Hester Berry is a landscape painter who participated in the recent series of Platform Promenade – Oil and the City. This is her account of the experience.
‘Twas a cold and misty morning. Our little group gathered at a pre-determined location near Liverpool Street Station to await instructions. All we had been told was that we should wear sensible footwear and go to the loo to be ready for a prompt start at 9 o’clock.
At exactly 9am, Hayley Newman received a phone call from a member of Platform. She was told to lead the group around the corner and look for a man in a black, wide-brimmed hat. We walked down Bishopsgate and eventually the mysterious character came into view. We waved in acknowledgement and smiled cheerily as we approached at an ambling pace. The greeting was not returned and he hurried us on to his partner who quickly ushered us to one side of the walkway and spread a map on the ground. She outlined the position of London’s major players in the flow of money and oil, and pointed out the first couple of banks we would be visiting. Before we had time to digest this information, she scooped up the map and told us to follow.
We soon realised that this would not be a leisurely stroll and upped the pace in order to keep the two characters in sight. We followed them through some glass double doors, across a splendid foyer and caught up in a marbled arcade, outside the Royal Bank of Scotland’s headquarters. We were given an introduction to the bank as the woman walked away from us humming wistfully. The unsmiling man told us that, as we spoke, the chief executive would be sitting down to work at his desk. After some further information about RBS and BP, we joined his compatriot at the end of the long corridor, where we waited for her to finish her sad folk song. As the last words echoed off the polished walls, “…it was Billy what was drownded on the deep blue sea…” bankers in expensive suits raised their eyebrows at us and rushed into their offices.
Together, the pair told us about the vast explosion on the Deepwater Horizon rig in the Gulf of Mexico. The Macondo prospect, where the rig had been drilling, met its violent demise far quicker and much less poetically than did its namesake, the cursed town in Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. Our guides, James and Mel, gave us some well rehearsed facts and figures about the disaster, which had occurred exactly one year and seven months previously. Then the tone changed and they became passionately angry as they described the loss of life. They told us of the struggles of one victim’s parents, who were campaigning to end the dangerous work which claimed their son. As she spoke, Mel came close to us and looked directly into our eyes, which intensified the experience and perhaps made us uneasy.
However, we had no time to reflect and were marched single file down some stairs, into the open, past the slick, black backside of Fernando Botero’s Venus and into a military line on the steps of Exchange Square. We visualized the scale of the rig and the explosion, using the gargantuan Liverpool Street Station as a measure. We were told that the fireball could be seen for thirty-five miles, the same distance as from our location to Reading!
We were then handed one set of headphones each. This would allow us to hear our guides as they began again to lead us around the bustling banking district.
Suddenly Mel changed persona as she jumped onto a bench and barked questions at a despondent and clueless Tony Hayward (James). Passers-by glanced at the commotion but quickly put their heads down and scuttled on. As the courtroom scene was re-enacted, the chief executive of BP was asked why he had cut corners on the cement bond tests, tests which could possibly have averted the explosion and oil spill. The furious interrogator and hang-dog defendant were reconciled as Mel jumped down and we walked on.
We continued our urgent journey around the city, all the while being told of the effect of the oil spill on insurers, re-insurers, banks, shareholders, and as such, our pension funds. It became apparent that we were also inextricably linked into the complex network of financial interests and concerns surrounding BP.
The two Platform representatives used the sights, sounds and smells of the city to weave a performance of many textures. We would suddenly leave the noisy main streets and duck into an alley or a cheap and colourful subway. We rubbed shoulders with terribly important businessmen, breathed in their cigar smoke and smelled their coffee, before walking through the centre of an ‘occupy’ camp, winding our way through tents and makeshift stalls.
At several points we stopped abruptly. James sat on a pavement and removed his hat and microphone. We gathered in close around him as he became Mike Roberts, a fisherman from the Gulf of Mexico. Quietly, he gave us an intimate and humbling account of his experience at seeing the oil spill and the effect it had on him, his family and his livelihood. Later, as we walked across the Millenium Bridge, Mel spun around to face James and acted out the impassioned outcry of a resident in the locality of the Alberta Tar Sands Development.
As we neared Tate Modern, we were told about the gallery’s reluctance to sever ties with BP, keen to retain the sponsorship it receives from the oil giant.
The performance ended in the Turbine Hall. We discussed the morning and gave James and Mel feedback in a seminar room. We felt awfully privileged sitting in a room that had been specially prepared for us in the country’s most important contemporary art gallery. James and Mel had stepped out of character and were friendly and insightful. We relaxed as they answered our questions comprehensively and it was clear that they knew their subject inside out.
After such a rich and inclusive performance, followed by a professional and enlightening debriefing, it felt quite delightfully subversive to discover that in fact, we had commandeered the room entirely without permission and could be thrown out at any minute!
It was agreed that the performance‘s pace was essential to its overall impact. It reflected the nature of such an intensive and busy financial district. The rapidly changing timbre and rhythm of the act added to the whirlwind experience. James and Mel’s cold urgency made us uncertain of what might happen and created a tension. This tension fluctuated as they alternated between the loud vocal performances, the intimate monologues, and marching us into rooms we perhaps shouldn’t have been in. The way we reacted as a group was very interesting. The earphones and the constant discourse between the two characters prevented us from engaging in any conversation. So although we moved together, smiled at each other, held doors open and waited for one another, we were quite isolated. Perhaps in a similar way to the very common feeling associated with large cities – the feeling of loneliness within a crowd.
Platform Promenade will return next year – contact [email protected] to express you or your organisation’s / students’ / group’s interest.