New Internationalist

Rev Billy exorcises the dark soul of BP

To help raise awareness about the campaign to kick oil sponsorship out of public art institutions Platform and ArtNotOil have produced a great little set of postcards. They normally sell for £4.95 but New Internationalist is giving away 100 of these to the first takers.

A couple of days ago, on Monday 18 July, 5.30pm on the dot, a man in a white suit, dog collar and spectacular hair falls to his knees in the Turbine Hall of the world’s most visited modern art gallery, London’s Tate Modern, and begins to testify. His voice echoes throughout the huge hall, climbing up to the stunned ears of hundreds of tourists and art lovers who pause on the walkways to look down to see what the hell is going on.

‘Each and every one of us is a sinner! We let this happen to a great institution! British Petroleum, destroyer of the Gulf of Mexico and Tar Sands over in Canada and so much else around the world cannot be sponsoring the Miró exhibit!’

This is the work of the legendary preacher activist Reverend Billy. He’s been targeting the embarrassing banality and destructiveness of consumerism since the 1990s. After the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, he started to focus on the energy giants, BP in particular.

And he is not alone on the floor of the Turbine Hall – his testifying is accompanied by the sensational Earthalujah Gospel Choir, a 100 or so activists, bemused tourists who think, at first, that this is some kind of art performance provided by the Tate, and half a dozen bored-looking police.

The Rev is anointed by ‘the blood of the earth’ (convincing fake oil); he leads us on a dance and then crawls along the floor towards a huge poster that highlights the sponsors of the Tate, with his green-robed choir crawling behind him. Once at the poster, the Rev performs an exorcism of the dark soul of BP from the building.

Other than the police, every face around us – from activists to tourists to workers at the Tate – is grinning ear to ear. This man is insane, he is brilliant, he is beautiful, he is what everyone needs every Sunday from now on! To the exuberant singing of the choir, the Rev carries the blackened soul of BP over our heads as we march solemnly out of the Tate.

Outside, an impromptu rally is held, where the Rev talks about the absurdity of an oil giant which causes untold environmental and social harm in the world being the sponsor of great art. He is joined by Jess Worth of the UK Tarsands Network. ‘BP itself has said that it strives to create a social license to operate from its sponsorship of arts and culture… So that’s where we have to be as well, we need to make sure that everyone understands that BP has no social license to operate,’ she says.

Those who worry about the fate of art free of corporate sponsoring are reminded by Kevin Smith of Platform that Formula 1 racing was not damaged after losing its tobacco sponsors, so Tate doesn’t really need to have BP as their sponsor, either. And ‘G’ from Liberate Tate describes how BP’s influence is smothering art output: an art activism project was shut down once the participants started using the workshop to question the Tate’s BP sponsorship.

And then the Reverend gives the final speech of the day. By now, the atmosphere is electric, a genuine sense of the numinous hovers above us.

‘Art is a way for us to teach ourselves to see more, to see the visions held within things… to remember more, to imagine more, to become more sensitive to the world around us. Not the opposite… We have a responsibility here… This fossil fuel economy must end.’

For the atheists among us, there was something liberating about being able to finally shout ‘amen’, ‘testify’ and ‘earthalujah’ – and actually mean it…

Amen Reverend, amen… I have finally got religion.

Photo by author. Video by You and I films

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