Disobedience Makes History

Tate Modern, London


In the winter of 2010 The Laboratory of Insurrectionary Imagination was invited by London’s Tate Modern Museum to run a two day workshop on art activism, looking at the issues of the museums environmental impact and exploring, in their own words, the question: “What is the most appropriate way to approach political issues within a publicly funded institution?”
We entitled it ”Disobedience Makes History: Exploring creative resistance at the boundaries between art and life.” The workshop was promoted on the Tate website’s front page and soon sold out. A week before it began (after several months of planning), we received an email from the curators that casually ended with the paragraph: “Ultimately, it is also important to be aware that we cannot host any activism directed against Tate and its sponsors, however we very much welcome and encourage a debate and reflection on the relationship between art and activism.”

There were two things we could have done in response. We could have refused to run the event under such draconian criteria and pulled out, or we could do something much more interesting, and make the email the primary pedagogic material for the workshop, which is what we did. When we projected the curators email onto the wall, reminded the students that the Tate’s sponsors included British Petroleum and asked them if they wanted to obey or disobey the Tate, the shit began to hit the fan. Out of the crisis, weeks later emerged the collective Liberate Tate, which produced dozens of extraordinarily beautiful un-announced performance actions to free the museum from BP. Fossil fuel sponsorship of culture became a key issue, with very visible press and media, the rest is history.

The ”DISOBEDIENCE MAKES HISTORY” workshop began on a chilly January Saturday morning, together with thirty three participants and the curator who had written the email. We played trust games, discussed our personal acts of disobedience against injustice, learnt consensus decision making techniques and explored the work of artists who had applied their creativity to acts of civil disobedience ranging from Gustave Courbet to Sylvia Pankhurst. When we began to talk about the climate crisis and the context of the Tate, mentioning the fact that British Petroleum was a major sponsor with its ex CEO, John Browne head of the museum’s board of trustees, things started to turn. When we projected the email on the wall and asked the students to stand along a spectrum line to begin to open up discussion as to whether we should or shouldn’t obey the demand from the Tate, the curators freaked out.

Initially the curator tried to sabotage the process of discussion, claiming it was “limiting” the participants experience. The participants were thrown into heated debate, after several hours two thirds of the group decided to plan an intervention at the Tate the following week targeting the sponsors and highlighting issues of censorship. Leaving the Tate that evening the curator was clearly upset: “you betrayed our trust” she told us, “we are going to have to have a meeting before next Saturdays workshop.” When we got home one of the participants had emailed: “thanks again for a great day, very inspired by this liberating experience … I’ve never been to a workshop that raised pulses and adrenalin the way this does.”

The following Friday, JJ was summoned to the Tate to discuss the planned intervention (Isa was working). Four people welcomed me: the curator; another curator id never met; a woman who never smiled and the head of visitor services and head of safety and security. They asked me what was going to happen and I told them that I knew as much as they did, that following the Laboratory of Insurrectionary Imagination’s methodology the workshop was now entirely self managed by the participants and the intervention would be designed by them during the final workshop. The head of security explained in no uncertain terms that there were three principles paramount to the Tate: The safety of people, the protection of art works and finally, to ensure the quiet enjoyment of the public. “That goes without saying” I replied, “no action we take would ever hurt anybody or any thing. In fact all our work is precisely about minimising the damage our system has on people and eco systems.”
Then things became interesting. He began to talk about “Reputational Risk”, about the fact that an action could affect a funding deal, that the Tate prided itself on free access to art and that if their funding was hit it would not be a positive thing for anyone. (Years later following a Freedom of Information request the Tate admitted that they received between £150,000 and £330,000 per year from BP between 1990 and 2006, a sum which represents around 0.5 percent of the institution’s annual budget and peanuts for the oil company).

I looked everyone in the eye and asked whether they were censoring the workshop, “Censorship, that’s an emotive word to use.” was the reply. The tense and frank meeting lasted over an hour and a half, we talked about BP’s use of the museum to give it a social license to operate and how artwashing works. “We don’t have any problem with the intellectual content of your work” a curator told me and then proceeded to announce that three of them would be present at the next workshop and would “desist” any activity that was not “commensurate with the Tate’s mission.”

As I left, refusing to toe the line, the head of security lent across the table “We have done much riskier things .. I’ve had meeting like this with Damien Hurst and Sarah Lucas.” “Yes” I retorted smiling “they never bite the hand the feeds them do they. In fact they FEED the hand.” At that moment I knew that we had sunk our cultural capital, the Laboratory of Insurrectionary Imagination would never be re-invited to the museum, but in my head I had that beautiful Zapatista phrase resounding, “You cannot kill us because we are already dead”

As soon as I got home, I wrote up the discussion and put it online for workshop participants to see, more great material.The next morning the participants arrived even more enraged than before, the more the Tate tried to shut things down, the more the students were learning about how corporations drape themselves with the cosy cloak of cultural legitimacy and how those who work in our (co called) public institutions play the game. They experienced first hand the hypocracy of cultural institutions that claim to be sites of progressive practices and with every exchange with the curators they became more radicalised. Eight hours later, the workshop ended with a simple, the words ART NOT OIL were placed in the windows of the top floor. But thanks to the Tate’s cack handed attempts at censorship, the participants set up Liberate Tate which have brought the issues out into the public arena in a way that when we were sitting in that room fighting with the curators we could not have anticipated.

Liberate Tate’s first action involved disrupting the BP summer party held at the museum to celebrate 20 years of sponsorship, taking place whilst deep water horizon was leaking millions of gallons of oil into the gulf of Mexico. Lots of molasses was poured inside and outside the gallery. Six years later following a series of beautiful highly mediated and un-authorised performance actions BP dropped its sponsorship of the museum.


On refusing to pretend to do politics in a museum, by John Jordan, in Art Monthly, 334: March 2010.

Will BP lead Tate into artistic hell? by John Jordan, in The Guardian, 1.07.2010,

Beyond Reflection:  Radical Pedagogy and the Ethics of Art Sponsorship by Amber Hickey, in On Curating, issue 20.

A short documentary about The Gift, one of the amazing unauthorised actions by Liberate Tate. It shows the incredible creativity, organisation and determination of the collective.