ArtCOP21: the global art festival in response to the UN Conference on Climate Change

Interview with director of programme: “Climate is everyone’s business, not something to be left to the politicians”

by Marcello Pisu.
Italian version on Il Sole 24 Ore

another world is possible_ David Buckland

COP: a history of governments missing in action
The results of the past Conferences on Climate Change organized by the UN, span from useless, to depressing, to embarrassing. The major State leaders won’t even go to the next edition in Paris, COP21, because the last one in Copenhagen ended up in a shit show of ridiculous recriminations among governments. Which is an astonishing fact, since most scientists are tired to tell us that we are on the edge of an irreversible disaster: with the current greenhouse gas emissions, we are heating up the planet of 3°C more then the safety limit.

Ackroyd and Harvey_Floating Field

A new grassroots response to the emergency?
While most governments are overpowered by the logics of profit of the private sector, rather then the global public security, a shift seems to be happening in the popular opinion. While Shell was allowed by the Obama administration to drill in the Arctic sea, the global backlash turned the brand into a “climate pariah”, as Greenpeace says. The same is happening to the “car of the people” Volkswagen, caught up tricking the US emission limits. The scandal will become a movie produced by the green-star Leonardo di Caprio. It seems like finally a new environmental morality is arising from the evidence that yes, droughts are destroying economies, the sea levels are changing coastlines, the weather is a mess, fish is not that healthy and available like before, clean water is becoming a luxury: the climate change is already a lifestyle change we cannot ignore.

Away with the birds_Hanna Tuulikki. Photo Alex Boyd

The pioneer environmentalist cultural organisation behind ArtCOP21
The advocacy by artists of environmental issues goes back to the 60s, but in the landscape of arts and culture organisations, Cape Farewell is today the one with the most extended body of work exclusively dedicated to ecology. Started by the artist David Buckland in 2001 as a project, it is now a not-for-profit based at the University of Arts London in Chelsea with a huge portfolio of visionary art projects such as expeditions in the Arctic ocean, rural residencies, public interventions in remote locations, and now an ambitious international festival, ArtCOP21, responding to the forthcoming COP21, taking place in December in Paris.

We chatted with Lucy Wood, since March programme director of Cape Farewell.

How’s ArtCOP21 going? From the website it looks huge.
It got enormous: we have over 260 events in 26 countries. It’s astonishing how many people sign in. But we’re a very small team.

Do you run everything from London?
Cape Farewell yes, but we have a partner, COAL, in Paris. We are two equally small organisations, with three full time staff members each. Together we are coproducing the festival.

Tidal Lagoon Swansea Bay

Which part of the programme do you curate and produce directly?
50 or 60 of the 260 events are ours. To give you an example they’re mostly the events that are happening now as a lead up to Cop21. I’m right now producing a massive exhibition by Tania Kovats, called “Evaporation”, that is opening in two weeks in Manchester at the Museum of Science and Industry, MOSI. It’s an exploration of the world’s seas, as part of our annual James Lovelock commission. James Lovelock was a scientist and one of the first environmentalists in the 70s, that spearheaded the Gaia movement with the namesake theory, the basic principle being that the biggest creature existing on Earth is the planet itself. It’s a theory that highlights the interconnectedness of everything. Each year we invite an artist to spend time with his archive, to create work inspired by it. Tania Kovats focused on the idea of water as the connecting element, and of the sea as barometer of the health of the planet. The work is a crowdsourced installation consisting of bottles filled each with the water coming from one of the 200+ seas in the planet. We have all the water of the world in one room. Another part of the show is the sculptural installation called Evaporation, based on the representation of the three major oceans, each with its specific salt solution leaving beautiful watermarks when the water evaporates.

Ice Lens-Ackroyd and Harvey

What about the rest of this vast programme: other recommendations?We have a cultural hub throughout all COP21 that takes place in the art center Gaîté lyrique at le Marais. Every single day there are going to be three or four events, like panel talks, with different teams of artists, curators, scientists, climate and renewable energy experts, all coming to discuss various ways in which cultural activity can inspire a very real social change. Our tagline is that climate is everyone’s business, it’s not something to be left to the politicians, in order to achieve the huge paradigm shift we need in our relationship with the earth.

With the wide experience of Cape Farewell, what do you think works better in triggering people’s sensibilities towards the environment, what is the curatorial lesson that you can share and is guiding you through ArtCOP21?
The role of the scientists is to make the invisible visible, by extrapolating, and finding the language to communicate that. The role of an artist is exactly the same. The point of Cape Farewell is to find new words, new signs, new metaphors. One key analogy is that if a woman gives birth to a child, and for some reason she doesn’t bond with the child, the effort to look after that child will look impossible. I apply that analogy to how we have to connect to our planet and our future. We have to make people fall in love, with themselves, and each other, and the future, but stepping away from that 70s sort of “hugging the tree” language, that is very derogatory and divisive. We need to break down the dichotomy between those cultures. The goal is to create a visceral, authentic emotion.

Leonid Tishkov_Journey of the Private Moon in the Arctic_Sorgfjord fjord_2010

Could you give us some examples of artworks that you thought were particularly effective in this direction?
For instance the singer Jarvis Cocker, very famous in the UK, went on one of our sea expeditions in 2009, wrote a special song about it, and realised a beautiful video. He performed this at Latitude Festival, to something like 25.000 people. When he started singing the song, I saw the energy of the people shifting. Everybody had tears in their eyes. It was a very visceral moment.

Jarvis Cocker and Martha Wainwright Disko Bay Expedition

It is interesting that you mention music as a first example rather than visual arts. I feel that among arts music is the most direct way of touching people. How do you measure the effectiveness of your visual arts programme?
We are now working with the University of Trondheim in Norway, and they’re doing a series of psychological workshops, doing quantitative and qualitative interviews, and writing several papers, which will provide objective evidence that art can inspire not only emotionally, but also move to a genuine behavioural change. We obviously benchmark everything we do by distributing questionnaires at every event, but what we want is a serious academic study.

Cape Farewell 2008 Disko Bay Expedition

What about your expeditions: they’re not necessarily leading to an artistic production outcome, but more to knowledge production: how do you make them count? They’re very resource consuming I imagine.
Yes, and also very complicated to organise, especially for the insurances. Our last expedition was in 2010. We stopped for a bit not because they weren’t great, but first of all because Russia made it much more complicated to go to the Arctic, to get the visas and the clearances. Right now we’re fundraising for a major expedition in the Pacific, because that’s where it’s getting the full effects of climate change. The Marshall Islands are already almost underwater. A good expedition depends on how you curate the team. It needs to be people that you think will engage and dedicate a lot of time, and is ready to go through a lot of extreme situations. One of our expeditions got stuck in the ice for five days. People had to stay on the ground and it was under 40°C. It could have been fatal. So they need to be resilient. The curation is a lot about the relationship you have before the expedition, and the artists’ openness to let the experience inform their work. We’ve had various degrees of work produced, and sometimes there is not one specific product. Ian McEwan wrote a whole book about renewables, called “Solar”, based on the expedition. Marcus Brigstocke, a comedian, became obsessed by climate change and did years of touring with brilliant shows about it. Martha Wainwright is experimenting ways of how to decarbonise the way that she makes music. Ultimately it’s about curating a group of people that wouldn’t kill each other when stuck on a boat for five days and it’s — 40°C outside.

Anthony Gormley — Unknown

How do you select the submissions for the ArtCOP21 programme, what is the criteria?
We wanted it to be an inclusive platform for all of those who have something interesting to say about climate change. We’re not necessarily looking for “high art”, which is a terrible word. We are looking for work that is interesting, engaging and unique. We encountered very different projects, from Butoh dancers, to a concert at the Eden project with comedian Marcus Brigstocke.

Is the public element important in the selection?
Absolutely, the programme is all about breaking down about the fourth wall. We need to be inclusive, but the idea needs to be cogent. There were just a few people that submitted their project, who didn’t know what they were doing, or were trying to use the platform to promote something that is not related to the environment just by attaching something in the end like “we’ll be wearing something green”.

The High Arctic exhibition by United Visual Artists (UVA) at the National Maritime Museum

Besides promotion, do you also give financial support to some initiatives?
No. We fundraise like crazy just to support the website and promotion. Basically we provide a free platform for massive amplification. We’ll have a pr expert working with us. The hope is that when the project gets more popular, it is also going to attract more resources and grow in scale.

What do you hope will be the outcome of COP21?
One of the reasons we set up ArtCOP21 is that unfortunately we strongly doubt that COP21 is going to come with the legally abiding contracts we need. The decisions of the last COP in Copenhagen, might result in something like a disaster. ArtCOP21 exists to really mobilise everybody on the planet, starting with the grassroots level and the incredible independent initiatives that exist, like small schools going solar, or communities that start going to work by bike. Everybody is part of the solution. Unfortunately I don’t think COP21 will bring the solutions we need, it is always hard when you work with developing countries and wrong headed minds only driven by immediate profit. What we need is nothing short of a revolution.

Siobhan Davies_Endangered Species

Are you still open for new event submissions?
Yes, we are having 10 to 20 submissions a week, but we keep on accepting new ones.

What’s next for Cape Farewell?
We’re working on a virtual reality experience that will show how a carbon free city will look like. And we have our ongoing programme of rural residencies for artists.

To see which ArtCOP21 events are happening in your city, visit their website.