To get the word on the cultural scene at COP15, Inhabitat asked some juicy questions of Ian Garrett, co-founder of the Center for Sustainable Practice of the Art (CSPA). Garrett also teaches Sustainable Theater and Management Technology courses at the California Institute of the Arts, which makes him the perfect guy to get the green perspective on this massive climate-cultural gathering. Read on to hear his take on creative demonstrating, tipping points, and the paradox of flying to a conference about global warming!
INHABITAT: What were your cultural expectations for Copenhagen?
GARRETT: At this point, I don’t know what my expectations are. I’m a big fan of the idea that if you get a lot of people together in one spot, talking about a thing, things can happen. The feeling I have from the news out of here and being in the streets is that there is going to be more civilian change out of this than there will be government change. My hope is that, with this many people of divergent origins, with the efforts being made from a cultural end, that it will reify something at the grassroots level. I can only hope that it makes it upwards, because that doesn’t seem like the case at the Bella Center.
INHABITAT: What have been some standout experiences thus far? What artworks have struck a chord, and why?
GARRETT: It’s hard to tell right now, there is so much more to see in this next week, but if I chose now my vote is in for wooloo.org‘s efforts and partnerships. They’ve got Superflex’s sustainable burial contracts, the Yes Men’s Coca-Cola Pledge and New Life Copenhagen. Everything they are doing is very much in the spirit of unity and many people doing small things towards a bigger goal. I think that’s a message in and of itself. And since all three of the projects I mentioned rely on documentation and masses of people as the documenters I think that it’s got the potential to show the most real human aspects of the issues being discussed and the opportunities to work together.
There is the common thread these days of “Changing light bulbs won’t save the world.” Which is true, but you know, ultimately if everyone change all light bulbs, sure it would do something about energy use. The point being that lots of people making small efforts aren’t to be scoffed at. It’s those sort of efforts, that when combined, lead to tipping points. We just aren’t there yet, and light bulbs have no future as a tipping point for the climate.
INHABITAT: What role do you see the arts playing in Copenhagen? Is there a discernible effect on the COP15 talks? How significant is the artwork?
GARRETT: I don’t think the folks in the room on COP15 are getting out to see all the work that is out there. Most will probably se the CO2 Cube, but even when we spoke to the people responsible for that this afternoon we were all a little wary to say that the art has too much of an effect on policy. If it does, it’s not direct. There is a lot of art, all over the place, in public and in gallery space. These creative ventures, in talking about climate change, are reinforcing what people are feeling around town here and they have an increasing voice with the policy makers of the world. So I think it’s less about being discernible and more about being, pardon the pun, environmental.
INHABITAT: Global warming, carbon footprints, ecological responsibility; these are recurring themes in eco-art. Are there any symbols, memes or points of discussion you see reoccurring at COP15?
GARRETT: Luckily, thus far it has rarely been literal, mainly in the street performance and that’s something to argue for in creative demonstrating. A lot of it has been very smart though. There is a lot of work which is generative, taking the science of climate change and making it approachable. the CO2 Cube does that, the Glowing Climate installations do that […] we’re lucky that digital and light based art is directly tied to energy use and therefore it’s a logical medium in which to talk about it. But I see a lot devoted to making numbers mean something, tying imagery to facts. I think there is a clear common thread of trying to make the work Human, Personal and in the same space as the viewer.
INHABITAT: Would you say the many artists, exhibitions and installations in Copenhagen create a cacophony or chorus?
GARRETT: Can I say a complimentary pink hum? Sometimes it’s hard to differentiate between the art and the plain truthful presentations. Our destruction of the planet is sort of grotesquely beautiful. It’s something between Mapplethorpe and National Geographic in the sort of sensuality that bridges an artistic interpretation of climate change and a photo of melting arctic ice. There is the absurd in Yes Men’s rotund safety suits as much as it’s a part of the clowns marching in the daily demonstrations. Since it’s so hard to draw that line, I’d say you hear it around, though it can be hard to distinguish from everything else, and while it makes it louder, you can’t exactly tell why, but it’s good for get a feel for the acoustics of the room.
INHABITAT: Is there a consistent balance of medium and message with the artworks you’ve seen? Have the artists created their works sustainably?
GARRETT: No. And, I’ll defend it too. To me, it’s like the argument every other denier wants to have pointing out my or even Obama’s (and trust me, we’re not often, if ever in the same sentence, breath, or thought) hypocrisy in flying over here to talk about climate change. I can tolerate some evils. I won’t say necessary evils. I mean, I could have stayed home and the outcome of the talks would be the same I’m sure (though I would say the arts coverage would be weakened). But, like I said, there is something about getting everyone together in one place talking about one thing — about just showing up — that is important.
So I’ll say the same thing for the art. Sometimes you need to use less than ideal materials to highlight an idea, especially if it itself highlights the the less-than-idealness of that materials. So I tolerate that, but it’s a mixed bag. Look at Wooloo.org and New Life Copenhagen, they aren’t really making anything. Some copies of the contract with Superflex and the guest/host books for the accommodations project. I assume a great deal of these things are recycled and recyclable so… it’s not bad. On the other hand you’ve got installations of vinyl sheeting, or a fake apartment with a bookcase full of painted over books which are no longer readable or recyclable.
INHABITAT: How have most folks accounted for the carbon footprint of their air travel? Could you talk a little bit about the trade-off of first-hand experience and interaction vs. the minimized impact of staying home?
GARRETT: Well, I offset mine, but what does that even mean. It means I paid somebody for my guilt really, cause I know it pollutes. But being here, I think, is important, and I’m coming from Los Angeles. It still took 20+ hours to get from door-to-door. What was the alternative? I can’t ride horse back to the east coast to catch a clipper ship to Europe. The contemporary world doesn’t work on a pre-industrial time table and neither does my office nor do I have the months that would take. Hopefully the real “offset” is in the other changes i can make without sacrificing something I feel is extremely important. And i think anyone who traveled to be here is thinking the same thing. We all pain to hurt the planet, but we’re coming here to save it. Hopefully we’re the medicine that makes you sicker before you get better.
INHABITAT: Having seen some of this work first online, how does the reality compare? How has the internet affected your perception of environmental art?
GARRETT: I’ve been finding out about most of it from online, but it’s odd to compare some of it. New Life is very abstract, so it’s very similar. It’s really the masses of people that make it interesting. On the other had the CO2 Cube was a bit like being behind the curtain. I work in show tech in my personal practice, so I get how it’s done, and I wanted to be more wowwed by that. It’s still very cool, but interestingly enough, what’s still so cool is the amount of data it deals with. Something about quantity, the number of people involve or affected, is consistently what keeps the more the most interesting.
It has nothing to do with Copenhagen or COP15, but another arts experience I had this last August in Edinburgh, an exhibition of installations in the Royal Botanical Gardens called Power Plant, was one of the most brilliant things I’ve ever seen and blew its web presence out of the water.
My point is that it depends on the work, the intent and the medium. in Copenhagen it seems to be very focused on building critical mass, and in that case its’ pretty even, and maybe even better online.
INHABITAT: Is there anything you’d like to add?
GARRETT: Yes, for anyone who’s coming to copenhagen, even after the 18th when COP15 will be over, I’ve put together a map on google of locations for the arts events we’re looking at while here. Also I’ve got all of the details up on the CSPA’s events calendar. So between that and the news feed on our site, you can get a lot of good information to help plan getting involved, or at least live vicariously.