Making art happen at COP16

“We made something out of nothing,” said Ann-Marie Melster. In this case the something was sunken paper islands and complicated film screenings. The nothing is a dearth of funding and support. Artport and Cinema Planeta joined forces to bring some culture to Cancun and surrounding cities, where the 16th annual Conference of the Parties for the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change took place this year.

Since 1995, the COP has met annually and quietly, in a new country every year. The gathering is best known for developing the Kyoto Protocol in 1997. But last year the pressure came to boiling point for COP15 in Copenhagen. Hopes for a binding treaty were high, and art exhibitions, performances and interventions descended on the city along with the expected horde of protesters and activists.

The frenetic activity could not produce a positive outcome for the talks. Some political mishandling by the Danish government created a rift between developed and developing countries, and the singular accord to emerge from the conference is largely regarded as weak. But culturally, Copenhagen served as a climate change flashpoint, with everyone from the Yes Men to Tate Modern to Artport curating and creating eco-centric artworks.

The culture of Cancun was quite different. Many of the NGOs, organizations and artists that felt excluded from last year’s talks were part of two official side venues: Cancunmesse, where the conference’s shuttles convened, and the Climate Change Village, placed in between the conference and downtown proper. That sounds like everything was in the same area: it wasn’t. The conference was some 15km outside of town, south past the airport.

Logistics have made becoming official both a blessing and a curse for the cultural aspects of the COP. Many presentations were shifted last-minute, canceled, appeared never to have existed. A giant traffic jam delayed delegates on the first day of talks, shuttle routes were long and awkward, with frequent security checks. Artport’s project was not immune to the practical difficulties.

Titled “Two degrees of separation,” Artport’s endeavor brought artist Xavier Xelasco to different communities near Cancun, along with an environmental film festival. The artist went to different schools, teaching the children how to make little paper islands while teaching them about the effects of rising sea levels caused by climate change. On the weekend between talks, the children of a school in Playa del Carmen were supposed to show up at the town’s Civic Plaza to participate in a performance. They would have gathered in a mass and drowned their paper islands in water. Instead, only one of the school’s administrators showed up with her two children.

Still, in the spirit of something out of nothing, Melster marched her tiny group down to the beach, where Xelasco was waiting. Two armed guards stood by a tiny seawater pool in the sand while the group taught nearby children how to make paper islands. The fuss attracted more children, until a decent group of kids stood at the ready by the seawater pond with armfuls of tiny paper islands.

The beach along the eastern Yucatan peninsula is not really a quiet place. Dotted with hotels, bars, playgrounds, it’s sometimes hard to find a quiet getaway. Artport’s bit of performance beach was right next to the main dock into Play del Carmen. But all that noise disappeared as the children placed their islands into the water. The islands sank. They sank silently and swiftly, slowly obscured by the sandy, salty pool. It was quiet and gut-punch powerful. The kids stared at their underwater creations, eyes wide with questions: Did I do it right? Is that everything? Their islands now mystical mini-Atlantis-es.

Xavier Xelasco explained: if we can’t keep our climate to a 2-percent increase in global temperature or lower, sea levels will continue to rise, and island communities, like those on Isla Mujeres, could be fighting to stay above water. The kids nodded and continued to stare.

As the group slowly drifted apart, an inflatable screen rose on the shore: Cinema Planeta would show its series of global warming shorts, Cool Stories for When the Planet Gets Hot, out in the open for the public.It was one of many screenings during COP16, in multimedia complexes and movie houses around the Cancun area. The partnership was one of the few to make it outside of the official boundaries of the conference.

“Governments won’t change anything,” said Melster in an interview at the Climate Change Village. “Their income is at risk if they change. Change must come from the masses . . . any creative part of society is maybe the most important part of society.”

It remains to be seen how the kids in Two Degrees of Separation have been affected by their participation in it. The outcome of COP16, as expected, was an undramatic but diplomatic move forward. Increasingly it’s clear that climate change is a global problem requiring a global effort, artists (especially) included.

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