February 18 was Yoko Ono’s eightieth birthday—a day to celebrate her art, music and activism. She’s done more in the last year than most of us do in a decade: campaigned against fracking and honored Julian Assange; mounted a major retrospective of her art in London last summer at the prestigious Serpentine Gallery, and another, bigger one in Frankfurt this February at the celebrated Schirn Kunsthalle; and made music with the Plastic Ono Band. The anti-fracking campaign has been her biggest political undertaking in several years. First there were the billboards and full-page ads in The New York Times (and also The Nation): “Imagine There’s No Fracking…,” addressed to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and signed “Yoko and Sean” (her son, Sean Lennon).
But the anti-fracking campaign involves a lot more than billboards. Yoko organized Artists Against Fracking and signed up nearly 200 people, including Salman Rushdie, Jeff Koons, Alec Baldwin, Martha Stewart, David Geffen, Anne Hathaway, Jimmy Fallon and even Lady Gaga, with her 34 million Twitter followers. In Albany in February, Yoko delivered an anti-fracking petition to Governor Cuomo with more than 50,000 signatures. In January she led a bus tour with Sean and Susan Sarandon to Dimock, Pennsylvania, where the local water supply has been contaminated by fracking. And now she is running a new TV ad.
Yoko explained the problem with fracking concisely on the Times letters page in December: “evidence shows that there is no amount of regulation that can make fracking safe…. 6 percent of the wells leak immediately and…60 percent leak over time, poisoning drinking water and putting the powerful greenhouse gas methane into our atmosphere. We need to develop truly clean energy, not dirty water created by fracking.”
And the campaign had a victory in February, when Cuomo announced a delay in the decision on fracking for more study of its health effects. The Times story quoted Donald Trump as spokesman for the pro-fracking forces and Yoko as the voice of the opposition.
“Imagine there’s no fracking,” of course, evokes a certain song that begins “Imagine there’s no heaven,” which in turn was based on Yoko’s 1964 book Grapefruit, with its conceptual art “instructions”: “Imagine one thousand suns in the sky…” The anti-fracking billboards also recall her antiwar activism, when she and John Lennon put up billboards in Times Square in 1969, and then all over the world: “War Is Over! If You Want It.”
On another front, she honored Julian Assange at a public event in Manhattan on February 3. At her annual Courage Awards ceremony, she told an audience of activists, artists and some diplomats that Assange “took a courageous step by rightfully returning what belongs to the public domain. For that reason, I believe we need to stand behind him.” Assange, who has taken refuge in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London, accepted the award via two of his legal counselors: Baltasar Garzón Real of Spain—the prosecutor who pursued Gen. Augusto Pinochet of Chile for crimes against humanity—and Michael Ratner, the legendary president emeritus of the Center for Constitutional Rights, who delivered Assange’s acceptance speech to an audience that included Laurie Anderson, Lou Reed, John Waters and Daniel Ellsberg.