by Jennifer Nagle Myers

From November 30 – December 11 2015 in a place called La Bourget, France, just 6 miles north of Paris, the 21st Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP21), is being held. The conference is crucial because the expected outcome is a new international agreement on climate change, applicable to all, to keep global warming below 2°C.

This historic gathering brings world leaders from almost every country to debate and negotiate on the fragility, and resiliency, of every ecosystem, economic system, civil society, social structure, and all life on earth that hangs in the precarious balance of a rapidly warming world.

As things stand, the global greenhouse gas emission would mean that by 2030 we would be heading for a rise of around 3°C, that is between 2.7°C and 3.5°C, by the end of the century. The worst-case scenario, with a rise of 4.5°C or even 6°C, which corresponds to current emission pathways and was until now considered the most probable scenario by scientists, is growing less likely.
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How can art speak to this? I was interested in researching the art and related actions takingplace during COP21. It is not lost on me that this conference takes place at the same time as Art Basel Miami Beach, for which my only comment is to quote Jerry Saltz, the art critic, whose parting words on Instagram from the fair were: “Okay. Time to come home; just saw this at @artbasel2015 Miami fucking Beach. #ApocalypseBasel”, paired with a photo he posted of an 8-wheel (!) hummer stretch limo that is, indeed, the world’s largest. If you want to rent one, just go here.

I quickly discovered that alongside COP21 is ArtCop21: “a global festival of cultural activity on climate change” that has been ongoing since September and concludes in December. This festival is spread across 54 countries with more than 541 scheduled events, nearly 100 of which take place in and around Paris during COP21. With not enough room to comment on all these activities, here are a few stand-outs.

“The Conference of Creative Parties” – During the 12 days of COP21, while solutions are discussed behind the closed doors of negotiating halls and boardrooms, a rotating group of artists, writers, activists, and creatives are holding different events everyday to uphold the idea that to truly solve climate change we need to get creative. In their words: “To solve the climate crisis we need to get creative….What is required is the active engagement of citizens worldwide in the urgency, value and opportunities of a transition away from fossil fuels and the embracing of a greener, sustainable future economy.” You can view this archive here.

ICE WATCH PARIS by Olaffar Eliasson

ICE WATCH PARIS by Olaffar Eliasson

Ice Watch Paris” – by Olaffar Eliasson in collaboration with geologist Minik Rosin and funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies, this is certainly the biggest and most produced Contemporary Artwork at the conference (capital C, capital A), but I also think it is one of the more poetic and potent. The artist brought 80 tons of free-floating glacial ice from Greenland to the streets of Paris. Twelve boulder-size pieces are arranged in a clock formation, and Eliasson said that it would be “a mistake to think that the work of art is the circle of ice—it is the space it invents.”

ICE WATCH PARIS by Olaffar Eliasson

ICE WATCH PARIS by Olaffar Eliasson

This work attempts to transform climate knowledge into climate action by creating a direct relationship with the viewer and the object that we speak of often but with no real connection to the glacial ice that is so quickly disappearing. “As an artist I hope my works touch people, which in turn can make something that may have previously seemed quite abstract more a reality. Art has the ability to change our perceptions and perspectives on the world, and Ice Watch makes the climate challenges we are facing tangible. I hope it will inspire shared commitment to taking climate action.” The photos I have seen of it show people with their hands pressed up to the ice, feeling it melting, slowly, under the skin. If you press your ear up to the ice, you can hear it crackle and pop. This audible and physical connection with something we speak of constantly but have no real relationship to is what art can help us with. With the ice no longer abstract but real, even in fragmented pieces that are dislocated from the original site, this experience can be carried in the body and mind long after it has melted. Perhaps this does inspire action.

The last works to highlight are those that were not sanctioned or planned, that bubbled up as a creative response to the French authorities banning the right for the Paris Climate March that was scheduled for the eve of the conference and was supposed to have been massive. Instead of marching, activists left thousands of pairs of shoes – weighing more than four tons according to organizers – on Place de la Republique square. A pair of running shoes was left by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, and Pope Francis sent shoes to be placed on his behalf. This work instantly becomes both memorial and protest, a poetic and sincere response to being told that a march was impossible.

In addition to the shoes, a powerful human chain formed throughout Paris on that Sunday November 29, winding more than 1.2 miles through Parisian streets and linking people of all ages and nationalities together. “Hear our voices! We are here!” they chanted. An organizer, Genevieve Azam, said: ”There was a lot of solemnity, dignity on the pavements. There was a powerful current that passed between people’s hands. It was a pleasure to be able to lift the lid that has weighed on French people since the attacks.” Protesters left a 300-foot gap in the chain where flowers have been left outside the Bataclan concert hall, where the worst violence claimed 90 lives, as a mark of respect to the victims.

Art cannot save us, but it can bring some of the most problematic issues to light in ways that speaking, thinking, and policy rhetoric cannot provide. Bringing light to these issues, in all ways and in all attempts, is what we must be focused on. There is no time to lose. And everything is at stake.