Chicago, Illinois, USA
By Christian Narkiewicz-Laine
Eleven years have passed since the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, owned and operated by offshore oil-drilling company Transocean and leased by oil company British Petroleum, exploded, killing 11 workers and leaving oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico.
From April 20th until July 15th, 2010, 200 million gallons of sticky, black crude oil spilled, affecting hundreds of miles of coastline and killing hundreds of thousands of animals and wildlife.
The BP Gulf oil spill was the worst of its kind in US history.
Although the spill wreaked havoc on the surrounding communities, tarballs have been removed from beaches, businesses got reparations, and things have, on the surface, returned to normal in many places.
For decades to come, the fear is that the oil slick has sunk to the bottom of the ocean and will at any time raise its ugly head.
While BP pled guilty to 14 federal criminal charges, including lying to Congress, ultimately, in 2015, the company was forced to pay a record $20.8 billion to the US government to cover damages caused by the disaster.
Of course, all the criminal charges and lying to Congress were “excused” as part of the settlement deal.
Not one BP executive went to jail for the catastrophic oil spill or for lying to Congress.
Ironically, Martha Stewart, the home lifestyle personality, was sentenced to prison for six months for lying to the FBI.
Now, eleven years after the Gulf oil spill, the Chicago Architecture Biennial continues to take BP’s annual $2m sponsorship oil money to produce its “high-brow program” as a way in which to give cultural cover to the oil and gas mega-giant as some kind of “benign, benevolent benefactor,” now glossed-over with “respectability” or even an “eco-consciousness”—all of which is directed to the global design community to launder BP’s image and which masks the real damage that BP does and has already done.
BP’s sponsorship is cover by the company.
This is nothing more than “culture wash,” or worse, a noxious “greenwash.”
Cultural money image laundering.
At a time when our world is facing ever larger, growing threats to climate change, a staggering
environmental pollution unprecedented in human history that continues to choke and ravage rivers, seas, and oceans, we find the Chicago Architecture Biennial in bed with one of the planet’s most evil environmental polluters.
A recent survey by The Guardian newspaper found that BP is the sixth biggest contributor to climate change out of all the companies in the world.
It is responsible for 34.2 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent since 1965, according to the newspaper.
Is there no shame anymore for such unethical behavior coming from an architecture organization that claims to be “Green?”
BP is listed as the Biennial’s founding sponsor and Exelon Corp. the presenting sponsor, something critics see as incompatible with the event, which ironically and hypocritically covers climate change as one of its major topics.
Based in Chicago, Exelon Corp is the largest regulated utility company in the USA, with 10 million customers and annual revenues of over $30 billion (£23.2 billion). It owns power plants that run on natural gas, oil as well as nuclear, solar, and hydro sources.
The Biennial lists British oil and gas multinational BP and US power generator, Exelon Corp, first and second on the sponsors’ page on its website.
Some groups from around the world have joined together to boycott the Chicago Architecture Biennial, and rightly so.
From the start in 2015, The Chicago Athenaeum: Museum of Architecture and Designs refused to participate in this charade and sham of environmental hypocrisy and pretense of institutional virtue the Biennial was forging on the architecture profession.
Likewise, other museums and cultural institutions feel exactly the same and consider BP sponsorships unethical.
Four months after the oil spill, the oil company worked feverishly to restore its reputation, pouring over $100 million into global advertising campaigns.
Now the company has moved to sanitize and culture wash its sordid past and present by sponsoring events and exhibitions at many major US and European institutions much to the outrage of the public.
In late 2019, London theatre Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) was pressured to end its deal with BP after student-led protests and the resignation of associate artist Mark Rylance, known for his Oscar-winning role in the film Bridge of Spies.
Rylance said that as the “evidence increases” about the dangerous actions of such companies, he no longer wanted to be “associated with BP via the RSC.”
That same year, climate-change activists held a “die-in” at the Royal Opera House in London, as audience members arrived for a performance of Carmen, demanding the opera house end its sponsorship with oil and gas company BP.
In 2019, protestors and environmental activists stormed London’s National Portrait Gallery where they linked arms in doorways and chained themselves to gates to prevent party guests from entering the building for a BP-sponsored event.
Gary Hume, a painter and judge of that year’s BP Portrait Award, called on London’s National Portrait Gallery to drop the oil company’s sponsorship.
Hume’s concern was that BP is “actively exacerbating” the current climate “crisis” and “with no plan to stop producing massive amounts of fossil fuels for decades to come.”
For Hume, “refusing to launder the oil industry’s image is a step that the art world now needs to take.”
Eight other artists who exhibited at the Gallery including Paul Benney sent letters of protest.
Also in 2019, fashion icon Vivienne Westwood and British activist and businessman Joe Corré joined Extinction Rebellion Protests with Free West Papua campaign leader Benny Wenda at BP Corporate Office, St. James’s Square.
“BP is at the center of crimes against the climate in the Papua rainforest, the world’s second-largest tropical rainforest, after The Amazon, covering 30 million hectares,” says Joe Corré.
“This ecocide, led by BP, is also leading to a slow-motion genocide.”
According to Corré: “BP and their friends’ raping and pillaging of the environment in West Papua has been aided and abetted by a 50-year media blackout in West Papua by the Indonesian Government.”
Over the last 50 years, 500,000 West Papuans have been senselessly murdered by the Indonesian military, essentially working for their paymasters, such as BP.
In February 2020, protesters in London walked a 13-foot Trojan Horse into the British Museum to protest the institution’s continued support for BP and the new exhibition about Troy by the oil company.
Protestors stated: “On its surface, the sponsorship looks like a generous gift, but inside lurks death and destruction.”
Ahdaf Soueif resigned as a British Museum trustee in protest at the BP sponsorship deal.
The National Galleries Scotland no longer accepts money from BP, which also paid no corporation tax in Britain in 2020.
This comes amid a broader backlash against “toxic philanthropy” that has hit institutions including London’s Design Museum and Serpentine Galleries, and New York’s Whitney Museum.
The Tate museum cut its ties to BP back in 2016, following a number of protests held by environmental activists.
Also, in 2016, the Edinburgh International Festival hit by similar protests over BP backing announced it was no longer allowing BP to “greenwash” their events.
And the BP protest list continues to grow, but not with the Chicago Architecture Biennale and BP polluter.
Since 2015, BP has contributed $4.5 million toward the Chicago Architecture Biennial and its programs.
It was Obama’s White House Chief of Staff turned Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel who engineered the multi-million dollar green-wash deal between the Biennale and BP. Even more hypocrisy.
In 2019, the Biennale had the nerve to organize a “BP Student Ideas Competition,” presented in partnership with the Chicago Architecture Center, where young people were invited to “respond to the following challenge: Design a safe community space where young people can share ideas and take action on local or global issues.”
“BP Student Ideas Competition?”
Using students and architecture to despicably indoctrinate young people and the public about a virtuous BP?
An oxymoron at the very least.
How’s that for a gloss-over with guilt money?
This is the most reckless, bizarre, twisted, and tragic endorsement (entanglement?) with the world’s worst environmental polluter on record.
It is clear to us, and to others, that BP uses sponsorships in public-facing, progress-oriented, events like the Chicago Architecture Biennial to position themselves as a “socially responsible corporation” when the reality could not be more distant or far from any relevant truth.
At a time when humanity and sustainability must be at the front and center of our professional and political lives as architects, we cannot abide with architecture being used to culture-wash the broken, criminal image of a global oil conglomerate polluter’s immense chequered past and present.
The Chicago Architecture Biennial has crossed that ethical red line.
Let the boycott thrive.