that five-year deal as a kind of threat to us, saying, “Well, we’re staying around, you could never last this out.” And I think they really thought at that point that in five years time it would’ve all cooled off. That was the challenge that we took, in a way, like, “Actually, yeah, we will.” And for those five years, we slowly but surely built, grew, and escalated our tactics, to the point where last year we were staying overnight in the gallery, we were tattooing each other in the gallery. I think they thought their five-year deal would ward us off, and they weren’t successful in that.

KS: They hadn’t banked on us increasingly getting off on it. (Laughs.)

ME: But was there a moment when we thought that we could do this? In a sense, I think, we always did, because you have to, don’t you? Even when it seemed despairing and it seemed like, “Oh god, there aren’t that many people gonna show up this time.” Or when it’s really hard to organize or you plan something and they install something by surprise — it’s all happened. I think we’ve always had that conviction that we can do this and we will do this, and we’ll keep doing it for as long as it takes to do it. We were dredging into our inner souls to find the next five years in us, but we were going to find it. I think that’s when we can win, when they realize that we’ve got more stamina than they do.

KS: I think also this whole thing with oil companies is that question of being on the wrong side of history. In 2011 we made a publication called Not If But When: Culture Beyond Oil, because oil companies are going to be seen as such despicable entities for what they’ve done. So our sense is that it will happen at some point, and what we’re doing is trying to hasten that procedure and ramp up the stigmatization of oil companies as soon as possible in order to diminish the political, financial, and cultural power that they have over society.

BS: What was the process like, on the inside, when Liberate Tate conceived, planned, and carried out an action?

ME: It’s certainly changed over the years, and evolved over the years. At the beginning, we were much looser and kind of finding out — maybe we’ll try this over here, maybe we’ll try that over there — and then as time went by, we became so much more intimate with those spaces and how to make work for those spaces. We also pushed ourselves further in terms of how to be confrontational in those spaces.

We also became a lot faster with our aesthetic. It’s not like we ever worked on one thing at a time and then either put it out into the world when we as artists thought that it was ready, or only for a specific date and around a specific event. We were holding those two ways of working hand in hand, so that we’d have things bubbling up and evolving, and we tried to feel when the right moment was to do them. So much had evolved through that process that many of the pieces really changed and evolved through a process of questioning and reevaluating for a different situation.

There’s been a whole evolution of our practice and that’s one of the things that’s very much alive for us at the moment — how to continue that practice because we’ve spent this much time, invested this much effort, in really honing the way that we work together and trusting that that will really bear fruit.

Liberate Tate, "Time Piece" (2015) (photo by Martin LeSanto-Smith)
Liberate Tate, “Time Piece” (2015) (photo by Martin LeSanto-Smith)

KS: It’s a weird alchemy of trust that we’ve developed as a group, where everyone’s happy to not fix things or have a fixed idea, and things shift about and evolve, with a lot of “How about this, or how about this, and what if we did that?” To me, for most of the performances, it’s felt like at some point it suddenly clicked in a collective way, where everyone suddenly felt, “OK, that’s the thing,” and then we’d go full steam ahead in executing it, or recruiting people for it, or making it happen. It’s felt like a very fluid development until all of a sudden people go, “OK, that’s the idea.”

ME: As for some of those nuts and bolts questions, we have a tighter list for core organizing, which is about 15 people, and that is an email list that’s used everyday. We then have smaller, WhatsApp groups for specific projects — that’s a lot more than once a day. We all work full-time as well. Last year we were having meetings two weekend afternoons a month and two weekday evenings a month; and for the three month lead-up to big performances, breakfast meetings once a week, so quite a lot of contact. And that was about distributing out the creative process so that it had enough space for the ideas to grow, separating that out from the more administrative, keeping everything moving as fast as we logistically needed to. There are about 500 people who’ve been involved in different performances, some more regularly than others, so there’s quite a tight network of trust and then there’s the wider Liberate Tate network, you know. All those people are part of Liberate Tate, but we would only communicate with them via post.

KS: By love letters. Because it’s usually quite a big task, it’s a relationship of trust. People get to know our work. We’re essentially pulling people relatively out of the blue, saying, “Do you want to come and be involved in doing this thing?” And that thing might be quite confrontational; it might involve the possibility of arrest; it might be durational, with a rehearsal beforehand. So it’s quite a lot that we’re asking of people, so the idea with putting a lot of effort into the love letter is not just a security concern of keeping everything off email and phones, but also to make an experiential beginning of someone’s journey of participating in our performance. In fact someone came up to me when we were all at the pub after the party that we had in Tate Modern on Saturday [March 19], and said, “I’m going to keep those love letters forever, they were really special.” So that’s part of how we tried to plan and engage with people before things. And apart from all the weekly meetings, every summer we’ve had a two-day camping retreat outside of London.

BS: When you started out, this type of protest art was not exactly unheard of, but certainly more unusual than it is now. People and groups are being much more vocal and creative in their criticisms of museums — whether it be about turning down funds from climate change deniers, demanding better labor practices, or refusing sponsorship from dangerous companies. Has that made it more difficult to stand out or get your message across?

KS: I think what’s interesting is seeing how each group is really tailoring its practice to be more impactful or affective or coherent with the institution that they’re challenging. That’s also created a difference in feel, texture, and performance. I don’t think it’s ever really felt like there’s a competition or a crowding out of the marketplace of these types of interventions because they’ve all taken such different forms and aesthetics and so on.

Liberate Tate, "Hidden Figures" (2014) (photo by Martin LeSanto-Smith, all photos courtesy Liberate Tate)
Liberate Tate, “Hidden Figures” (2014) (photo by Martin LeSanto-Smith)

BS: Speaking of aesthetics, Liberate Tate has so convincingly adopted the aesthetics of Tate and, in some cases, BP, in its performances and actions. What informed that strategy?

ME: There is a tendency toward taking a target’s logo, taking the BP logo and doing something to it, attacking it in some way, and that process of taking their visual identity and messing with it somehow will achieve messing with the organization itself. When in fact, I feel like any time that you replicate your target’s logo, your target’s visual identity, you reinforce them, you reinforce their messaging.

BP’s been through a massive renewal process with its visual identity. It used to have this coat of arms that was a very old, empire, British look. And then it had its revamp in 2002 with the “helios,” this sun-god kind of flower, that’s very symbolic of renewable energy, which they then cancelled any attempt to go near, and stuck with the opposite. Their visual identity and what they’re trying to do in terms of reinterpreting themselves for the 21st century is very strong, it’s great PR. For us to reinforce that in any way would be terrible, we should stay away from it. The only times we’ve echoed it in our work, there’s been the oil canisters as this reference to who’s spilling, who’s making the mess, and placing them as a villain in our visual narrative, or we’ve had these moments where we’ve created a black helios out of black paint, or we’ve created another black helios out of the all-black sleeping bags in “Time Piece.” So we’ve had these echoes of it, to refer to it but to refer to it differently, not to reinforce it.

Then what we do instead is embrace the visual identity of Tate, and that’s because we do want to embrace the parts of Tate that we do love, the parts of Tate that we do want to support and protect, which are around the publicness and the openness to debate that’s potentially there in that public space. When we reinforce Tate’s visual identity by using its fonts and adapting its logos to ours, or just applying its logo guidelines to ours, then we reinforce the thing that we are trying to protect, and that’s the public and the art, and all those things that we are preserving.

KS: It’s a funny dynamic because in so many of the performances, there’s obviously the confrontation, the taking of space, doing something that’s kind of confrontational in the space, but there’s also the fact that it blends in so well with what might be happening at Tate as some kind of engaging spectacle that people, a lot of the time, presume it’s part of the programming rather than something that’s unsolicited. For us I think that’s quite a fruitful area to be operating in, because it’s that sort of “neither this nor that,” uncategorizable, weird middle ground, where I think the interesting reactions take place.

ME: Which goes to the heart of the whole strategy in a way, which is that we’re always inside and outside. We’re not so far out that we can be ignored, but we’re not so far inside that we have no leverage — we’re in this powerful limbo.

KS: Apart from using the Tate aesthetic, the Tate logo, and those other aspects of Tate, there’s also the cooptation of the Tate buildings themselves, because they are physically really incredible spaces, and they’ve just been really rich and giving to us in terms of different locations and different possibilities for us to engage with aspects of those different space with pop-up performances.

ME: A couple of us actually took a course at Tate that was entirely focused on artworks made for the Turbine Hall, because it’s one of our favorite spaces. We’ve engaged on a very deep level with making work for that space.

Liberate Tate, "The Gift" (2012) (photo by Martin LeSanto-Smith)
Liberate Tate, “The Gift” (2012) (photo by Martin LeSanto-Smith)

BS: What steps has Liberate Tate taken in its various actions and undertakings to make clear that what you’re opposing is not Tate itself, but BP’s sponsorship of Tate — a distinction that often gets lost in more sensationalist press coverage?

ME: It’s a tricky one, isn’t it? We’ve had to, I think, strike a balance between making it clear that we are about Tate, want to protect it, those things, but also challenging them and making them feel uncomfortable as well. This friendly critic role where, “Yeah, we really like you, but also, you need to do something about this really soon, please.” It’s that tricky balance where we almost have to counter out one message with the other. Because if it seems like we’re being too, “Oh, they’re just so fine and so good,” then that wouldn’t work. Or if it’s too hard the other way, that wouldn’t work either. It can be useful if in the press it’s presented as we’re really confrontational with them, because that is part of the tactic.

One example would be us handing out letters to staff during “Time Piece.” It’s this question of pushing the uncomfortableness right up to the top so that it was the directorship that was in the difficult position of deciding whether or not to ask the police to forcibly remove us. Whereas with the floor-level staff, we had written letters to them explaining what we were doing. We were having nice chats with them. Placing that discomfort in the right place has been important.

KS: Also, the whole last six years of what we’ve been doing has taken place against a backdrop of government cuts to arts funding. We’ve made sure that we’ve including messaging and engaged with the various groups to articulate why there’s a real need for art, for public funding, and for arts bodies like Tate to be maintained. There shouldn’t be this either-or dichotomy.

BS: Now that BP has been expelled, does Tate have other corporate sponsors we should be worried about and calling out?

KS: The most recent corporate sponsor that was announced for Tate was Uniqlo, the clothing company. They have a whole host of ongoing labor issues in China. So there’s lots of people who are concerned with workers rights in the fashion industry who would take issue with Uniqlo sponsorship. I think these are all valid questions and people should talk about issues with Uniqlo sponsorship.

To me personally, my motivation and what makes big oil so unacceptable, is the rapidly shrinking time frame we have to deal with climate change. To me that’s a defining line of what makes a corporate sponsor totally unacceptable versus up for rigorous discussion and questioning. Uniqlo has the opportunity to resolve its labor disputes or to improve its labor practices in a satisfactory way, to benefit their workers. BP has a fixed identity of trashing the planet and it structurally can’t do anything else.

ME: I do think the reason why we focused on the oil industry is the same reason why the oil industry is losing so much public support — especially considering how much it had. I think there is something distinctive not only about our motivation but also about the wider cultural position of the industry. The coal industry now wouldn’t dare do cultural sponsorship, because it’s just going to get attacked, and the oil industry is in that process of losing that potential to appear in public spaces without fear of retribution. It’s going the way of tobacco.

BS: What might some of the performances that you had planned for Tate this year have looked like?

ME: One of them we managed to incorporate into the party on [March 19]. We’ve known that we had this opportunity within the architecture of the building that at some point, when the moment was right escalation-wise, we would utilize. There’s this gate to the roof, which Tate really didn’t know about. They were genuinely asking us “How on Earth did you do that?” We had that as an option that we’d been planning to use this year, and which we did use, because we threw 10 kilograms of black confetti down during the party. So we did get to use one of the tricks we had up our sleeves.

To mark the success of its campaign — and cover some of its costs — Liberate Tate is selling very limited edition T-shirts, as well as prints by Conrad Atkinson.

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