06.01.2010 | Climate Conference in Copenhagen

An American Artist at COP15

For two weeks, ecological artist Aviva Rahmani was active in Copenhagen, both inside and outside the official COP15 conference. In retrospect, she accounts on her experience. Her personal account illustrates some of the difficulties felt by activists and artists who were involved at COP15 in the past month. By Aviva Rahmani, New York (USA)

Coming to Copenhagen December 5, 2009, I felt elated and overwhelmed. Thanks to my on-going collaborative work (SOS Gulf to Gulf) with Dr. Jim White, director of the Institute for Arctic and Alpine research at University of Colorado (UC) Boulder, as part of the UC non-governmental organization (NGO) attending COP15 (the fifteenth Conference of the Parties convened since 1995), I had observer status. Presenting a case for the crucial part art can play in COP negotiations and showing the work we have been doing, as a model to help address global warming, was my mission. 

The vehicle I chose to make that case would be a press conference scheduled December 18 at the Bella Center, where COP15 was convening. In Copenhagen I would have the opportunity to meet with colleagues from Cultura21,  see some of their work and work with them.  At the invitation of Oleg Koefoed of Cultura21 Nordic, who also organized the conference Culture Futures for the first week of events, I was also planning to give a workshop on Trigger Point Theory as Aesthetic Activism. Trigger Point Theory as Aesthetic Activism is my dissertation topic at the 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. 

December 5., the night before the conference began, I began a COP15 blog for HighTide, UK. I knew our collective chances for progress on the Kyoto protocol for the United Nations framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) were slim. But when I got to Bella Center, I felt buoyed by the energetic good cheer in the halls, the moving, intelligent Side Events I attended and the thoughtful but casually brief conversations I had with people I met. I thought, “we can do this.”   Remarkably, at least 30% of the attendees in Bella seemed to be under thirty. My hosts were Oleg Koefoed’s family, whose household full of children reminded me  that our work in Copenhagen was about the next generation. The second day of my visit, at Culture Futures, I connected with a number of other activist artists. The mood was purposeful and open both inside and outside the main events at Bella. Hearing the estimates of people in peaceful demonstrations and candle light vigils internationally further buoyed my hopes. 

COP was organized around the plenaries, MOP (Meeting of the Parties), Side Events, social occasions, as the initial reception, informal gathering places throughout the building (where up to five demonstrations were held daily) and the information booths with information, located as you enter the conference area. The first three days in the COP plenaries I watched complex diplomatic posturing and jostling for political space and influence. Then Tuvalu took a dramatic stand, demanding and receiving COP suspension until there would be a binding and accountable agreement achieved with transparency. The tiniest, most vulnerable nations took the presumption of United Nations democracy seriously, forcing the mammoth hand of developed and developing countries. My most moving experience at COP was Kiribati’s Side Event. Kiribati is a tiny atoll nation whose residents are facing full evacuation. They presented their argument for a fair COP with graceful dances, moving music and beautiful shell necklaces handed out to the audience, who went wild with approval in response to the introduction to the vulnerable Kiribati culture and it’s defenseless people.

For a while that first week, Bella took on a joyous carnival atmosphere. Each day built on the last for inventive demonstrations. COP was taken over by island states, indigenous peoples and young people from all over the world. Many demonstrators inside Bella were in costume, cheerfully vocal, chanting, drumming while outside, more demonstrators were increasingly restless, sensing stalemate. 

Back in the conference rooms with MOP,  presentations plodded on, reports of efforts to initiate, support and monitor endless projects worldwide. I was awed by the machinery of bureaucracy and as time went on, began to find my way into the complex legal, diplomatic and historical language. In more Side Events, over and over I saw how behind the scenes, despite all manner of hardships and obstacles, people were inching forward with determination, resisting deforestation in the Congo Delta in partnership with Germany and creating backyard fuel plantations in Ethiopia to slow clear-cutting of virgin forest. On the other hand, I also witnessed resistance to the implications of financial provisions of REDD ( Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries) and the power of multi-nationals. 

By the end of the first week, the response of Danish police in the city of Copenhagen and outside Bella and news of the secretariat’s decision to begin excluding NGOs inside Bella, made it clear that appreciation for sincerity, patience and enthusiasm wasn’t unanimous. At the same time, participating in the work for the press conference for the Ethical Dimensions of Climate Change taught me how change occurs: by careful, methodical targeting of key provisions, as, insisting on accountable legal language in the treaty documents. 

As the weekend approached, I was anxious over escalating news of NGO exclusion. It outraged me that critical information wouldn’t be shared amongst all parties. My personal worry, was over my whether my carefully planned, ambitious press conference about the role of art in times of traumatic transition would ever be heard. 

Over the weekend, I met and helped friends, Oleg Koefoed, who was assembling a caravan for the mythical State of Sustensistan and Sacha Kagan, who was creating artificial “borders” with yellow police tape and wet signs. We passed out yellow and black cards inviting people to ask themselves what a border really is. They were setting up street installations for these events outside the mainstream, designed to engage people who might not otherwise be touched by events at and around Bella. Cold was setting in in the city. My body was beginning to feel the toll of long hours under difficult circumstances, reflecting my darker mood at the end of the first week of COP15.  As tired, preoccupied immigrant faces passed us by,  the gap between our experiences and theirs, disturbed me as much as anything I was learning about desperation in Bella. 

The three days of my workshop, during the first half of the second week, I divided my time between events I wanted to track inside Bella, in the city, my workshop and film showing, scheduled the evening of the third day of the workshop. I was simultaneously trying to negotiate how to get back into Bella to deliver my press conference, which had been rescheduled to Wednesday, December 16, despite increasingly more difficult restrictions and to complete the press release text. In that time, events culminated through out the city and inside Bella before Obama arrived at the end of the week. 

Trigger Point Theory as Aesthetic Activism is the theoretical approach to environmental restoration, I developed, based on wetlands restoration work I’ve completed in Maine and studied internationally. In the workshop, we mapped how aspects of the theory might apply to activist planning, as, identifying where and how large factors create “edging” and the opportunity for intervention that can represent. The goal was to find small points where degradation and promise might converge, whose activation might effect systemic healing. We made increasingly complex drawings visualizing and analyzing schematic relationships between our personal agenda and the larger systemic problems that concerned us all. The connection I was making between our work and COP15 was how a press conference can be a megaphone to the world. The Asger Jorn room, where the press conference was scheduled to be delivered, could be a Trigger Point to address the value of art for cultures in transition.

The press release read in part, reflecting language used in COP documents: “If COP15 and the UNFCCC desire just allocation of resources to deal with climate change. Why then, has art, which has so much to contribute to that goal, been absent from all discussions of adaptability? Protestors world wide see COP15 as a conflict between money and legalisms. Millions of artists have another approach to environmental issues. This press conference asserts that is why art needs to be at the table, … [supporting] [assisting] [enabling] all developing country Parties, particularly the most vulnerable, in undertaking adaptation measures […] 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 aspiration, sustain it’s people, bridge communication gaps and be a container for important historical information, including indigenous environmental knowledge. Art is the glue holding societies and cultures together, under stress, means to intimately connect people.”

The second day of the workshop, while I still had access to Bella Center, in a Side Event, I was heartened to hear that the United States Environmental Protection Agency would circumvent congressional opposition by enforcing air pollution laws long neglected under the Bush administration. By Wednesday, re-entry for the UC group was very difficult. Marilyn Averill, who was organizing the UC group, offered to leave Bella and share her pass while I went inside for my press conference. The press releases were printed with the help of Oleg and other workshop participants. While we completed the workshop, another loss of control began with reports of random arrests, strategic disruptions on the part of the police and cruel and indiscriminate beatings of demonstrators outside Bella.

As I approached Bella, I was in touch with Marilyn by cell phone. She told me there was police violence against demonstrators attempting to enter the building and that any NGOs who weren’t already in the building were being blocked from entry.

Walking the long blocks from the metro, carrying 500 press releases, from a train stop away from the Bella station, which had been shut down, back to the convention center, passing grim clumps of purposeful guardsmen and police vans, walking up stream against a down stream crowd of NGOs who had been turned out and away from Bella heading for the same metro stop I’d just left was surreal, lonely and frightening. At the makeshift caged police gates to Bella, after quite a lot of pleading and negotiation with the police, Marilyn was allowed to walk out to the fence to meet me. I was able to hand them to her through the gaps in the gates, for all I know, to be swept away by a cleaning crew shortly after being placed inside.

That evening for the film showing of my work on global warming, I was exhausted. The venue was out of the way. I was having trouble keeping my spirits up for the final days of COP. Through out the day and evening, I had been in contact with the Bella press offices to locate and distribute the press releases Marilyn had taken inside.  We re-scheduled the press conference a third time, back to Friday the 18th. By then, Bella Center had been closed to all but 93 secondary passes for the 45, 000 people with credentials. The event had to be cancelled.

That Friday morning, I got to Gallery Poulsen, where the Yes Men and Avaaz had set up a false press conference venue (Good-COP15: the Shadow Bella) to give anyone the opportunity to tell COP15 whatever they wanted the future to be. Good-COP15 was light hearted.  I delivered my press release in toto at Poulsen. But like watching Kiribati, I came away wondering if we are dandelion fluff in the face of the power of coca coal.

Two weeks later, after some rest, I feel differently. I think it is going to be a matter of connecting the dots between the many inspiring projects I heard about, using “horizontal” social networking between committed groups and virtual communications to draw more people into the movement. We just need to find the right paths and places to apply pressure. Art is good at that.

© Aviva Rahmani, 6.1.2010

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Ein Kommentar

  1. J David Moeller ()

    The struggle for the acceptance of Art as a viable instrument in change continues; and Aviva Rahmani is a stalwart and dedicated role model for any who would take up the standard and bear it proudly with her.