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.*

— — — — — — –

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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