Cast your mind back to 1997. On 16 November Tony Blair, edgy but pluckily optimistic, appeared on television to apologise to the British public. There had been a situation – Blair explained via BBC1’s On the Record – that had slipped his attention, an incident that had not been regarded with the full seriousness it deserved, and for that he was sorry. A £1m donation given to the Labour party by Formula One boss Bernie Ecclestone, hitherto denied by Blair, had been revealed. It was time for a humbled prime minister to convince the general public that he was still a ‘pretty straight sort of guy’, and that Ecclestone’s donation had nothing to do with a policy U-turn exempting Formula One from a sport-wide tobacco advertising ban – a decision ultimately reversed in tandem with the return of Ecclestone’s funds. Flash forward 13 years. On 17 June 2010 Tony Hayward, former CEO of BP, sat before the US Congress to issue a perfunctory apology: BP’s catastrophic deep-water spillage on 20 April, which evidence suggested had been caused by gross negligence, had released 210m gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. The result of this spillage would have a devastating effect on Louisiana’s fishing industry, its ecosystem, biodiversity and residents, and for that Hayward was ‘deeply sorry’.
What links these two reluctantly penitent individuals – notwithstanding identical first names and an uncanny likeness to the actor Michael Sheen – is the question of ethics in relation to corporate sponsorship. Is there such a thing as dirty money? For an embarrassed government seeking to avoid opinion poll free-fall the answer was ‘yes’; but for cultural sector recipients of BP sponsorship the answer – recently demonstrated by Tate, the British Museum, the Royal Opera House, and the National Portrait Gallery (Artnotes AM353) – is an enduring and obstinate ‘no’. While many are content to roll their eyes at the mention of institutional hypocrisy, subscribing to the take-the-money-and-run/well-they’re-not-dealing-arms-anymore schools of thought, there are groups seeking to draw attention to a practice that, for them, severely undermines the integrity of our cultural institutions.
Since 2010 the London-based activist group Liberate Tate has been focusing critical energies on Tate. For them, Tate’s 20-year association with BP – a company they claim is ‘engaged in socially and ecologically destructive activities’ – is a relationship incompatible with the gallery’s ethical guidelines. During this period of patronage, according to the recent publication Not If But When: Culture Beyond Oil, BP was responsible for as many as 8,000 oil spills in the US alone; they also courted the favour of oppressive regimes in Libya and tacitly supported Hosni Mubarak in Egypt. These examples, from a long list of calamities and human rights abuses linked to the corporation, are what drive the group’s conviction that Tate’s association with BP must be stopped.
So far Liberate Tate’s case has been propagated through a series of attention-grabbing, guerrilla-style actions, but in collaboration with Platform – a London-based arts organisation working towards social and ecological justice – Tate à Tête, 2012, an alternative Tate gallery audio guide, has moved both groups’ activism into a kind of immaterial territory. By adding this covert and unpreventable form of dissent to their arsenal, Liberate Tate and Platform have supported the development of a highly innovative form of non-violent activism. Four UK-based artists and one Canadian comedian responded to the commission, and the resulting audio guide is divided into three site-specific parts: Tate Britain by Ansuman Biswas, Tate Boat by Isa Suarez, Mae Martin, and Mark McGowan, and Tate Modern by Phil England and Jim Welton.
Disappointingly, the Tate Britain and Tate Boat works suffer from a confused sense of purpose. What one hears is a conflict between the formal demands of the audio-guide medium – which basically requires a detached pedagogical tone for imparting information – and the creative desires of artists seeking to push the form beyond its conventional territory. Biswas creates a futuristic sensorial drift through the gallery, casting the listener as a post-human participant cognitively fused to the audio, while the Tate Boat segment is a mix of songs, monologues and interviews fading in and out against an assortment of oceanic soundscapes: a blend of anecdotes and simulated acoustic spaces, pitched somewhere between experimental radio documentary (eg Glenn Gould’s The Idea of North) and radio play (eg Radio 4’s production of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy). While accomplished works in their own right they lack the aesthetic neutrality audio guides require, and the rhetorical and factual acuity needed for cogent political argument. On the other hand, England and Welton’s Tate Modern piece is a note-perfect subversion of the standard form.
Essentially the purpose of an audio guide is to augment and explicate, not overshadow, what one sees. The unsure listener expects to be confidently orientated through a space by an authoritative and informative voice, and England and Welton opt for an approximation of that dispassionate, and faintly patrician, female narrator we recognise from lifts and public address systems everywhere. The guide operates in conventional fashion with the listener following route-based instructions leading to encounters with artworks throughout the building. Details of the artist’s intention, or a specific material used in a particular work, lead to explanations of BP’s questionable practices. It is a simple but highly effective formula, consistently debunking the myth that – as the guide states – BP is a ‘well behaved company: ethical, cultured, philanthropic and associated with all things good’.
In front of Jannis Kounellis’s Untitled, 1979, the narrator draws our attention to Kounellis’s use of industrial-strength coal dust, and then traces BP’s pre-history as the Anglo-Persian Oil Company responsible for tapping Iranian oil reserves – offering the country a paltry 16% of profits. In front of Joseph Beuys’s Lightning With Stag in Its Glare, 1958-85, the artist’s membership of the German Green party, and his interest in alternative forms of energy leads to mention of Azerbaijan, to BP’s oil drainage of the country’s natural resources and the impossibility of alternative energy research being undertaken under a present dictatorial rule that the corporation tacitly supports. This method of illustration and explanation is repeated with works by Marisa Merz, Giuseppe Penone and Braco Dimitrijevic. What enables this process to be rerun without exhausting the listener is the wealth of information presented, the convincing way it cleaves to the artworks chosen and the use of the building’s own acoustic properties – the Turbine Hall’s echo and ambient gallery chatter – to create a seamless sense of place.
But what of politics and the art world, does anybody really care anymore? Today direct action, text or speech – particularly if it relates to the UK – seems to be regarded as the unsophisticated sibling of criticality: that emasculated but institutionally acceptable state of political awareness where a certain bureaucratic aesthetic is de rigueur. Liberate Tate and Platform are encouraging us to look at things differently, and with Tate à Tête, a portable piece of cultural activism for the modern age, their message has the potential to reach, engage and politicise a much wider audience.
Ecclestone may have fooled an unschooled Blair with the argument that withdrawing tobacco advertising would lead to the emigration of Formula One and the loss of thousands of jobs, but Formula One survived, and the Tate will survive without BP. The issue, made all the more pertinent by Liberate Tate and Platform’s new project, is not if, but when.