Extinction Rebellion’s Creative Resistance: Relationship with art institutions

There are many examples, as you have seen, of the ways that XR are constructively using art, especially government and major corporations, to consider their cause. However, what about creative institutions?

Well, following the October protests in 2019, you’d probably be as surprised as I was to hear that the Victoria and Albert Museum(London), acquired XR ‘artefacts’ for their permanent collection(13). Wooden printing blocks used on site and green blue and pink flags with the hourglass symbol are two objects which are now part of their “rapid response” programme(Figure 11). This programme has been set up to put newsworthy objects on display. There is no doubt that the inclusion will broaden the group’s audience, in turn bring greater awareness of their cause – however, surely, like with Occupy, this archive makes their cause static in the eyes of the audience. Unfortunately it has taken the V&A a rather long time to acknowledge the need to act on their attitude towards the environment. Yet their 2018 event ‘The Global Climate Ghetto’, they showed an awareness that many institutions weren’t at the time of the impact our ecological decisions were already having on the world, with particular focus on the Global South(Less Economically Developed Countries)(14).

During the October protest, three XR protestors lay on the gallery floor of the BP Portrait Award Exhibition wearing only underwear while others poured fake oil over them; a monologue was given and information was also handed out to visitors(Figure 12). ‘Who will there be left to see, who will there be left to paint, if we have no earth and no people?’ recited one of the activists ‘We cannot be artists on a dead planet. Oil means the end, but art means the beginning.’.The performance titled ‘Crude Truth’ was a protest against the National Portrait Gallery’s sponsorship relationship with the oil company BP(15). There was a clear message that XR loves art but not what the art world currently stands for.https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2019/oct/20/semi-naked-activists-protest-national-portrait-gallery-bp-sponsorship-fake-oil-extinction-rebellion.

Figure 13: PROJECT REBELLION, 2019. Jamie Hewlett from Gorillaz teamed up with the climate activists. [photo] From: MICHALSKA, JULIA, 2019. Extinction Rebellion target Tate Modern. The Art Newspaper. [online] [viewed: 03/03/2020] Available from: https://www.theartnewspaper.com/news/extinction-rebellion-target-tate

As for the Tate, XR was straight on it. In October 2019, Tate Modern gallery was blanketed in slogans declaring “Time’s up, act now” and “Tell the truth”, consolidating what Liberate Tate had already been campaigning for. The event was organised by the Kensington and Chelsea Projection Rebellion group(attached to XR) in collaboration with the founder of the band Gorillaz and comic artist, Jamie Hewlett. The world-renowned institution was emblazoned with messages of creative dissent(16).

However, there was an evident irony in the group’s actions against Frieze London. Gathering outside the headquarters, earlier on the same week as descending on the Tate, they made a bid for the company to ‘get those in a position of power to recognise their part in the climate emergency’. They claimed that ‘The amount of money spent on art is outrageous compared to what is spent on fighting the climate crisis.’. There is an evident hypocrisy to be found in this message as XR used thousands of pounds on resources for their various creative endeavours whether it be the complex projection equipment or their vibrant posters which are evidently costy prints(16).

A parallel can be drawn between this point, concerning the waste of resources on the aesthetics of protest and Ben Smoke’s – Stansted 15 activist and freelance writer – opinion on XR’s strategy. Referencing his own arrest when protesting at Stansted airport in 2017, he talks of how ‘the two years that followed the action saw an unfathomable amount of resources, time, money and energy from across the movement poured into helping us fight our case… It took valuable resources away from those at the sharp edges of the hostile environment that we were protesting about.’. It could be argued that the same could be said for the amount of resources poured into the artistic identity of Extinction Rebellion, diverting much needed resources from the frontlines of the cause to create dramatic performances that get members arrested and appease the press. There is a certain pull that comes with the edgy aesthetic XR has, however this should not replace the ‘real’ stuff, pushing their demands forward. Arrests can easily become a part of this as Smoke points out; to take part in something material, that feels real, as if you’re actually doing something, is overwhelmingly attractive…But the reality is, direct action and becoming entombed in the endless bureaucracy of our glacial criminal justice system because of it, should make up only a tiny portion of our work as activists.'(19)

Although I agree completely that XR should be focussed ultimately on their demands and pushing their cause, I for one believe art is a powerful way to advocate these very serious values in a public sphere. Symbolism and imagery is an invaluable weapon for change. History has only proven just true this is through the Suffragettes whose colours of purple, white and green still stand in longevity as the colours associated with female emancipation. Of course these ‘material’ statements of protest should stand alongside investment in making England greener and should never undermine the campaigns core values, but since when did creativity mean compromise? After all the Red Rebel Brigade didn’t stop the XR members meeting with government ministers(19) or talking with mps about the need for change.

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!


(13) GARDNER, CORINNA, 2019. Extinction
Rebellion objects acquired for our collections. V&A Blog. [online].
Victoria and Albert Museum.[viewed: 03/03/2020] Available from: https://www.vam.ac.uk/blog/design-and-society/extinction-rebellion-objects-acquired-for-our-collections

(14) V&A, 2018.
Special event: The Global Climate Ghetto. The Victoria and Albert Museum. .[viewed: 03/03/2020] Available from: https://www.vam.ac.uk/event/eXmMOvXo/the-global-climate-ghetto

(15) BUSBY, MATTHA, 2019. Semi-naked
activists protest against National Portrait Gallery’s links with BP. The
Guardian. [online] [viewed: 03/03/2020] Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2019/oct/20/semi-naked-activists-protest-national-portrait-gallery-bp-sponsorship-fake-oil-extinction-rebellion

(16) MICHALSKA, JULIA, 2019. Extinction
Rebellion target Tate Modern. The Art Newspaper. [online] [viewed: 03/03/2020]
Available from: https://www.theartnewspaper.com/news/extinction-rebellion-target-tate

(17) SMOKE, BEN,
2019. Extinction Rebellion protesters who want to
be arrested: be careful what you wish for. The Guardian. [online] [viewed: 03/03/2020] Available
from: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/apr/15/extinction-rebellion-protesters-arrested-stansted-15

(18) HARVEY,
FIONA. Extinction Rebellion: Michael Gove admits
need for urgent action. The Guardian. [online] [viewed: 03/03/2020] Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/apr/30/extinction-rebellion-tells-politicians-to-declare-emergency

(19) Commons Select
Committee: BEIS Committee question Extinction Rebellion. Parliament.uk. [online] [viewed: 03/03/2020] Available
from: https://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/commons-select/business-energy-industrial-strategy/news-parliament-2017/climate-change–net-zero-target-evidence-17-19/

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