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How Amsterdam Fights Climate Crisis Through Artivism

An action of Fossil Free Culture in a concert hall
Fossil Free Culture drew attention to itself with its actions at cultural events. | Photo (detail): © Laura Ponchel

Over the past 20 years, the fossil fuel industry  has been responsible for three-fourths of human-caused carbon emissions on the planet. On top of that, the industry exerts much power and influence. Five years ago, Fossil Free Culture (FFCulture) emerged  as a group of Dutch artists, activists, and cultural workers. They got together to end art-washing by fossil fuel companies in the Dutch cultural sector.

By Jonaya de Castro and Laura Sobral

The Inspirador is rethinking sustainable cities in identifying and sharing inspiring initiatives and policies from more than 32 cities around the world. The research is systemising these cases in categories, these are signified by hashtags.

Issues that were already important in everyday life are now proving to be urgent, and some ideas already developed can inspire us to deal with what currently presents itself in the best possible way. Creative campaigns and emergency policies have been created to try to influence the future from the point of view of cultural development. In this category, we present design and sustainability laboratories, care culture, forums, and platforms for philosophical discussions about hope, transformation, and political imagination.

Initially, one of the main goals of Fossil Free Culture was to raise awareness and start a dialogue that would allow people to see that fossil fuel companies, despite financing cultural institutions, did more harm than good. “We, activists and artists, live in a bubble because many people here in Holland really believe that Shell is an amazing company, that Shell is busy with the transition, which is totally not true. So, by bringing information, we bring new knowledge,” says Frida Escalante, one of the founders of the group.


Art-washing describes using art and artists in a positive way to distract from, or legitimize negative actions by an individual, organization, country or government. The goal of Fossil Free Culture is to end art-washing by fossil fuel companies in the Netherlands. The group focuses on diminishing the power that these companies have. With their different performances, Fossil Free Culture puts pressure on art institutions to free themselves from the fossil fuel industry. When Fossil Free Culture was formed, much of the group were artists, and they began their experience with activism organically.

The most inspiring part of the project, for Frida, is, as an artist, to work with activists . Before Fossil Free Culture, she had worked as a politically engaged artist for over 20 years, but those projects never resulted in a concrete social change: “It was just in this project, when we started to work together with activists and implement activists tactics and strategies in combination with art that suddenly we created a concrete social change.”

Their second performance led to them spending three days in jail. “We did it very peacefully, a beautiful performance in the Van Gogh Museum calling for the cutting of the unethical sponsorship, that the museum was receiving from Shell, and we ended up spending three days in jail, which was totally disproportional,” tells Frida. The incident provoked a lot of support from activists, who arranged lawyers, that worked pro bono, to free the Fossil Free Culture performers.

Do Art Institutions Have a Responsibility to Set an Example and Refuse Unethical Sponsorships?

For the activists, however, it is difficult to notice the actual impact of their work, of how they are affecting the institutions they are working with. ”You just realize that when things happen, and then wonder ’Why did they finish [the sponsorship?’” Frida shares. When they started their work, there were over 15 major institutions that accepted Fossil Fuel sponsorship, such as the Van Gogh Museum, the Rijksmuseum and the Concert Hall. Now, there are just two museums left in the Netherlands that accept fossil fuel sponsorship.

These performances expose the ethical issues of the institutions: valuing culture while receiving unethical sponsorships from companies that are responsible for multiple cases of ecocide around the world. Why provide a stage for those companies cleaning up their image in our society, knowing at the same time that they are acting irresponsibly?

“We will always invite them to be on the right side of history, because we do think that these big museums and art institutions have the duty to live by example in this time, when climate change is a problem that is affecting all of us”, declares Frida.

A Plan, some Improvisation, and an Image

Fossil Free Culture’s work needs to be very creative. “The performances are very challenging because you enter the institution like a normal person but you need to change clothes and bring in the stuff  without anyone noticing” explains Frida. Although there is a plan the performance always consists of some improvisation, and a confrontation with the security staff. “We have a spokesperson to explain that we will not damage anything, and that we will just take a few minutes”. This spokes person's main task is to delay the actions of the security personnel.

The most challenging performance for Frida was the one that they did in the Van Gogh Museum. They used a twelve by six-meter banner, which was divided into 44 smaller pieces. like a puzzle. Each of the 40 participants was responsible for two pieces.  Immediately after the banner started to come down, it was taken away. Only one image exists showing the right banner.

The Artivism's Impact 

The institutions respond in different ways to art-ivism performance. After one of their performances, the Concertgebouw invited them to a talk, FFCulture responded they were open for having a coffee, if they would cancel their sponsorship with Shell. “We knew that what they wanted was that we didn’t continue to perform there,” explains Frida. The collective took the opportunity to create a series of Facebook posts, showing that they would regularly go to the Café of the Concertgebouw waiting for the Director to have a coffee. With their ongoing campaign on social media, people were made aware of the situation and started to wonder from whom the Concertgebouw gets its funding. Only four months after this social media intervention, the institution terminated their sponsorship with Shell.

 “Especially in the cultural sector people are very naive in saying, ‘but come on we need the money; we don't have any money,”’ says Frida. Discussing the actual funding for these institutions was one of the biggest obstacles for the group. ”What's interesting to see is that, we don't actually get much support from the cultural sector,” shares Frida. rInstitutions that supported her work as an artist don't finance her work at Fossil Free Culture. The collective is supported by arts organizations such as Stichting DOEN, activist's funds like X-Y Funds, the Guerrilla Foundation, MamaCash and the Urgent Fund, and ethical companies such as the clothingcompany Patagonia and the cosmetics brand Lush. Apart from those sources of funding, the collective receives direct donations andraises money byselling clothes and products.

Can an Audience Change Society?

“The people that go to these cultural institutions are part of the elite, those that can actually change something in our society. They use art-washing to maintain their power.”

Frida Escalante

“The people that go to these cultural institutions are part of the elite,  those that can actually change something in our society. They use art-washing to maintain their power.” - Frida Escalante

Every time Fossil Free Culture does an art performance, they distribute flyers that explain their concerns and philosophy.  These flyers usually contain facts about the fossil fuel companies, their crimes and shortcomings when it comes to transitioning to greener policies. Frida names Shell as an example and states that it is “a very pragmatic company and not at all committed to solving the problem of climate change. They are much more focused on profit. That's their main and only goal”

She concludes that the system is supported by the overall “ paternalistic, neoliberal” structure and “colonial mentality.” making it possible for fossil fuel companies to still wield so much power despite the pressing need for change “in the face of climate change.” The project is  inspirational since it creates a vision of a fossil-free future and more just social structure. As Frida puts it: “How come we are still not making the right choices?”


What Is This Series About?

The ”Inspirador for Possible Cities” project is a collaborative creation by Laura Sobral and Jonaya de Castro aiming to identify experiences among initiatives, academic content, and public policies that work towards more sustainable, cooperative cities. If we assume that our lifestyle gives rise to the factors behind the climate crisis, we have to admit our co-responsibility. Green planned cities with food autonomy and sanitation based on natural infrastructures can be a starting point for the construction of the new imaginary needed for a transition.

The project presents public policies and group initiatives from many parts of the world that point to other possible ways of life, categorized into the following hashtags:
#redefine_development, #democratize_space,
#(re)generate_resources, #intensify_collaboration,