The year 2015 was the year of the spectacle. Mad Max: Fury Road proved to be one of the best action blockbusters in years, and Madonna’s Rebel Heart Tour showcased the usual gaudy set pieces and costumes we’ve come to expect from the Queen of Pop. However, the most elaborately staged spectacle of 2015 was performed by the “kayaktivists”, a group of environmentalists who successfully stopped oil giant Royal Dutch Shell from drilling in the Arctic.
In the spring and summer of 2015, members of Greenpeace USA staged a series of public protests to block Shell from traveling to the Arctic to drill for oil. In Seattle, hundreds of activists surrounded the Port of Seattle. In Portland, 13 activists dangled from the St. John’s Bridge, while dozens more cornered Shell’s icebreaker Fennica with their kayaks. The goal was simple: to protect the wildlife in the Arctic, and to prevent the ravages of climate change. “Shell no!” they exclaimed, as they stood up to the giants in the fossil fuel industry.
The protest in Seattle is important, but as far as spectacle goes, the one in Portland is unforgettable. It’s not unreasonable to call this protest performance art. The staging of the protest alone has an aesthetic appeal, as visually stunning as any scene in Mad Max. The sight of the 13 activists hanging from the St. John’s Bridge is jaw-dropping. The activists wave red and yellow flags in the sky, which complement the red, blue, and yellow kayaks in the water.
The most provocative performance art has always been political. From Karen Finley to Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping, performance artists often make provocative statements about injustice. In this case, the kayaktivists highlight the greed of the fossil fuel industry, a private sector that often puts short term profits before the health of the planet. They also challenge the leadership of politicians like President Obama who claim to care about climate change, but give Shell authority to drill in the Arctic anyway.
Performance artists are physical beings, and they must have the stamina to carry on. The kayaktivists project strength and agility. According to The Guardian, the activists remained in place for two days. (“Portland’s bridge-hangers and ‘kayaktivists’ claim win in Shell protest”, by Ellen Brait The Guardian, 31 July 2015) This is tough enough for the kayaktivists in the water, but even more impressive for those dangling from the bridge.
Protests, like performances, are organized efforts that require the collaboration of many people. To watch the kayaktivists pull off their protest is to watch the best thespians perform Shakespeare in the park. If one member of the troop falters, the entire production fails. If one activist caves to the pressure of outside agitators, the entire protest comes crashing down. Despite threats from a federal judge in Alaska, which ordered Greenpeace to pay $2,500 for every hour they blocked the Fennica, the activists remained in place.
Throughout history, political protest and art have been intertwined. It’s not just that Joan Baez sang songs alongside Martin Luther King, Jr., in the Civil Rights Movement. It’s that the songs significantly defined the movement, in the same way that the formation of millions of Americans in the March on Washington had a visual component that couldn’t be denied. The 21st century kayaktivists carry that tradition in the environmental struggle as they use catchy slogans and eye-popping spectacles to spread their message.
The other influential activist group in 2015 was Black Lives Matter, and they also showed us the art of protest. On 30 October 2015, Black Lives Matter activists in Atlanta interrupted one of Hillary Clinton’s political rallies. They marched in a single-file line, clapping and singing the words to Janelle Monae’s powerful anthem “Hell You Talmbout”. The song says the names of the many African-Americans who have been killed by law enforcement, like Walter Scott and Miriam Carey.
The Atlanta activists chanted the song at Clinton’s rally because they wanted to remind people of the countless African Americans who have been unfairly subjected to institution racism, as well as Clinton’s role in this inhumane system. When Clinton was First Lady, she supported President Bill Clinton’s tough on crime laws, and referred to young black males as “superpredators” in an infamous speech. She has since changed her position on criminal justice reform, and now proudly proclaims “Black lives matter!” in her speeches, but young activists are not convinced.
Protest movements have always been part of the fabric of the United States, if not the world, and it’s fair to say that all of the major changes that have taken place, from worker rights to civil rights to gay rights to disability rights, were achieved by activists. In 2015, the kayaktivists showed us that protest is still a powerful political tool, and when pulled off successfully, a provocative art form.
However, there is an immediacy to these protests that does not exist in typical performance art. The activists are quite literally fighting for their lives, and there is real risk and danger in what they do. Many of them are arrested, and some of them are physically harmed. As Global Witness reminds us, environmentalists have been murdered at an alarming rate for their activism, including at least 116 in 2014. (“How Many More?“, Global Witness, 20 April 2015) In other words, for all the connections that can be made to performance art, real world activists are not protected by the fictitious world of the stage or silver screen. The vast majority of protests, however well-executed, are organized by ordinary people.
What’s most amazing is that the pressure from kayaktivists caused Shell to shut down its operation. Over the past few years, environmentalists have convinced universities to divest from fossil fuel, politicians to reject the keystone pipeline, and even world leaders to meet in Paris. We’re not where we need to be yet, and only a few of our world leaders take climate change as seriously as they should. Still, in 2015, a few brave kayaktivists shined a light on an issue that continues to impact us all, and what a magnificent spectacle it was.