14.12.2009 | UN-Climate Change Conference

Sacha’s Copenhagen Diary

Alongside COP15, I am being in Copenhagen this week, taking part in a number of parallel events in the city, dealing with the role of the arts and culture for sustainability. I will give some feedback from these events on a daily basis. By Sacha Kagan, from Copenhagen.

The events I will cover are:

  • On Sunday 6th and Monday 7th: the ASEF (Asia Europe Foundation) workshop on Arts, Culture and Sustainability: Building Synergies between Asia and Europe (18 invited experts + ASEF staff)
  • Monday to Wednesday: the conference Culture|Futures: The Transition to an Ecological Age 2050, organized by the Danish Cultural Institute with the help of other organizations including Cultura21 Nordic (about 200 participants from the cultural sector and eco-design/engineers)
  • Thursday 10th to Saturday 12th: Art interventions in the city, among which the embassies of Sustensistan (Cultura21 Nordic) and “Caution Border” (Cultura21 and Karamoja Campaign)…

For a direct account of the official COP15 conference itself, see the daily blog by ecological artist Aviva Rahmani.

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Saturday-Sunday, 12th-13th December 2009

On Saturday and Sunday, we moved the embassy of Sustensistan to Norrebo Hallen: Another immigrant neighborhood relatively away from the main areas of the climate actions. I was helped on both days by Louise, an art-student from the UK, and on Saturday by Aviva Rahmani. Our neighbor on the Sunday,a guy selling Christmas trees on the square, was very enthusiastic about the “caution border” installation and encouraged us to install the border all across the place: “Wrap the bus stop too! That way the people will notice it! Go for it!” We also received the visit of the director of the “Freie internationale Tankstelle”, which is just around the corner, and who also asked us to install the border across his modified tank-station. Ed Morris (the Canary project), who’s staying in the neighborhood, also passed by and was enthusiastic about our intervention, which he deemed more relevant than some of the work shown at the art museums in the city…

Some echoes from the demonstrations came to our ears while we were at Norrebo Hallen: A massive demonstration on Saturday, with about 100 000 demonstrators marching toward the Bella Center. A peaceful demonstration, but cut in half by the Danish police, who arrested people at random, with no apparent reason (the police claimed that some people had thrown stones at them, but this was not confirmed by witnesses). On Saturday evening, I was attending the opening of an “indigenous” exhibition at the National Museum, with several indigenous representatives I had already met before at Klimaforum (the NGO’s alternative summit), and with Vandana Shiva. I even had a short conversation with Vandana Shiva, trying to interest her in artistic approaches to sustainability, but lacking the time to properly do so.

On Sunday afternoon, I took the train back to Lüneburg. The main feeling that kept haunting me while I was for these 8 days in Copenhagen, was that of a sort of remake of the decline of the Roman Empire. With decadent-technoid self-delusion manipulated by corporations (Hopenhagen, where “Panem et Circenses” was replaced by Coke and Tivoli), disconnected salons (the official art institutions), crowds of Barbarians (the NGOs, activists and indigenous groups in a sort of tragic carnival) and a complex legal-political, bureaucratic process, trying hard to advance on negotiations(the COP15, in their non-space outside of the city). Of course, I never experienced the late Roman empire, but the overlapping of these different levels in one city, acting as a world-microcosm, gave a taste of a failing world-order.

FRIDAY, 10th December 2009

Friday’s most noticeable action from my part, after repairing the border in Mozart’s square and giving out some leaflets to the local people, was to install “Caution Border” at one of the main entrances of the main train station of Copenhagen. We used the nice ‚colonnade‘ and attached the yellow tape to them, blocking part of the entrance. I was with Jesse, an Australian anthropologist who’s following the Klimaforum, and helped me this afternoon for the installation/intervention.

Jesse had interesting conversations with some COP15 delegates/negotiators getting out of the train station, and I even had a talk with a Ugandan delegate, who himself comes from Karamoja! One of the delegates passing by (from another African country) was very happy with the installation, saying “yes, climate knows no borders!” Among thepassers-by, some were amused, some just smiled slightly, taking the leaflet, some were annoyed and in a hurry, and others were so much absorbed in their own activities (rushing, listening to music, talking to each other) that they didn’t notice the installation.

We managed to stay there a long half-hour before we got asked to dismantle the border, not by the police, who was just watching, but by an employee of the train station (a colleague of his had asked us, about 15 min after the start of our action, whether we had an authorization ; I just replied “I don’t know”, which won us 15-20 more minutes).
We got filmed and interviewed by an Internet TV. It will be showed on Tuesday together with a report on the “No Borders” protest on next Monday. I will give you the weblink to the video then of course, here on this diary!

THURSDAY, 10th December 2009

Today, no more words (except for a meeting in the morning), but action. We moved to Mozart’s square in the afternoon, with Cultura21 Nordic (Oleg Koefoed, Kajsa Paludan, Daniel Tjäder) and Nadezhda Savova, to open the embassy of Sustensistan (i.e. bring a caravan to the square).

One good thing about this initiative is that it is located in a neighborhood where there is usually no cultural activity, and where there are no other climate change actions (unlike several other neighborhoods)…

I also installed the “Caution Border” installation (more info on www.karamoja.eu, under “art interventions”) on Mozart’s square, and once that was done, I engaged short conversations with some of the people passing there, about issues of borders, climate change and Sustensistan. Not being able to talk any Danish myself, I couldn’t have conversations with everyone, and it was only pretty short and superficial conversations that could occur, but I was lucky enough that many people do speak English fairly well here in Copenhagen, even in a “low-income” neighborhood. There was a girl who told me she’ll go protest tomorrow, and several persons of ’non-European background‘, as well as of European background, who approved of the focus on the borders issue.

The weather was very rainy and cold, so after a couple of hours outside, I went in the caravan, where Nadezhda was baking bread. A local woman was having a conversation with Nadezhda. In short, the woman commented: “So you bake bread to reduce your CO2? You came all the way from Bulgaria to bake bread to reduce your C02? … I am reducing my CO2 all the time, I think about it all year round, I only buy local food”.

In the evening I was at the Klimaforum. Saw a film about Cuba’s early “transition” to low-carbon economy as a result of the collapsed of the USSR. The film was sometimes turning into pro-Castro propaganda, but also witnessed some dynamics in Cuban society that are very real and that show good examples of local food production. In Cuba nowadays, 80 percent of food production is organic, claimed the documentary. Ox-plowing has replaced Russian tractors. Cubans have learned to use bikes. They grow food also in cities.

In the bus back home, we had a quick chat with a member of the Sierra Club, present at COP15. He insisted that China today announced that it demanded a goal even more ambitious than the 350 ppm limit, i.e. a limit under 350 ppm…

WEDNESDAY, 9th December 2009

The third and last day of Culture|Futures started in the morning with more plenary lectures. Not very wise in terms of process management, but at least the plenary presentations were quite good. For example,Peter Head gave much more sensible insights than on the first day, pointing at the three-dimensionality of the human (self, society, nature) and insisting that eco-city development has to “retain the culture” and be “organic”.

The Danish architect Jan Gehl pleaded for people-centered urbanism and architecture, away from modernism: Sustainable cities have to be lively, attractive, safe and healthy cities. Bringing life back to the streets by taking the cars out, facilitating bikes and pedestrian movements, but also stimulating the enjoyment of the public by the people (street food, sitting, playing, etc) ; which in the Eurropean Union would require a de-regulation concerning some excessive health & safety regulations that are suffocating local cultural life, such as sub-culinary practices.

The architect Mario Cucinella insisted that “sustainable design is not a question of technology, but a question of knowledge”, i.e. a knowledge integrating sensitivity, creativity and sustainability. He also spoke of the importance of “creative empathy”, also as an “empathic process between time, climate and space”. He discussed the example of deviating winds from an island, slowly, with first planting of bushes, then trees…

In the afternoon, Oleg Koefoed presented, in plenary session, some draft synthesis of the policy-recommendations work done the day before, with the following keywords (among others):

  • Culture as a catalyst for change (though, unlike a “catalyst”, culture itself is changing in the process)
  • Responsibility (walking the talk, living the change)
  • Creating and interpreting structures ; producing counter-narratives ; connecting the local and the global
  • bridging between political bodies: Here is echoed a recommendation I personally proposed, which is to ask governments to form inter-ministerial structures for sustainability-policy which take culture as one of their transversal bases, thereby gaining the ability to communicate with the already transversal engagements and practices emerging from cultural actors and other actors in civil society.

Even though the structure and process of Culture|Futures was largely sub-optimal and the importance given to Peter Head’s framework was exaggerated and crippling the potentials, it was still an important and valuable attempt at bringing together the cultural and engineering worlds. And the conference allowed valuable networking to take place. But how will the “policy recommendations” be finalized and be addressed to decision-makers? How will Culture|Futures deliver a learning-process over time? All the questions remained unanswered as the conference closed, even for the organizers themselves.

You can also find some other blogs following Culture|Futures here:

TUESDAY, 8th December 2009

On Tuesday, I was all day at Culture|Futures, except in the evening when we visited the exhibition “(Re-) Cycles of Paradise”, about gender and climate change.
At Culture|Futures, we first had a series of plenary presentations, followed by parallel sessions (presentations too) and an afternoon focused of amending the policy recommendations from the “background paper” of Culture|Futures, in parallel groups…

The first two presentations in the morning were not very convincing:
The Danish board of technologies presented its “worldwide views on global warming”, a project aiming to covey the “world citizens” voice to COP15, and based on many citizen-conferences (or ‚consensus conferences‘) that took place simultaneously across the world. The results highlighted that the participants demanded a binding agreement at COP15. This initiative was impressive at first sight, but very streamlined, and as the speaker mentioned, the questions asked to the participants were pre-defined, and the process was thus not really emergent, not what I would call a genuinely bottom-up process.
The British Council then showed its young “climate champions”, in what unfortunately revealed itself as a superficial exercise of unashamed self-promotion for the British Council. Although some of the “young people” did mention a few interesting initiatives they work on, the interest was spoiled by the obvious and heavy propaganda-machine behind it. This saddened me, for I had gotten used to more intelligent work by the British Councils in the past. The image of the young “climate champions” following the Cape Farewell expedition on the arctic made little sense. Aviva Rahmani was sitting next to me at that point and commented: “I hate the idea of artists going to the arctic. Gentrifying it.” Indeed, worldwide politicians in 2009 have followed the artists and made their little tours on the Arctic. Did this increase their commitment to COP15? Obviously not…

The two next plenary presenters were more inspiring:
Marco Kusumavijaya (director of Jakarta Arts Council) presented the “Green Maps” project around the world and especially in Indonesia. The concept is a participatory mapping of places of environmental and social significance. Its practice, according to Marco, fostered dialogs across generations, local knowledge and local concerns toward planning processes, opportunities for environmental micro-businesses, use of public transport, etc. A slogan was “Slow down and check your green map”. The use of these maps also revived the public space, after decades of dictatorship.
UK-based “Julie’s bicycle” presented its efforts at greening the UK music industry, aiming to “lead by example, not by aspiration”. Although the idea that “leading by example” could really work better than inspiring visions and values, was contested in later discussions today, I must say that the concrete green-management solutions developed by “Julie’s bicycle” for reducing the carbon footprint of the music industry, seem to be impressively effective. Even if systemic change would be preferable, the urgency of the climate crisis compels us to support such initiatives which are successful at greening the “hardware” of the cultural industries.

About the parallel session I followed afterwards, I don’t have the time to detail the insights from each speaker, but I will highlight a few key points. An American speaker talked about the “apocalypse fatigue” growing in the public, and the dis-empowering effect of such a process. He appealed to more ‚positive‘ visions, also echoing the ongoing line of tension between the imperatives of critical rethinking by artists and the imperatives of inspiring transformative actions. Another thoughtful comment of his was to remark: “We don’t have to believe in climate change in order to believe in solutions to climate change”, especially when they can provide a saner, more sustainable living in many other respects than just carbon emissions…
Nadezhda Savova (International Council for Cultural Centers), speaking about the worldwide development of “bread houses networks” (i.e. where communities share the making and celebrating of bread), highlighted the importance of a tangibility and tactility of social development, recovering not only the sense of touch, but through this experience, also local knowledge, local public space, and community creative capital.
Guy Gypens (Kaai Theater) talked about complexifying the relationship of his artistic institution with its social context and about raising systemic questions about the practices of the art worlds, beyond merely greening the “hardware” of theatres, for example by reconsidering the art worlds‘ addictions to extreme mobility and to innovations.

I won’t go into the details of the afternoon session, where we strenuously worked in smaller groups, on policy recommendations, on the basis of a pre-written ‚background paper‘. The discussions were very intensive, the insights and counter-insights fusing, with the many different insights, values, discourses and interests of the different cultural actors involved, confronting each other and especially questioning the language of the ‚background paper‘. One thing certainly came out of the exercise: The streamlined and simplified type of policy recommendations advocated by ARUP (Peter Head) and some of the British institutions, was not accepted by many of the participants, who in their proposed amendments to policy recommendations, wisely widened the scope of the transformative potential of arts and culture, beyond the mostly technical, unidimensional ecological-engineering discourse promoted in the initial ‚background paper‘.
Another insightful aspect of this work, process-wise, is that it revealed the difficulty of communications on proper priorities, ideas and formulations, between highly competent and active experts from around the world (not to mention the issue of the intelligibility of the resulting text for outsiders, and first of all the primary target group, i.e. policy-makers). This gave us a little taste of the difficulties faced by COP15 negotiators. In a way, I then felt a bit closer, emotionally, to the kind of stress probably experienced by participants and observers at our big-brother conference at Bella Center.

MONDAY, 7th December 2009

I arrived in Copenhagen on Sunday. Rainy cold, but a burlesque atmosphere from the start. As I left the train, a young lady hands me the program of “the real climate conference, by the people”, i.e. the KlimaForum à-la World-Social-Forum (with many interesting things in their program), running in parallel to the official COP15. I leave the station and see “Tivoli”, a sort of permanent fair in the middle of the city. From afar, I see a big white balloon. I approach to look closer…
Coca Cola and Siemens have renamed the city Hopenhagen, and this big balloon in front of the townhall, shows a rotating earth with the words ‚Hopenhagen‘ and ‚Siemens‘ on it… I did not expect the greenwashing tricks to become so gross… Does this work as corporate “détournement” (i.e. managing to reorient the public space towards their conservative agenda)? …

I won’t have much time for the KlimaForum or for exploring what happens everywhere in the streets, as I have to focus on the exchanges and people I am here to meet.

On Sunday and on Monday morning, the ASEF (Asia Europe Foundation) experts group was working on bringing together our “visions” from the cultural sector in Asia and Europe. The exchanges were rich, insigtful, the cultural actors invited by the ASEF are very relevant: artists, art organizations, politicians, architects, etc. who are already conducting important work for the “art and sustainability”. Some main patterns emerged through these two half-days, which will be synthesized in a document to be published on ASEF’s website in a few weeks. Overall it is very inspiring, around notions such as for example art’s role in co-creating the public space (and differences/commonalities between Asia and Europe in that matter), engagements with communities and other social sectors, transdisciplinary knowledge production and education, the value of complexity, and the issue of assessing the relative relevance of artistic ‚public work‘ to the search process of sustainability.

On Monday afternoon, Culture|Future was launched at the National Gallery of Denmark. Besides the usual opening speeches, different impulse plenary speeches are given. The main VIP speaker is Peter Head, director of ARUP: an ecological engineering company with a focus on biomimicry principles (i.e. imitating/learning from nature’s designs, which evolved over millions of year, instead of designing from scratch). His talk about a radical change of urban planning for achieving an “ecological age by 2050” is surely energetic and inspiring for many people, and informative for newcomers in the field. But I personally experienced his discourse as too simplistic and too directive (paying only lip-service to human diversity). Peter Head evens advocated in his speech for a “principle of simplicity” -an ill-advised formulation for what appears to be a principle of closing the loops of the industrial world instead of adding-up linear ‚fixes that fail‘ on top of each other (I realized that after I had a talk with him; I believe he may be confusing complexity with complication).

Much more inspiring is the speech by Ong Keng Sen (artistic director of TheatreWorks in Singapore) who speaks of the engagement with communities in Cambodia today, to restore social sustainability after the traumatic experience of the country, and who then expands his analysis to art and climate change, advocating for relevance in real local spaces and with communities, rather than fashionable shows. Relevant climate art is not the glossy museum pieces by fashionable star artists such as Sophie Calle’s burying of her mother’s jewelry in a Glacier near the North Pole (and asking: “I wonder if her glacier will advance or retreat, if the climate changes will carry her to the sea to be taken north by the West Greenland current, or retreat up the valley towards the ice cap, or if she will stay on the beach as a marker in time where the glacier was in the holocene period” – quoted from www.capefarewell.org). The Sohie Calle example, its superficiality, egocentrism and irrelevance stroke me, as the Cambodian artist contrasted it to the work of other, less ‚musei-fiable‘ artists working on locally relevant issues…

Another keynote speaker is Klaus Leggewie, who ends up giving interesting highlight from the WBGU’s last report about when the “peak” in carbon emissions should be, and political consequences of any delays in action, compared to the slow motion of democratic decision-making. However, Leggewie says very little about the arts, claiming it not to be his domain of expertise, and only repeats the commonly claimed importance of the “autonomy of the arts”.
I always find it problematic when autonomy is invoked systematically as a holy cow. It practically functions as a smoke screen ridding a lack of thinking. the question of artistic autonomy and claimed “independence” requires to be carefully and critically reflected (as in the “Institutional Critique” movement in art). In the discussion that follows Leggewie’s speech, my concern is confirmed: While a couple of people in the audience (who happen to be also Germans) reinforce Leggewie’s autonomy-claim, Guy Gypens, artistic director of the KAAI Theater in Brussels (and who was at our ASEF workshop on Sunday and Monday), tries to move the focus beyond that narrow perspective: Indeed, the participants at our ASEF workshop already share the insight that the important issues are inter-dependence and inter-subjectivity, rather than a linear and modernist dichotomy of autonomy vs. engagement… Also, in a very short intervention, I myself point the attention to an “autoecopoïetic sensibility” as I define it, beyond the limitations of the autopoïesis described by German sociologist Niklas Luhmann. But the time is too short and the format inappropriate to further discuss this rather theoretical point (and Leggewie reiterates his admiration for the ‚genius‘ Luhmann).

I will skip the other keynote speakers (e.g. Trevor Davies, who certainly does a lot of great work as festival organizer but whose speech here sounds to me vague, unclear, with nothing really catching my mind). My personal impression from the opening, plenary half-day of Culture|Futures is less positive than from the ASEF workshop preceding it, which was very stimulating. But there are still 2 days ahead of working seminars in smaller group, which hopefully will be more insightful…

As I walk back to the house of my host in Copenhagen (Kajsa Paludan, founding member of Cultura21 Nordic), I realize that I do not even know yet where is this Bella Center where the official COP15 negotiation is taking place. I only know that it is a conference center, protected by the police, somewhere a bit out of the city center… a typical “non-place”, as my co-walker (Daniel Tjäder) then suggests to me…

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  1. added lane sign ()

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