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Confluences: On Art, Resistance, and COP28

Welcome to Confluences, a weekly column on art, kinship and life. Each week we approach one of the themes of the magazine’s current print issue by looking at a creative event, endeavour or body of work that links to that theme and taps into a larger conversation with the world around us.

“Poetry is not a luxury,” Audre Lorde writes in her titular essay, “it is a vital necessity of our existence. It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action.”

I hear an echo of these words in the current global call to action for policymakers to put culture at the heart of climate planning. With COP28 underway in the United Arab Emirates this week, the Climate Heritage Network - with numerous signatories from the arts sector - is asking negotiators at the summit to back a “Joint Work Decision on Culture and Climate Action” that would allow frameworks and policies enabling cultural output to contribute more fully to climate solutions. “Culture is a powerful force that shapes all of our lives, wherever we are in the world,” reads the call to action, “yet in spite of its potential, culture has not been integrated into climate policy and planning.”

‘Poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence. It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action.’

— Audre Lorde

A Joint Work, as the pan-European federation for cultural heritage Europa Nostra explains, is a “recognised process by which national governments can request the UN climate agency to jointly address a critical gap issue – in this case the intersections of culture and climate action.” This proposed Joint Work would, the Climate Heritage Network states, “launch a process to understand how culture is already supporting climate actions and solutions; harness cultural voices to influence audiences and consumers; unite the culture sector globally to scale up action; and influence key policies and discussions on adapting to the changing climate, decarbonising, supporting cultural knowledge keepers, safeguarding heritage and culture, and innovating with creativity.”

Daiara Tukano (red figure) and Kahtiri E'õrõ - mirror of life. Plumaria and convex mirror. Daiara Tukano 2020. Exhibited at the 34th Benal de São Paulo alongside the work of Jaider Esbell - Jaider Esbell, Letter to the Old World, 2021. © Victor & Simon / Joana Luz

Here’s what I think: art is political, hope-inspiring, life-affirming, witness-bearing and, yes, change-inducing. It gives us methodologies for responding to the present, memorialising and contextualising the past, and envisioning possible futures. In a quote widely attributed to environmentalist Chico Mendes, “ecology without class struggle is just gardening.” By the same token, art without politics is just decoration. My belief in the power of the cultural sector to effect societal and political change when it comes to the environment is not a simplistic or naïve one. A photograph alone cannot divest a multinational corporation from fossil fuels; a film cannot singlehandedly rewild an at-risk ecosystem; nor can a song solve a geopolitical crisis.

But all these forms of art are crucial modes of protest and of awareness-building. To make or consume creative output is to tap into a paradigm of critical and loving thought, and of active engagement, which in turn is actionable and catalytic. Art offers each of us an embodied framework to scrutinise our place in the world. It is deeply personal, but make no mistake: it is a coalition project and it is wholly collective. Art unionises us. It shepherds us toward the far reaches of imagination - it galvanises and scaffolds our pursuit of better worlds.

Photo works by Claudia Andujar in Inhotim

And so, what is the role of the culture worker in our current ecological moment (polycrisis, Anthropocene, Capitalocene, whatever we want to call it)? I ask a version of this question in every interview I conduct for this column. Everyone I speak to has a different, yet overlapping, answer.

Curator Daniela Zyman - citing theorist Lauren Berlant’s description of any sort of social infrastructure as "that which binds us to the world” - tells me that “artistic contributions are invaluable in the effort to reclaim and meaningfully repopulate the imaginary, inventing and fabricating infrastructures through which to make livable the inequality, violence, and ordinary contingency of contemporary existence in the face of the breakdown of distributive politics, social relations, systems of care and solidarity, and ecological integrity.”

Musician Michaela Harrison speaks to something similar, telling me: “I think that the ability that artists have to support all beings in tapping into inspiration, elevation, openness, oneness, peace, release, strength and other healing effects is one that can be channelled to encourage greater awareness of human people’s integrity to the rest of the natural world… Art is a crucial key to shifting and shaping perspectives on what is possible and how we can dream new ways of being present and taking responsibility for the part that we each have in making this world either a more or less viable habitat for all who dwell here, including Earth herself.”

‘Art is a crucial key to shifting and shaping perspectives on what is possible and how we can dream new ways of being present and taking responsibility for the part that we each have in making this world either a more or less viable habitat for all who dwell here, including Earth herself.’

— Michaela Harrison

And artist Daiara Tukano says: “Our worldviews help us read the world; Indigenous thoughts that maintain a non-colonised worldview have always warned about the possibility of what we witness today in nature. So reaffirming our culture and our narratives is the best weapon we have to maintain a relationship with a living and prosperous world.”

“In our movements, we need to cultivate longing for a low-carbon future,” Transition Network co-founder Rob Hopkins explains to me. “That's the main focus for me: how do you cultivate longing, so that people dream of a low-carbon future, and will do everything they can to create it? And that's the work of imagination, and storytelling, and poetry, and music - and that's why that stuff is so absolutely important. Because unless the climate movement can cultivate longing, nothing's really going to happen. The ability to see things as if they could be otherwise is the superpower that we need to cultivate at the moment.”

‘How do you cultivate longing, so that people dream of a low-carbon future, and will do everything they can to create it? And that's the work of imagination, and storytelling, and poetry, and music - and that's why that stuff is so absolutely important.’

— Rob Hopkins

It is in this vein that I hope the policies that emerge from COP28 facilitate and resource culture workers and arts organisations globally to create and safeguard vital work that innovates climate solutions and illuminates paths that bind us to the world in survivance, resistance, community, sustainability, joy, and life. I want these paths to be wide and deep and verdant. I want us to name them, and walk them, and know them. “Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought,” writes Lorde, “the farthest external horizons of our hopes and fears are cobbled by our poems, carved from the rock experiences of our daily lives.”

Cristine Takuá and Carlos Papá at the Sun Animation Workshop - a part of the Meeting at the River.

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