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Looking Toward COP16: The Vital Contribution of the Arts

If COP15 was a bust, what can artists do to make COP16 more successful? This is the final part of a GOOD mini-series by the Canary Project's Ed...


If COP15 was a bust, what can artists do to make COP16 more successful?
This is the final part of a GOOD mini-series by the Canary Project's Ed Morris on the cultural happenings surrounding COP15.

COP15 is over. If you have listened to the radio or turned on the news in the past few weeks you have probably heard a legion of pundits analyzing the impact. The assessments range from "total farce" to "promising first step." The simple fact is: if the science is correct (and what alternative do we have other than to believe it is?), we are running out of time. And if the science is wrong and we are not in the slightest threatened with catastrophe, then something else is in crisis-knowledge. Everything we thought we knew about how knowledge is produced would be wrong. Bang. Lights out for the Enlightenment. So, one way or the other we are at critical juncture.

The question I posed at the beginning of this series was: Can the arts or, more generally, the fields of cultural production, effectively contribute to the discourse around how to address the climate crisis? But perhaps this question needs a more emphatic rephrasing. As William Easton puts it in the catalog for the exhibition ReThink: Contemporary Art and Climate Change: "The question of whether artists should or can work with such notions as an impending deluge or broken nature can perhaps be replaced with one that asks ‘how can any right minded person not be thinking about these things all the time?'"

In Politics of Nature: How to Bring the Sciences into Democracy Bruno Latour lays out his vision of the collective effort necessary to cope with crises such as climate change. Latour identifies four counterbalancing skill sets necessary for the effective functioning of society. Three of the four are not surprising: scientist, economist, and politician. Yet, it is clear we will get nowhere fast without the fourth skill set identified by Latour: the moralist.

In Latour's scheme (as explained by the University of Minnesota professor Michael Nordquist): "The moralist reminds the collective of the externality that it produced in the form of denied entities and practices, always asking about their possible participation as well as these other entities' desires, rather than the collective solely concerning itself with itself and its existing participants." Simply put: the moralist keeps society honest.

In Copenhagen, Latour's first three groups were physically represented by all the politicians, scientists, and economists inside the Bella Center. The moralists were outside clamoring to get in, primarily concerned with amplifying the voice of developing nations who came to the poker table with far too few chips to wager with any strength.

There is little barrier to entry to the moralist camp, it is essentially open to anybody. However, artists and cultural producers are its leaders by virtue of the simple fact that they produce images and words. The well-articulated desire of the arts to always be questioning, interrogating, and finding the nuance is here put to good use.

But lest a particular artist feels cornered in the trap of instrumentalism, let it be noted that there is no need for the moralists to be coherent or even plausible. The others in society will worry about sorting this out. Negative capability is currently in demand and the field remains wide open. The voice of the developing world is only the most obvious excluded entity. There are many themes to be explored by the artist qua moralist: "the blind spots of science" (to use Soren Pold's phrase), the local versus the global, the nature of nature, the continuation of the capitalist project, and so on.

Furthermore, the role of the moralist as Latour defines it is open to all, not just artists, whose role is very particular. Protests, particularly protests prepared to state some urgency, and even the actions one takes in everyday life, whether affirmative or subversive, could be the actions of a moralist.

The point is: there is lots of work to be done. I began this series by tongue-in-cheek posing a series of errors that an artist working in this area could commit. Of course, the only real errors are to shrug off responsibility and to miss an opportunity.

The next meeting place is set: Mexico City this summer for COP16. Bring a pen and a pitchfork.

Photo by Flickr user Peter Blanchard.

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