“This piece is no criticism of anyone involved – rather an attempt to inspire some thought on the challenges that confront us if we are really serious in our intention” – Give Up Activism, Do Or Die #9, 2001
Museums and galleries weren’t always the grand institutions we experience today. Formerly private collections, visible only to the ruling classes, were projected into the lower echelons of society in grand acts of philanthropy. Establishments like the British Museum and the National Gallery opened their doors to all amidst the formation of a ‘united’ kingdom across the British Isles. Over time, these secular cathedrals to enlightenment values and British imperialism would come to attract millions of visitors, becoming synonymous with the “London experience”.
Recent additions to the fold include the Tate Modern, a rehousing on the South Bank in one of London’s Victorian era industrial projects that now sits alongside the British Museum, St Paul’s Cathedral and other destinations on the London tourist trail. The gallery today attracts the largest footfall of arts spectators globally with collections that seek to encompass the twentieth century art world and its contemporary spillover. The Tate Modern and other such edifices – the Bilbao Guggenheim or the Brooklyn Children’s Museum, for instance – also find themselves not merely presenting culture, but producing it as well. Many of these institutions have been instrumental in the gentrification of the postcodes in which they reside, raising property prices and providing the lightning rods through which social cleansing flows.
Recent years have seen the emergence of activist groups including Liberate Tate and the Art Not Oil Coalition acting with the stated intention to challenge and provoke decisions by the governing bodies of arts institutions to bring an end to oil sponsorship. Through several spectacular interventions and stunts, these groups transmit their conviction that funding from the likes of BP should have no place within arts or cultural institutions. Actions range from the impressive mass manoeuvring of one section of a wind turbine to the performative ‘exorcism’ of BP by the animated Reverend Billy Talen of New York’s “Stop Shopping Choir”. In supporting statements by Liberate Tate, artists are invited to join in and act to “liberate Tate” or “free art from oil.” A group of similar configuration, BP or not BP, performs similar spectacular performances within the British Museum, which also benefits from oil sponsorship, proclaiming “BP may need the arts, but the arts do not need BP.”
Let’s back up and take a moment to reconsider these invitations to action and the analysis that appears to inform their configuration. At their core can be found the subject of the cultural institution treated as a contemporary purveyor of injustice, at once exonerated and divorced from the realities of historical violence and imperialism that form the basis of its existence. Take the British Museum: one of history’s largest repositories of colonial plunder is absolved of these descriptive primers by the plain white rooms that house its collection and an accompanying popular narrative that would see the institution described as a #1 “fix of culture” by the likes of Time Out magazine. Within the museum, however, objects such as the Rosetta Stone or the Elgin Marbles remain the subjects of postcolonial control despite decades of calls for repatriation. Together with the spin placed upon centuries of violent plunder – redefined as “high-profile acquisitions” in the museum’s literature – the real creativity at play appears to be the construction of a narrative that would treat the institution as fallen angel. This sleight of hand in both focus and associated sociality undermines the realities of accumulated dispossession and the very making of the popular facade of the institution. With attention turned solely towards the contemporary injustices of the institution, such as oil sponsorship, the accompanying narrative forms a lens of obfuscation against a critical perspective, while further cultural distortion also serves to obfuscate the feedback loop that runs from state institution to participant-spectator, and to the very labour force that would feed the existence and perpetuation of the institution itself (what appears, we suggest, more hungry daemon than fallen angel).
As we attempt to focus on the violent past and its perpetuation in the present institution, it would seem fanciful to suggest a process of cleansing could be achieved by the mere removal of 21st Century oil sponsorship. The activism at play in the cultural institution appears to present a microcosm of the broader whole of the environmental movement and its problematic history – oft-ignored calls from front lines of resistance against the extractive industry. We need only glance at the contested terrain of the Alberta Tar Sands in Canada, challenged by First Nation protection camps, to see an example of the relationship between colonisation and extraction. The realities of contemporary struggle and the instrumentalisation of postcolonial institutions in the extension of oppression into the present day suggest we cannot separate the politics of climate change from the history of colonialism, and that decolonisation must form the kernel of any legitimate confrontation with oppression in a context of changing climates. If the goal is to create the kind of museum that we can experience in common, and one which absolves attendees of complicity with the violence therein, shouldn’t such a campaign instead seek the closure of the institution, its collections returned to the places from which they were stolen, and reparations made to cultures damaged by their artefacts’ removal?
Beyond the museum – the art gallery. Supporting statements by Liberate Tate call for the removal of oil sponsorship to “free” art from oil, suggesting that beneath the muddy relationships with big business sits a more ideal cultural institution awaiting its opportunity to rise again. This perspective contains a conception of the arts institution as democratic, responsive and accountable; a workable component of a participatory society or liberal democracy. That Liberate Tate demand the oil men pack their bags, however, begs the question: what conditions would have to be met to be regarded as an acceptable trustee? It is this fallacy of potential accountability and participation, combined with the intimation of a just flow of capital, that obscures the position institutions like Tate occupy in dominant cultural production and pushes the aforementioned feedback loop between production and labour force beyond the gaze of scrutiny.
To gain access into to the after dark champagne receptions and clubhouse shindigs held within the gallery walls, let alone adorn them with your work, implies societal privilege, class and accompanying degrees of social mobility – the barrier of tolerance for alternative intervention or creative expression is remarkably low [sidenote: you will not find radical or dissenting literature stocked by Tate as the gallery is not willing to host “political” expression]. To be displayed at the Tate is to be deemed as reproducing to an adequate degree the cultural and aesthetic values tolerated by the state, or for one’s work to have been recuperated. This dual logic of complicit production and recuperation not only underscores the power inherent in the art institution, it is telling of the broader conditions of class division and labour force that enable its perpetuation. This much is revealed by the actions and aesthetic practices undertaken by Liberate Tate in the drive to free art from oil: performances that opt in and confine themselves to the institutional framework of the gallery, legitimising its existence and the implicit relation with associated labour – rather than breaking out of the gallery and rupturing class confinement. Paradoxically, these acts become a strangely impassioned defence of the institution and serve to further enable and perpetuate the class division underpinning the creative industry.
This isn’t to deny the possibility of a genuine critique of the institution from within; Hans Hacke was one of the first generation of institutional critique artists. In a piece titled “hapolsky et al. Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, A Real Time Social System, as of May 1, 1971” Hacke attempted to document, and display in real time, the real estate portfolio of a New York slumlord in the Guggenheim Museum, making visible relations between the slumlord and museum trustees. Naturally, the invitation to show the work was rescinded. Compared to the performed outrage in the various galleries and museums across London, here is a critique considered threatening enough that its presence in the space simply couldn’t be tolerated. What made this piece more dangerous than the arts activism we critique here is that the relationship between art and dispossession were more critically situated; the capital-labour relation is immanent, proximate and timely.
Activity that takes place within the scope of one’s own encounter with injustice is laudable, but activity that fails to articulate and address the conditions that give rise to these injustices becomes instead a driving force behind a narrative of oppression. It is often said of art that its practice seeks to “make visible”, and yet in the quest to liberate Tate the desire appears to be much the opposite: to instead sweep the visibility of injustice from the sector of one’s labour yet say nothing of this industrial relation. Perhaps contrary to liberating Tate, the very visibility of oil money in these institutions presents an alternative affordance in that it may allow us a shared perspective from which to deliberate, explore and articulate a broader schema of industry and social relations – global extraction, violence, colonialism, class division, cultural industries – and to enable a dialogue that might hope to maintain a sense of the underlying injustice. The development of a less privileged programme around this material contention, grounded in an analysis which looks to the broader position in our history that these contested spaces have inhabited, is essential. It may be that we find nothing worth saving.