by Aviva Rahmani
Published in the Winter edition of the CSPA Quarterly, which was focused on the 2009 United Nations Conference of the Parties in Copenhagen. To view or order back issues, visit http://magcloud.com/browse/Magazine/38626. To subscribe to the CSPA QUARTERLY, join us! http://www.sustainablepractice.org/join-the-cspa/
The Horizontal Press Conference
My December 18, 2009 press conference in the Jasger Jorn room at the Bella Center for the fifteenth Conference of the Parties (COP15) was scheduled the same day President Obama was scheduled to arrive in Copenhagen. The same week that press conference was scheduled, outside Bella, at the invitation of Oleg Koefoed of Cultura 21 Nordic, I was scheduled to conduct a three-day workshop on the theoretical basis of my ecological art work. I was attending COP15 as as an official observer and part of the University of Colorado (UC) Non-Governmental Organization (NGO). What I would see as an observer, was an effort on the part of many, to help make sense of and advance progress on a problem shared by the whole world, regardless of what policy makers would say in plenaries. I was moved to notice that easily 50% of participants were under thirty. But I saw an equivalent push-back from those determined to cast a blind eye on history, for their own short-term comfort and advantage.
What I experienced as an artist was neither light-hearted nor simple. But it was a lesson about what can happen when enough people converge on the same problem. The groups I was working, in touch, exchanging information with and learning about, from December 6-19, are too numerous to count. In addition to the UC group, Cultura 21 and Cultura 21 Nordic, they included Avaaz, the Yes Men, representatives from the World Bank, Island Nations, heads of American agencies, Greenpeace, 350.org, gallerists from Khoj International, New Delhi, India, ARTPORT and Poulsen in Copenhagen, High Tide (for whom I blogged), the Climate Forum, the Climate Pirates, Culture Futures, the eco-art dialog, World Wildlife Fund International, European Union negotiators, the Center for Sustainable Practice in the Arts and the Danish police. The press conference was subsequently re-scheduled three times, as I worked with the United Nations press office to negotiate around the growing panic of conference organizers and police in the face of a perceived degeneration of civil control towards the end of COP15.
The press conference I planned to deliver would have challenged policy makers to include language about art-making in their adaptation policies for climate change. It would have given an example from my collaborative work with scientists. COP documents speak of the need to address the “aspirational goals” and support the “resilience” of vulnerable nations confronting the stress of adaptation to climate change. But they go on to define those goals strictly economically. As others pointed out, you can’t address “aspirations” or resilience solely economically.
Early September 2009, Neena Bhandari reported from Sydney, for the IPC (which covers the United Nations) that “An agreement by 21 Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum leaders on Saturday to adopt ‘’aspirational goals’’ to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions has been criticised by voluntary agencies as grossly inadequate for saving the world from the effects of climate change.”
Art is the glue holding societies and cultures together, particularly when they are under stress. In Copenhagen, the press conference became the art and it was a collaborative, intuitive production.
My experiences in Copenhagen were fraught with paradoxes. It was terrifying for what wasn’t accomplished at the conference. It was inspiring for what I learned about work being done to mitigate climate change all over the world. Horizontal connections were made between disparate groups and individuals spontaneously connecting as equals at events that ranged from the formal reception and diplomatic plenaries of COP15 to the Climate Pirates who sailed into port from Germany and the vast demonstrations in Christiana. It was frustrating because my COP press conference never happened.
Everything that happened in Copenhagen was staged for layers of media and an international audience. In that sense, the critical days, from December 7 to December 18, were one continuous, anarchistic media event, with no single individual, group or nation consistently taking center stage. Ultimately, the whole world became the venue for a giant teach-in, in the form of the largest Happening ever. It was attended by millions around the world, some of whom were reporters, all of whom had a stake in our outcome.
Copenhagen was the site of multiple realities about global warming. Many of us simultaneously participated in a wide range of activities with the broad assembly of groups in attendance. In addition to blogging, I went to and participated in sessions at the Bella Center; helped work on the press conference for the Collaborative Program on the Ethical Dimensions of Climate Change (EDCC ); showed up for various art openings and shows in the city, indoors and outdoors; participated in demonstrations; exhibited my own films; helped set up other people’s installations; attended several other conferences; hosted a workshop; networked at the COP reception; had dinner in restaurants with various groups, where other attendees were also dining and visited a few tourist sites, where ordinary Danes asked me about the conference while others staged elaborate art works to draw attention to global warming. The media were all over the Bella Center during COP15. Island nations, as Tuvalu, Kiribati and the Maldives took center stage the longest, as eloquent spokespeople for what needed to be done and why. The press ran with their passionate stories.
At every turn in Bella, through the halls and before plenaries, colorful demonstrations were attended by masses of flashing cameras of every size and type. The extent to which sophisticated performance art has saturated activism and how funny many were was striking. The “Fossil Awards,” gave out awards to the country that had most obstructed progress that day, with great pomp and ceremony, every evening at 6: PM to hundreds of cheering, jeering and singing COP participants.
Outside Bella, in the streets of Copenhagen, was an installation about immigration (of climate refugees) mounted by Sacha Kagan on the basis of a work by students at the CCC Programme of the Geneva University of Art and Design. It included credible yellow wet-signs with the text “Caution Border”, police tape marking off parts of the street, printed with the slogan, “This is not a natural border” and slick black and yellow hand-out cards printed with provocative questions about borders. At demonstrations, the press caught glimpses of innumerable notable activists from every corner of the earth, from Wengari Maathi to Vandana Shiva. But the media also witnessed events turn violent at the hands of the Danish police.
Back inside Bella, at official Side Events, reporters took notes and shot pictures of government ministers speaking to crowded rooms, sometimes to the extent that many of us were sitting on the floor. In the Jasger Jorn room at Bella, press conferences filled out informational gaps in the Side Events held in other rooms.
After much internal conflict, I had flown to Europe for COP15, despite a previous vow in 2006, after Katrina, to reduce my carbon footprint by eschewing flight. The press conference I planned would have been an opportunity to present my work with Dr. Jim White, of the Institute for Arctic and Alpine Research, UC Boulder as a model for how we need to look at problems arising out of global warming, using virtual communications. The work with Dr. White has been premised on a series of experimental research projects applying Trigger Point Theory Theory as Aesthetic Activism to problems caused by global warming. We conducted our work in desktop sharing conversations, including other scientists and artists. The press conference would have included a presentation of our work, SOS Gulf to Gulf, comparing the impact of global warming on gulf systems internationally. It connects problems with Somali pirates, Katrina, education in Bangladesh, dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico and lobster migrations in the Gulf of Maine.
Trigger Point Theory is a way to look at situations and see where to apply the least pressure to effect the most change. Flying to Copenhagen, working virtually, doing a press conference in Bella, were ways I was applying that principle. My ideas developed, out of my collaborative ecological art practice, from monitoring change at the sites of two environmental restoration projects I initiated and other related experiences. Trigger Point Theory Theory as Aesthetic Activism, evolved as a strategy to analyze causes of ecological degradation and create environmental restoration plans out of that analysis. It is presently my dissertation topic at Z_node, Institute for Cultural Studies, Zurich University of the Arts, (ZHDK) Zürich, Switzerland and the School of Technology, Communication and Electronics at the University of Plymouth England.
Trigger Point Theory works by diagnosing a very small “patch” (in the language of landscape ecology), in a degraded system, comparable to identifying an acupuncture trigger point on the body of the earth, in a greater degraded ecosystem, whose restoration could catalyze regional healing for a larger landscape. Acupuncture identifies tiny points in systemic meridians of energy flow. Comparably, many indigenous rituals also seek to harmonize human needs with a whole ecology approach to sustainability. Diagnosing and identifying that process is the heart of my theoretical work.
The Trigger Point Theory Theory as Aesthetic Activism workshop was held in the Global Room at Verdenskulturcentret, in Copenhagen. The workshop brought together a number of people concerned with global warming, involved in events that month. The participants represented a spectrum of interests from those engaged in the most radical demonstrations to simply concerned citizens.
The workshop was organized around applying Trigger Point theory to our various activist concerns with free-hand mapmaking. I presented approximately twelve premises to observe situations for possible “Trigger Points.” As, how to identify where many factors come together, creating ecological edges that enhance each other and the importance of establishing buffer zones to insure resilience.
The last day of the workshop was scheduled the morning of the second scheduled date for my press conference: Wednesday December 16. It was rescheduled when word spread that NGOs would be issued secondary passes to enter Bella towards the end of the last week of sessions.
What I had to say in Jasgar Jorn had been transformed by my first ten days in Copenhagen. The press release I wrote Tuesday night opened with,
“Protestors world wide see COP15 as a conflict between money and legalisms. This press conference asserts that is why art needs to be at the table. Art can help build capacity and facilitate the adaptation COP15 needs to address with vulnerable nations. We will present SOS Gulf to Gulf, a virtual model for a role for art in creating resilience. ”
COP treaty negotiations need input from artists because art conveys the “aspirational goals (COP15 treaty language)” of culture. Culture is what contains civilized behavior despite chaotic transitions. Much of the plenary discussion framework was about the crisis of adaptation to the effects of global warming. Yet there was no mention of art’s role in cultural sustainability.
That afternoon, violence against the demonstrators on the part of police, closed down Bella to anyone who hadn’t already entered that morning. I went there anyway. After much discussion, the police allowed me to hand 500 press releases for distribution through the fence gaps erected around the building to Marilyn Averill, the UC’s NGO co-ordinator, who was already inside.
After the Wednesday closure and cancellation, at Bella, we rescheduled the press conference again, back to Friday morning. No one knew what would happen next, especially about climate change. By Friday, access to Bella was restricted to 93 passes for 45,000 registrants, effectively locking me out of the building and closing my door to Jasger Jorn and the webcams there. Instead, the Friday before I left, I recorded the press release I’d prepared for COP15, at the Poulsen Gallery, for the Yes Men and Avaaz.
The Yes Men and Avaaz had set up a fake Bella Center (Good COP15 http://www.good-cop15.org shadow Bella Center). They taped a number of presentations, some of which have been mounted on the website. The tapes illustrate that everyone has aspirations in relation to global warming. Most are light-hearted, often humorous general proclamations and wishful statements about the world we need.
What was ultimately seen by the world beyond Copenhagen didn’t just come from Jasger Jorn, the Poulsen Gallery or the streets. It also came from hundreds of blogs (including my own http://high-tide-cop15.blogspot.com/) and a thousand candle light vigils around the world, many initiated by 350.org, the group started by Bill McKibben. Arguably, 350.org was the most effective group because their message about carbon particle reduction was so simple.
The experiences of developed countries are particularly mediated through media. Media can be another venue for visibility or a portal for an audience to go to another site, another world. The denouement of COP15, challenged us all, arguably especially artists, to give some hard inspired thought to how we can help the media show people some new doors to open. What I might have had to say or what anyone else had to say, is part of an immense jig saw puzzle. It may adequately address global warming if we can just wrap our brains around how to perform a really effective horizontal press conference.
The Aspirational Press Conference
“When we take “aspirational goals” seriously for the Least Developed Countries (LDC), we see that the arts in each culture and between cultures are a means to express aspirations, sustain it’s people, bridge communication gaps and be a container for important historical information, including indigenous environmental knowledge. Art is a means to intimately connect people.” – excerpt from my SOS Gulf to Gulf press release prepared for COP15.
The international experiences we’re having now because of unchecked global warming terrify any sane person. Global warming can be also be connected to terrorism. The consequences of rising carbon emissions include massive migrations of culturally disrupted climate refugees, for whom terror and rage are appropriate responses. The fact that many of these disrupted cultures have a history of sexism, privileging violent machismo in response to crisis and excluding women from full socio-political participation, contributes to chaotic behavior. Contemporary art that confronts this complex reality is an intensely intimate expression of connection between people, binding the aspirational goals of all life. In Islamic Jihadist rehabilitation, the creative act of “making” is considered a healing option to violence.
The meaning of doing a press conference as an activist performance in Copenhagen (COP15) for me, hinged on defining an artist’s relationship to policy. My intention for the press conference had been to provide context for and an alternative model from which to negotiate.
The first week at COP15, when I met and briefly worked with EDCC, I paid close attention to how they framed the need for accountability in the treaty policy language and made the decision to follow their example. One of the discussions that stuck most firmly in my mind centered on the relationship to press as partners in public education. I realized from that in addition to presenting a new model I had to explain a new definition of art.
At the end of the second, informational page of my press release, I wrote (with references to treaty documents):
1. Gender issues relate to questions of art and culture. Disproportionately, artisans in indigenous cultures are often women. Their practices often preserve the, “[land use, land-use change and forestry sector]”; (and represent how to) p. 92 “respect the knowledge and rights of indigenous peoples [, including their free, prior and informed consent,] Deforestation is often a consequence of the cultural disruption that displaces gender roles.
2. Art and humanities foster creativity through out all sectors of society. In transition periods, creative problem-solving is as essential to survival as financial or regulatory support.
3. The costs of sustaining cultural communities in relation to other ecological costs is not only minimal but has historically transferred wealth, in a variety of forms back into an economy. This will help cultures in transition maintain identity and independence, a response to the need to, “develop low-emission [high growth sustainable] development strategies.”
Early 2007, Marda Kirn put Dr. Jim White and I together to develop a collaborative project for the “Weather Report” show on global warming, curated by Lucy Lippard for the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art. White and I began work with a passionate commitment to explore how to address global warming. Our work together further radicalized us about the urgency of associated problems, particularly migrations. A few months later, the idea to attend COP15 and hold a press conference there began gestating at a party after the opening. A number of us were sitting around a kitchen table, including Subankhar Bannerjee, Mary Miss, Lillian Ball and Marda Kirn, talking about art’s role in public policy. I suggested we hold a joint press conference in Washington, D.C., to present our ideas. Over the next few months, we tried to organize something. But the logistics daunted us and the plan went on my back burner for a year.
Late 2008, Jim and I began working together again and the same questions about migrations arose. It was then that I said I wanted us to go to Copenhagen (COP15). Dr. White couldn’t go but by August 2009, I had my official status to attend. Simultaneously, Oleg Koefoed, whom had organized the Culture Futures conference the first week of COP15 in Copenhagen, invited me to lead the Trigger Point Theory as Aesthetic Activism workshop.
Many of us who came to Copenhagen are still making sense of what happened there, what was accomplished, how we all connected and where we might go from here, from islands to artists. Post COP15, the larger degraded landscape to restore, has emerged as the “aspirational goals” of this planet. It still needs mapping. But one thing is clear, change will come, if it comes at all, from horizontal coalitions in civil society, taking the messages we all heard in Copenhagen and beyond, from press conferences to policy people to the world. Artists are poised to take a great part in that adventure.