All Rise: What Does Justice Sound Like?

‘Liberate Tate’ raises aware­ness of the uglier side to BP funding of Tate galleries

Court Document Deep Water HorizonThree years ago last Saturday, an oil rig around 50 kilo­metres off the coast of Louisiana ex­ploded. The ex­plo­sion killed el­even workers in­stant­an­eously, and marked the be­gin­ning of an 87-​day period of un­con­trol­lable crude oil spillage into the Gulf of Mexico, the sea-​floor well spewing out around 4.9 mil­lion bar­rels of oil be­fore it was fi­nally capped on 15 July 2010. The spill blackened over 1000 miles of shoreline in Louisiana and neigh­bouring states, put hun­dreds of marine spe­cies and eight na­tional parks at risk, threatened the live­li­hoods of local fishing and tourist in­dus­tries, and had other en­vir­on­mental con­sequences that are on­going and ar­gu­ably im­meas­ur­able. A study last year sug­gested, for ex­ample, that the ‘dis­persant’ used to make the oil sink faster as part of the clean-​up ef­fort may now be af­fecting the ground­water supply in Florida.

The now in­famous Deepwater Horizon rig was being leased and op­er­ated at the time by London-​based en­ergy giant BP, with the as­sist­ance of Halliburton and a number of other smaller com­panies seeking to profit from the off-​shore ex­trac­tion. Over 130 law­suits have been filed in re­la­tion to the dis­aster, in­cluding crim­inal charges of man­slaughter against BP (to which they are ex­pected to plead guilty), as well as thou­sands of claims brought by af­fected in­di­viduals but settled out of court. The major civil trial, brought by the United States gov­ern­ment against BP and other im­plic­ated com­panies, began in the District Court of New Orleans in late February this year and is ex­pected to con­tinue for sev­eral months, as BP at­tempts to min­imize its li­ab­ility for the damage caused by the spill.

The New Orleans trial has re­ceived little media cov­erage out­side the Financial Times, whose read­er­ship is es­pe­cially in­ter­ested in the out­come of the case — to what ex­tent will the US legal system limit the li­ab­ility of cor­por­a­tions for the en­vir­on­mental and human cata­strophes they cause? But per­form­ance group Liberate Tate, who de­scribe them­selves as ‘a net­work ded­ic­ated to taking cre­ative dis­obedi­ence against Tate until it drops its oil com­pany funding’, yes­terday em­barked on a week-​long per­form­ance that brings the BP trial in­side the Tate gal­leries, where the BP logo is already com­fort­ably nestled on walls, signs, flags and of course in the ‘BP British Art Displays’ that take up about a third of Tate Britain’s wall-​space.

Liberate Tate has com­pleted a number of per­form­ances since its form­a­tion a few months be­fore the 2010 BP dis­aster — sim­u­lating oil spills both in­side and out­side the June 2010 Tate Summer Party, an an­nual event at­tended by London’s cul­tural elite, which was that year cel­eb­rating 20 years of BP spon­sor­ship whilst the Gulf of Mexico well con­tinued to spew (a work titled ‘Licence to Spill’); pouring oil over a naked man in the foetal po­s­i­tion in the Duveen Galleries of Tate Britain on the first an­niversary of the dis­aster (‘Human Cost’), and last summer in­stalling a 16.5 metre wind tur­bine in the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall (‘The Gift’). As stated by one group member,

… as Tate is cleaning BP’s money for them by providing them with cul­tural and so­cial le­git­imacy in re­turn for re­l­at­ively small amounts of spon­sor­ship money, we feel it is im­portant to en­sure that BP’s less pal­at­able side also has a pres­ence in­side the Tate galleries.

And while Liberate Tate’s per­form­ances have prin­cip­ally fo­cussed on the ef­fects of the 2010 dis­aster, they have also high­lighted is­sues such as cli­mate change and in­volve­ment in vi­ol­ence, cor­rup­tion and the dis­pos­ses­sion of in­di­genous peoples from their land. To use a quote from a pre­vious piece I wrote on the group last summer, group member Mel Evans ar­gues that ‘en­vir­on­mental damage is fun­da­mental to BP’s or­dinary operations’.

Liberate Tate’s latest per­form­ance, ‘All Rise’, in­volves a week of daily per­form­ances whis­pering the tran­script of the on­going New Orleans civil trial in­side the Tate Modern gal­lery and, through their ded­ic­ated livestream web­site, echoing throughout the world. From 3 – 4pm (GMT +1) every day this week, three dif­ferent per­formers will wander around the gal­lery wearing spe­cially con­structed cam­eras that will film them while they whisper se­lected tran­scripts from the trial. The livestreams of the dif­ferent per­formers will each day be avail­able to watch on­line sim­ul­tan­eously on the All Rise web­site, and can also be re­played at any time after the per­form­ance. Liberate Tate leave it up to the viewer as to how to watch the videos, but sug­gest they be watched sim­ul­tan­eously in order to create ‘a haunting ca­co­phony of words and im­ages from in­side the gallery’.

The priv­ileged pocket of London’s south bank where the Tate Modern towers over the tourist-​scape is far from down­town New Orleans, where the court­house sits between the Mississippi River and the Treme, famous for its thriving black and creole com­munity, its greasy food and its vi­brant brass bands. This southern American city, his­tor­ic­ally an im­portant port for the slave trade and a place of refuge for those fleeing nearby Haiti, had barely re­covered from Hurricane Katrina when BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig ex­ploded not far from its shores. By per­forming the New Orleans trial in­side London’s Tate Modern, Liberate Tate cre­ates a week-​long audio-​visual, dra­matic lived con­nec­tion between the two cities that echoes the en­vir­on­mental, polit­ical and eco­nomic con­nec­tion that runs between them. In a geo­pol­it­ical re­la­tion­ship with clear co­lo­nial res­on­ances, BP can make a mess over there and Tate will clean it up back home.

Watching and hearing the words of the trial whispered by these per­formers as they wander past Lichtenstein, up and down lifts and es­cal­ators and through curious crowds of tour­ists not only brings the BP trial into the Tate gal­lery, but also raises the ques­tion of what law can achieve in the wake of this so­cial and en­vir­on­mental cata­strophe and of BP’s seem­ingly in­es­cap­able power. Listening to the banal­ities of lit­ig­a­tion, the thick form­ality of the pro­ceed­ings, the eso­teric lan­guage of courtroom ad­versaries, the fa­mili­arity between the judges and the various bar­ris­ters, the hier­archy of the de­mand that ‘all rise’ each time the judge enters, the emo­tion­less dis­tance of legal pro­fes­sionals talking about an event that oc­curred three years ago… the ab­sence of voices of people ac­tu­ally af­fected by the spill also sounds in heightened si­lence. While the tran­scripts make the pro­ceed­ings avail­able for anyone to read, few can de­cipher their meaning out­side the narrow con­fines of the courtroom — the script re­quires the com­pulsory pomp and per­form­ance of the judge be­hind his mi­cro­phone and gavel and in his court, to sound any­thing like ‘justice’.

The All Rise per­form­ance is in this way a per­fect counter-​piece to Liberate Tate’s ‘al­tern­ative audio tour’ of the London Tate gal­leries, which of­fers listeners voices and sounds from Canada’s tar sands, Louisiana fishing boats and Iranian living rooms. The audio tour is free to down­load any time, and ex­ists as a per­manent and largely in­vis­ible in­stall­a­tion in the gal­leries. For this week though, it is worth watching and listening as All Rise con­tinues to pro­gress through the tran­script and de­velop with new voices and faces each day, and to ques­tion what justice would sound like in a world in which a co­lo­nial com­pany in­volved in war, hom­icide and en­vir­on­mental dev­ast­a­tion can still work in ap­parent har­mony with one of the world’s most re­spected artistic institutions.

Dr Sarah Keenan is Lecturer in Law at SOAS, University of London

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