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June 1, 2016

Contemporary Art at the Tipping Point – Environmentally Engaged Art at (and after) the COP21 Conference on Climate Change



Written by Barnaby Drabble


Following the populous people’s climate marches in New York and around the world in 2014, the United Nations Conference on Climate Change in Paris (COP21), a little over a year later in 2015, was broadly understood as a tipping point by activist and civil society groups, an opinion that was picked up by a large proportion of the media. Over a short period, global consciousness about the severity of the threat to human civilisation posed by climate change appears to have shifted in an abrupt, if precarious, fashion.  Only five years previously the ‘denial’ of climate change was still common and it’s proponents outspoken. Polls conducted in 2009 and 2010[1] indicated that scepticism about mankind’s role in climate change in populations of the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom was rising. There is some evidence that the contradictory and confusing messages coming out of that year’s climate conference in Copenhagen led to this wavering of opinion about the cause of global warming but statistically, cause aside, concern about the warming of the planet has grown gradually over the last decade in the West.


Even amongst those who supported the hypotheses of the overwhelming majority of climate scientists that man’s activities, and specifically the burning of fossil fuels, are contributing to global warming, a decade ago the talk was still about what would happen when the effects of climatic change impacted on our everyday lives. Today, of course, extreme weather events, unprecedented melting in the artic, month upon month of record breaking temperatures, the evacuation of the first low-lying island populations and the bleaching of the great barrier reef present us with the visible evidence of what environmental scientists have been warning of for decades. Evidence that we are no longer just theorising about an Anthropocene; but actually living in one. The news that Australia secured the removal of all data attaining to the bleaching event on the East coast from a recent Unesco report on climate change[ 2] is a in case point. Officials asked not to be made an example for fear of the impact on tourism, providing an example of how the grim cost of fossil fuel dependence is no longer being paid solely by poor people in ‘developing’ countries.


Public opinion, as assessed by the kind of polls cited above, is a complex construct. The reports that couch this data are rife with interpretations that speak more of the concerns of the commissioners than those of the participants.[3] The questions, which ask individuals to assess and rank properties of planetary proportions, often presuppose collective cognitive abilities, which, if possessed by the participants, would negate the need for such surveys in the first place. Arguably, the wealth of fragmented, often contradictory, information accessible to individuals in the digital age is at odds to our impoverished abilities to process it with any consistency and exposure is, over time, resulting in a form of ‘awareness fatigue’. This tiredness replaces our natural curiosity and capacity for critical engagement, and manifests itself necessarily in defensiveness. In his recent book Seeing Power, the American author Nato Thompson argues that sixty years of ever more sophisticated advertising has left us with no option but to harbour a blanket suspicion for all images and messages:


“While we do not trust the didactic, we also do not trust the ambiguous, because as a culture, we do not trust anything. The only truth is a unified suspicion of truth.[ 4]


One product of this lack of trust, is a change in the relationship between the observable and the imaginable. How do we sit in an apartment in the West and read about a polluted river on the other side of the world. We are aware that rivers are being polluted and therefore concerned, but the clip we view online appears incommensurate with and disconnected from what we see out of our window, or what we experience when we turn on the taps in our bathroom. On the one hand we are reassured by our outwardly serene, functioning surroundings, while on the other aware of the causality at play, we question if our entrenchment in anthropocentric relations is normalising the invisibly catastrophic conditions in which we live. Either way, trust in what we observe is undermined, just as the power of imagination is harnessed to miserable ends. “Paranoia”, as Thompson identifies, “doesn’t have to choose a side” and awareness fast becomes a burden if we do not have the tools to act upon what it reveals to us. To cite another poll, in 2012 amongst the states of Canada with the highest percentage of climate change sceptics was Alberta,[ 5] site of the notorious tar sands. Despite the violence of human interventions made in this immense wilderness, which to some of us elsewhere, seem so symptomatic of our species’ environmental negligence, for those employed in this multi-billion dollar industry climate legislation looks like mass unemployment by any other name. Even in cases where we can observe things with our own eyes, the conclusions we derive from this activity are highly dependent upon the narrative we tie them to. The same image that tells the story of a way of life, can simultaneously tell the story of the end of a way of life.


For the thousands gathered to protest in Paris last December and the hundreds of thousands more supportive of their efforts, the tipping point had been reached, the science was clear and it was time for politicians to take action. Adopting the slogan ‘Red lines are not for crossing’ the activists laid out their demands in terms of concrete steps to halt the extraction and burning of fossil fuels and begin the immediate development of sufficient renewable energy production. But, behind the scientific and technical demands, another tipping point was evident, one at which people demanded investment in the power of connective and collective imagination. The shift is one from the political to the ontological, or better said a reclaiming of the political as ontologically based. The question then, for all assembled was whether or not their democratically elected representatives would agree to turn a page and offer space for a new narrative. In keeping with the culture of distrust, few believed they would.[ 6]


With imagination and narrative so central to the moment, and artists so present in the popular movements of the late 20th and early 21st centuries,[ 7] it is unsurprising that the Paris conference saw the largest mobilization yet of artists involved in commenting upon, lobbying, fundraising and protesting around the issue of climate change, or that the contributions by contemporary artists at COP21 took a wide variety of forms and adopted a range of visual and conceptual strategies.[8]


There were high-profile interventions in the public space including Olafur Eliasson’s Ice Watch on the Place du Panthéon, Michael Pinsky’s L’eau qui dort (Sleeping Water) in the Canal de l’Ourcq and Yann Toma’s Units of Artistic Energy intervention at the Eiffel Tower. These were just three of fifteen commissioned projects accompanied by an auction of related works at Christies in Paris on December the 9th[9] with funds raised going to climate change charities. For Eliasson’s work, a collaboration with the geologist Minik Rosing, he installed eighty tonnes of ice from the Greenland ice-sheet in a city square. The twelve icebergs that had ‘calved’ from a glacier into the sea, were lassoed, transported in refrigerated containers and arranged in a circle, like a clock-face or compass lain out on the cobbles. Immense in size, and consisting of compacted snow that fell fifteen thousand years ago, the ice was left to melt, Paris’s unfamiliar temperature sculpting it, over a week or so in a changing display of diminishment and ultimately disappearance.


There were numerous exhibitions, with many Paris based galleries and museums adapting their programs to include displays with environmental themes, NGO’s using temporary venues, in particular for exhibitions of photography and documentary screenings. In perhaps the largest exhibition for COP21, entitled Le Méridien Climatique the Centre Panthéon of the Sorbonne showed works by artists like Thomas Saraceno, Lucy and Jorge Orta, Wen Fang  and Taryn Simon. There were programs of talks and discussions including a week of live-streamed events at the arts centre, Gaité Lyrique,[ 10] in what was called the ‘conference of creative parties.’ Amongst those taking part were socially and environmentally engaged artists, curators and thinkers including George Steinmann, Sacha Kagan, Stefan Shankland, Shaun Gladwell and Maja and Reuben Fowkes. The latter, an art-historian duo based in Budapest set up the Translocal Institute in 2013 which combines research into East European art histories with a focus on art and ecology. They were invited to Paris to launch the publication River Ecologies: Contemporary Art and Environmental Humanities on the Danube,[11 ] which reflects upon and documents the activities of artists, scientists, anthropologists, writers and environmental historians, whom they invited to Hungary to look at the ‘complex ecological materiality’ of the river under the title River School between 2013 and 2015. Their work, moving between research, curatorial experiments and education, is exemplary of the growing number of purposefully independent groupings, that can be seen as an interesting space of agency emerging somewhere between the academic, activist and non-profit camps.


In addition to the art-world stars, commissioned with UN money, the galleries with their one off green-themed shows and the ‘creatives’ hosted by COAL and Cape Farewell, there were artists working at every stage of the planning and carrying out of the demonstration that took place on the 12th of December when, despite a state of emergency in Paris, and in the absence of permission, 10,000 activists took to the streets to call for conference participants to make bold pledges[12] Here artists were involved in the training of activists, the aesthetics of the protest with ‘red lines’ drawn using enormous banners and red tulips lain on the street as a memorial to the past and future lives lost to the effects of climate change. Artist John Jordan and his long-term collaborator Isabelle Frémeaux who have operated for over ten years as the Laboratory of Insurrectionary Imagination,[13] designed the ‘Climate Games’ urban training program for activists in Paris. Using a specially developed mobile app, featuring GPS, mapping and social media capabilities, the program invited teams of activists to play ‘the World’s largest Disobedient Action Adventure Game.’ For the duration of the conference, activists were racing around Paris, with the aim of disrupting and deriding the workings of the sinister ‘Mesh’ (listed on the projects website as austerity-dictating politicians, fossil fuel corporations, industry lobbyists, peddlers of false solutions and greenwashers.) Teams anonymously uploaded documentation of their activities, tried their best to avoid ‘Team Blue’ (the police), were awarded points for their activities and eventually celebrated in a closing awards ceremony.


There were also many incidences of responses to the COP21 talks, which although on the fringes of what we can understand as ‘artistic,’ use innovative visual strategies to communicate their concerns. The most talked about of these art by non-artists contributions came as a response to the banning of the planned November the 27th March due to concerns over security after terrorist attacks in the city. The global social justice network Avaaz organised for 10,000 pairs of shoes from would be marchers to be placed in La Place de la Republique, in an action they titled the silent march. Besides the literal associations to marching and standing together that these empty shoes brought to mind, they also evoked a more sombre and ghostly presence within European history – the shoes of murdered Jews found by allied forces when liberating the German concentration camps. The gesture by Avaaz, intentionally or not, functioned both as an environmental protest and as an act of mourning for the victims of extremism.


The artistic presence at COP21 and its notable diversity point to an interesting moment in the history of what we might term ‘environmentally engaged art,’ not only because of the unprecedented scale of the activities, but also because it brought together practitioners who have remarkably little in common. There were numerous cross-overs and collaborations taking place, with activists speaking on panels alongside representatives of creative consultancies, A-list artists marching with indigenous delegates and money from an auction flowing to NGOs supporting the march for Climate Justice. However these temporary alliances in Paris must be understood as just that. The show of solidarity in Paris masks strong differences between the ways in which the art market, the UN, socially engaged artists, the State, academia, NGOs and activist networks see the relationship between art and climate change.


In his 2014 article ‘The Practice of Ecological Art’,[14] Sacha Kagan traces the roots of the term and looks at the diversity of practices since the 1960s that it has come to accommodate. In his conclusion he identifies both the growing importance of these practices and a lack of study on what these imply:


Ecological art is gaining both relevance and urgency as a social-ecological practice… However… the practice of ecological art brings with it a number of difficulties and challenges in the relationships of its practitioners to the art world of contemporary art. A thorough art-sociological analysis of the changing tensions between the practice of ecological art and the established institutions and conventions of contemporary art, would be warranted, to better accompany and support the shift towards cultures of sustainability.


This perceived ‘tension’ between urgent, engaged artistic activity and more conservative, market driven logics in art is currently an overdue area for research,[15] not least because protagonists from within traditionally dis-engaged sectors of the art world are, increasingly, framing practices as ecologically relevant. Part of this is due to a current line of thinking that imagines artists, whether correctly or not, on the front line of the battle against climate change.


“Never has the role of the arts been so urgent as it is in the face of what is now obvious to all as an immediate global crisis within our sustaining and environing world. Because this crisis has been and continues to be nurtured and produced by past and current cultural practices and ideologies, artists, immersed in world and cultural practices, are ideally situated to locate and develop responses.”[16]


Beth Carruthers, in a quotation from her 2006 study of art ecological practices in Canada exemplifies a moment of the convergance of two ideas. Firstly that culture (not science) is the field in which tools for dealing with the current ecological crisis might be fashioned and secondly that artists have, in some way, a privileged, even leading role in this field. This attractive, but rarely more than generalised principle has been picked up by state institutions, non-government organisations, art and science foundations and curators alike, although claims of this kind are rarely made by contemporary artists themselves. The website front page of the much lauded ‘Cape Farewell’ project reads simply – “what does culture have to do with climate change? Everything.”


However, in a 2009 exhibition at the Royal Academy in London, timed to accompany the notoriously ineffective Copenhagen summit, and co-curated by Cape Farewell’s David Buckland, several of the artists claimed a deep sense of sadness and humility in the face of environmental devastation by human activity,[17] one, the painter Keith Tyson, arguing precisely that arts role was ‘not to advocate solutions’.  Rather his paintings, which mixed toxic chemicals with pigments simply reflected the state of destruction. The exhibition, ironically was sponsored by Glaxo Smith Kline, Britain’s largest pharmaceutical company.


So, although contemporary art practice can be dragged into the debate, often against its will, organisations like Platform, based in London seek to engender points of view within this debate, but with another line of thinking. Their starting point is not that the arts can be used to point to the need for cultural change, but that the arts already provide a “space for transformation, inspiration and change.[ 18] ” Their staff of artists, campaigners and researchers work collectively and make no distinction between these designations, so again, the artist is not seen as special within the make up of society, not a leader capable of influencing others through culture, but a participant, a citizen and an equal. Like a refrain of Joseph Beuys’ ‘everyone is an artist’ this also echoes the sentiments of the earliest ‘ecological artists’, for example Helen and Newton Harrison, who always refused to see a division between nature and culture and famously saw the main audience of their work as the land itself.


Platform’s actions exploring the global oil industry have included research into the connections between fossil fuels and art institutions. Their high profile campaign ‘Liberate Tate,’ seeking to end the Tate gallery’s funding by BP, involved an open letter to the director, publications exposing the connections between Tate and ecologically damaging activity, and direct interventions into the Tate’s spaces by performers faking oil spills and installing a wind turbine blade as a sculpture. In early 2016 BP and Tate announced their decision to cease their arrangement after 26 years and £3.8 million pounds of sponsorship, a sum only made public after Tate lost a case at a freedom of information tribunal brought by the activist Brendan Montague and supported by Platform.[19] While both Tate and BP maintain that their decision was not influenced by the protests and the public concern they engendered, Platform celebrated the decision comparing the decision to the moment the tide turned against Tobacco sponsorship in the 1990s. Actions like ‘Liberate Tate’, taking the Tate as an example of one of the many arts organisations sponsored by oil and petrochemical giants, not only sought to make a very visible point that the Arts has an ethical base which should be respected, but also to introduce the far wider reaching idea of ‘divestment’.


The clear tensions between state and multinational sponsored art exhibitions with environmental themes, and the activities of independent trans-disciplinary collectives is not unique to the UK, but has documented parallels in mainland Europe and further afield. Regional differences in the historical framing of art activities and the contemporary systems of funding result in different working situations for the artists involved and different expectations of their work in relation to climate questions. The importance and precedence of indigenous and first nation art in Canada,[ 20] for example, has built strong links between artist communities and the broader struggle for indigenous land rights and respect for the environment. Ancient treaties signed between colonizing powers and indigenous people are increasingly being seen as a legal basis for opposing fossil fuel extraction in Canada and the US.[21]


In a broader context, debates about culture’s role in a sustainable future, taking place in the frame of the social sciences, are increasingly encompassing artistic positions and seeing them in terms of exemplary practice. This can be observed in the invitation of the artist Frances Whitehead as a keynote speaker at the Questions of Culture(s) in Sustainable Futures – theories, policies, practices conference that took place from 6-8 of May, 2015 in Helsinki, organised by the COST Action Investigating Cultural Sustainability and hosted by the University of Jyväskylä (Finland), Department of Social Sciences and Philosophy. At the same time the arts and the hard sciences are meeting in collaborative structures like the afore-mentioned Cape Farewell Project and the TBA21 project funded by the Thyssen-Bornemisza foundation. These are a recent iteration of the oft-cited idea that Science needs the Arts, but with a specific focus on climate change, and they are growing in both number and scope.


COP21 ended with the signing of an agreement that, in principle, makes avoiding the worst of the Climate Change scenarios a possibility. Political and social commentators note that this represents a turning point in which the vision of the planet operating on 100% renewable energy is seen as an eventuality rather than a fantasy.  However, in keeping with the activists scepticism about whether promises can be kept, commentators have noted that the unanimous pledge to keep global temperature rises under 2 degrees, and if possible under 1.5 degrees, is currently not underpinned by any shared idea on how to do this. Even to meet the more conservative target around 80% of the planet’s remaining fossil fuel reserves would have to stay in the ground.[22] Current national policies on, for example the building of new coal power stations (Germany) or the cutting of subsidies to solar and wind powered solutions (UK) need to be urgently reversed, with associated cost. In addition to all this, beyond the calls of ‘fossil-free,’ the related issues of global warming caused by land-use change, deforestation and animal agriculture need to be addressed. In the light of this The Global Climate Movement[23] suggests that people-power and civil disobedience on a previously unseen scale are needed to pressure governments to undertake the steps to meet the targets they have agreed to, they argue that where governments fail to act citizens should seek to disrupt environmentally destructive activities themselves, and they see the contribution of artists as an integral part of this civil society campaign.


Looking at the artistic contributions at COP21, it is ascertainable that growing numbers of artists are seeking strategies to operate beyond the descriptive and disconnected space for practice prescribed for them by the modernist idea of nature as insentient material, and the ‘natural world’ as space for mastery, exploitation and extraction. Environmentally engaged artists, particularly those claiming their full collaborative, ethical and dialogical potential, address the inherent need for a collective reassessment of things we have overlooked, and feel compelled to begin the process of writing new, slow, narratives in which the overwhelming diversity of connections between the human and non-human can be explored and the ‘commons’ these point to be constructed. As COP21 revealed, the efforts of these artists can be best understood in terms of their diverse nature, which makes traditional forms of analysis difficult. The field is already populated by those making claims for these practitioners and new agencies and funding possibilities are emerging with agendas of their own, but the range of forms, registers and strategies these practices adopt and the diversity of images, responses and affects they produce reveal critically different ways in which we might see the relationship between human artistic endeavour and climate change. These are differences that must provoke discussion about the sustainability of the art industry in its globalised form, about the expediency of artists whose works are frequently sponsored, collected or commissioned by companies with poor environmental records, about the social role of the artist in times of eco-catastrophe and about the effectiveness of traditional forms of environmental activism to combat the activities of polluters, extractors and their supporters.


Barnaby Drabble is a writer, curator and researcher who lives and works in Switzerland and Spain. He is a faculty member of MAPS, Master of Arts in Public Spheres at the ECAV and an editor of the Journal for Artistic Research (2009-). He holds a doctor of philosophy (PhD) in visual culture (Edinburgh College of Art, 2010). His current research, conducted under the title "Along ecological lines", focuses on artistic responses to questions of climate change, sustainability and ecology. He is a regular contributor to publications, magazines, websites and catalogues.







[2] (accessed May 27 2016)

[3] Angus Reid is a Canadian company and the reports are most frequently used as a method of comparing national differences between opinions in Canada, US and the UK.

[4] Nato Thompson Seeing Power, Art and Activism in the 21st Century, Melville House, London, p46 (2015)

[5] (accessed May 27 2016)

[6] Documents and press releases, authored by the D12 protest organisers in the approach to the conference stated “We all know that the process is broken and that the corporate dominated talks will never produce an agreement that deals with the underlying causes of the climate catastrophe. Yet we also know that we cannot just ignore this moment where Paris becomes a stage to play out the struggle of life against business as usual”. (accessed May 27 2016)

[7] see Thompson p 21-27

[8] The majority of the art actions and particularly those taking place in the public space were affected by the security controls put in place by the French state after the terrorist attacks that shook Paris two weeks before the climate conference.

[9] Both commissions and auction were a part of the project Artists 4 Paris Climate:

[10] The conference of creative parties was organized and supported by Cape Farewell and COAL.

[11] Maja and Reuben Fowkes, eds., River Ecologies: Contemporary Art and Environmental Humanities on the Danube (Budapest: Translocal Institute, 2015)

[12] The D12 march was initiated and coordinated by a coalition of organisations including ( and Avaaz (


[14] Sacha Kagan. ‘The practice of ecological art.’ 2014 (accessed May 27 2016)

[15] The specifics of this growing field of activity, and particularly artist’s points of view within it are, as Kagan notes, lacking. However, a number of recent art theoretical enquiries are very useful in providing the foundations of a discourse for framing such activity. These notably include Contemporary Art and the Politics of Ecology, issue 120 of the Third Text Journal edited by TJ Demos (and his upcoming publication Decolonizing Nature: Contemporary Art in the Age of Climate Change, for Sternberg Press), Sacha Kagan’s pamphlet for the Heinrich Böll Stiftung, Toward Global (Environ)mental Change, Transformative Art and Cultures of Sustainability[15] and the collection of essaysArt in the Anthropocene: Encounters Among Aesthetics, Politics, Environments and Epistemologies edited by Heather Davis and Etienne Turpin.

[16] ‘Mapping the Terrain of Contemporary EcoART Practice and Collaboration’, Beth Carruthers

Art in Ecology - A Think Tank on Arts and Sustainability, Vancouver, British Columbia, 2006

[17] ‘The Rise of Climate Change Art’, Madeleine Bunting in The Guardian, Dec 2, 2009

[18] (accessed May 27 2016)

[19] May 27 2016)

[20] See ‘Mapping the Terrain of Contemporary EcoART Practice and Collaboration’, Beth Carruthers in Art in Ecology - A Think Tank on Arts and Sustainability, Vancouver, British Columbia, 2006

[21] See Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything, Penguin 2014, Chapter 11: You and What Army? Indigenous Rights and the Power of Keeping Our Word.

[22] Christophe McGlade & Paul Ekins, “The geographical distribution of fossil fuels unused when limiting global warming to 2 °C”, Nature 517, 187–190 (2015)

[23] The name given to a coalition of diverse organisations who have launched a civil society campaign addressing climate change (source, accessed May 27 2016)






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