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Playful Protesters Use Art to Draw Attention to Inadequacy of Paris Climate Talks

Artist-activists creatively targeted the UN climate conference’s corporate sponsors and government negotiators.

Inflatable Barricade, in front of Jardin d'Alice, Paris, 2015, photo by Artúr van Balen / Tools for Action. (Photo: Artúr van Balen / Tools for Action)

One contender for winning “Climate Games,” an action-adventure competition for the best artistic-activist civil disobedience unleashed during COP21, the UN-organized climate change conference in Paris, is surely “Operation Vivaldi” by the Zoological Ensemble for the Liberation of Nature (their French acronym EZLN being a playful spin on the Spanish acronym for the Zapatista insurgency).

Appropriately set to the canonical “Four Seasons,” the group invaded a Volkswagen dealership in Brussels. Its members dressed as trees, monkeys, sheep, fruit and vegetables, threw leaves in the air, and placed banana skins under car tires, creating a scene of wild abandon. Generally wreaking havoc, and targeting VW owing to recent scandalous revelations that its cars were systematically designed to cheat on emissions tests, the brief sortie ended by chanting the slogan: “We are nature defending itself!”

Volkswagen showroom stormed by animals and vegetables

Yesterday a Volkswagen showroom in Brussels was stormed by animals and vegetables to protest VW’s appalling record on the climate.Operation Vivaldi was part of the Climate Games which is taking place throughout the Paris climate talks. Original film by Zin TV #ClimateGames

Posted by New Internationalist Magazine on Tuesday, December 1, 2015

EZLN filed a report of their recent action on the website of Climate Games, which is the creative work of the France-based Laboratory of Insurrectionary Imagination (Labofii), a rebellious collective focused on popular theater, permaculture and protest. The laboratory traces its roots to the anti-globalization movement of the 1990s and has ties to the Climate Camp, the anti-airport expansion movement in the UK. Their current project invites international participants to enact protest actions anywhere in the world and targets UN climate negotiators for repeatedly failing to come up with a plan to address the environmental crisis. They are joined by simultaneous subversions in France’s capital.

Inflatable Barricade, in front of Jardin d´Alice, Paris, 2015, photo by Artúr van Balen / Tools for Action. (Photo: Artúr van Balen / Tools for Action)Inflatable Barricade, in front of Jardin d’Alice, Paris, 2015, photo by Artúr van Balen / Tools for Action. (Photo: Artúr van Balen / Tools for Action)

Another worthy contestant, were its creators officially enrolled in Climate Games, is the “Inflatable Barricade.” The blowup blockade has roots in strategies of popular insurrection going back to 19th-century revolutionary France, and has been recently reinvented by Tools for Action, a European collective that uses inflatables for protest purposes. The air-filled sculptures (“activist tools”) are ideal for disrupting police paranoia that sees protesters as violent criminals, injecting a childlike lightness and joy into civil disobedience events.

The red lines on the group’s giant silver balloon cubes signify the limits of minimal survivability on a livable planet – “the right to soil, the right to water, the right to a just transition,” explains Labofii member John Jordan – lines that cannot be crossed if climate change agreements are to have any popular support or universal validity.

The ecology that desperately needs repair is that of planetary governance itself. And that is precisely where artist-activists are directing their energies.

The red lines are significant because, as Naomi Klein has recently explained, COP21 negotiations are currently on track to steamroll over them. These include “equity red lines” (meaning that wealthy industrialized countries that have been producing greenhouse gases for a couple hundred years must acknowledge their fair share of emissions reductions), and “legal red lines” (meaning that any climate deal must be legally binding) – both of which stand to be disavowed by UN delegates.

In these ways, the Climate Games and related forms of COP21 activism challenge corporate-dominated climate governance and its free-market and trade-friendly imperatives. These are viewed by opponents as amounting to so many misguided “solutions” – such as carbon capture, biotechnology, geoengineering and financial incentives like debt-for-nature swaps – that instrumentalize environmental crisis as an engine of profit-seeking green capitalism. Meanwhile, over the last 20 years of COP meetings that have annually endorsed these sorts of policies, greenhouse gas emissions have steadily risen, with 2015 looking like it will be the earth’s hottest year yet on record.

In the words of Pope Francis, author of the recent Catholic-call-to-arms encyclical on the environment, “we are at the limits of suicide.” Indeed, for environmental studies scholar Brian Tokar, the national pledges in advance of COP21 have all been inadequate, forecasting a catastrophic future of 3.5 degrees Celsius or more warming by 2100. “The Paris agreement will see the planet burn,” says former Bolivian climate negotiator Pablo Solón.

Brandalism, We are Nature Defending Itself, rebranded bus stop advertisement, Paris, 2015. (Photo: Climate Games / Brandalism)Brandalism, “We are Nature Defending Itself,” rebranded bus stop advertisement, Paris, 2015. (Photo: Climate Games / Brandalism)

Resonating with these dire assessments, projects like the Inflatable Barricade also test the limits of civil society activism in the face of France’s declared state of emergency following the recent terrorist attacks. For protesters such as members of the Brandalism collective, who have been playfully hacking billboard advertisements across Paris to amplify calls for climate justice as part of their own contribution to the Climate Games, the state’s measure effectively de-democratizes the UN meeting, isolating the climate negotiations even further from civil society participation, a division fortified with a militarized police force. Protesters’ retort is that climate change is an even greater state of emergency, one that operates as a “threat multiplier” to all other crises (military, refugee, economic), as no less than the US Defense Department recognizes.

Joy is needed if we are to overcome the cynicism and depression that results from the international dependency on the failed solutions of the COP system.

In this regard, the Inflatable Barricade’s red lines also mark out a new form of artistic creativity joined with activist determination in the era of climate emergency. As an increasingly urgent form of environmentally engaged art, it moves away from the limited-scale and locally defined artistic models of eco-restoration, whereby practitioners would dedicate themselves to repairing damaged habitats, rivers and forests of past decades (as in the 1970s and 1980s work of Hans Haacke, Agnes Denes, Mel Chin and Alan Sonfist). From today’s perspective, these practices of eco-restoration seem akin to rearranging the deck chairs on the sinking Titanic. In other words, making local interventions frequently fail, despite their good intentions, to address the now undeniable threat of climate breakdown that is insistently global in definition. Presently, the ecology that desperately needs repair – even before the natural environment can be addressed – is that of planetary governance itself. And that is precisely where current artist-activists are directing their energies.

An additional candidate for a Climate Games award, even though unaffiliated with the project, would be the Natural History Museum, the work of the New York-based art collective Not An Alternative. Also bridging the divide between art and activism – itself a necessary emergency measure in today’s climate-catastrophe environment – the project attempts to pressure arts, culture and science museums across the US to reject fossil-fuel-based corporate funding (they also connect with groups like Liberate Tate in the UK, protesting BP’s funding of cultural institutions such as the Tate Galleries).

Calling attention to the fact that oil mogul David H. Koch sits on the board of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC, and has museum wings named after him, including at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, Not An Alternative challenges this economics of corporate greenwashing whereby climate change deniers and corporate carbon polluters like Koch, who has spent over $67 million since 1997 to fund groups denying climate science, can mobilize public institutions as vehicles for their own publicity.

In March 2015, the group organized an “Open Letter to Museums,” signed by nearly 150 scientists, including several Nobel Prize winners, calling on US museums – and it turns out that there are more museums in the US than McDonald’s and Starbucks combined – to “cut all ties with the fossil fuel industry and funders of climate science obfuscation.” As such they are part of an increasingly global cultural divestment movement.

Activists associated with #FossilFreeCulture performing outside the Louvre, Paris, 2015. (Photo: Lucky Tan / #FossilFreeCulture)Activists associated with #FossilFreeCulture performing outside the Louvre, Paris, 2015. (Photo: Lucky Tan / #FossilFreeCulture)

Currently in Paris, the group has linked with an international coalition – including the US-based GULF, Not An Alternative and Occupy Museums; the UK’s Art Not Oil, BP or not BP?, Liberate Tate, Platform London, Science Unstained, Shell Out Sounds and UK Tar Sands Network; and Stopp Oljesponsing av Norsk Kulturliv from Norway – to undertake an unauthorized divestment protest at the Louvre, an institution sponsored by oil and gas corporations Eni and Total. Outside the museum’s I.M. Pei-designed iconic glass pyramids on December 9, performers carried black umbrellas spelling out the words “Fossil Free Culture,” and spoke of their support for a culture beyond fossil fuels, both at the COP and in our museums. According to Beka Economopoulos, of Not An Alternative, “On the occasion of the UN climate summit in Paris, we’re urging the Louvre to stop sponsoring climate chaos.”

At the same time, a smaller group created the scene of what appeared to be a small oil spill in the atrium of the museum, and then proceeded to walk through it barefoot and then around in concentric circles, their footprints on the marble floor visualizing the fossil fuel corporations’ despoilment of the museum, and more broadly our environment. A number of participants were arrested by the French police and held for a short period for the “degradation of cultural property.” But for writer and activist Yates McKee, of GULF, the police had apprehended the wrong suspects: “The oil footprints mark the scene of crime, implicating the institution in the fossil fuel system and the climate crisis.”

Activists associated with #FossilFreeCulture performing inside the Louvre, Paris, 2015. (Photo: Clara Paillard / #FossilFreeCulture)Activists associated with #FossilFreeCulture performing inside the Louvre, Paris, 2015. (Photo: Clara Paillard / #FossilFreeCulture)

What we witness with these models is a shift in artistic practice toward an activist creativity directed at challenging the very structures of climate governance and finance, as well as the political economy of cultural institutions. The goal is to reinvent democratic self-determination through direct action, by contesting corporate power and its capitalist imperatives. In other words, artists are opposing what they view as a petrocapitalist tyranny that decides how we address environmental crisis, which is now widely seen as a threat like no other, as complex and interconnected as it is singularly grave and consequential. The artistic element of these actions involves injecting playful theatricality, collaborative energy and the spirit of positive fun, as well as the revelations and demands of an emergent eco-art-institutional critique, into what otherwise might be another dour mass protest march, which is at any rate currently prohibited in Paris.

That said, the activists, who have formed alliances with dozens of organizations, Indigenous movements and governments of global South nations assembling in northern Paris, such as Coalition Climate 21, have no naïve expectation of immediate success. Rather, the struggle is long-term, though the stakes have an immediate urgency, and the motivations are multiple: to invent creative tactics that will at the very least symbolically pressure UN delegates to finalize a viable and socially just plan, and to design creative models of activism that are nonviolent and capable of generating a collective source of infectious joy for participants. That joy is particularly needed if we are to overcome the cynicism and depression that results from the international dependency on the failed solutions of the COP system.

At the Louvre action, yet another red line was drawn before the umbrella-wielding protesters, this one meant to catalyze solidarity with front-line Indigenous communities fighting for climate justice. Daniel T’Seleie, from the Dene First Nation, Canada, explained:

In the Arctic, we are seeing severe impacts from global climate change; simultaneously we are defending our traditional homelands and culture from aggressive assaults on sacred and important subsistence use areas, such as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. How are we to survive if the fossil fuel industry, companies such as Eni and Total continue to impede our rights? They are committing climate genocide on us, there is no way that we can allow corporations to continue to generate a social license to operate by sponsoring our cultural institutions such as the Louvre.

Climate Games, finally, aims to create mediagenic operations in the public realm, with representations, videos and memes that can travel through social media and across alternative news outlets, and activist forms that are reproducible and distributable globally, connecting with educational and grassroots campaigns all over the world. Indeed, the reach of Climate Games is impressive: One Los Angeles-based group, The Gayme Agenda, is putting together an interactive zine inspired by climate activism; the British group Plane Stupid blocked a road to London’s Heathrow for several hours to disrupt the government’s plans to expand the airport; and a Curitiba group in Paraná, Brazil, has joined the Games by creating a series of reproducible speech bubbles with translations of “We Are Nature Defending Itself,” and has organized the country’s first “Peoples’ Climate Assembly” as a grassroots educational initiative.

These measures provide ever visible and public evidence that the directions of the corporate-dominated negotiations are far from representative of the views of an increasingly vocal section of people – and animals, as the EZLN would add – on planet earth. We can only expect such creative activism to continue after the climate summit.

Tune in for the official Climate Games’ awards ceremony after the conclusion of COP21, on December 13, recognizing categories such as “ultimate unexpectedness,” “courageous courage,” “most effective action” and “solidarity and symbiosis.”

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