Interview with Jane Trowell from Platform

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Since 1991, Jane Trowell is part of Platform, a London based organisation that is involved in arts, activism, education and research. They tackle a variety of social and environmental issues, ranging from neglected water supplies, field poverty and climate justice to xenophobia and their ambitious objective to shut the fossil fuel industry down. As far as their methodology is concerned, they work multidisciplinary and chameleon-like: depending on case and context, they choose art or campaigning or an occupation as their activists strategy. Platform practices what it preaches: it is organised radically democratic (for example by means of it socially just waging system) and each member is treating the other members with care and integrity.


“After many years we have held faith that we have to collaborate to solve problems and that we have to practice radical democracy as an organisation.”


I am Jane Trowell, one of the eleven members of Platform. We all work part-time in Platform and we don’t have any hierarchy. We make all our decisions together. We have systems that help us to do that effectively. Officially, we are charity, so we have what in England is called a ‘board of trusties’: people that overlook the charity and are ultimately responsible for us under charity law. But we rather work as colleagues together than in a power dynamic. After many years we have held faith that we have to collaborate to solve problems and that we have to practice radical democracy as an organisation.


“To tackle complex environmental and social problems we need to cross the boundaries of different disciplines.”


Platform was founded in 1983 by students who were very disturbed by the politics of that time. Margaret Thatcher came to power in 1979 and she began a massive transformation of Great Britain by privatising many public services. She was powerful, popular and charismatic. The whole country was moving to the right. Art students and students involved in activism and politics were very alarmed. The latter were also fed up with what they called ‘macho methods’ used in the political protests of that time: shouting, chanting, aggressive masculine behavior. Angry white man dominated a lot of the left-wing protests. The former were frustrated that the arts were only gathered in their theatre buildings, and that they were not out there. So the idea was to bring the creativity of the arts together with the political courage, knowledge and vision of the political activists. That’s how Platform started and that idea is still very much the core of our organisation. To tackle complex environmental and social problems we need to cross the boundaries of different disciplines.



I got involved in 1991. Platform started outside London but moved later on to the North of London. We worked on the theme of water in the city. As a metaphor, but also as a reality: apart from the Thames, most rivers of London had been buried. The smaller rivers that feed the Themes had been made part of the waste system. Rather than providing fresh water, they were carrying human waste and were turned into sewers. It was a metaphor for social problems: shitting in your own fresh water, why is that a good idea? We were constantly in the streets talking with people and creating strange magnetic events so that people wanted to come and talk to us. We had a psychologist, an artist, a green economist, we had all sorts of people. My background is that of arts and education. I am very interested in the role of creative processes in how we learn to do things. Specifically, I come from the visual arts, but I also worked in music and in theatre.


“We have large-scale youth projects that are about racism and xenophobia. […] Furthermore, we are working on energy democracy, climate justice and field poverty. We see all these themes as connected.”


We have large-scale youth projects that are about racism and xenophobia. In the recognition that a lot of white people have access to all the resources, we wanted to create a space where young people of colour get access to the resources they want, to be able to express the future that they demand. Because we know how to fundraise we can help to provide a resource for voices that are easily pushed aside. Furthermore, we are working on energy democracy, climate justice and field poverty. We see all these themes as connected. Sometimes our work looks like a Greenpeace campaign, sometimes it looks like art. We play with these two methods. It is a chameleon method, if you like. We can go to the arts council of England for money when we look like art, we can go to environmental trusts and foundations when we are campaigning. One reason we are still here is because we have refused to categorise ourselves. We can change shape. Although it is hard to keep going: we have only a small amount of core funding.
We have about ten grand a year core funding. So we need to be clever, to see where the wind is blowing. We need to know how to re-strategise.


“We aim for political integrity between internal and external processes.”


I believe that Platform is organising hope through the way we work together and through what we are putting in the world. We aim for political integrity between internal and external processes. For example, we have implemented a socially just waging system: we do not pay ourselves the same amount of money, we realise that different people have different material (dis)advantages. Some people’s parents are able to help them to pay the rent, other people have a burden of supporting their family with a mortgage. Basically, we have a core rate and you get extra if you are looking after a child, if your rent is a certain amount of money and so on. And we have reductions if you inherited money, if you have very low housing costs and so on. So we try to cross-subsidise because we want to practice what we preach and to explore how to build a society in a way that is just. It is interesting how many people ask us things about this waging system. It inspires people. I think our waging system is part of resilience.


It is important that there is a culture of treating each other with care and integrity. Some people of Platform come from very bourgeois backgrounds. They might be political activists, but they have the material benefits of that wealthy background. Others come from very pour backgrounds. The outward face of our work is built on the internal processes that we have developed for many years.


“Culture is not innocent. When you go to the Royal Shakespeare Company that is funded by BP, you are implicitly buying against climate justice.”


Recently, I am mainly involved in trying to shut down the fossil fuel industry. That is an ambitious goal, but because of my arts and culture background I have been working on a campaign to investigate how we can strip the oil companies’ funding and give it to sponsorship of culture instead. When we devise a campaign we have a whole series of questions that we ask ourselves. We try to do an anatomy of the problem and of all the different parts of the para-structure that is keeping the problem fixed in society.


For the anatomy of the oil industry we mapped all the different aspects of how coal, gas and oil keep us gripped, all the different sections: on the one hand business, the environmental, legal and social sections, on the other hand culture and sports which the fossil fuel industry is sponsoring. They like to think that it makes them look like good citizens. We started with attacking that part of the problem in 2010. Culture is not innocent. When you go to the Royal Shakespeare Company that is funded by BP, you are implicitly buying against climate justice. Arts are as implicated as politics.


“I think that is part of organising hope: denormalisation and reframing.”


We make a lot of reports, because it is harder for our critics to reject something built on research. Of course, research can be discredited, but we are very careful with our research. Even if we are making a big claim, we still want it to stand on good feet. We always try to make our product beautiful and inviting to read. We use aesthetics very carefully to interrupt the normalisation of the story that we cannot change anything. But we can. Culture without oil: we can. I think that is part of organising hope: denormalisation and reframing. Five or six groups of activists worked together on this project. Platform was heavily involved in the research and in all sorts of interventions. And we had a win with BP and Tate.


Next to reports we also do events. A couple of years ago we organised an occupation of Tate Modern. So for three days we had a conference in Tate Modern, without permission. The idea of that intervention was first of all that Tate Modern is a public space mostly publicly funded and should therefore be a democratic space, without funding of BP. BP invested a tiny amount of money and yet the brand was everywhere. We called the intervention ‘The Deadline Festival‘, because we were making an ultimatum to Tate to get out of BP. And after years of campaigning, six months after the conference, BP did drop the sponsorship of Tate. It was not only our merit. We worked in a coalition called ‘Art Not Oil’. Campaigners talk about their actions in terms of delegitimising and denormalising this sponsorship on the grounds of climate change and capitalism. We think we created an environment that was too hostile for the sponsorship to continue. We won, not because we were aggressive but because we were critical and imaginative. We were not attacking BP or Tate, but we were making it seen as an anomaly, a contradiction. We made something that seems normal not making sense.


“[W]e don’t want to be an institution with a capital I.”


Even though we have been going for thirty years, we don’t want to be an institution with a capital I. So becoming an institution, becoming fixed and the only important thing becoming our own survival, that is always something to worry about. Some of my colleagues talk about the NGO industrial complex. The NGOs can be as much part of the problem as capitalism or the government, because they have lots of resources. Greenpeace, Save The Children, Amnesty, I think they do some good work but they have so much money! They have so many resources! There are people very critical of the NGO-isation because they have loads of resources, they can do anything and yet their impact for 1000 pounds is so little compared to the amazing things what people here do with a thousand pounds. This is the question of: how should resources be dispersed? So in Platform we do worry about that and keep an eye on ourselves because if we are not doing work that is changing the world than that’s a problem.


Organising hope always goes together with a stage of disappointability. You are trying to change huge things and that is the point where it can collapse. You may not get the win or the success that you set as your goal, so disappointment is part of the road towards change. Surviving disappointment and failure is just a huge part of resilience. To deal with the disappointability, you have to be honest and you have to have a practice of honesty, evaluation and reflection. Often things go wrong between people, for example when the urgency gets in the way of reflection or evaluation. I have just written something about this. Everything is so urgent at the moment, it’s more urgent than ever, it’s terrible what’s going on. But it seems to me that we need to take the time to reflect and evaluate even more, because forces want us to be tired and to stop. And they’ve got a lot of money. So we may not give them the satisfaction of getting tired and stopping, or fighting each other.


“So the art of organising hope is also the aesthetics of organising hope, which is making spaces forms of welcome that lets the people know who we are trying to communicate with.”


Form is very important to us and I, personally, think a lot about it too, since I come from an arts background. So the way something is published, the aesthetics will determine who will be interested, but then beyond that: somebody might look at it, be interested and there’s a next stage. Who will say: “I see myself there”? So the aesthetics, even of paper, will invite or it could push away or it could say that it’s not for them. So the aesthetics of protest is critical and I don’t think we always get it right.


But it’s not only about paper, it’s even wider. When you have a space you have to think about what space you are inviting people to? It is a space where they stand outside and think: “I can’t go in there, I don’t feel comfortable.” Also, the aesthetics inside the space and the food: certain food will put a lot of people off, certain other food will make people feel comfortable. So the art of organising hope is also the aesthetics of organising hope, which is making spaces forms of welcome that lets the people know who we are trying to communicate with. So to me an aesthetic question is an organising question.


“Working across generations is very inspiring.”


We have to think very carefully about our assumed norms, all sorts of things will automatically keep people out. I was part of the team that set this project up, and I stepped back after a year and a half, because I thought this project, which is about youth, racism, arts, media and protest, does not need my English name on it. Young people, who want to have this space, should lead it. They need representation from inside, community leadership. So I stepped back from the project in recognition that it was a good use of my power, my education and my skin to have raised the money and to help conceptualise the project. After this, it wasn’t my job to be the face on the front. Because that’s the Anglo-missionary history.


Even though the world and society has become very cynical and some problems seem so big, I still have a lot of hope. You give me hope! I mean, you here asking me questions. I’m 45 years old, I’ve been doing this for a while and you give me hope. And I am really serious about that. We are very horizontally organised at Platform. There are people in their twenties who have equal power to me. They have got more energy than me. Working across generations is very inspiring, because older people, they may have got experience and things they’ve seen and understood and see patterns, but they don’t necessarily have the energy. So that compensates, literally, physically, or even philosophically. So I think working across generations is great, that’s the hope. 70 year old Angela Davis, the civil rights activist, is still very active on all sorts of issues in the US, and whenever she’s asked by young people “What should we do Angela?”, she says: “I don’t know what you should do. You know what you should do! I can talk about what I’ve done and what I’ve seen, but you know what you should do! You are the ones!” And I think that’s good, these people are giving hope, it’s amazing.”

Interview by Labo VZW
Photos by Sonderland