Credit: Jeevan Farthing

Reflections on COP26 protest art: Darren Cullen’s Hell Bus

By Jeevan Farthing

Jeevan Farthing reflects back on Cullen’s satirical protest piece, which criticized the greenwashing of Shell in the form of a “Hell Bus” during COP26.

*This artwork was installed during COP26 and ran until 13 November* 

Parked incongruously at the back end of The Glasgow School of Art is the Hell Bus. It is the creation of artist and satirist Darren Cullen, who presents a fictitious marketing exercise conducted by Shell to promote their supposed green credentials. It represents the very worst of corporate greenwashing and is emblematic of the way capitalistic instincts percolate the climate strategies of oil and gas companies.

Plastered on the outside of the bus are four cooling towers emitting bright green steam. “We’re turning our carbon emissions green for earth day”, the display insists. It seems fitting that the roar of an elevated motorway stands directly above where the bus is parked.

Climb up the makeshift staircase and you’re all aboard the Hell Bus. Ingeniously efficient in its construction, Shell’s self-serving spiel is all-consuming. Crammed either side of the narrow aisle are models and cartoons which are both visually engaging and depressingly funny.

In line with this era of virtue signalling we find Shell “changing the oceans into rainbows for LGBTQ+ pride”. It’s a double whammy: corporate pride and corporate climate justice, both falling under this nonentity of corporate liberation.

Shell is also “hoping we might one day meet a wizard who can zap all the carbon away or something”. This line is so powerful because it seems to actually reflect the policy of oil and gas companies to just wish climate change away. Its effects don’t matter to the shareholders because it’s generally not their generation that will suffer the consequences. They only care about the here and now.

“It seems to actually reflect the policy of oil and gas companies to just wish climate change away…”

Indeed, Shell goes on to confess: “We passionately believe that we should be left alone to work on a solution while also figuring out how to get every last drop of oil out of the ground.” The brazen hypocrisy shows that “green” announcements are just guilt appeasement for these companies. They are not interested in sacrificing their lucrative but environmentally reckless practices, because that is not what capitalism has told them.

Cullen’s work is hilarious, but it is also deeply political. Shell’s shareholder centrism embodies everything wrong with capitalism, and emphasises the part it has played in causing the climate crisis. The underlying criticism here is one of our economic system. It is a theme in Cullen’s work which manifests itself, perhaps unexpectedly, in water bottles.

While Shell’s bottle is “recycling the water we use in fracking into a refreshing drink”, in a previous project about neoliberalism, Cullen displays a bottle of urine from an Amazon employee. Water bottles seem meaningless, which is why their inclusion and manipulation is so clever and relevant. Workers’ rights and the climate crisis go hand in hand, because capitalism cannot even sustain the ordinary and mundane.

The hell bus is a masterclass in wit, design and diction. We need solar tanks and polystyrene icebergs and we need satire, because thinking about how fucked we are is depressing. Humour is such a brilliant way to challenge oil and gas companies, because what are they meant to do: laugh?

We might as well own the laughs ourselves. And Darren Cullen does this exceptionally well. Find out more about Darren Cullen’s art here.


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