In BP country, artists strike back

BP Summer Big Screens

As we were planning our time in London, our friend Indraneel emailed us about the Royal Opera's free open-air events, a.k.a. "BP Summer Big Screens." It was a bit of a shock seeing pictures of people at an event named after America's a environmental villain #1; it would be like attending the "Boston Strangler Summer Days at the Opera." Didn't anyone at the Royal Opera read the news, or realize that their event was now linked to the mass destruction of American ecosystems and jobs?

National Portrait Gallery BP Portrait Award 2010 website screenshot

We've been in London for two weeks now, and BP's everywhere. Signs all around the British Museum are festooned with BP logos. The Tate just threw a party to celebrate their twentieth anniversary of BP sponsorship. But the National Portrait Gallery was the worst; I couldn't bring myself to go into the hall celebrating the BP Portrait Awards.

Apparently someone's noticed. We've been in London for two weeks now, and have been delighted to see Londoners use creative tactics to highlight the role of cultural institutions being used as BP greenwash:

But these actions are the tip of much larger pushback, with artists and critics publicly reconsidering the role of oil sponsorship. The Tate is the highest-profile target, with groups of artists like Liberate Tate pressuring the Tate to drop BP sponsorship by 2012, citing the museum's own public commitment to offer "leadership in response to climate change" as well as its ethical donor policy.

Is this just symbolic politics? I talked to Kevin Smith from London-based arts/environment group Platform, who described how processes like sponsorship are a vital part of the social license that holds up the real-world "carbon web," giving oil companies the capacity to operate with public sanction, disguising the industry's impacts on local and global environment, militarization, and conflict.

According to Platform:

"Apart from catastrophic spills...there are a whole host of adverse impacts that are associated with the production of oil...In order for an oil company to product oil and transport it to the global market, it needs either the support or the silence of the population in those areas of the world in which this takes place....The building of social license takes place to a...[great] degree in the cities...such as London...Here, Shell and BP have between then sponsored almost all of London's most prestigious museums and cultural institutions over the course of the last decade.

The financial support that the companies provide strengthens their perception as a part of Britain's cultural and social elite, and creates a perception of making a positive contribution to our society. This in turn not only provides them with an important profile with ordinary fuel consumers, but far more importantly strengthens connections between the corporations and vital bodies such as government departments. The support of institutions such as the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, or the Department of International Development, are far more important to the global operations of Shell and BP than that of the populations near the oilfields or on the pipeline routes. These relationships are made at the gala openings and concerts, where the audiences made up of civil servants and decision makers rub shoulders with the oil executives.

A decade ago, tobacco companies were seen as respectable partners for public institutions to gain support from -- the current BP Portrait Award at the National Portrait Gallery as previously sponsored by Imperial Tobacco. Now it is socially unacceptable for tobacco to play this public role, and it is our hope that oil and gas will soon be seen in the same light, as the public comes to recognize that the sponsorship programmes or BP and Shell are means by which attention is distracted from their impacts on human rights, the environment and global climate.

On the local level, it often involves extreme forms of pollution for local communities, while regionally oil is frequently associated with greater militarization and conflict. Globally, carbon emissions, oil companies, and our collective dependence on the product they push, are taking us ever closer to the edge of climate catastrophe."

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About us...

We're a landscape architect (Barnali) and tech geek (Anirvan) from San Francisco spending a year trying to travel across continents aviation-free while talking to people exploring solutions to transportation and the climate crisis.

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