Art, oil, politics & empire: #Deadline Festival shatters democratic facade of arts institution

There have been many brilliant interventions at major UK arts institutions recently primarily focusing on fossil fuel funding.  Collectives like Art not Oil, Liberate Tate, Reclaim the Bard and many more have created (and will no doubt continue to create) a host of spectacularly Platform London powerful, often sublimely beautiful acts of resistance  against the involvement of fossil fuel corporations such as BP and Shell in and around some of the country’s biggest cultural institutions.  Tate, Royal Opera House, British Museum, The V&A, National Gallery, Edinburgh Festival, British Film Institute, National Portrait Gallery, Southbank Centre, Royal Shakespeare Company, and many others are prime targets for their carefully coordinated interventions.  Members of Platform London are often directly or indirectly involved in these actions too.

Deadline Festival was different from these often shorter forms of intervention.  The idea was to host an unauthorised three-day arts festival in the public spaces inside Tate Modern, occupying and reclaiming the space for a packed programme of installation, exhibition, poetry, theatre, performance, workshops, films, debates and participatory intervention.  The festival was produced and curated by Platform London.  It’s programme was announced in advance.  (I will not discuss the programme in detail here.  Click to see it in full.)  I helped gather and organise a team of super-committed and deeply passionate volunteers from afar in the weeks and days before the festival and helped out at Tate Modern on the last day as an act of practice and research: praxis.

There are no false notions of neutrality or ‘disinterest’ in my approach.  I firmly believe arts and cultural (indeed all) organisations must divest themselves of any sponsorship by fossil fuel magnates.  I am also deeply suspicious of any attempt to corral arts and culture together under the neoliberal semiotic The Creative Industries.  Furthermore, I also find the broader sponsorship, patronage and board-level embedding of Big Businesses within publicly funded arts and cultural institutions to be incredibly problematic and divisive.  Take Tate: company founded on the profits of the slave trade; sponsored and supported by the state and a list of major capitalists that just goes on and on and on.  Nasty ‘investments’ and ‘commercial activities’?  Massive contributors to climate change, war and terrorism?  Neocolonialists?  Dismissive of workers’ rights?  GREAT!  You’re in!  And it would seem, at least in the case of BP’s sponsorship of Tate, that the price of neoliberal endorsement in return for green washing or art washing and incredibly important institutional cultural capital to be used globally as a valuable source of soft power is a pittance.  Who said arts and culture were always expensive?

Deadline Festival was intended to coincide with the COP21 climate negotiations in Paris and, like the ongoing events in Paris, the festival reflected a much broader recognition of the co-dependent nature of fossil fuels, finance, climate change, terrorism, war, imperialism, colonialism, politics, and neoliberalism’s myriad of other insidious suckers that creep across our planet, strangling ever aspect of human existence everywhere into one totally administered, totally exploited mass.  Western art and culture are the new crown jewels bought with looted artefacts from every corner of the world and the untold lives of colonised people.  Neoliberalism is neo-colonialism.  It’s gilded banners of ‘global trade’, ‘democracy’, ‘growth’ and (most distastefully) ‘peace’ belie a one-dimensionality underpinned by exploitation, deceit, control and destruction.  The dominant few people in the few countries that dominate our world have constructed their fossil fuelled palaces on top of the oppressed; on top of nature.  But these foundations are restless and their palaces built upon nothing more than the shifting sands of false consciousness.  Subjugation of people, of languages, of ‘resources’, of cultures, of nature is always doomed to fail.

We would do well to learn from our pasts.  We would do well to learn from all our pasts; to realise that the Western system is a totally exploitative system that openly capitalises from and colonises people everywhere and every element of nature.  Neoliberalism is ‘sensitive’ when capitalising on people, land and natural life close to home; aggressive and crude whilst exploiting those further afield.  And, for me, some of Deadline Festival’s events brought this home beautifully.  Ivo Theatre performing the act of translation via a battery-powered live feed from the climate talks in Paris as the rights of indigenous peoples and other colonised areas of our planet were being ripped from a climate accord already ‘cleansed’ of any democratic freedoms by the fiddling fingers and squashing thumbs of dominant Western corporate and state interests.  And the Who gets to change the climate? workshop delivered in Arabic and English by Basel Zaraa and Ewa Jasiewicz.  There were many, many moving discussions, performance, images, and more.  But, for me, language lies at the heart of neo-colonialism.  Us and them.  Always, us and them.  Naming The Other is the prelude to colonisation.  Recognising that The Other takes many forms and that difference is good may lead to a movement built upon decolonisation and de-linking.  An opportunity for the voices of the many oppressed people in the world to be recognised as equals and different.

Imperialism and climate change are inherently linked.  The struggle against one-dimensional exploitation and destruction is complex and dangerous.  Western people (like me) do not often realise how deeply engrained our culture is within us.  If writing or TV or film or theory is not translated into English, we often don’t see it or understand it.  To assume that Western thought is the only thought is elitist and wrong.  We would do well to learn that culture is not homogenous but rich and different.  We blind ourselves by our Western-ness.  Deadline Festival helped open my eyes, my ears, my mind.  Our cultural institutions are public spaces where discussion, debate and disagreement should be happening all of the time.  Instead, they are too often little more than spaces of safe consumption, falsely policed by security guards and curators alike.  Places of fake-neutrality masking truths, hopes, alternatives and histories.  Tate ‘tolerated’ Platform London but their constantly disapproving gaze raised issues in my mind about whether the management and directors there think the space is private rather than truly public. Subtle occupations such as Deadline Festival question ownership of space and notions of whose voice is permitted to speak in our arts and cultural institutions.  Neoliberalism adores complicity…

There were so many really positive experiences at this festival to mention in this post but it was ultimately (as always) the people taking part in the festival, Tate visitors asking questions about what was happening and showing genuine interest and support, volunteers supporting and self-organising, and Platform London’s team who organised the entire event on a shoestring budget that is certifiably Fossil Funds Free.

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