All Rise: what does justice sound like?

Posted by Sarah Keenan — 23 April 2013 at 2:37pm - Comments
All rights reserved. Credit: Amy Scaife / Liberate Tate
The performance of Liberate Tate's latest BP-focused piece

Three years ago last Sat­urday, an oil rig around 50 kilo­metres off the coast of Louisi­ana exploded. The explo­sion killed eleven work­ers instant­an­eously, and marked the begin­ning of an 87-​day period of uncon­trol­lable crude oil spillage into the Gulf of Mex­ico, the sea-​floor well spew­ing out around 4.9m bar­rels of oil before it was finally capped on 15 July 2010.

The spill blackened over 1000 miles of shoreline in Louisi­ana and neigh­bour­ing states, put hun­dreds of mar­ine spe­cies and eight national parks at risk, threatened the live­li­hoods of local fish­ing and tour­ist indus­tries, and had other envir­on­mental con­sequences that are ongo­ing and argu­ably immeas­ur­able.

A study last year sug­ges­ted, for example, that the dis­pers­ant used to make the oil sink faster as part of the clean-​up effort may now be effect­ing the ground­wa­ter sup­ply in Florida.

The now infam­ous Deep­wa­ter Hori­zon rig was being leased and oper­ated at the time by London-​based energy giant BP, with the assist­ance of Hal­libur­ton and a num­ber of other smal­ler com­pan­ies seek­ing to profit from the off-​shore extrac­tion.

Over 130 law­suits have been filed in rela­tion to the dis­aster, includ­ing crim­inal charges of man­slaughter against BP (to which they are expec­ted to plead guilty), as well as thou­sands of claims brought by affected indi­vidu­als but settled out of court.

The major civil trial, brought by the United States gov­ern­ment against BP and other implic­ated com­pan­ies, began in the dis­trict court of New Orleans in late Feb­ru­ary this year and is expec­ted to con­tinue for sev­eral months, as BP attempts to min­im­ize its liab­il­ity for the dam­age caused by the spill.

The New Orleans trial has received little media cov­er­age out­side the Fin­an­cial Times, whose read­er­ship is espe­cially inter­ested in the out­come of the case - to what extent will the US legal sys­tem limit the liab­il­ity of cor­por­a­tions for the envir­on­mental and human cata­strophes they cause?

But per­form­ance group Lib­er­ate Tate, who describe them­selves as "a net­work ded­ic­ated to tak­ing cre­at­ive dis­obedi­ence against Tate until it drops its oil com­pany fund­ing", yes­ter­day embarked on a week-​long per­form­ance that brings the BP trial inside the Tate gal­ler­ies, where the BP logo is already com­fort­ably nestled on walls, signs, flags and of course in the BP Brit­ish Art Dis­plays that take up about a third of Tate Britain’s wall-​space.

Lib­er­ate Tate has com­pleted a num­ber of per­form­ances since its form­a­tion a few months before the 2010 BP dis­aster - sim­u­lat­ing oil spills both inside and out­side the Tate sum­mer party in 2010, an annual event atten­ded by London’s cul­tural elite, and last sum­mer installing a 16.5m wind tur­bine in the Tate Modern’s Tur­bine Hall (known as The Gift). As one group member said:

… as Tate is clean­ing BP’s money for them by provid­ing them with cul­tural and social legitimacy in return for rel­at­ively small amounts of spon­sor­ship money, we feel it is import­ant to ensure that BP’s less pal­at­able side also has a pres­ence inside the Tate galleries.

And while Lib­er­ate Tate’s per­form­ances have prin­cip­ally focussed on the effects of the 2010 dis­aster, they have also high­lighted issues such as cli­mate change and involve­ment in viol­ence, cor­rup­tion and the dis­pos­ses­sion of indi­gen­ous peoples from their land. To use a quote from a pre­vi­ous piece I wrote on the group last sum­mer, group mem­ber Mel Evans argues that ‘envir­on­mental dam­age is fun­da­mental to BP’s ordin­ary operations’.

Lib­er­ate Tate’s latest per­form­ance, All Rise, involves a week of daily per­form­ances whis­per­ing the tran­script of the ongo­ing New Orleans civil trial inside the Tate Mod­ern gal­lery and, through their dedic­ated livestream web­site, echo­ing through­out the world. From 3-4pm every day this week, three dif­fer­ent per­formers will wander around the gal­lery wear­ing spe­cially con­struc­ted cam­eras that will film them while they whis­per selec­ted tran­scripts from the trial.

Lib­er­ate Tate leave it up to the viewer as to how to watch the videos - available to view after the performance - but sug­gest they be watched sim­ul­tan­eously in order to cre­ate "a haunt­ing caco­phony of words and images from inside the gallery".

The priv­ileged pocket of London’s South Bank where the Tate Mod­ern towers over the tourist-​scape is far from down­town New Orleans, where the court­house sits between the Mis­sis­sippi River and the Treme, fam­ous for its thriv­ing black and creole com­munity, its greasy food and its vibrant brass bands.

This south­ern Amer­ican city, his­tor­ic­ally an import­ant port for the slave trade and a place of refuge for those flee­ing nearby Haiti, had barely recovered from Hur­ricane Kat­rina when the BP’s Deep­wa­ter Hori­zon exploded not far from its shores.

By per­form­ing the New Orleans BP trial inside London’s Tate Mod­ern, Lib­er­ate Tate cre­ates a week-​long audio-​visual, dra­matic lived con­nec­tion between the two cit­ies that echoes the envir­on­mental, polit­ical and eco­nomic con­nec­tion that runs between them. In a geo­pol­it­ical rela­tion­ship with boom­ing colo­nial res­on­ances, BP can make a mess over there and Tate will clean it up back home.

Watch­ing and hear­ing the words of the trial whispered by these per­formers as they wander past Licht­en­stein, up and down lifts and escal­at­ors and through curi­ous crowds of tour­ists not only brings the BP trial into the Tate gal­lery, but also raises the ques­tion of what law can achieve in the wake of this social and envir­on­mental cata­strophe and of BP’s seem­ingly ines­cap­able power.

Listen­ing to the banal­it­ies of lit­ig­a­tion, the thick form­al­ity of the pro­ceed­ings, and the eso­teric lan­guage of courtroom adversar­ies, it is the absence of voices of people actu­ally effected by the spill that sounds in heightened silence. While the tran­scripts make the pro­ceed­ings avail­able for any­one to read, few can decipher their mean­ing out­side the nar­row con­fines of the courtroom - the script requires the com­puls­ory pomp and per­form­ance of the judge behind his micro­phone and gavel and in his court, to sound any­thing like ‘justice’.

The All Rise per­form­ance is in this way a per­fect counter-​piece to Lib­er­ate Tate’s altern­at­ive audio tour of the Lon­don Tate gal­ler­ies, which offers listen­ers voices and sounds from Canada’s tar sands, Louisi­ana fish­ing boats and Ira­nian liv­ing rooms. The audio tour is free to down­load, and exists as a per­man­ent and largely invis­ibly install­a­tion in the gal­ler­ies.

For this week though, it is worth watch­ing and listen­ing as All Rise con­tin­ues to pro­gress through the tran­script and develop with new voices and faces each day, and to ques­tion what justice would sound like in a world in which a colo­nial com­pany involved in war, hom­icide and envir­on­mental dev­ast­a­tion can still work in appar­ent har­mony with one of the world’s most respec­ted artistic institutions.

Dr Sarah Keenan is Lec­turer in Law at SOAS, Uni­ver­sity of London


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