Floe Piece - Performance by Liberate Tate at the Tate Modern, 14 Jan 2012
The Corporate Occupation of the Arts was an inspiring afternoon of talks at Bank of Ideas from those involved in using art as a political tool. The afternoon started with Platform, the campaigning organisation working to expose the link between corporate (e.g. BP, Shell) sponsorship of cultural institutions and their social licence to operate. Are we complicit in these corporations’ destructive activities when we visit these institutions? The average person on the street isn’t thinking about the social and environmental destruction caused in out-of-sight-out-of-mind places and probably ends up viewing such corporations favourably by associating them with a positive cultural experience. Such sponsorship deals also allow corporations to make strong links with cultural and political decision makers opening the door to public policy. A year ago I was confronted by this issue when I attended a conference on resource security and climate change at the Royal Geographical Society, an institution sponsored by Shell. I wouldn’t be surprised if the climate scientists, social scientists and politicians speaking at the conference take (or are subtly encouraged to take) an uncritical stance towards Shell. Seeing Shell’s logo changed my view of the conference – While I can’t concretely prove it, my hunch is the issue under discussion would be defined and debated differently if it was hosted at a different institution not controlled by oil money.
One of my highlights of the afternoon was The Art School and the Cultural Shed by John Beck (Newcastle University) and Matthew Cornford (University of Brighton). The Art School and the Cultural Shed documents the decline of the publically funded art school where ordinary students once could get a free education, and the rise of the iconic (often empty) museum designed by rock star architects. I am always moved by beautiful buildings but am often saddened by great designers who fail to understand buildings are NOT sculptures and actually have a social purpose! The built environment and subsequent lifestyles are essentially produced and reproduced by investment choices of the political economy– this is true from transport to galleries to office spaces. At any given time – from Amsterdam in the Dutch Golden Age to housing estates – the built environment is a physical manifestation of the ruling political ideology. Even London’s exponential growth into a megalopolis happened in the 19th century when the British Empire was at its height. Architects, artists and others who fail to consider how the situation in which they are creating in came to be are implicit in the reproduction of the ruling political ideology, and the social and environmental impacts that go along with it.
My afternoon at Occupy LSX ended with Liberate Tate’s performance Floe Piece, a block of arctic ice that was taken by four black veiled mourners on a funeral pyre to Tate Modern. We followed the funeral procession from Occupy LSX to Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall where the piece of arctic ice was laid down. People gathered around and many were curious about the performance. Being curious is the first step of engagement and it was magical to see art’s possibility to engage. It was a good twenty or so minutes before the security guards cottoned on that this was an unsanctioned performance. The security guards confusion reminded me of what Liberate Tate had said earlier that afternoon: art spaces allow more time for protest.
Many artists don’t use their art for political means and indeed whose right is it to say what is or isn’t the right role for art? Each generation determines art’s meaning for itself. But this much I know: the political economy determines the nature of our civilization and surely we should use all our tools to make a just, peaceful and beautiful world?