Nicolás Uriburu: Greenpeace to the Rescue!

The collaboration between Nicolás Uriburu, an Argentinian artist who has played a role the ecological art field since 1960, and Greenpeace, a non governmental organization founded in 1971, stands out as an exception. Indeed, the NGO has not been very eager to get involved in the artistic sphere, it apparently even refused a proposal by Joseph Beuys’ in the early 1980s. However, a decade later, it did respond to Uriburu’s call, and established a partnership that has proven to be exceptional to this day.

Between 1998 and 2010, the artist and the Greenpeace activists collaborated on four occasions in public space in view of providing a platform to denounce environmental scandals. These joint actions were implemented by the artist who felt that he was not receiving sufficient support from cultural and official institutions. Thus, feeling the weariness and isolation of a “Superman who throws on his cape as soon as an ecological problem arises,” it was Uriburu who called Greenpeace to the rescue.1

In 1998, the artist and the activists jointly opposed the installation of a trans-Andean gas pipeline, the route of which would have cut the natural habitat of the Yaguaretés—an endangered jaguar species—in half. Uriburu and Greenpeace ignored the non-authorization by the director of the Buenos Aires National Museum of Fine Arts, where Uriburu was exhibiting, by covertly climbing—a “typical Green peace method” states the Argentinian—the museum’s neoclassical wall to unfurl a very large-scale drape (10 x 15m) created by the artist. The panel depicted a stylized animal cut in half by a red vertical banner with the word GASODUCTO written in capital letters. Proyecto Yaguareté was the first action to be jointly carried out with Greenpeace.

Basta de contaminar (1999) and Utopia del Bicenetenario – 200 años de contaminatión 1810-2010 (2010) took place on the Riachuelo, a river—listed among the ten most polluted sites in world—which separates Buenos Aires from its southern suburbs and is contaminated with toxic heavy metals. The actions always follow the same protocol: a painted banner (here depicting fish skeletons and a skull and crossbones sign on a black background) suspended from a bridge. For the second intervention, the artist and activists travelled in a Zodiac to colour the waters green in view of denouncing the river pollution caused by spills from the surrounding chemical factories, thus appropriating the emblematic gesture the artist first introduced at the end of the 1960s.2 The Argentinian chose fluorescein, a red chemical powder which is notably used in ophthalmology and in hydrogeology to locate the course of underground waterways; the artist made sure that the product was harmless before using it. Upon contact with water, the powder turns into an acid green precipitate.

This unprecedented collaboration between Uriburu and Greenpeace is supported by a solid common base of direct action and a prescient awareness of the importance of visual impact as a means to reach the public. On the one hand, the artist had adopted an activist stance since 1968, on the other Greenpeace innovated by polishing the aestheticism of their actions. This factor provided the organization with unprecedented media coverage in the green guerrilla field and international recognition right from the start with its first action in 1971. According to Steven Durland’s analysis, “its force, and the element that differentiates it from other environmental organizations is the impact of its visual and theatrical action (…).”3

A solid common base for direct actions

Nicolás Uriburu inaugural colouring performance took place on the margins of the Venice Biennale in 1968. It was carried out without authorization and outside of any institutional framework. In the tumultuous 1968 context—the police presence was conspicuous—the artist boarded a boat and poured fluorescein into the Grand Canal: “Venice 1968, was my first colouring, it was totally clandestine. It was the most difficult one. It made me famous—people called me the commandatore ! “

This first colouring activity instantly established Uriburu’s reputation, because the deployment of a strategy premised on maximum visibility turned out to be particularly effective: a major heritage site (the Grand Canal), a dissident action on the margins of a global contemporary art event (the Venice Biennale), an immediate intervention by the police, which attracted local and international media coverage to the event, and, of course, a technically impressive visual effect. Pierre Restany, who witnessed the operation, confirmed this success: “for eight hours, while the tides were rising, Venice found itself painted and fluorescent from head to toe, along 3 km of the Grand Canal’s length. The vaporetti or gondola passengers travelled through the green. It was the talk of the town.”4 The artistic means, focused on the performance’s visual impact, met the goal of attracting the public’s attention, as newspaper reviews from around the world (Italy, France, Belgium and Argentina) bear witness to it. On the 21st, Nicolas Uriburu’s colouring performance was the subject of an article in the Gazzetino,5 the Paris-based Figaro and the Brussel-based Le Soir. Georges Bataille published an article in Les Lettres françaises, in which he spoke of an “homage to Venice.6 On July 3rd, the Italian La Gente, praised Uriburu for his response to the police forces: “E stato un invito alla speranza” (“It was an invitation to hope”).7 Finally, the Argentinean La Gente humorously evoked the “chiste verde.”8

The protest action that led to the founding of Greenpeace, took place in 1971, in Vancouver. While a group of activists was protesting, without success, against nuclear tests on Amchitka island off the Alaska coast, they decided to make use of the rundown boat Phillys Cormack on the test site. This provided them with an unprecedented visibility. Though the intervention was quickly halted—the activists were arrested by the American coastguard—newspapers reported the event. The group quickly received support from hundreds of people. A second boat was readied, and as a result of the media coverage, the US announced that it would put an end to the tests.

These two artistic and activist protest performances have common characteristics: they are carried out in public space, without authorization, and they expose their actors to punitive sanctions, which is a signal of their effectiveness according to the Greenpeace US director of operations.9 In the same vein, Nicolás Uriburu has been arrested several times. In Venice, Uriburu was notably interrogated regarding the dangerousness of the product used. The authorities ordered the “analyses of the colouring agent, carried out on June 22, 1968.”10 Uriburu was set free “after the verification of (its) (…) innocuousness.”11

These direct actions are carried out according to similar protocols and make use of easily identifiable visual signs. Their authors travel using small boats or other crafts. These actions have allowed Greenpeace to rapidly develop a certain notoriety and their action profile was already pretty much in place as of 1971. Uriburu also used small boats, because they provide the lightness and manoeuvrability needed to spread the fluorescein in the water. They figure in the foreground of his archival photographs.

Using a similar strategy, Greenpeace developed a banner vocabulary, spectacular climbs on emblematic sites—the same chosen by Uriburu for his colouring actions. These signs are an integral part of their success– “Greenpeace believes that an image is an all important thing. […] We put a different point of view out that usually ends up on the front page on the paper. […] If we just did research and lobbying and came out with a report it would probably on the 50th page of the paper.”12 The Greenpeace people have fashioned a remarkable image—that of the guerrillero. For instance, the photographs of the Greenpeace protest action carried out in the PortmanBay zinc mines in 1986, shows mud-covered activists. This echoes Uriburu’s action—during the colouring of the Riachuelo, Utopia del Bicenetenario – 200 años de contaminatión 1810-2010, carried out with the group in 2010, he was shown with his face reddened by the fluorescein. And like the Greenpeace activists, since 1981, Uriburu has adopted green overalls.

Other overlaps between the artist’s stance and that of the Greenpeace activists are worth highlighting—both have always sought to raise public awareness about ecology. Moreover, the artist published open letters in the “letters to the editor” column of the Buenos Aires La Nación (1971 and 1980) and a limited edition manifesto “with my art, I denounce the antagonism between Nature and Civilization, between Mankind and Civilization, and between Me and Civilization…”13 He distributed tracts in public space such as Clean Air for Ever (1968-1988) at the Venice Biennale, and came up with a powerful slogan (Greenpower!). The titles of his paintings also deploy a shock strategy: in La Révolte (poing) Antagonisme entre Nature et Civilisation (Série Verte) (1973), a green fist raised to the sky is displayed in a diptych and then a polyptych in order to intensify the sign’s defiance effect.

Between performance and direct action: porous borders?

While we have a good understanding of Greenpeace’s contribution to Uriburu’s actions—the support of a team of young climbers and highly trained athletes, spectacular visual intervention means which are to the artists liking, escalating media impact and an accompanying increase in financial means—it is not clear why the NG0 responded to Uriburu’s call in 1998, for in 1987, connecting with an artist did not seem to be a high priority at the Greenpeace central organization.14 How was the artist viewed by the small group? Was he used as a foil or a guarantee?

The way the association’s internet site depicts the joint 2010 colouring action sheds some light on their stance in regards to the artist: “With the help of a group of activists and the Greenpeace Zodiacs, Garcia Uriburu poured an absolutely harmless substance (it dissolves and has no impact on the environment) into the Riachuelo river. All this under the eyes of residents and tourists who approached that morning to contemplate the artistic intervention.”15 Greenpeace thus positions itself as a simple human and logistic support for the artist; the organization highlights the value of his performance and its public—the residents and tourists. Does this associative strategy increase the impact of Greenpeace’s interventions? The review on the organization’s site also provides some possible answers to this question. After the short review of the artistic performance, the text places the action into a lengthy development dedicated to the very specific legal context of the joint intervention: Greenpeace demands that the Argentine institutions respect the Supreme Court’s decision to clean up the green-coloured water.

It thus appears that the Uriburu-Greenpeace association was based on a fruitful win-win model. Since the NGO sought visual impact, Uriburu’s “Mister green” persona as well as his resistant stance and practice of direct action, was a perfect fit (far more so than Beuys’ shaman persona). The NGO assisted the Argentinean in his artistic actions when he requested it of them, all the while carefully integrating his intervention—right in line with his activist vocation—as part of a larger context of pressuring Argentina to decontaminate its polluted waterways.

Greenpeace’s performances, like those carried out by Uriburu, “even though they are not part of the art field, are nevertheless very creative. They put on very beautiful performances,” states the artist. Uriburu, who remains fundamentally attached to the visual effect of the unfurling drapes, for example, refused some last-minute collaboration proposals with the NGO, for he needs “time to prepare things.” The activists and the artist appear to have devised a synergetic cooperation mode that is satisfactory for both parties. In 1987, they responded to the call from the art world launched by Steven Durland, in order to “expand its narrow definitions to include activities that have a function more in keeping with traditional art values—creating images that have an impact on people’s lives.”16 However, on a purely visual level, one can question if the artist and Greenpeace may not have diminished the impact of the visual gesture by too systematically repeating it for over forty years and redeploying it like a “recipe.”

Translated by Bernard Schütze

 

Isabelle Hermann is carrying out research under the supervision of Professor Philippe Dagen at Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne as part of her thesis dedicated to the international emergence of a new awareness of Nature. She has notably organized a forum at INHA (Paris) titled Green Power ! Does ecological art have a measurable impact?

 


  1. Nicolás Uriburu’s words are transcribed from an interview between the artist and the author. The interview took place in Buenos Aires on October 8 and 9, 2014.
  2. A gesture that Olafur Eliasson also carried out in various big cities at the end of the 1990’s.
  3. Steven Durland, “Witness The Guerrilla Theater of Greenpeace”, High Performance, no. 40, 1987, p. 33.
  4. Pierre Restany, Uriburu: Utopie du Sud, Electa, Milan, 2001, p. 62.
  5. Pittore argentino ritocca il verde di tutti i banali … per una Biannale piu tranquila.
  6. Pierre Restny, op. cit., p. 62.
  7. Ibid., p. 62.
  8. Ibid., p. 62. This alludes a word play on the Spanish “Chiste verde”, which literally translates as green joke, is an idiomatic expression for dirty (verde) joke (chiste). (Trans.)
  9. “In recent years some of the things Greenpeace has done have cause retribution against us and I think that’s a signal that we’re being more effective. That includes prison terms and the sinking of The Rainbow Warrior. The more effective you are the more you piss people off.” in DURLAND Steven, “Witness The Guerrilla Theater of Greenpeace”, High Performance, no. 40, 1987, p. 34.
  10. Jacques Damase, Uriburu coloration 1968-1978, J. Damase, Paris, 1978, p. 16.
  11. Pierre Restany, op. cit., p. 62.
  12. Steeve Loper in Steven Durland, “Witness The Guerrilla Theater of Greenpeace”, High Performance, no. 40, 1987.
  13. Portfolio (Manifesto), 1973, Les Ateliers Laage, Editeurs, Ramatuelle, France. 1st prize at the graphic art biennale, Tokyo, Japan. 6 silkscreen, 75 cm x 55 cm each. Nicolás G. Uriburu Foundation archives.
  14. It certainly isn’t a problem Greenpeace is worrying about, in DURLAND Steven, “Witness The Guerrilla Theater of Greenpeace”, High Performance, no. 40, 1987, p. 32.
  15. Steven Durland, op. cit., p. 35.