Art as Disobedience: Liberate Tate’s Gift to the Nation

This weekend was an eventful one for the Tate Modern. Late Saturday morning, pursuant to section 7 of the Museums and Galleries Act 1992, art collective Liberate Tate presented the gallery with an unexpected ‘gift to the nation’. That gift was a 1.5 tonne, 16.5 metre wind turbine blade, recovered from a field in Wales, transported, cleaned and lovingly prepared for the Turbine Hall. It was accompanied with a donation letter, officially requesting that the work be considered for the gallery’s permanent collection (a copy of the letter and the artwork’s communiqué is included below).

‘The Gift’ is the latest in a series of creative interventions by Liberate Tate, and with its spectacular size (in terms of both the blade itself and the number of people involved in carrying it in), careful choreography and brilliant coordination, it ups the ante in the group’s battle to have BP dropped as a Tate sponsor. From the relatively small amount of financial aid it gives the Tate, the collective argues, BP gains the veneer of public social acceptability and further embeds itself in the British political establishment. This social and political capital has been particularly useful to BP since its catastrophic Deepwater Horizon spill in 2010, a blowout that killed ten of its own workers and caused extreme and widespread devastation not only to the oceans, coasts and wildlife of the Gulf of Mexico but also to communities and local industries in Louisiana, Alabama, Florida, Mississippi and beyond. But BP’s bad name does not only stem from the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe – BP was originally named the Anglo-​Persian Oil Company, set up in 1908 specifically to take oil from Iran to Western Europe. The distinctly colonial pattern of the oil industry – extracting natural resources from the Global South for the benefit of the Global North – is of course not limited to BP. The industry’s often violent economies and seemingly corrupt practices have been the subject of multiple critiques from scholars and activists.[1] While previous Liberate Tate performances have focused on oil spillage, The Gift and other recent performances by the collective are carefully making the point that the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe was not a one-​off aberration for BP. As collective member Mel Evans argues, ‘environmental damage is fundamental to BP’s ordinary operations’.

Mel Evans is also keen to point out that The Gift is not being given in the blithe hope for a ‘green nation’. ‘The political concepts of ‘green’ and of ‘sustainability’ have been captured by the corporates and the nation, which are built on foundations of colonialism and continue to perpetuate racialised violence without being held to account. We give this gift to the nation to intervene in that very nation as it stands, all too cosy with Big Oil.’

As videos of Saturday’s performance in the Turbine Hall show (see above and here), Tate was not thrilled with its gift. Indeed after calling the police, Tate managers discussed charging the collective for fly tipping. From the reaction of the public in the gallery on Saturday morning, it is clear that not everyone thinks The Gift was rubbish (see here at minute 13). The law has noticeably little to say about gifts, they being private but non-​contractual (for lack of consideration) shifts in ownership, and even equity not coming to the aid of ‘volunteers’. That Liberate Tate took advantage of this legal ambiguity to install the blade in the Turbine Hall while Tate managers and police stood in circles looking helplessly on, was part of the genius of the action.

Tate had workers remove The Gift within hours of it being received. As Benedict Anderson and others have shown, museums and galleries are important institutions for nation-​building – producing social memory by asserting the existence of shared histories, narratives and cultural styles. In deeming gifts to recognised galleries and museums to be ‘gifts to the nation’, section 7 of the Museums and Galleries Act constructs these institutions as spaces that belong to Britain, spaces of national belonging. Liberate Tate’s action on Saturday took the discussion on the politics of BP into the gallery, where the collective argues it belongs. While they removed the object fairly swiftly, the questions around oil sponsorship of the arts remains.*

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Sarah Keenan is Lecturer in Law at Oxford Brookes University.

* In another impressive intervention, Liberate Tate (together with Platform and Art Not Oil) have produced their own audio tour of the Tate galleries which brings narratives from oil-​affected regions, together with musicians and comedians, to complicate the presence of BP inside the galleries. It is available for free download here.

[1] See for example Rowell, Marriott and Stockwell, The Next Gulf: London, Washington and Oil Conflict in Nigeria (Robinson 2005); Shaxson, The Dirty Politics of African Oil (Palgrave Macmillan 2008); Parra, Oil Politics: A Modern History of Petroleum (Tauris 2010).

Gift to the Nation: Letter to Tate 

Dear Sir Nicholas Serota, Director of Tate, and the Board of Trustees of the Tate Gallery,

We, Liberate Tate, make a gift of the artwork specified below to the Tate Gallery to become its permanent property.

Artist: Liberate Tate
Title: The Gift
Medium: Performance (wind-​turbine blade, communiqué and performance documentation, including photographic records and video documentation [to be provided at a later date])
Date: 7 July 2012

1. Exhibition of The Gift should include all elements of the artwork: the wind turbine blade, communiqué and performance documentation.

2. We gift this artwork with the intention of increasing the public’s understanding and enjoyment of contemporary art.

3. We understand that the material we are giving shall be available to curators and researchers as part of the Tate Gallery’s public collection.

4. Being the sole owner of the material, we give this material (and any additions which we may make to it) unencumbered to the Tate Gallery.

Sincerely,

Liberate Tate

Liberate Tate Communique #3 The Gift

“It is easy to see,” replied Don Quixote, “that thou art not used to this business of adventures; those are giants; and if thou art afraid, away with thee out of this and betake thyself to prayer while I engage them in fierce and unequal combat.”

Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervantes

Dear Tate

There may not be much to celebrate these days, but we have given you a gift anyway. This is perhaps the largest present you have ever received, the most unexpected and the most disobedient, the strangest and the hardest to get rid of. What we have given you is a new work of art, which like all the best works is wrapped in the selflessness of creativity, an act of gratitude that keeps on giving.

Despite recent reports that our biosphere is approaching a ‘tipping point’ where ecosystems are close to a sudden and irreversible change that could extinguish human life; despite years of creative protest and thousands of signatories petitioning Tate to clean up its image and let go of its relationship with a company that is fuelling catastrophe; despite all these things, Tate continue to promote the burning of fossil fuels by taking the poisoned ‘gift’ of funding from BP. This is why today we have given you something you could not refuse.

The law of this island requires that all “gifts to the nation”, donations of art from the people, be considered as works for public museums. Consider this one judiciously. We think that it is a work that will fit elegantly in the Tate collection, a work that celebrates a future that gives rather than takes away, a gentle whispering solution, a monument to a world in transition.

‘The Gift’, weighing one and a half tonnes, has been moved hundreds of miles from a Welsh valley, lovingly prepared and carried by hand by hundreds of people across London to be deposited in the Turbine Hall, a space where oil was once burnt to light this city. The journey of ‘The Gift’ bears witness to an epic of cooperation and points to a time beyond fossil fuels.

Resting on the floor of your museum, it might resemble the bones of a leviathan monster washed up from the salty depths, a suitable metaphor for the deep arctic drilling that BP is profiting from now that the ice is melting. But it is not animal, nor is it dead, it is a living relic from a future that is aching to become the present. It is part of a magic machine, a tool of transformation, a grateful giant.

What we have brought you is the blade of an old wind turbine, sixteen and a half metres long, beautifully sharpened by the weather. It is a blade to cut the unhealthy umbilical cord that connects culture with oil, a blade that reminds us that when crisis comes, when the winds blow strong, the best thing to do is not to build another wall but raise a windmill…

Yours, in gratitude,

Liberate Tate

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