Learning from ArtCOP21




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Feb 22, 2016
by Louise Hallman
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Learning from ArtCOP21

ArtCOP21 had 550 events, 250 artists, 54 countries engaged - but what did we learn? Panelists Anais Roesch, Catherine Cullen, Ben Twist and Anne-Marie Melster

From September to December 2015, leading up to COP21, 550 events were held under the auspices of ArtCOP21, with 54 countries engaged, and 250 artists present in Paris. But to what end? 

As panelists at the Salzburg Global Seminar program Beyond Green: The Arts as a Catalyst for Sustainability explained, for many people the COP events are too technical and political, rendering them inaccessible and incomprehensible. One aim of engaging artists alongside COP21 was to lift this mystique and make the event understandable and relevant to the general public. 

As one Fellow remarked, ArtCOP21 “did it’s job” – it was diverse and it was visible. Indeed, as another Paris-based Fellow corroborated, the French capital, and more broadly France, has become a more climate- and sustainability-aware city since. 

Besides making the international convention more accessible to the general public and mobilizing people to take action, ArtCOP21 also aimed to include culture in the political agenda of climate change and position the artist as an important stakeholder in the debate. 

The arts and culture sector has become increasingly prominent at such events. As one Fellow shared, at COP15 in Copenhagen in 2009, ARTPORT_making waves (an “international curatorial practice” that raises awareness of climate change and environmental issues) struggled to find a space to exhibit and attracted few visitors. At Cancun, Mexico in 2010, ARTPORT partnered with museums to bring in a ready audience of school children. Building on these past experiences, despite the “extreme bureaucracy” in France, COP21 was much more successful. Their project, while created for COP21, will not be an isolated, one-off exhibit: it will now travel to Astana, Kazakhstan for the next World Expo and later New York. ArtCOP21, engaged diverse artists, including poets, cultural experts, and performers, eschewing the approach of “one big name in one gallery” of COP15.

Bringing art into the negotiation space (usually a drab conference center) and encouraging the negotiators to connect with the issues on a more intimate, human, rather than political level, was mooted. One of ArtCOP21’s project, the COPbox, had sought to do this, collecting messages from Parisians as the installation traveled around the city ahead of the event. However, following the Paris terrorist attacks, the budget for the final installation (through which the negotiators would all have to pass), was cut in favor of increasing security.

Engaging directly with “the system,” be that at the international level of COP21 or with local, municipal governments, is important, one ArtCOP21 participant reminded Fellows. “We need to focus on systems change instead of behavior change” because too many individuals have too little agency. As another Fellow remarked, “We have to get on board the people who are actually creating our world,” not just artists, but also designers, politicians, business, et al. 

We need to avoid what one Fellow admitted was his greatest fear: “We in the arts are talking to each other – we are not talking to the world.”

The Salzburg Global session Beyond Green: The Arts as a Catalyst for Sustainability is part of Salzburg Global’s long-running Culture and the Arts series. The session is supported by the Edward T. Cone Foundation, the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, the Bush Foundation and Red Bull Amaphiko. More information on the session can be found here: www.salzburgglobal.org/go/561. You can follow all the discussions on Twitter by following the hashtag #SGSculture.