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COP26 does not have artists at its negotiating table, but artists are everywhere. What can their work accomplish?
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COP26 does not have artists at its negotiating table, but artists are everywhere. What can their work accomplish?


A public artwork intervention stands at Govan graving Docks, just opposite the main delegate area, at COP26 Glasgow. Still/Moving’s unmissable NO NEW WORLDS is a text and light-based piece that alternates between nine iterations of the three words in its title.

As artist Leonie Hampton explains, The re-writable quality that is NO NEW WORLDS

This idea reflects the idea that we can change the future only if we address the stories we tell of our past, present, or future.

This artwork echoes and responds to David Buckland’s powerful Cape Farewell project, done for the Paris COP21 in 2015, in which “Another World is Possible” was projected onto a melting iceberg.

It sums up the tensions between the wider society and the world leaders attending this conference and is a desperate plea to make concrete political commitments.

UN climate conference are now permanent fixtures of art. ArtCOP21 in Paris saw 400 events from 46 countries. This year, the artists’ presence is gathered in the Climate FringeIts title refers the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

Climate Fringe, its organisers claim, is “run by civil society for civil society”, and the in-person events are joined by an online hub with community-generated content including lectures, exhibitions, public artworks, film screenings and poetry readings.

What is art capable of at a high stakes political meeting? Depending on who you ask, everything and nothing.

Caricatures of world leaders play bagpipes in a 'Hot air band'

The only exception to this is Glasgow’s negotiating table.
AP Photo/Scott Heppell

Existential threat

Kathy Jetn̄il-KijinerCurrently reporting from Glasgow is a poet and Climate Envoy for the Marshall Islands,. for Yahoo. She is not new to climate activism. She recited her poem at COP21 in Paris. 2 Degrees, explaining, in no uncertain terms, what difference half a degree would make for her peoples’ survival and sovereignty.

For those unfamiliar with the arcane theatrics of climate diplomacy, voices like hers are crucial to understanding what’s at stake. Artists are not part of the negotiation table. They’re not actually making the decisions. What are they hoping to accomplish?

Artists can increase awareness by making complex scientific reports tangible and accessible to the public.

For instance, Waanyi artist Judy Watson’s painting, australian mean temperature anomaly (2021), washes statistical bar graphs with an expressive, regenerative and hopeful hue of green to reference the regrowth of K’gari (Fraser Island) following the Black Summer bushfires. At Brisbane’s Institute of Modern Art’s recent show On Fire, Watson’s work sat in contrast to a lump of coal on a plinth.

Judy Watson, australian mean temperature anomaly, 2021 (installation view)
. With Leecee Carmichael’s assistance, acrylic, graphite and pastel, as well as chinagraph on canvas and coal, 269×179.5 cm. Courtesy the artist, Milani Gallery Brisbane and Tolarno Galleries Melbourne.
 Installation view: ‘On Fire: Climate and Crisis’
IMA Brisbane. Carl Warner.

Artists do more than simply tell us there’s a problem. Artists can add nuance to the intricate web of interconnected issues that we face. They can tell stories of loss, possibility, and transformation. inside and beyond the art world.

Some, such as the Brandalism collective, seek to influence political action. After Australia’s devastating Black Summer fires in 2019-2020, they created How’s the Serenity?guerrilla art intervention featuring posters linking fires, climate change and political inaction. These posters were pasted up as caustic “anti-advertising” across Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane.

In Glasgow and other towns and cities across the UK and Europe, billboard campaigns target the greenwashing propaganda of COP’s principal sponsor NatWest. Hundreds of more satirical posters, including those that target corporate carbon offsetting schemes as well as the questionable climate policies of corporations, have taken over bus stops. Barclays? Shell HSBC.

These interventions are a stark reminder of the existential challenge that we face.

Australia: net zero by 2300

Australian comedian Dan Ilic presented satirical posters on Australia’s climate inaction in Times Square ahead of COP 26.
AP Photo/Mary Altaffer

A journey, not a destination

But while they may highlight the threats, these artworks don’t quite help us to imagine pathways to a sustainable future.

One problem is that climate change has been reduced to a few simplified proxies. We should not exceed 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere – though we have reached 420ppmKeep going up on a scary upward trajectory.

A red house sinks into a lake.

Too often, climate art imagines the future – but not the paths we must take.

Global warming should not exceed 1.5 degrees. However, the most recent policies are still expected to lead us to a 2.9 degree increase.

We must meet a “net-zero” target by 2050. What does this mean for our daily lives?

Continue reading:
Climate scientists: concept of net zero is a dangerous trap

Climate artists also have another dilemma.

Climate-related apocalyptic art now speaks to audiences largely familiar with global warming’s threats and projected impacts. Though at its best still starkly confronting, such art is heavily “message-laden”. It is often repetitive and repeats the same old messages, but it becomes more banal and begins to naturalise its terrible future.

A large sculptural Bottom Trawling Fishing Boat.

Climate-related apocalyptic artwork now speaks to audiences that largely understand the threats and can visualize the future.
EPA/Robert Perry

Or, arcadian images depicting a climate-safe future appear to be in deep denial about the coming transition. It is becoming increasingly difficult to visualize a future that is in conflict and to rally people for or against it.

We believe that the best way forward in climate art is to not imagine our idyllic or fatalistic futures but to instead sketch out the pathways that will get us there.

Without Molly Crabapple’s rapid-fire captivating drawings, visualising and making accessible Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s complex proposal for a Green New Deal, would people have listened? Would they have understood?

On Friday 5 November, in the fringes of the COP, artists collective Julie’s Bicycle is hosting The Missing Link. This event “explores the vital role that arts and culture must play in climate transformation”, and will give attendees online from all over the world a handle on this issue.

Artists can still add meaning and perspective to the complex web of climate discourse. In doing so, they help imagine and illuminate the complex and ultimately radical voyage we’re on together.

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