Direct action and artivism

It’s been an activist geekery heavy week. I’ve squeezed in the book launch of Mel Evans’ Artwash, looking at the relationship between big oil and the arts, and a direct action training session run by two lovely Reclaim the Power activists. At first glance these two things seem pretty far removed from each other, but actually they have a lot in common.

Artwashing and Art Not Oil

Firstly to talk about Artwash. Author Mel is an artist and activist (or artivist) associated with Liberate Tate and Platform. For those who don’t know, Liberate Tate is one of a growing number of performative protest groups targeting big oil sponsorship of UK art institutions – the ‘Art Not Oil’ movement. There have been some incredibly creative actions that have won deserved press and public attention. If you’re interested take a look at BP or Not BP (formerly Reclaim Shakespeare) who now also target oil sponsorship in cultural institutions. There’s also the Fossil Free network, which takes a slightly different approach, targeting institutions to divest from fossil fuels rather than end oil sponsorship. At her book launch, after reading from the first chapter Mel was presented with an oily canvas by a silently black veiled procession of activists; a playful nod to Liberate Tate’s ‘Parts Per Million’ performance (one of my favourite pieces of performance activism).

I went to the launch primarily out of interest in the incredible creative activism coming out of the Art Not Oil movement. I wrote my masters dissertation on performance as protest so I really love this stuff. I try to inject as much as I can into my work At ActionAid, like the successful tax dodgers walking tour of Mayfair I run with my friend Tom Barns. But at the event I found myself buying the book, and on reading the introduction was struck by the author’s definition of artwashing – similar to greenwashing but meaning that companies seek positive association from high art rather than environmentally friendly practice.

Evans writes: “Performance is a core part of communication. This rule applies from public relations to protest. To artwash is therefore part public relations and part theatre.” She sees the act of oil company sponsorship, with its branded presence in art institutions, as one form of performative communication – the activism that disrupts this is another.

While I love the activism, and I definitely frown on big oil trying to artwash its way out of the climate and environmental chaos it’s responsible for, I also have a tricky relationship with London’s big galleries. I find the economics of art very problematic. The market for high art is created by representatives from the wealthy elite – they decide what is worth money and therefore much of what is culturally valuable, from historic royalty commissioning portraits to collectors like Charles Saatchi paying millions for works of contemporary art.

The point I’m trying to make is that for me, while I love galleries, they are are not without their problems – so association with them is not necessarily a positive thing either. But whatever my thoughts about art institutions, Artwash is excellently written and pretty thought provoking – it also has a nice chapter devoted to the opposition of oil sponsorship with some good pictures of actions like ‘The Gift’ (when Liberate Tate delivered a 16.5m wind turbine blade to the Tate Modern).

Direct action training

Moving on to the direct action training, this was part of the campaigns skillhare programme run by NEON (the New Economy Organisers Network). The training was held in the idyllic Greenpeace garden and was attended mostly by radical housing and environmental activists. The trainers offered a whistle-stop tour of direction action, from examples to theory and practice. We got to try out D locks and arm tubes – structures activists use to attach themselves together to blockade in such a way that it takes the police hours to remove them without injuring them.

We discussed what defined direct action but it was hard to pin down. The general consensus was that it refers to actions taken for political reasons designed to communicate a message (direct communication) or disrupt space and activities physically – often both. It’s largely ‘real world’ although things like denial of service attacks online count too. It’s often explored as a ‘last resort’ – when other campaigning and lobbying tactics have failed, or there’s some urgency in the situation. And it’s generally done without permission.

Blockading or occupying, actions with immediate legal consequences, are the things that spring to mind for most of us when the words direct action are used. For many this has negative connotations – there’s a lot of disapproval for radicals who might damage buildings or equipment in the name of their cause in much of the mainstream press. At the training, we talked about how a strong social mandate makes direct action more likely to win public hearts and minds. For example, as the climate crisis leads to floods and extreme weather in the UK, activists occupying power stations are enjoying increased public support.

Direct action can also be much fluffier. Glitter bombing, throwing a circle line party or a cream pie, disrupting oil sponsorship of public institutions through performance – all these and more are forms of direct action. There are many ways creative interventions can disrupt dominant narratives and call attention to campaigns.

One of the participants made the point that no social movement for systemic change has succeeded without an element of direct action. I think this is something NGO campaigners should bear in mind. We should be asking ourselves where we can add most value to movements pulling in the direction of our vision for a better future. And how we can get creative with our own tactics to make the most impact.

Now for the doing and changing…

If you’re interested in getting involved with some direct action Reclaim the Power action camp from 29th May – 2nd June at Didcot power station in Oxfordshire is a great opportunity.

The book launch was held at Rich Mix – if you’re a lover of the venue you might want to sign this petition to stop legal action by Tower Hamlets council that threatens to close it down.

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8 Comments

  1. Excellent post, lively and thoughtful with plenty of links. On ‘what constitutes direct action?’, the word direct is pretty blunt to me. It means actually stopping something that you oppose rather than just raising awarenees or asking someone else to change things. So yes, lots of online stuff would count, whereas much of what gets tagged ‘direct action’ is actually lairy lobbying (not that there’s anything wrong with that – if some folks are holding the keys then we have to hassle them).

    Anyway, great to see you blogging & I’ll stick in in the sidebar of mine for whatever good that’ll do.

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    1. Thanks Merrick. Not sure I 100% agree about direct action though – if you’re disrupting something rather than just stopping it isn’t that direct action too? Big question mark over the difference between direct action, direct communication and ‘lairy lobbying’ 🙂 Glad you enjoyed the blog though and I appreciate the support.

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      1. Great to see direct action being talked about. The direct action handbook can be found here: http://www.networkforclimateaction.org.uk/toolkit/action_resources/direct_action_a_handbook.pdf
        and there’s loads of other resources on websites such as http://earthfirst.org.uk/actionreports/resources and of course, our very own site https://rhizomenetwork.wordpress.com/resources/. Included on our site are a few things to help you run your own direct action training. More talking about direct action needed, and importantly, more doing of it!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for the great post! Here’s another action people can take: sign up on dropbp.org to call on Tate, National Portrait Gallery, British Museum & Royal Opera House to drop BP as sponsor! And then you’ll get action alerts from Art Not Oil too.

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  3. Yes, I take your point completely. To actually disrupt (not necessarily stop) the thing being opposed is direct; all else is surely indirect, even if it is actually more effective in terms of results!

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