The Quiet Sounds of Art Activism: My Night in the Tate Gallery

Photo credit: Chris JL.Licensed CC-BY-NC-ND.
Photo credit: Chris JL.
Licensed CC-BY-NC-ND.

It’s 5:20am in the morning, and I’m sitting on a small folding stool at the side of Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall. It feels strangely soothing as I sit listening to the musical nighttime sounds inside the Tate Modern. The drone of the air conditioning units forms the backdrop to a cacophony of dull repetitive chimes, scraping of chairs and cordons as cleaners work, distant frustrated clanging of management doors, and a ghostly gusting of wind through the corridors and rafters above.

In front of me, a bright line of books reflects the rising morning sun. To the left of these books, a cluster of friends and journalists sleep, sniffling and snoring, surrounding a store of precious water and food. To the right, a tired shift of performers in veils, kneel to scrawl charcoal messages of hope and despair on the floor. The squeaking of charcoal sounds like so many happy mice, busy at work. We’re 17 hours into the unsanctioned performance against oil sponsorship of the arts, and Tate’s patience is wearing thin.

I’m part of a group of art activists known as Liberate Tate, and we’ve taken over the Turbine Hall. For the duration of the performance, this space is ours. It’s not in thrall of climate wrecking oil giant BP. That’s a happy thought.

We arrived at just before noon on Saturday, with the ambitious intention of staying for 25 hours. Performers, all dressed in signature black, made two lines at the bottom of the Turbine Hall slope and donned veils. Selected texts were pulled from bags, and charcoal brought to the ready. On cue, the first line of performers dropped to their knees and began enthusiastically transcribing their favorite passages up the concrete slope in a rising tide.

The books, all chosen by performers, ranged from classic political text on power and authority, to science fiction books describing dystopian futures of collapsed planetary ecology and society. They all had one thing in common. They all contained useful messages to Tate and Tate Modern’s visitors, to describe the problem with Tate giving support and credence to BP through accepting its sponsorship.

The second line of performers then began purposefully setting up camp at the bottom of the slope, marking out areas for sleeping, eating and working. We’d brought enough food, water and power to sustain ourselves and keep communicating the performance out to the world for its entire duration.

In the past Liberate Tate performance-interventions in the gallery have lasted no more than a couple of hours or so. We’ve entertained and engaged crowds with interactive and playful performances that challenge Tate’s decision to stick by BP, despite its climate wrecking practices, human rights abuses, and environmental catastrophes including the still recent Deepwater Horizon disaster, one of the worst oil spills in history.

Tate has learnt to endure us quietly, even enjoy our performances at times, just as so many visitors do. So when Tate security assured us we could carry on the performance unhindered, and just politely enquired when we expected to be done, they looked somewhat confused and concerned when we explained we planned to stay for 25 hours. Later on Saturday afternoon, they returned to say we had to leave by 10pm when the gallery closes, or they would call on the police. We just smiled and again explained the intention to stay for the duration.

This performance is intentionally challenging for Tate, in its duration and in its direct no-nonsense messaging to visitors, who today read all about BP’s horrible history and Tate’s shameful support. We see ourselves as part of a wider divestment movement that’s growing rapidly. We’re calling for cultural divestment, to take away the sheen of respectability the oil industry works so hard to maintain, and without which it would struggle to function. We want Tate to make a choice to value art, artists and culture, over the oil industry which is causing so much harm and doesn’t deserve the glint of Tate’s shining reputation. This year the tide of the divestment movement is rapidly growing in strength as we move towards the Paris climate talks this December. Tate could give the movement a great big extra shove if dropped its support for BP. We believe its making the decision on whether to continue the deal past 2016 right now, and we hope the overwhelming public support we received from the visiting public for our performance today will help to sway its decision.

10pm came and Tate swept the public from the gallery. The tension rose among the group, but we remained. 11 pm passed and we didn’t hear a peep, the only noise came from the continued squeaking of performers’ charcoal on the hall floor. By midnight we were confident we were being allowed to stay, and we began to relax and take sleeping shifts on roll mats we’d brought in. The performance continued.

Now it’s light and we’re still here. We’re staying for the duration, and our art will speak to another day of visitors. The management comes to tell us they won’t open the Turbine Hall while we remain to finish the performance. That means today visitors won’t be able to get up close to participate, or read the script or the interpretation panel which so many crowded round all day yesterday. Never the less we will continue, knowing the rest of the gallery will remain open, and visitors will still be able to read some of the text from the balcony above.

We feel a quiet sense of achievement, and are warmed by the individual signs of support from Tate staff who give us thumbs up through the glass as they pass to begin their work.

I look across the floor in front of me searching for an appropriate ending. I see a quote by Rachel Carson. It reads “There is no drop in the ocean that does not know and respond to the mysterious forces that create the tide.”

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