In December 2015 I was involved in an intervention undertaken by a group of artists and activists at the Louvre museum in Paris during the COP21 conference on climate change and also in the context of Climate Games. The event, ‘Big Oil Out of Culture’, was well publicised in the days before with the following statement:
Oil giants Total and Eni both sponsor the Louvre, in an attempt to divert attention from their relentless fossil fuel extraction and human rights abuses around the world. These two companies should not be allowed to ‘artwash’ their public image by basking in the rosy glow of France’s most prestigious art gallery.Groups challenging oil sponsorship in Norway, France, UK, US, Canada, Brazil, Australia and Ireland are coming together for the first time in Paris. We invite artists and climate activists to join us in demanding the Louvre ends its sponsorship deals with Total and Eni.
Groups challenging oil sponsorship in Norway, France, UK, US, Canada, Brazil, Australia and Ireland are coming together for the first time in Paris. We invite artists and climate activists to join us in demanding the Louvre ends its sponsorship deals with Total and Eni.Join us for a beautiful, spectacular performative intervention during COP21.
Join us for a beautiful, spectacular performative intervention during COP21.
Prior to the event, its organisers had spoke about the birth of a new global movement targeting cultural institutions with divestment strategies during the Peoples’ Climate Summit, a popular and accessible alternative to the UN negotiations, and at the experimental artspace Laboratoires d’Aubervilliers. In Paris, the alliance set its sights on the prestigious Louvre museum, urging the cultural institution to ‘to stop sponsoring climate chaos’ by dropping its oil giant sponsors, the state-run Total (France) and Eni (Italy), amongst the top six major oil companies in the world (Art Not Oil 2015).
Organisers declared ‘Big Oil Out of Culture’ a ‘coming-out party’ for an international coalition of organisations including Art Not Oil (UK), BP or not BP? (UK), G.U.L.F. (US), Liberate Tate (UK), Not An Alternative (US), Occupy Museums (US), Platform London (UK), Science Unstained (UK), Shell Out Sounds (UK), UK Tar Sands Network (UKTSN), Stopp Oljesponssing av Norsk Kulturliv (Norway), hThe Natural History Museum (US) alongside other artists, activists and campaign groups from around the world acting to ‘liberate’ museums and cultural institutions from corporate bondage.
Mel Evans, author of Artwash: Big Oil and the Arts (2015) and a founder of Liberate Tate, argues that sponsorship is an essential operation for oil companies, enabling them to remake their public/corporate image in the wake of disasters such as BP’s Deep Water Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico 2010. Evans likens these forms of spending to money laundering:
We’ve seen tobacco outlawed as a form of cultural sponsorship, we’ve seen a lot of opposition to arms sponsorship…oil is on the cusp of that same cultural shift.
(Evans cited in video below, 03.30)
On the day of the event, a glorious blue morning, heavily-armed police secured the barricades on the forecourt of the Louvre, turning away anyone who looked liked they might be participating in the well-publicised intervention. By midday, a significant crowd of supporters intermingled with tourists, but it was only after a group of Climate Guardian Angels approached the barriers and distracted authorities that a number of ‘Big Oil…’ performers were able to assemble in front of the museum’s iconic glass pyramid entrance. Opening black umbrellas painted on with letters that spelled out ‘FOSSIL FREE CULTURE’, the performers moved to a choreography devised by the composer Chris Garrard, a member of the Art Not Oil coalition, shuffling and singing a sombre melody: ‘Total and Eni, aurevoir, allez allez allez / Oil money out of the Louvre, move, move, move.’
A red line was laid on the ground in front of the group, a meme-like symbol taken up in Paris, representing the minimal necessities for a just and liveable planet that could not be crossed. During the Louvre intervention #redlines signalled solidarity with indigenous communities whose concerns were at the time being erased from consecutive drafts of the Paris Agreement.
Once the performance was underway, the heavily armed ‘armadillo’ police were hesitant to intervene. The routine played out several times and was joined by the Guardian Angels who had travelled from Melbourne.
Before being eventually escorted out, the organisers held a short assembly powered by a human microphone to announce that, unbeknownst to many who had participated, inside the Louvre a smaller affiliated group had staged an ‘oil spill’ on the museum’s marble floor. Journalist Kate Aronoff who was ‘embedded’ within this insider action recalls:
Art Not Oil-style performances tend to be on the messier side, and the group makes a point of being in touch early with the museum staff, particularly the people who’ll be charged with cleaning up their installations. The cadre putting on today’s demonstration had already contacted Louvre workers and their union, and [Clara] Paillard [a Liberate Tate activist and president of the Public and Commercial Services Union’s Culture Sector in Britain] met with its president the following day…
At 12:20 our group scattered throughout the lobby. I wandered around playing my best tourist, though nerves made it harder than it should have been during my first visit to the Louvre. Minutes later, a small huddle gathered directly under the pyramid’s tip to begin the performance in earnest. Two activists unleashed a puddle of molasses into the center of the floor and ran off. Seven others took off their shoes, stepped into the mess and began strutting in a tight circle on the spill’s perimeter, releasing black umbrellas they’d brought with them into the air. All begin to sing:
‘Oil money out of the Louvre / Move, move, move
Total, Eni au revoir / Allez, allez, allez’
As the crowd of tourists swelled, I started to film. After a few stanzas (and no interruption by guards), the singers—still barefoot—made their way to the elevator with several officers, along with Evans, Paillard, Sheila, and I, trailing behind. There were 16 police to our 10. Half of them wore full riot gear, complete with armadillo shoulder and knee pads. All were built like tanks, and all carried weapons. (Arnoff 2015)
The inside group, including Mel Evans, were arrested and taken to a police station in the outskirts of Paris. They were released several hours later without charge after it became apparent that the ‘oil spill’ was made of molasses.
The Louvre performance received favourable media attention however the museum refrained from commenting. Other institutions subject to similar interventions, such as the London Science Museum, have argued that the issues are not so black and white, given that we rely on coal, oil and gas to provide the services and comforts to which we have become accustomed in the (over) developed world.