Fossil Free Arts – Breaking social license

A man in sunglasses and a black shirt is imitating a security guard with "Woodside Enforcer" written on his shirt. People from an arts festical are in background.

We have been really excited to see the emergence of work from creative artivists on challenging fossil fuels and extractivism. Its long been our view that challenging the social license of fossil fuels, via their sponsorship mechanisms could be fun and easy targets for climate activists, and we have a great case study of some Artivism focused on Woodside in this case study below.

Sports and the Arts remain huge opportunities to engage with every day folks, and to point out the absurdity of climate mercenaries such as Woodside, BHP, and others – using the arts, or sports sponsorships to buy goodwill from the community. Whilst it is standard operating procedure for fossil fuel companies to sponsor local sports teams, community facilities and events in regional towns – nowhere is the large scale of fossil fuel celebration more apparent than in the quarry state of WA.

In WA the influence and power of the mining industry is immense – so we see mining and politics grossly entwined in a revolving door – most recently an example came in Ben Wyatt – formerly a government Minister – now a director and consultant to both Woodside and BHP. People have long wondered what it would take to get fossil fuels out of arts sponsorship in this state – a highly contested issue, and an ethics minefield, with many Aboriginal arts groups reliant on the sector for major funding.

There is much creative inspiration globally with the Liberate Tate works, and the Art Not Oil coalition group in the UK, and some excellent artivist inspired Climate Games coinciding with a major climate (COP) meeting in France as well as the always excellent work of the Yes Men.

We are happy to introduce Adam Bennet – a fellow climate conspirator and our guest blogger this month who was a main driver of the Brink Renewables Festival, as well as part of a series of creative brand jamming of the Perth Fringe Festival in 2019/20 which has seen Woodside backing out as a major sponsor this year. Find out more about this work and the powerful win. If you’d like to share a campaign case study with us, get in touch.

Adam Bennett – Guest post

“Hi Marcus and Amber,
We are just over a week away from our event and I’m surprised at how much people are getting on board with their enthusiasm to discuss action on Climate Change. PICA have offered us their space free of charge which is great support. With the international protest movement taking off there is a growing awareness that doing nothing is no longer an option. I was just reading an article about Woodside planning on throwing 200 million more tonnes
of CO2 into the atmosphere than what they are doing already.
Then I receive an email from Fringe World that Woodside has naming rights for the Pleasure Garden in return for three years of sponsorship money. Are you sure this is a good move for the arts at this time?
Perhaps you think it’s fine because Perth Festival has been doing a similar thing for years with Chevron Gardens? But look at how Chevron is coming under attack for its carbon pollution.
I hope you consider joining us at PICA on Sunday December 2nd? It’s important to hear your thoughts on this – how do we as artists stand against pollution and its effects on our climate?
Kind regards
Adam Bennett”

For me this is where it all began. I received no reply to this email to the Fringe World CEO
and the Festival Director.
The event I refer to at the beginning of the above email was an open space discussion about
what we in Perth can do at a local level about the power structures and systems that drive
and perpetuate mining and burning of fossil fuels, creating industrial levels of pollution and
ignoring the environmental and social harm that results.

The following January the Woodside Pleasure Gardens launched in Russell Square in the
heart of the Perth CBD. The Perth performing arts community regarded this development
with the usual mix of resignation and revulsion. The Fringe World Festival is regarded by
many professional as well as many community and casual independent performing artists
and groups as a big ‘bread and butter’ event in the yearly calendar. For some it is one of the
few times they get to play to people outside of their usual audiences. For others it offers the
opportunity to see many fine and not-so-fine performances in a short amount of time. The
valued Artists Pass allows free or cheap access to many shows. The Woodside sponsorship
may be garish and may make many uncomfortable but Western Australia is commonly
perceived to be a mining state. Resources corporations buy their social capital with their
profit and with little challenge.

In late 2018 I was wondering if the Extinction Rebellion movement that had made a huge
impact in London was something worth considering as an organising movement in Western
Australia. As an artist, I was ignorant of the rich history of environmental and social activism
anywhere, let alone in Western Australia. I engaged in a steep learning curve as I got to
know local, established activists and other community members who had been activists for
many years. They gave generously of their limited available time and attention to help me
understand how protest, civil disobedience, non-violent direct action and community
organising was done here. The local performing artists were sympathetic to my outrage, but
there were, and are, precious few who are willing to risk their reputation and careers to
speak out, let alone take action against polluters who believe that they have the power to
buy their social licence through the arts.

The sign at the Pleasure Gardens was a large and bright. Made of lightbulbs and sitting
prominently above the entrance, it was unmissable. Patrons had to walk underneath it to
access any of the venues and bars inside the secure fencing that surrounded the gardens.
The whole presentation reeked of exclusive access to the privileged few possessors of
tickets to their own private world of pleasure and excess. The name Woodside was directly
above the word Pleasure. I was appalled.

November 2019

Image of performers disrupting the Fringe Festival and Woodside’s "Pleasure Garden"
Performers disrupt Fringe Festival and Woodside’s “Pleasure Garden”

I had become embroiled in the world of environmental activism in Perth. campaign I was
attempting to keep track of Extinction Rebellion, WAFA, 350 Perth, Cons Council and the
Clean State campaign among others and contribute however I could. I was preparing a show
for a City of Stirling venue which was part of Fringe World. I was wondering what could
challenge the Pleasure Garden and the sponsorship of Woodside. People started suggesting
to me that I check out the performance ‘One Point Five Live!’ that had been presented at the
Edinburgh Fringe that year. This event was a live performed and crowdsourced reading of
the IPCC report commissioned by the United Nations, released in 2018.
December 2019. The East Coast of Australia burned so fiercely it could be seen from space.
Here in Western Australia fires burned in the South West. Houses in the Northern suburbs of
Perth were lost to fires. Activists were organising to hold a ‘bushfires emergency = climate
emergency’ march in Northbridge in January.

A small troupe of very committed activists and organisers helped me plan and deliver a
rolling ten-hour protest performance within a few meters of the entrance of the Woodside
Pleasure Gardens. We sought no permission to do this and had various plans depending on
the response from Fringe World, security and police.

The opening night of Fringe World coincided with the bushfires march, which neatly
coincided with the opening night of our protest performance of ‘One Point Five Live!’ in
Perth. The previous nights private Festival launch event was crashed by artist activists who
spoke out against fossil fuel sponsorship. For ten nights we challenged the social licence of
Woodside by detailing the devastating effects of global heating on various ecosystems
worldwide. Some of the readers were performers in various Fringe World shows who
accepted our invitation to assuage some of their discomfort with the Woodside sponsorship
by taking ten minutes or so to perform a piece of the report.

Performers disrupt Fringe in the "Woodside Pleasure Garden"
Performers disrupt Frine in the “Woodside Pleasure Garden”

March – November 2020

A novel virus begins a pandemic putting the world on emergency footing. WA weathers the
storm and by late 2020 it was looking like Fringe World and Perth Festival would be taking
place with much risk management.
I was wondering what an appropriate challenge to Woodside’s sponsorship would be given
the extraordinary times. Protest felt wrong this time. The performing arts industry was on its
knees. Thousands of events had been cancelled or postponed. Independent performing
artists were ineligible for support from JobKeeper.
Then Fringe World invited applications for their next festival with a new twist: before
applying, applicants were made to tick a box promising not to say anything bad about any of the sponsors. With the help of similarly outraged performers, we started a publicity campaign
about the so-called gag clause.
In discussion with a core group of artist activists and producers we decided we would try to
mount an ‘ethically alternative’ festival. We quickly put in an application for seed funding to
the City of Fremantle. We decided that the project had the possibility of being viable with a
grant. Fremantle, under the mayorship of Brad Pettitt (now a Greens MLA in state
parliament) had put ethical and environmental practice at the heart of civic planning.
Our application was successful. We didn’t have enough time to open a festival we were
creating from scratch on the same night as the Fringe Festival. We decided that we would
aim to launch our program and website to coincide with the Fringe opening.
In the meantime, Anthony Collins of 350 Perth had planned a series of actions to continue to
challenge the Woodside branding of Fringe World. One the opening event of the Pleasure
Gardens, I and two other performers entertained and accosted revellers queuing for the
entrance posing as ‘Woodside Enforcers’ ensuring that all knew about the gag clause. The
employee who wrote it was in the queue and insisted on getting a selfie with us.
Fringe World were forced to respond to the increasing courage of Perth performing artists
speaking out about the Woodside sponsorship by scheduling an ‘Ask Me Anything’ session
after the Festival finished. At this event the CEO Sharon Burgess doubled down on the
sponsorship by explaining that if all the other arts orgs also took money from polluters then
why should Fringe World buck the system? What signal would that send? How would they
ever attract sponsorship again? How would their business model survive? They were due to
renegotiate their sponsorship contract with Woodside in a few months. Amber Hasler,
festival director for many years, resigns from Fringe World.

Over ten days in March 2021 we held the BRINK festival in Fremantle. BRINK was a festival
that aimed to show performing artists and audiences that fossil fuel sponsorship of the arts
was not only wrong, it was also unnecessary. Various performances were presented by
artists who were brave (or marginal) enough to risk reputational damage by speaking out
and being associated with a ‘fossil fuel free fringe’. We reached out to local renewable
energy industry organisations for sponsorship with a couple of small successes.

June 2021

Fringe World sends out a questionnaire to artists asking for feedback that would inform their
next festival. In the opening remarks, respondents were politely asked not to comment on
Woodside sponsorship as there was no longer any contractual arrangements.

WA TODAY: Perth Pleasure Garden drops Woodside

Thanks Adam – Check out our creative activism page for more inspo