Edinburgh festivals are facing protests – from Israel’s apartheid to fossil fuel sponsorship

Edinburgh International Book Festival Edinburgh festival festivals
Support us and go ad-free

Two festivals in Edinburgh have faced the anger of both campaigners and artists alike, over their respective platforming of an Israeli dance company and a fossil fuels investor. People’s objections, however, point to a larger problem: the corporate capitalist capture of culture.

Protesting Israeli cultural propaganda

The Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) and Edinburgh Action 4 Palestine organised two nights of protest over the Edinburgh International Festival hosting an Israeli dance company. In a letter to the festival’s director Nicola Bendetti, the groups said:

L-E-V are promoted by Israeli government embassies, most recently by the Israeli Consulate in Toronto last year, and are scheduled to perform in the Edinburgh International Festival (EIF) on Sunday 13th and Monday 14th of August. The inclusion of L-E-V in the Festival is being used by Israel as cultural propaganda to cover its crimes against the Palestinian people. With the current escalation of Israeli violence against Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, EIF risks considerable reputational damage if L-E-V are not excluded from the programme.

The Israeli State has been named as an apartheid state by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and even Israel’s own major human rights group, B’Tselem. Faced with human rights abuses at the hands of the occupying Israeli military, Palestinian civil society has called on people of conscience to isolate the apartheid state as we did with apartheid South Africa.

Last year the Festival representatives announced it was joining the international boycott of Russian conductor Valery Gergiev “in sympathy with and in support of” the citizens of Kiev. [We] believe that Palestinians citizens deserve the same sympathy and support.

According to Edinburgh Action 4 Palestine’s Facebook page, the festival replied to the groups’ letter. It said:

The Festival does not hold artists accountable for the actions or policies of their governments or assume that all artists are able to speak freely about their political views.

Read on...

Support us and go ad-free

Of course, the idea of Israeli cultural propaganda is not new – nor a conspiracy. The group Artists For Palestine, in quoting from the booklet The Case for a Cultural Boycott of Israel, noted that:

In 2008, Israeli poet Yitzhak Laor published a copy of the contract Israeli artists going abroad with Foreign Ministry funding were by then required to sign. The contract was between the Israeli artist or company (‘the service provider’) and the State of Israel, via the Foreign Ministry’s Division for Cultural and Scientific Affairs. Its terms made explicit the promotional requirements attached to government funding for foreign tours: ‘The service provider is aware that the purpose of ordering services from him is to promote the policy interest of the State of Israel via culture and art, including contributing to creating a positive image for Israel.’ And yet this relationship was to remain secret: ‘The service provider will not present himself as an agent, emissary and/or representative of the Ministry.’

On top of all this, one of the sponsors of the Edinburgh International Festival is a company called Baillie Gifford – and it’s been causing problems elsewhere.

Taking money from fossil fuels

The Edinburgh International Book Festival has faced a backlash from over 50 authors. They’ve published an open letter in conjunction with Friends of the Earth Scotland. It calls on the festival to drop investment management company Baillie Gifford as a sponsor. In a press release, Friends of the Earth Scotland said:

Through an open letter, high profile authors such as Ali Smith, Zadie Smith, and Gary Younge, as well as literature professionals facilitating this year’s festival events, demand that the institution put pressure on their main sponsor, Baillie Gifford investment firm.

Baillie Gifford has, according to its own report, up to £5bn invested in corporations that profit from fossil fuels…

The authors of the letter state that they stand in solidarity with those harmed by the climate crisis, including people in the Global South and the UK who have lost their homes, their livelihoods, and been forced to migrate. They also point out the injustice of corporate greed and profit from the fossil fuel industry at a time when millions across the UK suffer from fuel poverty and the cost of living crisis.

The authors aren’t the first ones to take action over the book festival’s partnership with Baillie Gifford. Activist Greta Thunberg pulled out of appearing at the festival. She said of Baillie Gifford’s sponsorship of the Edinburgh International Book Festival:

Greenwashing efforts by the fossil fuel industry, including sponsorship of cultural events, allow them to keep the social license to continue operating.

I cannot and do not want to be associated with events that accept this kind of sponsorship.

Baillie Gifford’s greenwashing doesn’t stop in Edinburgh, though. It also sponsors/has sponsored the following literary festivals:

  • Hay.
  • Cheltenham Literature.
  • Stratford Literary.
  • Henley Literary.

The company also runs a non-fiction book prize. Without irony, Baillie Gifford has short-and long-listed books in both nature and science categories, with works such as The Planet Remade (about the climate crisis and geoengineering) by Oliver Morton, which judges long-listed in 2015.

‘OK with burning the planet’

Author of It’s Not That Radical: Climate Action To Transform Our World, Mikaela Loach noted that:

Edinburgh International Book Festival wouldn’t burn books, so why are they ok with burning the planet? Baillie Gifford’s whopping £5 billion in investments in corporations making money from the fossil fuel industry is unjustifiable in a climate crisis caused and exacerbated by these same companies who have invested more into climate denial and delay than they have into green energy. Edinburgh International Book festival must stand by their “Climate Positive” commitment and drop Baillie Gifford as a sponsor.

Oddly, there’s not been much of a stir over other sponsors of the Edinburgh International Book Festival – like Apple TV. Its parent company is one of the most notorious corporations on the planet – from using child labour in its supply chain, to union busting, via tax avoidance and (you guessed it) a rather dodgy record on climate.

Moreover, the idea of ‘progressive’ culture and arts events cosying up to the corporate capitalist world is hardly a shock. As the Canary previously reported, the allegedly eco-friendly Latitude Festival was sponsored by planet-killing Barclays. Baillie Gifford also sponsors the Edinburgh Fringe. And everyone’s favourite middle-class hipster fest, Glastonbury, this year partnered with (alleged) diesel emissions-cheater Land Rover.

Edinburgh: a microcosm of the problem

The larger problem here is supposed progressive and/or cultural festivals marrying themselves with the worst aspects of colonial corporate capitalism. As anti-capitalist art collective Autonomous Design Group told Shado Mag:

There’s a long history of radical art and aesthetics being co-opted for the maintenance and reproduction of capitalism. Quite a lot [of] the art world pretends to be making these radical critiques of the status quo, whilst in reality only really serving to legitimise that society.

While neither of these festivals may be co-opting artists’ work for the furthering of the capitalist system, by blurring the lines between the creative and the corporate colonialist, either via sponsorship or by platforming state-sanctioned acts, these Edinburgh festivals tread that distinctly tepid line of ‘the greater good’ and a ‘means to an end’.

After Thunberg pulled out of the book festival, the Guardian‘s chief culture writer Charlotte Higgins handwringingly summed it up by saying corporate capitalist sponsorship versus the planet burning was a bit “messy” in “reality”, because:

in the meantime, the book festival is left to sweep up the debris, and arts leaders in Edinburgh and beyond to the endless daily worry about where on earth the next untarnished penny’s to come from.

When you’re hosting huge international festivals which host some of the biggest names in the arts, it’s not a bit messy. Either you stand with oppressed peoples and against the human-induced climate crisis – or you openly admit that you’re happy to sell out to pay your mortgages under the guise of the arts. But say it with your chest, either way – because anything else is a cop-out.

Featured image via Jim Barton – Geograph, resized to 770×403 under licence CC BY-SA 2.0

Support us and go ad-free

We know everyone is suffering under the Tories - but the Canary is a vital weapon in our fight back, and we need your support

The Canary Workers’ Co-op knows life is hard. The Tories are waging a class war against us we’re all having to fight. But like trade unions and community organising, truly independent working-class media is a vital weapon in our armoury.

The Canary doesn’t have the budget of the corporate media. In fact, our income is over 1,000 times less than the Guardian’s. What we do have is a radical agenda that disrupts power and amplifies marginalised communities. But we can only do this with our readers’ support.

So please, help us continue to spread messages of resistance and hope. Even the smallest donation would mean the world to us.

Support us
  • Show Comments
    1. “The Festival does not hold artists accountable for the actions or policies of their governments” so long as those governments are regarded as the UK’s allies. Are there a lot of Russian artists performing in Edinburgh this year? In the USA, Europe and UK, many Russian singers, conductors and other artists have found themselves literally cancelled, even when they are long dead.

      “Ukrainian chauvinists in Australia, in parallel with the federal Labor government’s ever-escalating military support for the US-led NATO proxy war in Ukraine, are agitating for Russian and Belarusian classical musicians to be excluded from an International Piano Competition in Sydney next month.”

      “New York Philharmonic will not perform Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony.”

      “Russian bass Ildar Abdrazakov’s performances cancelled by Boston Symphony Orchestra and Carnegie Hall.”

      “Russian soprano Anna Netrebko has sued the Metropolitan Opera in New York City, along with its general manager Peter Gelb, on grounds of discrimination, defamation and breach of contract for future performances.”

      (All from WSWS)

    Leave a Reply

    Join the conversation

    Please read our comment moderation policy here.