Art Activism’s Problematic Existence Within Global Structures: Can We Really Liberate Tate?

Figure 1: LIBERATE TATE, JAN 2010. Art Not Oil [posters in window of Tate Modern]. At: LIBERATE TATE, 2010. Art Not Oil. Liberate Tate. [online]. [04/02/2020]. Available from:

So, I’ve completed my first week on my new University module, ‘Creative Dissent: Protest, Activism and Art’. It’s safe to say I now feel equipped with the motivation to put right all wrong in the world with the power of creativity. I’m beginning to get a real taste for what activism can mean in the world of art and in my own practice. One thing I’ve observed is that it appears that the digital age has further allowed the collision of these two worlds, producing a powerful instrument of change which has deemed them inseparable. As you may have seen in the media, political movements and resistance/activist groups are using art more and more as a means of questioning prevailing political, economic and cultural orthodoxies. Yet is authentic and ‘real’ change possible if these movements continue to exist within established structures of power?Can this even be helped? Is it too idealistic and ungrounded to expect the development of art which exists outside these constraints? Is it possible for art to have affect without capitalistic means? To help me discuss these questions I’ve chosen a three examples of art activist movements which I think give a good idea of the contemporary relationship between art and activism. And, here’s the first, the all-powerful contemporary art gallery, Tate.

Figure 2: DAVID ZINK YI, 2010. Untitled (Architeuthis) [sculpture]. At: TATE, 2010. Project Space: No Lone Zone. Tate. [online]. [04/02/2020]. Available from:

When I was in the lecture this morning, covering the basic definitions and critical thought on the topic of creative dissent, I was interested to find that the pedestal I had placed activist art on was knocked slightly lower when looking into it more closely. It very soon became clear that institutions who pride themselves in being subversive and facilitating artistic dissent, such as the Tate, are often hypocritical and self-contradicting in their conformity with existing, corrupt structures. The Tate, before 2017, maintained a very double-faced stance on climate and conservation issues having cultivated a partnership with sponsor BP for 27 years(1). In 2012 Tate Modern held the ‘No Lone Zone’ exhibition which addressed the exploitation of ‘vulnerable environments that proliferate in the context of postcolonial globalisation'(2); one of the main sculptures was of a squid lying dead in a puddle of oil and ink, communicating a clear critique of global conservation issues(Figure 1). Yet, the money behind the exhibition was riddled with environmental catastrophe.

Despite their clear affiliation with activistic ways of thinking about the visual arts, in 2010 they had already attempted censoring the collective ‘Liberate Tate’ which had spawned in a workshop Tate had held on art and activism that same year(3)(Figure 1). As Tate Liberate so laboriously revealed through pieces such as their famous “Human Cost“(2010)(Figure 3) or “Parts Per Million”(2013)(Figure 4) performances, this superficially ‘ethical’ organisation was associating with one of the largest corporate contributors to the climate crisis, being the 5th largest oil company in the world(4). The radical art collective received masses of media and press attention as they staged outlandish statement pieces over the course of six years. Perhaps the most powerful of these demonstrations was at the summer party outside Tate Britain in June 2010, celebrating 20 years of BP supporting Tate. This was the setting for Tate Liberate’s ‘Licence to Spill'(Figure 5) which involved members pouring oil and feathers outside the entrance of the Pimlico gallery. Just two months earlier, on 20th April, what has been named the Deep Horizon BP oil spill had polluted the Gulf of Mexico, spreading into the Atlantic and killing record number of dolphins and other forms of marine life, making it the worst environmental disaster in American history(5).

Figure 5: LIBERATE TATE, JUNE 2010. Licence to Spill [performance spilling oil and feathers outside Tate Britain]. At: LIBERATE TATE, 2010. Licence to Spill. Liberate Tate. [online]. [04/02/2020]. Available from:

It wasn’t until two years ago that Tate dropped their sponsorship contract with BP and even this was a very reluctant move which they claimed had nothing to do with Tate Liberate but an “extremely challenging business environment”(6). Only in July 2019 did they made a press release in which Tate Directors finally declared a climate emergency(7).

I don’t want to completely undermine the Tate, as much can be said for the progress they have made in their new commitment to aiding the environmental emergency. On their website they outline a clear target of becoming “more adaptive and responsible” and their efforts to ‘effect and inspire change’ in the face of climate change; this promise has been met in a switch ‘to a green electricity tariff across all four galleries’ as well as adherence to international green museum principles in their care for collections. They have also undertaken an auditing of travel and ‘are adopting a train-first policy'(7). Despite these increased efforts, however, Tate Directors have made it clear that any public institution can never be fully sustainable in its purest sense. Unfortunately, the scale of resources which makes the Tate(and indeed other artistic institutions both in the UK and overseas) such a powerful and accessible platform for the artists, will also inevitably require energy and thus harm the environment they are fighting to defend.

Figure 6: Tate Talks (2019) Art in Real Life: Addressing the Sustainability Challenge | Tate Talks. [online video] Available at: [Accessed 04/02/2020]

The most powerful strategy taken up by the Tate – and other artistic institutions – in their new covenant with the nature conservation is their effort to expand the minds and inspire change amongst visitors through displaying mindful art. There is clearly a new coherency between the climate conscious art being shown in Tate galleries and their values as an organisation. The start of this mission was marked with the start of Olafur Eliasson’s exhibition at Tate Modern which was opened with a discussion of the Tate’s environmental commitments in the Turbine Hall. Titled ‘Art in Real Life: Addressing the Sustainability Challenge'(Figure 6), the talk highlighted the potential art has to inspire ‘real’ change’. The exhibition that followed displayed ‘The glacier melt series 1999/2019’ which shows photographs of 30 Icelandic glaciers melting over the course of 20 years(Figure 7). A clear visual evidence of the results of global warming is shown in this series – as has been highlighted in cognitive psychology, ‘…images rated highly relevant to climate change are higher in negative emotional valence and emotional arousal…'(8) thus erradicting the abstract nature of the problem and inspiring behavioural change. In December, 2019, they also held an event at the Tate Modern, ‘The Future is Near’, a ‘night of art and activism exploring climate justice and environmental racism'(9). This is further evidence of their determination to ‘effect and inspire change’ as well as facilitate interrogation and discussion.

Figure 7: OLAFUR ELIASSON, 2019. Detail of the Glacier melt series 1999/2019 [photography]. At: TATE, 2019. Olafur Eliasson in Real Life. Tate. [online]. [04/02/2020]. Available from:

Art institutions such as the Tate, who advocate social progression and the power of art to challenge viewers over topics such as global warming have an obligation to abide by the standards they promote. Although it may have come late and with painful amounts of pressure from external campaigners and organisations such as ‘Liberate Tate’, Tate seems to have made some progressive steps in practising what they preach with regard to the environmental emergency. However, as long as the Tate continues to exist within the current economic structure, it will inevitably use resources and indirectly abide by the consumerist ideologies which continue to to ruin the planet. Thus, it appears that the scale of the institution, which is the source of this environmental dilemma, also gives it the scope of influence to change the outlook of thousands of gallery visitors through displaying climate conscious work. The conundrum is one which the Tate and all other artistic institutions will continue to battle throughout this period of crisis but the thing which clearly enables change is awareness and discussion, two things the Tate are surely going to carry into their future.


(1) BROWN, MARK, 2016. Tate paid ‘paltry’ £350k a year in BP sponsorship, figures reveal. The Guardian, 31/08/16. [viewed: 04/02/2020] Available from:

(2) N.A, 2010. Project Space: No Lone Zone. Tate. [online]. Tate. [viewed: 04/02/2020] Available from:

(3) JORDON, JOHN, 2010. On refusing to pretend to do politics in a museum. Art Monthly. Vol. 334 March Issue. viewed: 04/02/2020] Available from:

(4)N.A, 2017. BP Annual Report: 2017-18. Bharat Petroleum. BP. [Online] [viewed: 04/02/2020] Available from:

(5)N/A, 2013. Deepwater Horizon: a decade of disaster. The Verge. [online] [viewed: 04/02/2020] Available from:

(6) CLARK, NICK, 2016. BP to end controversial sponsorship of Tate in 2017. The Independent, 11/03/2016. [viewed: 04/02/2020] Available from:

(7) TATE DIRECTORS, 2019. Tate Directors declare climate emergency. Tate. [online] Tate. [viewed: 04/02/2020] Available from:

(8) Thompson, J. Lehman, B., Davis, S., Carlson, J.M, 2019. Affective Images of Climate Change. Frontiers in Psychology. May 2019. [Viewed: 12/02/2020]. Available from:

(9)TATE DIRECTORS, 2019. Tate Modern Late: THE FUTURE IS NEAR. Tate. [online] Tate. [viewed: 04/02/2020] Available from:

I hope you enjoyed engaging with my creative shenanigans of dissent! If you so happened to find this topic interesting or have any questions/suggestions, I love a good chin-wag so please do get in touch. Thank you for reading!

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