Participatory Art and ‘Spacing’
This chapter centres on the performance group Liberate Tate, an art collective that was instrumental in flagging up the ethical issue of oil sponsorship of the arts. The group undertook disobedient interventions within Tate galleries over a period of six years, aimed at severing links between Tate and the oil companies that were sponsoring it. As a participant, I reflect on how Liberate Tate embodied Nancy’s ontology of being singular plural through a focus on the idea of ‘spacing’. ‘Spacing’ concerns the nature of ‘being’ - in particular the shared sense of being ‘separate’. My analysis centres on the way in which communicative strategies unfold within and beyond Liberate Tate. Attention to subtleties within these strategies provides an applied understanding of‘spacing’.
The concept of ‘spacing’ is key to Nancy’s writings on being singular plural - a way of thinking that destabilises, and diverges from, phenomenological interpretations of being. In The Inoperative Community Nancy writes of‘singular beings’ that are ‘themselves constituted by sharing, they are distributed and placed, or rather spaced, by the sharing that makes them others' (IC 1991a: 6). Beginning with Nancy’s writings on ontology, this chapter explores how Nancy’s concept of ‘spacing’ relates to ideas of communication and community.
Focusing on ‘spacing’ allows me to look at how a revised understanding of ontology, as non-phenomenological, can pave the way for engagement with ‘the political’ that facilitates ‘recomposing the image of the world’. Furthermore, I address the themes of ‘spacing’ and ‘communication’ through participation in the performances of the art group Liberate Tate. My analysis explores the possibility that a sense of complicity in a creative process can allow us to ‘recompose the image of the world’.
Liberate Tate: Politically Engaged Art Practice
Why Liberate Tate? For a long time, I have been interested in how artists and artworks can intervene in cultural discourses, generate a sense of accountability and suggest alternative approaches to specific micropolitical issues. Over time, I became more aware of how such artworks can be absorbed into the art industry, and their potentiality reduced. As such I became particularly interested in art collectives that engaged directly with galleries and museums with the aim of reforming the institutions themselves - a process that I believe has significant repercussions in terms of the way in which artworks are ‘framed’ in cultural spaces, and their wider social significance. These collectives - including the Guerrilla Girls, Superflex and Voina - embodied critical and creative practices that resided both within and outside the perceived boundaries of the art world. Through my research into art activism and collaborative art groups, I came into contact with a member of Liberate Tate who I interviewed in 2013. Having grown accustomed to the familiar BP logo throughout cultural spaces in London, the interview had a big impact on me and I joined the group. I felt that it was important to extend my research further, and approach these themes though embodied practice rather than as a detached onlooker. Although other groups in London, such as Platform and Greenpeace, also generated discourses around oil sponsorship of the arts, I was particularly inspired by Liberate Tate - by the way in which it was explicitly an ‘art collective’ and did not differentiate between aesthetic strategies and political strategies. In this way, the group moved beyond the aesthet-ics/political divide that characterised (and still characterises) so many approaches to art interventions.
In 2010, Tate commissioned a workshop exploring art and activism. They invited the Laboratory of Insurrectionary Imagination to lead the workshop. A few months previously, the ‘Lab of ii’ had been dropped by the Nikolaj Contemporary Art Centre in Copenhagen because they had encouraged ‘mass disobedience’ during the Copenhagen Climate Summit. As Lars Kwakkenbos states in his article ‘Art, Activism, and Permaculture’, the group exists ‘somewhere between art and activism, poetry and politics’ (Kwakkenbos 2011), orienting collective action around friendship.
The workshop focused on the question: ‘What is the most appropriate way to approach political issues within a publicly funded institution?’ The participants collectively decided to address the issue of sponsorship -specifically BP’s (formerly ‘British Petroleum’) sponsorship ofTate. Subsequently, Tate attempted to censor the workshop, a gesture that intensified the oppositional energy within the group. A majority of the participants then decided to continue the creative collaboration independently from the gallery, ending the workshop by placing the words ‘ART NOT OIL’ in the windows of the top floor of the gallery. This was the starting point for Liberate Tate who, six months later, performed an ‘oil spill’ at the Tate Britain Summer Party. The performance featured two women ‘spilling’ bags of oil-like molasses, hidden under their flowery dresses, as well as a
Participatory Art and ‘Spacing ' 43 larger ‘spill’ at the visitor entrance, undertaken by other members of the group.
Like the Lab of ii, Liberate Tate resists categorisation as ‘activists’ and prefers to be understood as a collective of performers and artists. They act within a larger coalition entitled ‘Art Not Oil’ which includes other activist, art and performance collectives including Platform, Shell Out Sounds, Greenpeace, the Reclaim Shakespeare Company, Rising Tide, the UK Tar Sands Network, and BP or not BP? who communicate and act collectively to oppose sponsorship of cultural institutions by oil companies.
I joined Liberate Tate in 2013 and my participation has informed the following chapter. Because Liberate Tate performances have, over the years, included more than 500 performers, the ‘boundaries’ of the group are constantly in flux. To respond to the fluctuating levels of participation, the group distinguishes between those who are ‘in the room’ and those who are ‘out of the room’. To identify a person as ‘in the room’ is to acknowledge that they regularly attend meetings and co-organise group activities on an on-going basis.1 These activities include performances, presentations at universities, assisting with workshops and participating in discussion events to which the group is invited and communicating with other groups in the Art Not Oil coalition. When referring to specific instances of participation, times when I was ‘in the room’, I identify as part of Liberate Tate, using ‘we’ and ‘our’. However, there are points in the chapter, where I either refer to performances prior to my joining the group, or times at which I was ‘out of the room’ and these are indicated through referring to the group as ‘they’, to acknowledge my proximity and non-involvement in those instances. On the whole, however, I refer to the group as a separate identity in and of itself, taking care not to overstate my participatory role, even though it influences the way in which I reflect on and respond to other members of the collective.
To effectively generate public awareness, Liberate Tate is required to have a strong collective presence, but at the same time the group does not want this presence to be assimilated and dismissed. Because Liberate Tate is an art collective, its potentiality lies in the creation of images. As Nancy explains in the first pages of The Ground of the Image, the image is ‘the distinct’ - it is sacred and set apart (Gol 2005: 1). Accordingly, the creation of new images concerns the process of setting apart. As such, the group’s presence embodies an amplified experience of shared separation. How might the ‘shared separation’ evoked in Liberate Tate performances recompose the image of the world?