Liberate Tate: Friendly Criticism at an Interstitial Distance

‘The Gift (2012), Liberate Tate.’ Photo: Martin LeSanto Smith

As a university supported ‘research agency,’ Forensic Architecture are able to develop evidence and promote the means of ‘lawfare,’ often against governments. With their access to high profile cultural platforms, they convene fora around their evidence and pursue forms of legal and political activism. On the other hand, activist-art collectives, such as Liberate Tate and others affiliated with the Art Not Oil coalition, target key institutions sponsored by ‘Big Oil.’ Their interventionist practices may be described as acts of creative disobedience that are common to protest culture, but with reference to the kinds of strategies employed by Liberate Tate, they could also be considered as ‘unsolicited’ or ‘uncommissioned’ art works. For example, for The Gift (2012) members of Liberate Tate pushed passed the museum’s security guards to deliver a disassembled wind turbine blade to the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, itself a former power station, on a busy Saturday afternoon. The collective re-assembled the 16.5 metre and 1.3 tonne propeller inside this iconic semi-public space to the surprise of onlookers and frustrated authorities. With reference to Britain’s Museums and Galleries Act (1992) the propeller blade, as an ‘icon of renewable energy’ was presented for consideration for the Tate’s permanent collection as a ‘gift to the nation given for the benefit of the public.’ The governing Board of Trustees decided not to accept the donation, however a video documentary of the ‘guerrilla performance’ was entered into the museum’s archive.

While the collective might feel validated by having its actions recognised by such a powerful institution as being culturally significant, as Mel Evans (2015) one of the co-founders of Liberate Tate points out, it is ineffectual if the institution they sought to criticise absorbs this critique and, for example, instrumentalises these efforts in its public relations agenda. In the case of Liberate Tate their intentions are clearly stated to rid the Tate of BP and other big oil sponsors as a matter of maintaining the institution’s integrity. So to be effective, the collective’s actions must garner public support and persuade the Tate’s governing board to free the institution from such ties.

In her book Artwash: Big Oil and the Arts (2015), Evans describes the collective’s approach as a kind of ‘friendly criticism’ that makes a space of discussion and action that is simultaneously ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ the institution:

there is an opening of potential efficacy: to avoid co-optation, but to act from a position of care and responsibility for the whole, of which the friendly critic is a part (2015:160).

Evans draws on scholar and curator Emma Mahoney’s notion of the ‘Deviant Art Institution’:

an institutional model that seeks to operate at arm’s length from the state, or, in some instances, entirely outside of it. Its goal is to open up spaces of opposition against the state and to promote counter hegemonic practices. In line with Chantal Mouffe’s theory of agonism, it is an institution that ‘foments dissent; that makes visible what the dominant consensus tends to obscure and obliterate’ (Mahoney 2013: 54-55).

Mahoney use of ‘deviant’ describes self-organised and artist-initiated groups who resist instrumentalisation from increasingly corporatised institutional models (2013:55), however she acknowledges that many of the artists to whom she refers sought to break into these very institutions whom they believed would ratify their practices. While Liberate Tate may have literally ‘broken into’ the museum for The Gift, arguably groups affiliated with Art Not Oil do not seek to establish themselves as professional artists—indeed, it would seem that Evans at the time was working as an arts professional at Platform, a London arts activism, education and research organisation. Rather, Liberate Tate approach the (public) institution as a site of struggle. Citing Mahoney, Evans calls on Deviant Art Institutions’ capacity to challenge larger institutional bodies not from outside or within, but rather from an ‘interstitial distance.’ According to Evans, Deviant Art Institutions are not ‘wholly reliant on the state apparatus, nor entirely secluded from it’ (2015:161). She goes on to quote philosopher Simon Critchley who initially proposed interstitial space as an ‘internal distance’ (2007:113); a space that does not yet exist, but rather ‘needs to be created through political articulation, by working within the state to open a space of opposition against the state.’ As Mahoney explains, interstitial distance describes a relation to the state by which such groups can hold political power to account. As such, critical practices that articulate interstitial space are not attempting to seize state (or institutional) power, but rather seek to exercise judgement over it (2013:57).

Collectives such as Liberate Tate, act on an understanding that the major cultural institutions they target are widely recognised as a public good, are to some degree accountable to public approval and are thus available to be ‘liberated’ by a grass-roots, self-organised ‘people’s’ movement. To elaborate, after presenting The Gift at the Tate Modern, a Tate-member initiated petition circulated, gathering more than one thousand signatures urging the museum to accept the artwork as part of its permanent collection. Such attempts to influence the process by which the Tate’s board makes these decisions can be read as a democratising effort and presumes some public consensus about what constitutes culturally significant or ‘good’ art.

The emphasis then, is that such activities not be simply read or historicised as protest interventions or acts of creative disobedience, but must also be understood as art; as unsolicited, yet significant and influential art actions that, as Evans explains in her book, are aligned with a linage of institutional critique, performance and live art.

Critchley, Simon, 2007. Infinitely Demanding: Ethics of Commitment, Politics of Resistance, Verso, London and New York.

Evans, Mel, 2015. Artwash: Big Oil and the Arts, Pluto Press, London.

Liberate Tate, n.d.

Mahony, Emma, 2013. ‘Where Do They Stand? Deviant Art Institutions and the Liberal Democratic State,’ Irish Journal of Arts Management and Cultural Policy, iss. 1.

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