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Ribbons, gwilt and traveling icebergs: the other side of Paris during COP21

While policy-makers, scientists and governments worked late into many nights during the Conference of the Parties (COP21) as they crafted the Paris Agreement, across the city other groups of people came together to do different, but no less essential work. I speak here of the hub of artists, writers, film-makers, linguists, poets and story-tellers that also gathered in Paris during the conference. I attended both Conference of the Youth (COY11), where I presented my research, and COP21, where I was an observer. As well as attending these two events, I made time to explore the creative outputs inspired by climate change that were so abundant in Paris during COP.

My first exposure to art was the Ribbon Project at COY, where a poster posed the question: what do you love and hope to never lose to climate chaos? People were invited to write their responses on coloured ribbons, which would then eventually result in an installation featuring thousands of climate stories. The Ribbon Project walked the thin and dangerous line between despair and hope that all communicators of climate change (including scientists) are familiar with: evoking in its question both love (a connecting and purposeful emotion) and fear (an emotion which has created much dysfunction in climate change action). What was apparent was that it was important for people to tell their personal stories. At ACDI’s COP21 briefing several of the panellists mentioned that this personal story-telling was something that was missed (and needed at COP21).

I watched young people from all over the world either confidently put pen to ribbon, or go through a small pile of ribbons as they scratched their words out and started over again and again. They paid careful attention to their words, with so few being permitted on the thin colourful strips of cloth. Could it be that it is hard to write about climate change succinctly because we lack the words to do so?

Yes, say Heidi Quante and Alicia Escott, founders of the Bureau of Linguistical Reality, a project that collaborates on creating new words for our new world, as defined by climate change.

For Quante and Escott, the unprecedented phenomenon of climate change necessitates new words, words that construct the reality of climate change. Escott gave examples of two such words that demonstrate why new words are important: the portmanteau, “smog” and neologism “genocide.” Where would we be without these words, that so aptly make real what we might have had difficulty describing before.

Perhaps the best known and most accepted word in our new environmental era is “Anthropocene”. The Bureau of Linguistical Reality offers several more words that should be in  common parlance. A favourite of mine (especially in water-stressed South Africa), was ‘gwilt,’ defined as:

“To cause wilting in plants by not providing proper horticultural care out of concern for water consumption, especially during a time of drought. [And] the feeling regret and responsibility for its wilting. The accompanying compensatory feeling caused by watering said plants and experiencing further gwilt for not practicing water conservation.”

Also interesting were “Phantom Species Syndrome” (when a society cannot accept the extinction of a species and subsequently exhibits behaviour such as reporting sighting of said animals) and “Slow Ennuipocalypse.”  Slow Ennuipocalypse is explained further by Mike Arcega (2015):

“ While the media often depicts the apocalypse as a sudden and dramatic event, Slow Ennuipocalypse, or Slowpocalypse (slang) offers the concept of a doomsday that occurs at an excruciatingly slow day to day time scale. [It] may occur in a geologic blink of an eye, but for the Homo Sapiens in urban/suburban settings who are often disconnected from the natural cycles, it is painfully boring. As a result of the perceived slow pace of the apocalypse those who live through it feel a compulsion to distract themselves with ever faster technology, media and economic systems – all of which feedback into a disconnect from the pace of natural systems we need to survive”

Defined as such concept of Slow Ennuipocalypse speaks to the last artwork I address here, Ice Watch by artists Olafur Eliasson and Minik Rosing. For Ice Watch they installed of blocks of Arctic ice at the Place de Panthéon in central Paris. There are many gimmicky click-bait artworks about climate change out there that I think contribute to the technological distraction from climate change that Aregega takes issue with, 'fizzle mildly in some other, less important part of the mind' (1). Ice Watch is not one such work. As people milled about the ancient ice, licking it, kissing it, even crying over it, their apathy seemed crack as the ice in turn cracked and melted.

We are mistaken when we disregard art in the climate change arena, as works such those I have discussed are not only positioned to complement the efforts scientists, policy-makers, NGOs and governments, but can play an essential role in making climate change tangible, personal and important. As the Ribbon Project put it “We must share our climate grief, so we can move towards solidarity and action.”

(1)    With apologies to Johnathan Johnson


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