Look at the image below of the ‘die-in outside the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy in central London'(Figure 14). This image exemplifies so much of what XR are unconsciously getting wrong in their campaign. The sign reading ‘Government inaction will cost countless lives’ is underlining the possibility of mass extinction in the UK should we fail to do anything about the climate emergency – however, as Smoke writes in a separate Huck article, ‘…this messaging discounts the experiences of many in the Global South. Communities, activists and individuals have been fighting and experiencing the devastating effects of climate change for decades – for them, the emergency has been real for a long time.'(26). In other words inaction from the West has already cost lives, just not white British lives. The message of urgency being echoed through their art is certainly necessary to mobilise government bodies into action but it doesn’t change the tragic reality that their privilege protects them from.
There have been many issues surrounding XR’s ignorant approach to arrest tactics and how this undermines the ongoing struggle BAME groups experience with the criminal justice system. I won’t go into this as I feel it would go off topic but I do invite you to read this Guardian article as it really does knock reality into what is a very idealised form of direct action
Going back to the class concern, despite XR’s de-centralised structure, the group still fails to reach working-class areas. Karen Bell – senior lecturer in human geography and environmental justice at the University of West of England, Bristol – has done extensive research on what she has called ‘environmental classism’ which revealed that NGOs such as XR are not strongly rooted in working-class communities(27). Working class environmental movements exist and often achieve small feats(arguably even more powerful than XR’s actions). As is reflected in the the rest of British society, there is a clear naivety and lack of awareness amongst middle-class XR members of the working class as shown in the Canning town protest- in this incident an activist who had strapped himself to a tube train in the largely working class town was dragged down and beaten by angry commuters(28). an XR spokesperson later apologised for the incident and said the group would be better informed in the future.
However, the hope that comes out of a self-aware movement such as XR is their ability to grow respond sensibly and proactively to criticism. The ‘hippiness’ which makes XR so inaccessible to many is what keeps their minds open and which is now opening the organisation up to people they have previously been ignorant of. In their response to The Wretched of the Earth letter, they simply thank them for making them aware of their faults, promising to ‘…to break down the cultural barriers the movement unconsciously erects, engage with community leaders, and listen to voices that have not been heard’. One thing these groups all have in common, however, is their humanity and a need to stimulate environmental change and a timelessly successful way of achieving unity of causes is through creativity. Through art Extinction Rebellion has confronted governing bodies with their responsibility, now they can use it to further their reach.
It’s been made clear to me just how complex being an art activist can be through doing this research. Galleries, collectives and even artists funded by external parties will always be attached in some way to a separate agenda driven by money and invested interest, as was the case with BP and the Tate. Activism will always have a tricky relationship with art institutions, especially as a bridge between innovation and conservation. Groups of people will always have biases and prejudices that lead them into ignorant exclusion as is the case with Extinction Rebellion. However, art is something which moves into a visionary realm and can be used as a tool to rebel, challenge and unite politically. Art has the power to unlock new realities through confrontation. This is where the hope lies for art activism’s place within global constructs – but nobody can promise it won’t be problematic.
I hope you enjoyed engaging with my creative shenanigans! 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!
(26) SMOKE, BEN,
2019. Room for Change: the problem with Extinction Rebellion. Huck Mag. [online] [viewed: 03/03/2020] Available
(27) BELL, KARREN,
2019. A working-class green movement is out there but not getting the credit it
deserves. The Guardian. [online]
[viewed: 03/03/2020] Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/oct/11/a-working-class-green-movement-is-out-there-but-not-getting-the-credit-it-deserves
ALIX, 2019. Furious commuters drag Extinction Rebellion protestors from top of
Tube. Sky News. [online] [viewed:
03/03/2020] Available from: https://news.sky.com/story/furious-commuters-drag-extinction-rebellion-protester-from-top-of-tube-11837385
GEORGE, 2019. Today, I aim to get arrested. It is the only real power climate
protestors have. The Guardian.
[online] [viewed: 03/03/2020] Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/oct/16/i-aim-to-get-arrested-climate-protesters