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June 15 2011

Climate activists target BP Portrait Award

Protesters displayed a collection of portraits outside the gallery showing the impact of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill

Climate activists on Tuesday night targeted the BP Portrait Award ceremony in protest against sponsorship from the oil giant.

Demonstrators claimed BP was using the arts in an attempt to divert attention away from its impact on the environment.

But the National Portrait Gallery said the support of the global company was beneficial to artists.

The protesters displayed a collection of portraits outside the gallery that showed the impact of last year's Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

One of the pictures, entitled First Splash Since Spill, pictured a child playing in oil-covered water in Louisiana after being told it was safe.

The artist, Beverly Curole, said: "I captured Max, my grandson, on the first day the beach was opened and supposedly safe.

"Max was so excited he jumped in the water and made a huge splash. I then noticed flecks of oil at the tide line and knew something was wrong.

Some 14 portraits from the US Gulf Coast were submitted for tonight's award by campaign group Facing the Gulf.

Despite none of them being selected by the judges, the organiser Nancy Boulicault hoped they would force the gallery to look again at its link with BP.

She said: "We think the National Portrait Gallery needs to start asking themselves some questions about this relationship, in the same way as the people of the Gulf have had to ask themselves very serious questions."

She went on to say that the artists had some sympathy with the gallery.

"They understand the complications that come when oil becomes part of your life, because it's part of their lives.

"But what became quite important to everyone is the fact that we need another vision without oil in our lives.

"Our cultural institutions are about trying to create another vision, but when they are in bed with oil it's very hard for us to find that vision through our arts."

Facing the Gulf and direct action group London Rising Tide invited Sandy Nairne, the gallery's director, to view the alternative exhibition ahead of tonight's ceremony but said he declined.

A spokesman for the gallery said: "The National Portrait Gallery, while principally supported by grant-in-aid from government, is pleased to work with a wide range of companies in support of its exhibitions and displays.

"The sponsorship of the annual Portrait Award by BP is now in its 22nd year and their support directly encourages the work of artists and helps gain wider recognition for them."


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October 09 2010

Deepwater Horizon from the air

In the three months before the Deepwater Horizon well was capped, almost 5m barrels of oil gushed into the pristine waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Flying high above was award-winning photographer Edward Burtynsky who has spent 30 years capturing the impact of our exploitation of the natural world

It's high noon in New Orleans, and the heat feels like a blast furnace. We are taxiing for takeoff in a tiny Cessna 185 seaplane. Canadian photographer Ed Burtynsky is up front with the gear, beside the pilot; I'm tucked in behind. Looking out the window as the engine's roar approaches full throttle, we see two snow-white egrets taking flight, flapping their wings lazily, heading out to the marshes. As we lift up, the air cools and we wheel above storage yards filled with miles of neatly stacked gas pipe. Higher now, we glimpse the profiles of the refineries that dot the horizon. Soon the wetlands are opening up beneath us – not the shallow fringe one might imagine, but the broad brow of the Mississippi river delta, which stretches out for half an hour as we fly south to the Gulf of Mexico. The marsh is a vast web of life – fragile, verdant, delicate as old lace.

I am here to watch Burtynsky photograph the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, 50 miles off the Louisiana shore, 100 miles from where we are now. For 30 years, Burtynsky has made it his practice to record, in large colour prints, the human imprint on the natural world, photographing mines and quarries and railway cuts and, more recently, the impact of oil extraction and use around the world, from the freeways of Los Angeles to the shipbreaking deltas of Bangladesh and the oil fields of Alberta and Azerbaijan.

We love oil, and oil is killing us. "Like all animals, human beings have always taken what they want from nature," Burtynsky tells me before our flight. "But we are the rogue species. We are unique in our ability to use resources on a scale and at a speed that our fellow species can't." Greed, he said – the rampant pursuit of comfort, ease and sensory gratification – is part of our primal nature. But mankind is also endowed with reason. Which side will prevail?

Along the way, Burtynsky has attracted numerous accolades – from the inaugural TED Prize in 2005 to the ICP Infinity Award and an appointment to the Order of Canada. His photography books, like his landmark volume on oil and his study of contemporary industrial China, are among the most luxurious books being produced by any living artist. A touring show that debuted last year at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington DC was a career highlight. But all this isn't making Burtynsky any less itchy to get down to work.

He has flipped open the aeroplane's side window now and has started shooting – leaning out the aperture with his Hasselblad, his shirttails flapping inside the cabin. I know what he has his eye on: the arbitrary, man-made lines that traverse the wetlands, some of which indicate the presence of under- water pipelines, others dredged to add fresh river water to the delta's saline mix, stabilising the ecosystem altered by the levees. Already we are looking at a landscape heavily mediated by man. But there is no sign yet of the oil we are looking for.

As our Cessna's shadow crosses the last of the vegetation, though, we see a few of the outermost islands with their dark oily wreaths, the first to succumb. Further out, passages of dark ochre begin to be visible beneath the surface of the ocean, rusty menstrual streaks that could at first be misconstrued as mud of a darker shade. But as we continue, these stains intensify, and when I borrow the polarising filter that Burtynsky offers me, the true horror snaps into focus: a striated underwater mess that deepens and thickens the farther south we travel.

"When you think about it, oil is just past life, compressed and condensed," Burtynsky had said to me earlier that morning, philosophising over a plate of scrambled eggs in a diner near the Ninth Ward. "But here it got out of control. It's Pandora's box."

Drilling deep, drilling dumb, we have unleashed a monster. Burtynsky described a conversation he'd had with Greg Baiden, a professor of mining engineering at Laurentian University, about how human development had been fundamentally altered and accelerated by the advent of drilling – for water, for minerals and for oil – expanding our capacities exponentially. It may be our most quintessential human endeavour.

We talked, too, about the paradox of Burtynsky shooting environmental catastrophes while flying around in aeroplanes and driving in cars, and using toxic chemicals in the photo-processing lab he owns in Toronto. We are in the grip of "collective cognitive dissonance", he said, making excuses and engaging in "myside bias" to appease our guilt. He's planning to buy more land to protect some Ontario forest, in an effort to offset the carbon footprint of his peripatetic lifestyle, but it doesn't really solve the problem. Like the rest of us, he's enmeshed in these conundrums.

Burtynsky directs my gaze to a tiny orange dot on the horizon. It's the site, and as we approach it over the next 15 minutes, the spot grows larger, revealing itself finally as the twin flames of two emergency vessels, torching methane from their sides in giant saffron flares, a haze of smoke floating upwards. Other ships are spraying dramatic arcs of water to cool down the fiery pipes, preventing them from melting. Around them is scattered a ragtag flotilla of coast guard and oil-industry vessels, some of them spewing dispersant from their flanks.

At first it looks like a scattering of children's toys over an expanse of blue carpet, but as we move closer it takes on the look of chaos, a solution held together with Band-Aids and desperation. The sea now bears the surface sheen of a rainbow slick, stretching towards us in a wide fan from above the wellhead. The day before, an undersea robotic device had dislodged the cap on the well, releasing more than 1m gallons of crude before it could be refitted. Our timing has turned out to be tragically auspicious.

"The dark water of the true gulf is the greatest healer that there is," Hemingway wrote, describing how the old fisherman, exhausted from his struggle with the giant marlin, trailed his torn and bloodied hands in the ocean to soothe his cuts. Overcoming this injury, though, will not be so easy.

No television camera could really help us to appreciate the magnificence and scale of these marshes and the pristine, sparkling Gulf of Mexico, upon which hundreds of drilling platforms now sit like waterbugs, scattered as far as the eye can see. One can't register the scale of the catastrophe without first taking the measure of the innocence and beauty of what has been lost. Burtynsky's pictures help us to feel that.

This can't be fixed. We can only hope that, finally, it can be understood. This is the miracle planet as we have blunderingly defaced it. Here, looking long, we see our writing on the wall.

To see more of Edward Burtynsky's work go to www.edwardburtynsky.com


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Deepwater Horizon: Drilling deep, drilling dumb

Award-winning photographer Ed Burtynsky's has spent 30 years studying the effects of oil on our lives. Here, we show his extraordinary images of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill



July 02 2010

Can Tate afford BP?

The oil company might give generously to arts organisations, but Tate and other museums must live up to their ethical commitments. It's time to ditch this tainted sponsor

Jonathan Jones has some simple words of advice for national artistic institutions currently feeling the financial squeeze: "If they can get money from Satan himself, they should take it." The phrase is deliberately provocative, but succeeds in reaching the heart of the debate over BP's sponsorship of the arts. The argument is straightforward enough – it's time to batten down the hatches and ignore the storm of protest, because without organisations such as BP the arts might simply cease to exist.

Responding to Jones yesterday, the artist John Jordan suggested one problem with this approach: that art risks selling its soul. BP's money is tainted, and it is hard to see how the company's reputation won't have a long-term impact on those who accept it. The spill in the Gulf of Mexico is the environmental scandal of the decade, but it won't be the last. And as BP strives to extract the last drops of oil from ever more remote regions of the planet, a whole new kind of reputational risk begins to emerge. Shocking images of oil-soaked pelicans will not be around for ever, but the consequences of climate change will be with us for the rest of the century.

Tate director Nicholas Serota needs to consider this risk carefully. Does his institution want to be associated with one of the world's biggest single sources of pollution? One that has actively lobbied to undermine clean energy, pouring huge sums into industry groups that campaign to lower carbon taxes and weaken climate legislation? BP's alternative energy business is a plaything of former boss Lord Browne that has been consigned to the corporate rubbish tip. For these reasons and others, BP is certain to remain the focus of environmental resistance and public anger for years to come. Similarly, those who choose to lend the company an air of acceptability by receiving corporate sponsorship will continue to be seen as legitimate targets for protest around the world. This movement is still in its infancy, but will only gather in strength.

The second problem simply concerns credibility. The Tate website proudly proclaims its ethical policy, announcing that it will not accept funds from a donor who has "acted, or is believed to have acted, illegally in the acquisition of funds". As lawmakers on Capitol Hill put the final touches to a series of massive lawsuits, and criminal prosecutions loom on the horizon, it is hard to find a single individual who claims that BP has acted in compliance with the law. Far more compelling, though, is the Tate's stated ambition to demonstrate "leadership in response to climate change". If ever there were a moment to show such leadership, this is surely it. Tate has a unique opportunity to demonstrate that one of the UK's most progressive institutions is prepared to take meaningful steps to show its opposition to carbon-intensive industry. Currently, it refuses to even acknowledge BP's record as an issue, relying instead on bland statements that mention only the longevity of BP's financial support. There is clearly a disconnect, and behind closed doors there must be real uneasiness in the boardroom – not to mention the membership.

The issue here is not sponsorship per se, but choices. Over the past few days a number of commentators have pointed out that tobacco companies are now seen as an unacceptable partner for any self-respecting artistic body, but for some reason oil companies are still welcome to the private view. This comes despite human rights abuses, refinery explosions, the destruction of entire ecosystems, and political interference on a historic scale. You have to wonder why. Sure, BP probably offers slightly more money than the other companies vying for the sponsorship deal. They probably don't interfere too much, either (some might say that they know a thing or two about secrecy and discretion). But the fact is that there must be a host of other companies out there who actually fit the existing ethical policy of these organisations, and a relatively small financial hit is surely worth the reputational protection such a deal would provide.

By now you might be asking what all the fuss is about. After all, it's only a small logo on a programme, a discreet thank you at the bottom of the catalogue. Jones says: "I must have seen the BP logo a thousand times on press releases and it never lodged in my mind." But ask any branding expert: it's exactly this kind of subliminal association that gives a brand its identity. Until the Gulf of Mexico disaster, BP's green sunflower was found only in carefully selected locations designed to give the company an air of clean, British authority: Covent Garden, the National Portrait awards, a new exhibition at the Tate. These are some of our best loved pastimes, and for BP this feelgood factor is simply priceless. Their executives do not sponsor the arts as a way of "giving something back", or because they truly believe in opera, or painting, or culture. They simply believe in winning political and cultural aquiescence in the ugly business of oil extraction, and the sponsorship deals allow them to do just that. The millions BP spends on our artistic institutions represents an absolute bargain. Unfortunately, it is the rest of society that is being ripped off.


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June 22 2010

BP's beleaguered Tony Hayward disappears from view

Whether he was really seen on a yacht at Cowes is debated – but there was no sign of him on dry land as oil bosses met at a London congress

After Saturday's ill-advised attendance at a sailing event at Cowes, complete with disputed photographs that may or may not have shown him on board his yacht, Tony Hayward might be excused for resolving to keep his head down.

But the beleaguered BP chief executive's position came under renewed pressure tonight after he failed to show up at a gathering of the oil industry, having also ceded day-to-day control of the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

Shares in BP touched a new 13-year low after Hayward delegated a keynote speech to his chief of staff, Steve Westwell. He also cancelled a scheduled appearance at the National Portrait Gallery in London tonight where he was due to open an awards ceremony.

By dodging the World National Oil Companies Congress in London, Hayward avoided coming face-to-face with several Greenpeace protesters.

They guaranteed more bad publicity for BP by briefly halting Westwell's speech to urge an audience of oil experts and energy ministers to break their oil dependency.

"Assembled guests – because BP is incapable of telling you the truth, I'm going to tell you what you need to know," Greenpeace's Emma Gibson said, shortly after Westwell had begun by apologising for Hayward's absence.

"We need to speed up progress and make a push to end the oil age," Gibson added, before she and fellow activist Katie Swan were removed from the stage by security, along with a banner which read "Go Beyond Petroleum".

BP blamed Hayward's no-show on his busy schedule. But the company refused to discuss his whereabouts, which added to speculation that he might already be meeting with the Kremlin to discuss BP's future. Its Russian joint venture, TNK-BP, is responsible for a quarter of its production.

Amid the uncertainty BP shares fell to 328p, virtually half the value when the Deepwater rig caught fire and sank.

Security had appeared tight at The Grange St Paul's hotel today but Greenpeace managed to reach the conference room by the simple, if expensive, tactic of buying tickets, and went ahead with the protest even though Hayward was not present.

"We wanted to use the opportunity to speak to BP and push it to change things. BP shouldn't be drilling in deep water and it shouldn't extract oil from the Canadian tar sands," Swan told the Guardian after she and Gibson were released by hotel security staff.

Swan ,said she was concerned about the environmental and economic damage caused by the spill. "It looks like irreparable damage has been done. People's lives will have been changed forever," she said.

Gibson said BP was in "severe trouble" because it had not listened to activists, and had instead pushed on with increasingly risky projects.

"If they had heeded our advice over many years about the need to deliver genuine renewable energy sources, they would not be facing a $40bn (£24bn) disaster today," Swan said.

Even before the conference began today, the environmental movement was taking the opportunity to lobby Big Oil. About 200 Climate Camp activists marched to the hotel complete with a samba band on Monday night and held a mock trial of the industry for its actions around the world.

Shares in BP ended the day down 4.3% at 334.2p, their lowest close since the crisis began.

Hayward, whose PR gaffes have added to the recent criticism of BP, has now given control of the Gulf clean-up to Bob Dudley, BP's American director. City analysts are speculating over how long Hayward can continue as chief executive. "He will remain at the helm for the near term but ultimately, this fiasco might prove career-shortening for him," a fund manager from one of BP's top 20 investors told Reuters.

Westwell said Hayward was "genuinely sorry" to miss the event, before insisting that BP was committed to fixing the disaster. "When the media have left the Gulf coast, we'll still be there helping the community recover. When the headlines are focused elsewhere, we'll still be cleaning up and dealing with claims for economic losses."

He signed off with a line from Abraham Lincoln which may yet serve as Hayward's epitaph. "I do the very best I know how – the very best I can; and I mean to keep on doing so until the end."

With or without Hayward, BP will remain under the shadow of huge compensation payments and fines – and possible prosecution.

Meanwhile, tonight, the oil companies congress is holding its gala dinner, with the promise of "fine wine, exquisite food and the company of some of the greatest minds in the energy business". For the oil industry, even with a temporary halt on new deepwater drilling, it remains business as usual.

Tony's travels

Where's Hayward been?

The BP chief executive flew to America shortly after the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded on 20 April, with the loss of 11 lives. He returned to the UK for a flying visit in May to celebrate his birthday, and came back to the UK again last week following his savaging by Congress on Thursday. Spending Saturday yachting at Cowes proved the latest in a series of blunders.

Where's he now?

BP refuses to say, arguing that it never reveals its chief executive's location – even when he has abandoned a keynote speech at the last minute.

Where should he be?

In Russia, for a meeting with president Dmitry Medvedev, who has admitted he fears that BP could be destroyed by this crisis.

Reassuring the City about the company's long-term prospects would also be wise, as they face up to a dividend freeze.


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