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The Culture of COP15

If governments can't save us from climate change, what can artists do? This is part one of a GOOD mini-series by the Canary Project's Ed Morris...


If governments can't save us from climate change, what can artists do?
This is part one of a GOOD mini-series by the Canary Project's Ed Morris on the cultural happenings surrounding COP15.

I arrived last night in Copenhagen after a 23 hour, bargain-basement flight. I am here to write about the cultural response to the Climate Change Conference (also known as COP15). What does that mean, "cultural response?" And why am I writing about it?

This conference is a test: Can we effectively mitigate the risk of catastrophic climate change and still hold on to the system of world capitalism, independent nations, and (for the most part) democratically elected officials who have no weapon but compromise and who relentlessly pursue public approval so they can get elected again? If we can do this, then such a conference is our only hope.

If, however, this conference fails and the risk of climate change cannot be addressed by the congress of nations, and if even some fraction of the dire predictions made by the IPCC come true, then the only means of change will be violence. For reclaiming the prerogative of violence-which under civilized society belongs exclusively to the state-is the only means of asserting a new state, hopefully one capable of fulfilling the promises its predecessor could not.

We have, by most accounts, about 10 years to sort it out. Those are the stakes.

There are a lot of artists and "cultural producers" who want to weigh in on this issue. Some have been invited to do so here in Copenhagen, some others who received no invitation have come anyway, and some others still (by far the strangest situation) have been enlisted seemingly against their will, arrayed into a sprawling exhibition organized by the Danish government (to make a long story short) that ostensibly addresses climate change and, ahem, sustainability.

But all these artists are in a precarious position. There are so many ways to get it wrong, and all varieties of misfires are on display in Copenhagen. Here is a cursory catalog of possible errors (I am sure there are many more):

1) The Error of Aggression involves the proclamation of a naïve (radical) politics. It is generally assumed that any engaged artwork is an art of resistance. For whoever heard of an art that promotes the rule of law (lately, at least)? But what if, in the case of climate change, our best hope is the employment of market mechanisms that can organize human labor and innovation more effectively than any other system we have ever known? And what if, instead of questioning authority and the production of knowledge by experts, we are supposed to accept it and trust it. (Isn't that the case with climate science, in which none of us independently engages)?

2) The opposite is the Error of Passivity, which entails disclaiming, in the name of an Autonomous Art, any personal responsibility, agency, or urgency and fleeing, in the name your God-Given Career, from anything that so much as gives a hint of rhetoric, utility, or plain-old imperative.

3) The Error of Kitsch reinforces what everybody already thinks and has the dangerous tendency to erode our souls and furthermore, to animate the doubters who know a fake coin when they see it. (This is what is mostly on public display here in Copenhagen.)

4) The Error of Data is a contribution to information overload and further alienation of the general public. With so much you can do wrong, what exactly can you do right? And why bother? Is there any imperative, or should art and the so-called cultural industries just stay out of the picture?

For the next week, I will be wandering about Copenhagen looking at what has been offered up by way of art and seeking some (inevitably makeshift) answers. My general method will be to descend through the strata-from high art to non-art. I will start at the museums (culture!) and move to the protests (counter-culture!).

Some images from the first day to give you a sense of the panorama to follow:

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