Performing Carbon (in the) Capital

Sam Solnick

It is rush hour in Liverpool Street Station. Hiding behind a copy of my newspaper I am trying to record a conversation between lobbyists and politicians which has crucial implications for Canadian hydrocarbon production – particularly the notorious Alberta Tar Sands – in areas which should be protected under treaties made with First Nations peoples. Disappointingly, for my research impact if nothing else, my academic work has not thrust me into the murky world of shady dealings and corporate espionage. The unscrupulous agents of big oil are played by actors; the other figures round the table are, like me, audience members for the collective Platform‘s new production Oil City. Following in the footsteps of other Platform pieces – most notably the walking-tour-come-mp3-opera And While London Burns (which is still available to download) – Oil City turns the world, or at least the Square Mile, into a stage. Participants pick their way across the financial district, finding their city more truly and more strange. Unnoticed buildings become looming and impenetrable monoliths, tourists and (armed) police become sinister observers as Platform, who engage in research, education and activism as well as performance, trace the sticky but often invisible threads of the carbon web round London.

Tar Sands Theatre - Oil City

Performance for the post-Occupy era: site specific theatre such as Platform’s immersive 2013 play Oil City interrogates London’s oil economy

[Image used under fair dealings provisions]

These participatory approaches to ecological issues within an urban context challenge the ‘conventional notion of spectatorship as passive’ that Baz Kershaw argues ‘can be found even in the most alert and aware ecological theory’ (8). In Platform’s work the spectators engage with actors (either live or recorded) but also with the city’s non-human actants (which for me included swerving traffic, stray dogs, building works and climbable greenery) in ways that are not entirely predictable. This forces audiences to experience the performance space as a kind of assemblage of different materials, processes and agents.

At a time when some, perhaps most notably Timothy Clark, have accused ecocriticism of not marrying its ecological concerns with a full acknowledgement of the global networks of complex relations involved in climate change, Platform’s performances inscribe the city with facts, figures and connections – temperature rises, net profits, board members, tons of CO2. But however innovative its activities are, there is a question of whether Platform, or comparable collectives and companies like Metis Arts and Liberate Tate, are not also beset by the problem faced by other, more conventional, attempts to stage the issues surrounding climate change.[1] Namely, that they end up capitulating to what Mike Hulme has called the ‘deficit model’, where the perceived need to educate and inform becomes the dominant force. The risk for such performances which ‘seek to engage with complex issues of environmental and climate change is precisely that of presenting information or opinion in a closed and didactic manner’ (Heddon and Mackay, 173). These organisations are certainly significant but is their work genuinely aesthetically interesting or merely ‘consciousness raising’? Does it offer much beyond clever forms of ecological advocacy or education?

In a 2012 interview one of Platform’s practitioners, James Marriott, intriguingly suggests that their practice should be considered ‘community art in the City of London’ rather than ‘site specific art’:

With site-specific art, generally, the people you don’t want to upset are the high cultural structures, because then you aren’t going to get another commission, sweetheart. Whereas the worst sin of community art is to fuck off the local people. And similarly I think that, from our point of view, being true to this particular place is more important than being true to the conventions of high art.

(Bottoms, Evans, and Marriott 2012, 130)

Of course when the ‘local people’ are hedge funds, banks and insurance brokers, Platform are more prepared to ‘fuck [them] off’ or at least to assert that they have ‘just as much right to define how capital should be utilised – and just as much right to think about how this particular bit of urban structure should be utilised’ (ibid.). But the way Platform irritates the ‘high cultural structures’ is not only due to the direct nature of their pieces and their professed disregard for the ‘conventions of high art’ in their privileging of the committed over the autonomous

Performing Carbon Pics

Art not oil: the art collective Liberate Tate demonstrates the power of performance to draw public attention to climate change issues

[Images used under fair dealings provisions]

In Tate à Tate Platform collaborated with Art Not Oil and Liberate Tate, two groups concerned with the oil industry’s involvement in the arts. The piece is an audio-tour which plays the sounds of the carbon web, from the tar sands to Iranian living rooms, to those visiting the Tate Britain and the Tate Modern. Liberate Tate were founded in 2010 when the gallery apparently tried to ‘to censor a workshop on art and activism for fear it might take issue with Tate’s sponsors’ and since then their series of ‘interventions’ have gained coverage at home and abroad (Liberate Tate 2012, 136). The charge of censorship is a serious and troubling one – probably more so to most in the artworld than the notion that BP is getting some serious cultural capital by greenwashing themselves in the turbine hall. It may be true that, as Tate director Nicholas Serota points out, ‘no money is completely pure’, but in the wake of Deepwater Horizon and other nasties, BP’s money is dirtier than most – as shown in Liberate Tate’s All Rise, which live-streamed performers inside the Tate whispering events from the BP’s Deepwater Trial (Serota quoted in Nayeri 2010). At any rate, the director of the Tate probably should not be put in a position where he has to defend BP’s (inadequate and inconsistent) activities in the renewables sector.

Righteous causes do not good art necessitate. Despite their striking visual impact, the ways Licence to Spill (2010) and Human Cost (2011) drenched figures and gallery-space in substances resembling oil made them all too easy for commentators to dismiss as merely protests which were blind to the financial imperatives of the art world in austerity Britain. Partly due to their interest in the importance of certain kinds of materials within their performances Liberate Tate, like Platform, position themselves as inheritors of Joseph Beuys. Beuys’s Schillerean notions of social sculpture, interest in the relation between the technical and the organic, and involvement with the German Green Party certainly make him a significant figure for the arts and ecology. However, when your primary issue is making the way oil fuels art visible and your key target is BP, you risk pre-scribing the materials, metaphors and messages of the artworks, as evidenced by 2010’s Sunflower which splurged something like the BP Helios logo which the company had launched along with its ‘BP: Beyond Petroleum’ slogan. (Of course there is a nod here to Ai Weiwei’s Unilever-sponsored Sunflower Seeds which also graced the turbine hall.) More nuanced was Floe Piece which brought a chunk of the threatened arctic ice into the gallery on a stretcher. Given that the gallery was not cooled to keep the ice from melting (unlike Tate favourite Ólafur Elíasson’s comparable piece at MoMA) perhaps the stretcher can be seen as a kind of fireless funeral pyre: in this auto-destructive work the ice is melted by the actions of the Tate’s patrons, as it is in the Arctic.

Liberate Tate’s use of digital media and live interventions seek to transform our relations with London’s most famous gallery space, not least by making-visible crucial issues about what is done by (and for) us as consumers of art. As with much of the work in the Tate galleries (with certain exceptions), there is a limit to the sorts of interaction visitors and spectators can expect from Liberate Tate’s work. Not so with Metis Arts, a performing arts company that creates interdisciplinary and cross-media works ‘through rigorous research’. In fact, 3rd Ring Out, Metis Arts’ touring show about climate change, was not only rigorously researched but generated interesting data from the performance itself. Audience members entered an ‘Emergency Cell’ (a repurposed shipping container) where, after flashing forward to the year 2033, they became part of team dealing with the crises which have arisen in a warming world. The video recordings of the performances show a claustrophobic and jarring blend of live action and multimedia. Participants have to vote to decide how to act in series of different disaster scenarios – resource shortages, food riots, flooding, refugees – which are tailored to the specific location of the performance (for example audiences in Greenwich had to vote whether to provide funds to save the Tower of London or back up the citizen data servers). Their collected votes determine the outcomes and impacts of these scenarios.

Climate Refugees

Art or activism? Can art ever achieve more than consciousness-raising or do activists (such as climate refugees) attract more media attention?

[Image by ItzaFineDay under a CC BY license]

The data from each performance and the collected responses and ideas from the companion ‘strategy cell’ which the audience visit after the ‘emergency cell’ creates a fascinating type of archive. Some of the results (depending on how you feel about the myths of North/South hospitality) are unsurprising – more people in Newcastle than London would accept climate refugees, others are baffling (23% of people in Norwich voted to ‘let the sea come’), and some feel significant, troubling and telling like the fact that across all simulations more people voted for mitigation rather than reducing consumption. Of course the results should be taken with a hefty pinch of salt. Nevertheless, this is a polling exercise where those polled are placed under simulated disaster conditions. The performance may be a case of merely ‘going through the motions’ of apocalyptic governance but that is a significant thing in itself. Because of the sorts of ethical and political situations participants are forced to consider, Metis Arts themselves are keen on the idea that this performance constitutes a kind of ‘rehearsal’ of (and for) the future:

Rehearsal is at the very least a question of going through the motions, but those motions leave a residue, a kind of muscle memory; the all-important non-declarative memory not of ‘knowing that’ but ‘knowing how’.(Anderson et al. 2012, 301)

Or in the poignant words of one 14 year old participant:

It was a kind of game of seeing the future and it could happen so although you could have fun with it now and see what happens if you make this decision, in the future people aren’t going to be able to see what’s going to happen, because it’s not a game then.(ibid, 302)

What I hope that I have shown with these brief accounts of Liberate Tate, Metis Arts and Platform is that they each embody two quite different aspects of what climate change art might do. At first glance they seem primarily consciousness-raising; they bring facts, figures and issues to light, animating ecological concerns. But however laudable and important this process, it means that they are open to the charge that they reduce art to a delivery mechanism for education and advocacy – a spoonful of sugar to help the scientific medicine go down. Art dealing with climate change not only has to address the tensions between the aesthetic and the political, it also has to negotiate the burden of scientific literacy. Awareness of such difficulties has long been a part of ecocritical thought. As Jonathan Bate reminded us in one of the foundational texts of British ecocriticism, a ‘manifesto for ecological correctness’ will never properly engage our aesthetic sensibility because its language will inevitably be ‘instrumental’ rather than ‘poetic’ (42). There is always the risk of sacrificing the unpredictable complexity of the artwork for the assured self-righteousness of the campaign or the facts and figures of the educational.

Oil Spill 2

Participatory and interactive artworks present exciting possibilities for engaging with complex questions of ecology and climate crises

[Image by Wolfram Burner under a CC BY-NC license]

And yet the ways these performances and artworks encourage new forms of participation and interaction, make visible new connections in familiar spaces and force audiences to engage with different sorts of materials and process might more fruitfully be read in terms of Jacques Rancière’s description of aesthetics: as ‘a mode of articulation between forms of action, production, perception and thought’ (82). As Jennifer Gabrys and Kathryn Yusoff suggest, this is a particularly useful way to think about what ecologically-orientated art and performance might do beyond education and advocacy:

Aesthetic practices that take up political disruption are not simply raising awareness or communicating messages. This is not politics as propaganda. Instead, aesthetic practices operate through [what Rancière calls] a ‘radical uncanniness’ that realigns, disrupts and reinvents political engagement as material and sensible events. (17)

The aesthetic may open up new spaces for politics but it will not do so in predictable or obvious ways. The sorts of participatory and interactive artworks focussing on climate change that I have described are still in a nascent stage. Consequently they sometimes lack sophistication, depth and nuance. Nevertheless, in their capacity to bring together a range of materials and media with different types of literary, performance and visual-arts traditions, they engender different types of thought, perception, affect and dialogue and in doing so point toward exciting possibilities for engaging with the tangled and multiplicitous issues of contemporary ecology.

CITATION: Sam Solnick, “Performing Carbon (in the) Capital,” Alluvium, Vol. 3, No. 1 (2014): n. pag. Web. 24 September 2013

Sam Solnick  recently completed his AHRC-funded PhD at Queen Mary, University of London, where he also teaches. He writes regularly for the Times Literary Supplement and is a contributing editor for the arts and politics quarterly The White Review.


[1] A comprehensive list of notable UK instances of environmentalism and the performing arts – both in theatres and site specific – can be found at the Ashden Directory. One that I am sorry to have left out is the apocalyptic promenade piece In Beginning was the End.

Works Cited:

Anderson, Gary, Lena Simic, David Haley, Zoe Svendsen, Lucy Neal, and Emelda Ngufor Samba. “Troubling Practices: Short Responses.” Research in Drama Education: The Journal of Applied Theatre and Performance 17. 2 (2012): 289–306.

Bate, Jonathan. The Song of the Earth. London: Picador, 2001.

Bottoms, Stephen, Mel Evans, and James Marriott. “‘We, the City’: An Interview with Platform, London.” Performance Research 17.4 (2012): 128–34.

Gabrys, Jennifer, and Kathryn Yusoff. “Arts, Sciences and Climate Change: Practices and Politics at the Threshold.” Science as Culture 21.1 (2012): 1–24.

Kershaw, Baz. “‘This Is the Way the World Ends, Not …?’: On Performance Compulsion and Climate Change.” Performance Research 17.4 (2012): 5–17.

Nayeri, Farah. “Anti-BP Activists Disrupt Tate Party, Protest Oil Sponsorship.” Bloomberg. June 29, 2010.

Rancière, Jacques. The politics of aesthetics: the distribution of the sensible. London: Continuum, 2004.

Tate, Liberate. “Disobedience as Performance.” Performance Research 17.4 (2012): 135–40.

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