Protesters attempting to raise awareness over climate change have taken up some wild antics the last few weeks, throwing soup across a Van Gogh painting at the National Gallery in London, throwing mashed potatoes at a Monet in Germany, and chucking cake at the Mona Lisa. The stunts, executed by various climate activist groups, are an attempt to draw attention to the climate crisis, and encourage everyone to globally coalesce and work to limit global warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius, or wait as the impending catastrophe continues to worsen.
There have been plenty of attempts to defend, diminish, and contextualize this specific form of protest. We will leave that to others to litigate—instead, we would like to discuss one particular dimension of these protests. Because not only are activists throwing messy foods at valuable items, they are also gluing themselves to them. Yes, that’s right, they’re using a strong adhesive chemical to physically attach their bodies to inanimate objects, as part of the awareness-raising. It’s happening often, from two supporters of the U.K.-based climate activist group Just Stop Oil gluing themselves to a frame of a Constable painting to a man gluing his head to the Girl With a Pearl Earring painting at The Hague.
In both instances, no significant damage was done to the paintings. The question is: was any harm done to them, the people being glued (and gluing)? Upon reading about these incidents, we couldn’t help but wonder: what are the mechanics behind gluing oneself to something? How long is it supposed to last? How does it feel? How do you unglue yourself?
To answer these questions, we went straight to the source by reaching out to Just Stop Oil, who has deployed the tactic. The group explained that they do in fact use super glue in their stunts—they pick it specifically because it makes their actions more disruptive and takes longer for them to be physically removed. In their experience, people tend to remain glued to objects for between one to two hours. They have had reported injuries, including times when people’s hands were ripped off tarmac somewhat unceremoniously rather than deliberately detached— ouch—but no hospitalizations.
Unsurprisingly, super glue is not intended for use on human skin, as it’s specially designed to bond materials like metal, ceramic, leather, rubber, vinyl, and plastic. It’s also meant to last a long time and is known to cause skin irritation, even chemical burns for some people, if they do come into contact with it.
However, as painful as it sounds to glue your head to a painting, it probably won’t last very long. According to one site, super glue works to become its stickiest when exposed to humidity in the air, and works best on porous surfaces. If it comes in contact with skin, it’s not terribly difficult to get it off—a little acetone or baby oil paired with warm, soapy water seems to do the trick.
However, proceed with caution, as Apple Bodemer, board certified dermatologist with UW Health, told us that if you try to forcefully pull super glued skin off a surface without treating the area first, like with Vaseline, it can lead to ripping the skin. Worst case, it can even develop an open wound. Typically the skin will heal, but it also puts a person at risk for infection.
Bottom line, Bodemer said super glue isn’t deadly but extended exposure and use of it can lead to developing allergies. It can also become toxic if too much super glue is inhaled, causing irritation to the lungs. The worst case scenario is if you ingest super glue—then it can cause serious GI and stomach issues. If you must apply it to your skin, Bodemer suggested limiting it to a small area, and limiting the number of times you use it.
Just Stop Oil doesn’t seem to be slowing down its efforts to draw attention to climate change, or its use of super glue. As Hannah Hunt reasoned, a 23-year-old who was part of the Constable painting stunt, the fossil fuel industry and oil extraction will eventually lead to massive problems like widespread crop failures, “so yes there is glue on the frame of this painting but there is blood on the hands of our government.”