Environmentalists, fringe performers and arts sponsorship campaigners accuse the festival of “greenwashing” a company contributing to “catastrophic climate change” by accepting it as one of the festival’s headline partners.
They say they are planning a “pop-up performance protest” at an as yet undisclosed location in Edinburgh at noon on Sunday. They promise to “perform a piece of guerilla theatre, highlighting the festival's unethical choice of major sponsor.”
The organisers, an activist theatre group called ‘BP or not BP?’, have previously disrupted events sponsored by BP at the British Museum and the Tate gallery in London. In May they invaded the British Museum with a singing show in which wildlife were trapped in an oil slick of black umbrellas.
They have also brought Sherlock Holmes to the museum in search of “the world’s biggest corporate criminal”, and put BP on trial with a public flashmob. Last year they staged a surprise performance of an anti-oil version of Shakespeare’s Macbeth in a Tate Britain art exhibition funded and branded by BP.
Campaigners are concerned that cultural institutions are giving BP legitimacy while it extracts unsustainable amounts of fossil fuels and lobbies against effective political action on climate change. They point out that the company was fined a record $18.7 billion in July for its role in the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.
“Organisations of all kinds - from pension funds to churches to the Rockefeller Foundation - are now severing their ties with fossil fuel companies. If the EIF doesn't drop its oily sponsor soon it will look embarrassingly out of touch.”
She was backed by environmental groups in Scotland. “World class performers haven't come to Edinburgh this August to make the oil industry look good,” said Ric Lander from Friends of the Earth Scotland. “Let's clean up the EIF and stop BP buying prestige at the expense of Scotland's treasured public arts.”
Eleanor Dow, a student campaigner with Edinburgh People & Planet, recalled that protests had recently forced Edinburgh University to stop investing in three major fossil fuel companies. “The EIF needs to get its act together instead of remaining complicit in the destruction of our planet,” she said.
Fringe performers also weighed in. “For me, art is a way of asking questions about this world and imagining a better one,” said Daniel Bye, whose show, Going Viral, is playing at Summerhall. “It doesn’t help for the greatest arts festival in the world to be sponsored by an organisation actively committed to making the world worse.”
The author Caryl Churchill, who has a play about corporate sponsorship on at Underbelly, argued that oil companies used the arts to improve their image and lobbying power. “Tobacco companies used to do this until arts organisations decided they didn't want to endorse something that caused death,” she said. “Now it's time to stop promoting fossil fuels, an even more disastrous future killer.”
BP has sponsored the Edinburgh International Festival for 34 years, but neither the company nor the festival would say how much money has been involved. After a prolonged freedom of information battle, the Tate disclosed earlier this year that it had received £3.8 million from BP over 17 years, while the British Museum said it had been given £6.5 million over 11 years.
An EIF spokesperson said: “We are grateful to all of the public and private sector organisations who support the festival and make it possible for us to present world class work to the widest possible audience. We also support free speech and the right to peaceful protest.”
David Nicholas, a spokesman for BP, declined to comment on the company’s environmental performance. “As a significant investor in Scotland, BP has been pleased to support the world-renowned Edinburgh International Festival in a variety of ways for many years,” he told The National. “We are delighted to continue our support this year, joining a broad cross-section of businesses and community partners.”