The Fuse

Arctic Drilling Protesters Find Success from Being Creative, Artistic

by R. Kress | August 10, 2015

This summer has seen unprecedented media coverage on opposition to Arctic drilling, with much of the heightened awareness coming thanks to new and exceptionally creative protest methods.

These protests are not similar to those of the past: Carrying signs and singing songs won’t cut it anymore in attracting media attention. Instead, organizers are designing stunning events that are impossible to ignore.

These protests are unlike those of the past: Carrying signs and singing songs won’t cut it anymore to attract media attention. Instead, organizers are designing stunning events that are impossible to ignore—and even harder not to share on the web. In May, when the so-called Kayaktivists took to the waters of Elliott Bay in Seattle, the images of citizens paddling their small boats and inflatable rafts in front of Shell’s 400-foot drill rig, the Polar Pioneer of went viral on social media. At the end of last month, in Portland, Oregon, Greenpeace protestors delayed the Shell-leased icebreaker Fennica by dangling from the St. John’s Bridge more than 100 feet above the Willamette River. Last week, a string orchestra commissioned by Greenpeace gathered outside the Shell offices in London to play a new musical composition called Requiem for Arctic Ice. This most recent protest even has its own artistic director, Mel Evans, who says the requiem was inspired by the story of the Titanic’s string quartet that famously played for doomed passengers even as the ship sank after striking an iceberg. The requiem can be heard in its entirety on SoundCloud.

While there are some potential tactical gains to be counted by these protests—the St. John’s Bridge danglers managed to delay the Fennica and jeopardize its ability to reach the rest of the Shell ships in the Arctic with the mission-critical piece of equipment it was carrying—the real value is clearly demonstrated in a widespread, growing awareness of the issue of Arctic drilling.

“[These protests] open up a space for civic dialogue. People say you can’t stop anything with a kayak—but instead they started something: a huge civic dialogue,” Mark Floegel, the Research Director for Greenpeace and protestor who was on St. John’s Bridge throughout the protests against Shell’s Fennica, tells The Fuse. He expressed particular pride that in addition to the viral images of protestors hanging from the bridge, his demonstration was actually able to threaten theFennica’s ability to meet its deadline for reaching the arctic. “[Shell has] a very narrow window [for arctic drilling] and we’re down to about 50 days right now that they have left—so every day is precious. Any day we can buy is important.”

Partner organizations working alongside Greenpeace have also noted how artistic and creative protests are a powerful trend among activists now.

“Greenpeace had a brilliant action logic that if they could have stopped that ship for a week, we could have saved one more year of arctic oil spills and drilling,” David Solnit, North America Arts Organizer for 350.org, tells the Fuse. The international activist group has participated in and organized demonstrations at both the Seattle and Portland protests this summer. “We communicate visually using art, theater and culture in our organizing. It’s kind of the flip side of an oil company hiring a public relations firm…We’re trying to dramatize what’s involved in climate protection.”

Protests light up social media

Dramatizing issues involved in Arctic drilling has proven to be valuable, particularly in the era of social media. Solnit points out that many protests go unnoticed by major media outlets until social media stirs interest. Powerful imagery and artistic expression are vital in capturing the public imagination.

Dramatizing issues involved in Arctic drilling has proven to be valuable, particularly in the era of social media.

“Our communities and the public understand the world through images and stories and narrative,” Solnit says. “We have the facts and figures that contradict the story that’s coming from Big Oil, saying that there’s no alternative to fossil fuels. So we’re animating [the facts and figures] into a compelling narrative to force it onto the front burner of society.”

But in strategizing the optics of these protests, the demonstrators’ hope of stopping or delaying one of Shell’s icebreakers remains very real. For artistic organizers like Solnit, finding a visually compelling way to potentially accomplish actual action beyond simply spreading awareness is a priority.

“It was conceivable with another 100 kayaks in the water, we could have stopped the rig. So you never quite know,” Solnit says of the Seattle Kayaktivists. “There were a lot of people in the water and on the bridge [in Portland] who thought there was a possibility that we could have delayed the ship for a week which would have stopped Arctic drilling for this year.”

Any tactic that is effective

For Floegel at Greenpeace, art or no art, the answer is simple when it comes to planning a demonstration: “We would employ any tactic we thought would be effective…It’s all people responding to the same stimulus and being frustrated by our political system. They’re just pouring out into the streets—or, in this case, the rivers and the bays.”

The Fennica, though delayed, did manage to make it out of Portland toward its arctic destination. For now, Floegel says Greenpeace is taking on the less artistic side of policy work: trying to persuade politicians both local and national to stop the Shell fleet from receiving its final permits. But whether or not they succeed, the power of a compelling and creative protest is receiving recognition.

The power of a compelling and creative protest is receiving recognition. Protesters want to capture the public imagination and translate an often complicated and controversial topic into the mainstream.

“I’ve been in this for 26 years,” Floegel says, “And this feels more like a movement than anything I’ve seen yet…The kayaks open up the room for all these kinds of stories. Then when people know what goes on, they’re as appalled as I am and they want to take action. That’s a very virtuous democratic cycle.”

Next up for 350.org’s Solnit is brainstorming for the global climate summit this December in Paris. Protestors want to capture the public imagination and translate an often complicated and controversial topic into the mainstream: “You’re going to see a real increase in art and visuals in the lead up to Paris.”