Climate activists’ actions may ‘backfire,’ after throwing maple syrup on Emily Carr painting: expert

On Saturday, two young activists threw maple syrup on a painting at the Vancouver Art Gallery. Angela Bower speaks to the demonstrators about what they want to see from the government regarding fossil fuels.

After two young climate activists threw maple syrup on a painting at the Vancouver Art Gallery, one expert says the demonstration may “backfire.”

Kathryn Harrison, a professor of political science at the University of British Columbia, says there has been a rise in illegal deeds as a form of activism.

This comes after Emily Carr’s decades-old, “Stumps and Sky” painting was vandalized inside of the gallery on Saturday.

“We have seen a rise in civil disobedience as a form of political activism on climate change. I think civil disobedience is is an act of political communication. It is a way to say, ‘I’m so concerned about this policy, or the lack of policies in this case, that I’m willing to engage in an illegal act to get my get my message across,” Harrison explained.

Although Harrison says the act can be beneficial in getting the point across and creating sympathy for the cause, she says it’s unlikely that this will be the case with the recent demonstration.

“I’m not sure that this is the case with throwing fluids at great works of art. I think there’s a risk that it backfires,” she said.

Harrison adds the sticky splattering isn’t the only case of vandalism in recent months.

“It’s a new trend we’ve seen, activists throwing oil at other great artworks in Europe,” she explained.

Harrison adds that although she is sympathetic to the cause, the message isn’t clear and could have the opposite affect than what protestors where hoping for.

“I know that emissions are still going up when we need a more than 40 per cent reduction globally by 2030,” she said. “I think my concern with this form of civil disobedience is that the connection to the actions that they are trying to get from governments from their fellow citizens is not clear enough.”

“I suspect that a lot of people think [we] should have great art, and a safe climate. And so there is a risk of aggravating the people that they need to convince, because especially in a democracy, action is going to turn on having broad support from the public.”

Getting the point across

But activist Emily Kelsall, one of the protesters involved in the maple syrup incident, says she felt the demonstration was one of the only ways to get their point across.

“We need the public and the government to hear a message, because it seems like there’s no other way of us getting through,” she told CityNews.

But the 23 or 24-year-old says although she is afraid of the consequences, it was “worth doing.”

“I’m afraid of backlash, terrified of backlash,” she said. “But I don’t know what else to do. I’m trying to get the government’s attention.”

Kelsall says that after the event both her and fellow activist Erin Fletcher have received hate mail.

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“The climate crisis affects everyone. It is going to cause permanent and irreversible damage to the planet, everything is going to change. People are going to die, plants are going to die, trees are going to die,” she explained.

Fletcher says that it was with this reasoning in mind that they chose Carr’s painting in the first place.

“Emily Carr is famous, and she was also an environmentalist, and I think that, that one of the trees cut down, really shows a bleak future and what we’re heading into,” she explained.

Fletcher says that she feels like it was “something that needed to be done.” She adds that although some people have reacted negatively to the incident, it was successful in making people aware of the issue.

“We have an opportunity to make a difference,” Kelsall added.

In a statement from the Vancouver Art Gallery on Saturday, it says “staff believes there will be no permanent damage to the artwork.”

The Vancouver Police Department say that officers were called to the gallery, but no arrests have been made at this time.

Police add officers will conduct a full investigation.

With files from Angela Bower 

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