For decades, oil corporations such as BP have nurtured their social licence, spread their brand identity, and taken advantage of a form of cheap advertising, by sponsoring arts and culture.
National institutions like Tate, the British Museum, the National Portrait Gallery (NPG), and the Royal Opera House (ROH), receive tiny percentages of their budgets from BP sponsorship, but the corporation receives massive perks e.g. using these iconic buildings for client dinners, as well as branding, free publicity and kudos.
Groups like Art Not Oil, Culture Unstained, and BP or not BP? have been protesting against these relationships for years, but with increased public awareness of the climate emergency and the thirst for more direct action driven by the emergence of Extinction Rebellion it seems that corporations like BP and the institutions that engage with them are now under the sort of pressure that tobacco companies once were. Indeed, the National Portrait Awards were historically sponsored by John Player and British American Tobacco, but bowed to pressure as the truth about smoking and health gained traction with the public.
This week BP was looking forward to cosying up with the great and good once more, with a prestigious Portrait Awards ceremony on Monday, and the first of its annual BP Screens events with a broadcast of the ROH ‘Romeo and Juliet’ on Tuesday, but all did not go to plan for them.
Ahead of the Portrait Awards, this year’s judge, artist Gary Hume, wrote a letter to the NPG Director, expressing discomfort at the relationship with BP, pointing out that BP’s investment in renewable energy is less than 3%, and asking the gallery to end its 30-year relationship with the polluter. Nick Cullinan, the director, also received a letter from several previous winners and shortlisted artists, quoting his own statement “The principle is vital that every donation we get is scrutinized to make sure that it’s from a source of funding that can be defended. We would never do anything that we felt was inherently wrong” and asking him to act on the climate emergency by disentangling from BP.
But most embarrassing of all was a direct action organised by BP or not BP? in solidarity with London Mexico Solidarity, Free West Papua Campaign, and Cherri Foytlin (Pacific Climate Warriors). A dozen activists surprised staff by locking on to gates and each other at the three entrances to the NPG before the start of the awards on Monday evening. Despite aggressive intervention by unidentified men who appeared to be security guards working for BP or the gallery, the blockade was successful, and the invited audience had to wait outside for some time before being instructed to clamber over railings to get in to the event.
Supporters set up easels outside and painted portraits of some leading figures around the world who, while battling against oil pollution and ecological damage, have faced repression from governments deeply entwined with BP and other oil corporations.
Suited protesters chatted with waiting guests about BP’s environmental crimes around the globe, its lobbying against climate action and false promises of a rapid move towards renewables, and its proven connections with murder, torture, and repression of indigenous communities. They handed out 150 fake programmes to guests.
After delaying the start of the awards, embarrassing the BP dignitaries who were there, and informing the invited audience, the protesters withdrew. Police attending made no arrests.
Prior to the National Opera’s BP Big Screens event on Tuesday, a letter signed by 200 musicians called on London mayor Sadiq Khan to withdraw permission for BP-sponsored events in Trafalgar Square, highlighting his inconsistency of approach and citing his own recent declaration of a climate emergency.
In the lead-up to the broadcast, a special half-hour introduction takes place at Trafalgar Square, with a live presenter introducing rehearsal clips, backstage gossip, and an infommercial about the wonderful philanthropy of one of the world’s biggest oil companies, who plaster their logo on the screens and hand out their ‘free’ merchandise.
The protest organized by a the Extinction Rebellion Lambeth XR group included a performance by The Invisible Circus Red Rebel Brigade. This took place near the Fourth Plinth, which is the temporary base for a work by Mark Rakowitz, part of his ‘The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist’ series, a recreation of the Lamassu – a sculpture destroyed by ISIS/Daesh at the Gates of Nineveh in modern day Iraq. Rakowitz made the work out of empty date syrup cans. The significance is that dates are a massive export business for the country and an alternative to oil. BP was notoriously involved in the lead-up to the Iraq invasion – holding meetings with ministers to lobby for their spoils of war – and then given massive 20 year contracts, the largest in the history of the oil industry, as part of the post-war carve-up.
Young artists from The Brit School, Croydon, joined the protest with their ‘No Theatre on a Dead Planet’ banner, and music was supplied by a small orchestra who called themselves ‘Extinction Rebellion Baroque’.
Inside the square, presenter Alexander Campbell (Royal Ballet principal) acknowledged that the protest was going on, but the camera operators did their best to avoid the noise and red banners from leaking on to the broadcast to the other venues. At one point, XR Youth protesters waded into the fountain to unexpectedly appear behind Mr Campbell, and from then on, his pieces to camera were banished to the side of the stage, with none of the usual iconic London backdrops, so as to avoid further embarrassment to BP sponsors.
A few minutes before the actual show began, the XR protesters read out their Rebellion Declaration in unison, and then having highlighted BP’s complicity in the climate emergency, they peacefully left the area so as not to disrupt the actual performance. A few onlookers complained about the protest, but the majority of the audience was supportive, and applauded as the protesters filed out as the ballet began.