Disobedient Art Can Win The Fight Against Artwashing
Above Photo: “Drop the Shell” Fossil Free Culture NL. Photo: Laura Ponchel
In this guest blog, Fossil Free Culture NL reflects on their campaign against Shell sponsorship.
With the flurry of deal dropping announcements in The Netherlands this (baking hot) summer, the question really has been begged: Could the cultural sector be reaching an ethical tipping point? Is it finally becoming socially unacceptable for institutions to accept oil sponsorship?
And even more toxic than tobacco.
As artists and cultural workers we’ve chosen to undermine the power of the fossil fuel industry in our own backyard directly. We’ve put our focus on confronting artwashing, which is basically greenwashing, using art.
When companies like Shell sponsor museums and cultural institutions, it’s not because they care about art, it’s to paint their faces with a veneer of goodwill and distract the public from the disastrous reality of their business practices. To make themselves look like generous contributors to society, when they are in fact the diametric opposite.
Art and activism can be applied together to bring fossil-sponsored cultural institutions to their senses. It can flip outcomes for unethical sponsors on their heads – turning decoration into disgrace. Six disobedient performances (and a little bit of jail time ;)) was what it took for the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam to drop their Shell sponsorship.
When Mauritshuis and Museon in The Hague followed suit almost immediately, it became clear that the performance impacts had been felt much further afield. Well-placed sources within these institutions confirmed to us there had been discussion and coordination on the matter. We could not have been happier.
We celebrate this as a victory of course, but there’s no time to waste. As the planet speeds towards climate chaos our next artwashing target is already in sight.
We want to inspire others along the way, and hold hope that there are groups poised right now to launch similar campaigns, so a chain reaction can be brought to critical mass in the shortest possible period.
Our core strategy has always been to use art as a tool for civil disobedience. Deeply inspired by the Labofii and the success of Liberate Tate, we have tried to convert the anxious energy of our fear for the future into all the creative courage and perseverance we can muster. Always driven by our deep love for art.
“There is safety in the midst of danger. What would life be if we hadn’t courage to attempt anything?”
Vincent Van Gogh, letter to Theo (recited in the Drop the Shellperformance)
In our work, art has to go hand in hand with defined strategy – reaching for concrete attainable goals to further our central aim: eroding the social acceptability of the fossil fuel industry.
The following are some of the principles we have used, many drawn from ‘Beautiful Trouble’ to design our disobedient artistic interventions.
Make sure it’s Art
To be convincing in a cultural space, conceive each performance as a piece of art.
Create room for artists and activists (usually the categories dissolve themselves in the process) to closely collaborate. Encourage the poetic and creative driving force of the artists to intersect with the audacious strategic thinking of the activists.
Take the time needed (but not toooo long – runaway climate change on the horizon and all that) to devise and craft impacting works that can be understood on several levels, including the immediate one.
Choose your target carefully
We chose to focus our campaign (so far! on the partnership between the Van Gogh Museum and Royal Dutch Shell because both institutions are iconic. The Van Gogh Museum has a major national and international reputation. Shell, as the largest Dutch company and Europe’s largest oil firm, has unparalleled brand recognition, and a hideous track record of social and environmental criminality that is catching up with them.
Then hammer it
Keep coming back – perseverance and persistence pay off.
Be the recurring ‘nightmare in waiting’ for all the other current and potential artwashers.
Disrupt (with style)
Devise the performances to look like part of the normal programming.
Take the stage, create confusion – appear to the public as an art event as convincingly as possible, ideally confusing even security themselves – and dare to disobey when asked to stop.
Don’t just decorate their space; rearrange how it functions. If they shut their own public entry to contain you, that is a blockade of their own making.
Either with more participants, higher frequency, more disruption, longer duration, or larger scale. In between performances, let it be known on social media that you are planning the next steps already – keep them on their toes.
Hack their stories
Every new exhibition, every special event, anything they would like to promote can potentially be used to critique their artwashing stance.
Balance art and message
Create beautiful images, make sure they’re highly mediagenic. Craft incisive messaging, and make it as poetic as possible. Use every medium at your disposal. Conceive your performance as a cinematic piece, quite literally, knowing that video is the strongest tool on social media.
Diversity of tactics
Don’t be predictable. Surprise them at every turn. Dazzle them and the public with your arsenal of critical creative performances.
xxx Fossil Free Culture NL