Social Licence: Complicity in the Age of Extraction

14 Mar 2012 admin
Tar sands protest at Tate Modern in 2011

At first glance, there might not seem to be an obvious common ground between indigenous activists in Canada, performance artists in the UK and climate activists in both countries. However, the international controversy over Canada’s tar sands industry in northern Alberta has galvanised individuals from all these communities into new cooperative relationships opposing the developments. Over the last few years, environmental groups and artists have influenced each other’s practices, resulting in innovative, cross-platform public interventions.

This article, by Kevin Smith of Platform and Clayton Thomas Muller of the Indigenous Environmental Network first appeared in the Winter 2011/12 issue of Fuse Magazine in Canada.

While traditional environmental NGOs have lobbied government officials and targeted the oil companies that are involved on both sides of the Atlantic, people in the UK cultural sector have recently started to interrogate their particular complicity in enabling oil companies to commit environmental and human rights abuses in other parts of the world. This article describes collaborative projects by arts-activist organisation Platform, indigenous rights group the Indigenous Environmental Network (IEN) and performance interventionists Liberate Tate designed to problematize the involvement of oil companies in gallery spaces, and to challenge the role of arts institutions in diverting attention from the devastation that their primary sponsors are carrying out in other parts of the world.

In London (UK), an overwhelming majority of cultural institutions have acquired sponsorship from a major oil company, predominantly BP or Shell. For more than 20 years, BP has been the main sponsor of the Tate museums. The relationship between the cultural behemoth and the corporation has been so close that the ex-CEO of BP, Lord John Browne, has sat on the Tate Board of Trustees since 2007. In December 2011, BP announced a £10 million sponsorship deal spread over 5 years between Tate, the British Museum, the Royal Opera House and the National Portrait Gallery.

An oil corporation such as BP combines the business models of an engineering company and a bank. It constantly faces the practical challenges of extracting, transporting and processing oil and gas, shifting the geology of distant lands to the cars and turbines of its customers. Like all engineering problems, these challenges are approached in the belief that ultimately they can be solved. The point of solving them is to make money, profit on invested capital.

The construction of an offshore oil platform is one of the most expensive projects on earth. Usually it can only offer a high return on capital if oil production if maintained over two or three decades. The maintenance of this production is often threatened by social and political shifts in the countries of extraction. Any such threat to production — or the perception that that threat might exist — can immediately undermine the profitability of a corporation. BP’s share value was almost halved by the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, not because of the potential costs of the oil spill clean up, but because investors were concerned that the company’s future prospects in the United States were being undermined by the collapse of support in Washington DC and in the media.

To guard against any such threat to the company’s value, BP works constantly to engineer its social license to operate — a term widely used in business and government circles that usually applies to the process of engendering support for a company’s activities in the communities who live close to their factories, oil wells, and so on. This term can shed light on how corporations construct public support far from the places of extraction or manufacture — for example how BP builds support in London. The construction of the social licence to operate is what links gallery-goers in London to the devastation of boreal forests and indigenous communities in Canada through tar sands extraction.

In the summer of 2009, four First Nations activists associated with the IEN, including co-author, Clayton Thomas-Muller, came to London to take part in the Camp for Climate Action. This annual protest camp had an enormous impact on climate change discourse in the UK, and the First Nations visitors engaged activists on the devastation being caused by tar sands extraction. It was at this Climate Camp that members of Liberate Tate and Platform first met the indigenous community representatives. At that stage, BP had not fully committed to entering into the tar sands market, but in December 2010, it committed a £1.6 billion investment in the Sunrise Project. Located in northern Alberta, the project could be producing 200,000 barrels of oil a day in the space of a few years. Sunrise will use so-called SAG-D (Steam Assisted Gravity Drainage) extraction methods, in which water is super-heated into steam with vast amounts of natural gas, then injected deep into the earth to “melt” the oil from the sand and clay.

The entire tar sands infrastructure in Canada has been the subject of extensive criticism for clear-cutting boreal forests, polluting waterways and some indigenous communities that live downstream of the polluted waterways are experiencing higher that expected rates of rare cancers. According to a report by the Alberta Health Services released in 2009, in Fort Chipewyan, a remote community 300km north of Fort McMurray often described as the ground zero of tar sands extraction, 51 cancers developed in 47 people between 1995 and 2006, almost a third more than would have been statistically predicted. [1]

Extracting oil from tar sands is far more polluting and destructive to the climate than light sweet crude oil, which comes naturally out of the ground in liquid form. Tar sands are only 10% oil mixed with 90% sand, clay and corrosive agents such as quartz and other minerals, heavy metals and volatile organic compounds (VOCs). The extra energy involved in super-heating the bituminous substance to create a usable, transportable makes it a far more carbon intensive fuel source than light sweet crude. The size of these oil reserves (the greatest in the world outside of Saudi Arabia), combined with this increased carbon intensity, has lead NASA Scientist and climate advocate James Hansen to state that if the development of the tar sands continues, then it is “essentially game over” for the climate. [2]

Since the initial visit of the IEN activists to the UK, action on tar sands has been a regular feature of the political scene. The initial targets in these collaborations were the UK oil companies that were involved in the industry and the UK banks that were involved in financing other tar sands companies, but this has now widened to include those galleries and museums that are complicit in allowing oil companies to divert attention away from their destructive activities.

Activist groups such as Art Not Oil have been protesting against the involvement of oil companies in UK galleries since 2004. The issue gained a new level of prominence in 2010 in the wake of the Gulf of Mexico Disaster. Just weeks after the oil rig blow-out that caused 11 deaths and devastated vast stretches of US coastline, the annual Tate Summer Party was celebrating 20 years of BP sponsorship. Platform coordinated a letter in the Guardian newspaper signed by over 160 people in the cultural sector calling on Tate to end its relationship with BP and distributed literature about oil sponsorship of the arts to party goers entering Tate Britain where the party was taking place. [3] Meanwhile, recently formed art-activist group Liberate Tate performed Licence to Spill, with 11 performers dressed in black with their faces covered in veils pouring gallons of an oil-like substance over the entrance steps of the gallery. This was a symbolic act designed to create maximum disruption to the ‘celebrations’ and draw attention back from the canapés and champagne to the horrors of the Gulf of Mexico. Inside the party, two elegantly dressed ladies going by the names of Toni [Hayward] and Bobbi [Dudley], released another oil spill from beneath their bouffant dresses, a “relatively tiny one, compared to the size of the gallery,” echoing the comments of then-BP CEO Tony Heyward in describing the size of the oil spill relative to the Gulf of Mexico. [4]

In the following year, more evocative, and often headline-grabbing, performance interventions took place in gallery spaces. Sunflower (September 2010) took place in Tate Modern’s iconic Turbine Hall, with 30 performers forming a circle before stepping on tubes of black oil paint, monographed with BP’s green and yellow sunflower logo. The prescient performance was later echoed by Ai Wei Wei’s Sunflower Seeds (2010) installation that saw millions of handcrafted porcelain seeds deposited in the same location. On the anniversary of the Gulf of Mexico disaster, Liberate Tate did a durational intervention, Human Cost (April 2011), in the exhibition Single Form at Tate Britain. In the performance, a naked figure lay on the ground and was covered with another oil-like substance, an image of which appeared on the front page of the Financial Times the next day.

While BP’s criminal negligence in causing the Gulf of Mexico disaster was one of the re-invigorating factors behind the Liberate Tate performances and campaign, BP’s involvement in tar sands extraction in particular has subsequently become one of the main foci. In April 2011, Clayton Thomas Muller and Jasmine Thomas, a member of the Frog clan from Saik’uz, spoke outside Tate Modern about the art world complicity in the destruction of indigenous communities during a protest by climate action group Rising Tide. In July, Liberate Tate and UK Tar Sands Network invited performance artists Reverend Billy and the Church of the Earthalujah to perform an exorcism of BP in the Tate Turbine Hall, accompanied by a 12-piece gospel choir singing about the evils of tar sands extraction. In March 2012, Platform, Art Not Oil and Liberate Tate, working with content contributed by Indigenous Environmental Network are launching the Tate a Tate Audio Tour, [4] a site-specific sound work in three pieces that enables listeners to tour Tate Modern, Tate Britain and the boat journey between the two institutions while listening to the voices of impacted communities, artists and oil campaigners.

Of course, all the activities around sponsorship are occurring at a time when the arts are facing massive cuts in public funding, as part of the austerity measures being carried out by the coalition government. Many feel that now is not the time for the art world to start getting choosy about where the money comes from, with Guardian art critic Jonathan Jones going as far to assert that museums should take “money from Satan himself” if it means they can “stay strong and stay free.” [5]

However it is precisely because of the decrease in public funding that a debate about the ethics of particular corporate sponsors is more relevant than ever. Rather than pitting the need for ethical discussion against the need to secure funding, we must ground this debate in a respect for the value of the arts to society, and the importance of access. State support commits arts institutions to remaining open to all, ensuring that everyone has the possibility to connect with a vivid and changing cultural history, and valuing what the arts can bring to people’s lives and experience.

Raoul Martinez, a portrait painter whose work has been exhibited as part of the BP Portrait Award at the National Portrait Gallery for the past two years’ running, has written that:

Unless we’re willing to accept the sponsorship of the pornography industry or arms manufacturers, we clearly believe a line must be drawn somewhere. So the issue is not whether we draw a line, but where we draw it. In the case of BP, I believe there is a strong case for placing them on the wrong side of that line… If society decides it genuinely values institutions like the National Portrait Gallery and Tate Modern, it can provide money to support them. [6]

The call to end oil sponsorship of the arts is not without precedent. Sponsorship shifts have occurred on numerous occasions according to changing social norms and contexts.  A few decades ago, many of the same cultural institutions were receiving tobacco money – the creativity of art provided a great decoy to the devastating consequences of cancer – yet now tobacco logos are absent from the cultural sphere. Smoking is simply not socially acceptable anymore. The major cultural shift over tobacco sponsorship is now widely applauded as an appropriate response, and was in part due to the push given by anti-smoking campaign groups. Yet despite widespread public concern about the dramatic threat of climate change and the ongoing violation of the rights of Indigenous Peoples in Canada, oil money is still found greasing the wheels of so many of our cultural institutions. The idea that it is therefore normal to continue to burn fossil fuels subtly seeps into our imaginations, fixing the image of a certain kind of culture, a certain kind of destructive behaviour. This cultural acceptance of oil is diminishing, and at some point it will more dramatically wane.

Breaking the sponsorship link between Tate and BP will not alone prevent the devastating tar sands projects being inflicted across the Northern wildernesses of Canada. By creating and informing a public debate that questions the legitimacy of these companies in being associated with respectable and cherished cultural institutions, we can strengthen attempts to hold them accountable in other political and financial spheres. This is an essential step in ending the stranglehold that the companies have on the corridors of power – a major obstacle that we face in the transition to a low carbon society.  The shift away from oil takes place in many municipal sites as well as in our personal daily experience. From the infrastructure of transport, to the shareholdings of pension funds, from where the food we eat is grown, to divorcing fossil fuel industry interests apart from the seats of governmental power. For a fair and just transition to a post-oil era, we see the creativity and collaborative practices of artists as essential to the process, and cultural institutions as a key space to nurture that evolution.


[1] ‘Fort Chip cancer rates higher than expected: report’, CBC News, 6 Feb 2009. See

[2] James Hansen slams Keystone XL Canada-U.S. Pipeline: “Exploitation of tar sands would make it implausible to stabilize climate and avoid disastrous global climate impacts”’, Climate Progress, % June 2011. See:

[3] Licence to Spill, Platform, June 2010,

[4] Tim Webb, “BP boss admits job on the line over Gulf oil spill,” The Guardian (14 May 2010).[5] see for more info and a sound clip.

[5] ‘Tate is right to take BP’s money’,  Guardian Blog, 29 June 2010. See:

[6] Interview with the authors, August 2011.

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