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 feeling 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