“Crashing waves, buildings fall; BP stains a museum wall.” So sang dozens of protestors last Saturday at the British Museum as they processed, as if for a funeral, through its halls and galleries in protest of the oil giant’s continued financial backing of the institution. Wearing all black, they carried a long piece of red fabric that represented a line that must not be crossed as we move forward in addressing issues of climate change.
The four-hour performance marks the 39th one organized by the theatrical protest group BP or not BP? since 2012, when its dedicated members first started calling for the end of oil sponsorship of cultural institutions — partnerships that are often ways for corporations to donate a tiny percent of their annual budgets for promotional purposes. The majority of BP or Not BP’s actions have occurred at the British Museum, which, this August, renewed its sponsorship deals with BP, as did London’s National Portrait Gallery, the Royal Shakespeare Company, and the Royal Opera House.
This latest action marked the final weekend of Sunken Cities, a BP-sponsored exhibition of recently unearthed treasures from two ancient Egyptian “lost cities” — and a show that many anti-BP protestors find grossly ironic considering the threats climate change poses to coastal cities today. The protest was also a response to the election of Donald Trump, who infamously called climate change a hoax invented by the Chinese; really hates wind farms; and picked climate change denier Myron Ebell to lead his transition team for the Environmental Protection Agency.
“Trump’s election has meant that removing the social legitimacy or ‘social license’ of the fossil fuel industry has become even more crucial, and ending the sponsorship deals of Shell and BP is a crucial part of that,” Chris Garrard of Art Not Oil, the coalition that includes BP or Not BP?, told Hyperallergic. “Cultural institutions, such as the British Museum, now need to step up and decide which side of history they’re on. If you’re in the business of protecting the past for future generations, the answer should be obvious.”
Saturday’s protest focused far beyond the relationship between BP and the British Museum, highlighting seven cities around the world that are at risk from rising sea levels: Shenzhen, Lagos, London, Alexandria, New York City, Buenos Aires, and the Pacific Islands. Glass bottles of clean water representing each city stood on individual plinths like precious artifacts, all arranged in a circle in the museum’s Great Court; protestors sprinkled black confetti in the middle of the circle to represent BP’s sludgy product and over the course of the afternoon, added blue confetti to the pile to symbolize rising waters.
The protestors, which consisted of 40 individuals from eight different countries, also briefly occupied various galleries that were geographically linked to the highlighted cities. At each site, BP or Not BP? members presented artworks that spoke to specific plights those cities face. A poem sent by Nigerian journalist Betty Abah was read aloud in the Africa gallery that addressed the impact of gas pipelines on the coastal town of Badagry in Lagos; by the China gallery, members of 350.org projected a film put together by residents of Shenzhen that raises awareness of the impact of sea-level rise.
BP or Not BP’s protest also presented a strong message of solidarity with those currently battling the Dakota Access Pipeline. To mark New York City, members of The Living Theater not only performed a spoken word piece that looked to the past — remembering Hurricane Sandy — and to the future — imagining a watered-down metropolis in the year 2058 — but also addressed the present-day violence by police towards protestors at Standing Rock. “Water is life and now water is death,” one artist shouted near the end of her script. “The oil burns, the ocean rises.”
The attempt to deprive Native Americans of control over their own land exemplifies how with the globate climate crisis is so swayed by power and privilege. With Trump headed to the White House, these injustices, for many, are especially more important to fight against. BP or not BP’s protest this weekend urges that strength may be found in numbers and public engagement built through creative actions.
“In the wake of Trump’s election, international solidarity and collaboration will be key to challenging his anti-science stance and xenophobia,” Garrard told Hyperallergic. “It is a key moment for joining up our campaigns and continuing to connect our work on fossil fuel sponsorship more closely with struggles against colonialism, against oppression, and for the rights of Indigenous peoples. Museums and galleries are likely to be important spaces for debate and dialogue, and performance and protest are powerful tools for reclaiming them.”