COP21: Writing the future

14 January 2016

From November 30 to December 12 of 2015, the twenty-first United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP21) took place at an enormous exposition space on the outskirts of Paris. What follows is an artistic collaboration between myself, a writer, and photographer Giulia Bruno, that came from our attendance at the parts of the conference we could gain access to. It’s an attempt to graft the spaces unrepresented by media coverage onto the narrative of this historic moment. By representing the strategies of staging and directing sight, within COP21’s architecture and language, it offers a glimpse of the backstage —economic commitments and political fabric forming the backdrop of imagined futurity.

This December in Paris, prominent environmental activist and writer Naomi Kline was saying ‘This Changes Everything, but so was Martin Sirk, CEO of the International Congress and Convention Association (ICCA). Despite it being the fourth day of the highly anticipated COP21 talks, Sirk was referring not to climate change or Paris, but rather to a shift of winds in the international association meetings market during his speech at the Netherlands Board of Tourism and Conventions. No longer, claimed Sirk, should meetings consultants bid for top flight convention events using old techniques, for which the ‘meeting’ is a “segment of the tourism economy“. The very essence of a meeting is changing, and it would be measured by more than leisure dollars. To attract clients, you needed to sell them on more than just culture and restaurants  —“any serious destination” must make use of local universities and research institutions, putting advancement of economic development, inward investment and intellectual capital “at the heart of their strategy.”

Meetings are no longer ends in themselves, but “
a vital tool to enhance city” and national economic competitiveness,” an opportunity to brand.  The managing company of the Paris-Le Bourget site of the COP21, Viparis, positioned itself as “more than a supplier, it is a partner alongside COP21’s organisers — Republic of France, the Ministry of Ecology and Development, and the United Nations, playing a role in the success of COP21, a showcase event offering international visibility for Viparis and for France”.  With the term ‘showcase’, we’re given the sense of an event meant to display the most attractive qualities of something, but also of a box with a glass top or sides, used for displaying objects in a store or museum. Paris ranks as the number one city for international congresses according to the 2014 ICCA rankings, and Viparis manages the ten largest exhibition centres in the city. The international congress market “is a key priority” for their business, and for the past twenty-one years, the series of COP conventions have been a part of that market all over the world.  

Situated on the edge of Paris, the site of Le Bourget’s eighteen hectare plot of land is equipped with 80,000 square metres of built indoor space, to which the UN adds 100,000. An airstrip located inside the area provides heads of state direct and fluid access to the site, which Deputy director Pablo Nakhlé-Cerruti explains in an interview is capable of being completely enclosed by security forces, quickly if necessary. Highly organised and well connected public transport carries over 40,000 attendees in and out of the site during the negotiations. In the city, reassuring female voices float out of the intercoms at train stations, directing participants and observers to said ‘showcase’; workers in green COP vests stand at staircases and ticket machines, speaking English and offering maps.

Walking an aesthetic line between commercial trade show and secured diplomatic forum, Le Bourget was envisioned as a “mini-city that never sleeps”, complete with a foreign exchange office, a post office, food stalls, an infirmary for minor injuries, and a meditation room. Despite the average town centre gestures, it is not a typical urban form. On November 28, French Foreign Affairs Minister Laurent Fabius hands over symbolic keys in a ceremony: Paris-Le Bourget’s is no longer in the city of Paris or the nation of France. For the duration of the conference, it officially becomes a United Nations territory, unbounded by national sovereignties and elevated as a stage for the debate of futurity.

Giulia Bruno, 'United Nation Media central control room' (2015). Le Bourget, COP21, Paris.
‘United Nation Media central control room’ (2015).

The marketing language put COP21 in a lineage of meetings that also make use of the Le Bourget site, things like the Paris Air Show and military expos. But the words spoken in its interiors position COP21 as paramount and singular, an exposition unprecedented in history. And its object on display? The climate accord.

The work of COPs since 1995 has been world-building through a collectively shaped text. At COP21, the tool for constructing this world is the grammatical practice of bracketing. ‘Bracketing’ is climate summit parlance for selecting portions of text to section off as contested, up for negotiation or possibly complete removal. Single phrases, like the infamous “[below 1.5 °C [or] [well] below 2 °C]”, contain all the potentials of life, the brackets erected as walls with the power to exclude or include. As a method of writing the future, a bracket here could mean an island country there; or differently interpreted, brackets might write the same island out of existence.

But the power to exist in the future has always been related to the power to exist in the past. In the final hours of December 12, most negotiating blocs are accepting what is proposed as the final version of the text. In the last moment the United States takes issue with a crucial part of Article 4. 

According to activist correspondents for Earth in Brackets, two days earlier the text had looked like this:

“Developed country Parties [should] continue to take the lead. Each Party that has previously communicated absolute economy-wide emission reduction or limitation targets [should] continue to do so, and all Parties [should] aim to do so over time in light of different national circumstances and stages of development.”

However, by December 12 the final draft proposal looked like this:  

“Developed country Parties shall continue taking the lead by undertaking economy-wide absolute emission reduction targets. Developing country Parties should continue enhancing their mitigation efforts, and are encouraged to move over time towards economy-wide emission reduction or limitation of targets in the light of different national circumstances.”

The ‘shall’ is referred to as a ‘typo’ by US delegates; huddles form in the room, the COP is reconvened for it to be fixed to and changed to ‘should’:

The difference seems slight. But the connotations of the word ‘should’ echo much differently than ‘shall’ within chambers debating policies of legal compensation from the global North to the global South. ‘Shall’ is legally committing to cut emissions, whereas ‘should’ is merely committing to trying to. ‘Should’ levels the obligation of the developed with the developing — a
 subtle word choice makes historical responsibility look much different.

As a science, meteorology was a late bloomer among branches of Western natural philosophy. The atmosphere escaped observation due to the enigmatic nature of its substance — air. Because it is invisible, in order to see its properties early Western scientists needed to be able to divide it, create an inside and an outside from which to look at it. By the 17th century, developments in glass instrument-making enabled this division. But indivisibility of air remains a challenge for diplomatic processes rooted in bounded territories. In her critique of Heidegger’s metaphysics, French philosopher Luce Irigaray replaces the Earth with the Air for the starting point for Being. Air is both what establishes the self and allows one to face the Other: “I can breathe in my own way, but the air will never simply be mine.” It’s inside you and outside you, at once. It is for this reason that she calls the human mechanism of taking air in and out – breathing – the most significant philosophical gesture of our time.

Could the fact of air’s indivisibility be not the obstacle to futurity, but rather, the opportunity to rearrange? Climate change has been described as a “reconfiguration of an authority, notwithstanding nations and their institutions, still or once more rooted in the cities and in a new sense of citizenship”, and offers a new political scenario that overrides state borders. Where does this leave a meeting like COP21, a showcase of national players?

It is clear at COP that if the emission reductions submitted by each nation (“Intended Nationally Determined Contributions” or INDCs) are implemented, the world will be on course for three degrees of warming. However, because all eyes are on them, the delegates at the showcase commit to keep warming to under the two degree mark, despite their INDCs; they plan to do this in large part by relying on negative emissions technologies (BECCS) that recapture the carbon that goes into the air, so they don’t have to put less out.

It remains unclear how the text intends to rewrite the future without naming these forces that shape the present. If the national delegates can’t say these words on an international stage, who can? If these words don’t make it into the text they display, why not?  

The hype of Paris as an incomparable success and its image of one-world unity suggests a need for more scrutiny of a process that is so self-conscious — in its construction and circulation. The distance between what is shown and what isn’t, the gap between what and who makes it in the [buildings] [text], and who doesn’t, often falls to climate justice movements to be taken up, to find  methods of taking control for those historically least responsible for the changing climate. At the close of the conference, the rights of indigenous peoples, financing for loss and damage, problems with current INDCs, sponsorship by fossil fuel industry — all issues left out of the operational text — are embodied and performed by many activist organisations as ‘red lines’ which cannot be crossed for a liveable planet. Because despite attempts to obscure them, the activists too are part of the showcase.

However, as visual performances of disobedience wane and COP21 itself falls out of the news cycle, the work of its implementation will begin. The glass separating the insides and outsides must be questioned. The atmosphere doesn’t correspond to the borders negotiating its future, but everyone knows that the severity and pain of its effects will. As Irigaray points out through breath, the atmosphere also doesn’t correspond to the most essential border that must be challenged and reconsidered in the debate of futurity, the division between Nature and the Human. **

Giulia Bruno is a Berlin-based artist. COP21 was on at Paris’ Le Bourget, running November 30 to December 12, 2015. 

All images: Giulia Bruno, ‘French Presidency room’ (2015). Le Bourget, COP21, Paris.

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FIAC Paris reviewed

6 November 2013

Testing the upper limits of the most initiated audience in terms of appetite, this year’s marathon FIAC (International Contemporary Art Fair) draws its public’s mercilessly selective attention to what creates turmoil in the small world of art. Collectors and amateurs could discover as much as 184 exhibitors representing 25 countries at the Grand Palais, but also associated outdoor projects in the Tuileries Garden, the Jardin des Plantes and along the Seine River. Going from strength to strength since Jennifer Flay took the reigns as Director of the fair, focus now lies on promoting the FIAC to an international audience.

That said, it’s also important to remember that the FIAC doesn’t aim to satisfy a penchant for innovation at all costs. It primarily embodies the standard course of glamour, monumental works and blockbuster artists, as well the highest, heaviest and more expansive art, while also being a wanderlust for a dose of spectacular, odd sights and irreverent pranks. There has been significant revision of the contemporary art dogma, though. Indeed, the commercial side and speculative flavour of the fair has given way to friendly gallery owners, increasingly willing to curate their own stands. One of the main reasons is the desertion of the bigger galleries, now relocated to regions with high volumes of trade. The Peter Freeman’s booth was the most striking example of a bold curatorial choice, arranging the floor in the baseball bats by David Adamo with a Giacometti sculpture at the centre of the installation and photos by James Welling on the walls. In the emerging section, the solo booth project by Société Réaliste, named CLASSi-FICaTION and curated by the promising Jérôme Poggi, looked like an exhibition room with a proper hanging. The Parisian cooperative founded by Ferenc Gróf and Jean-Baptiste Naudy in June 2004 is booming and demonstrates that contemporary artists are not uncultivated, with a penchant for artworks historically referenced and mischievously formed. A well-executed job to the benefit of a universal language ensuring a delight of the eye and spirit.

In the wake of that, at the Young International Artists Art Fair (YIA), the attractive and iconoclastic collective Nøne Futbol Club, lying uncomfortably between joy and denunciation through its emphatic proposal. In ‘Work n°888’, the slogan “GET RICH” is written in sparrow droppings, relieved from letter-shaped perches, the second-degree humour a gateway to a socially and politically engaged subject.

At the Bastille design center (YIA), Lyes Hammadouche was an interesting find which almost went unnoticed, among otherwise unexciting projects. A finalist in last year’s Tous pour l´art – Alles für die Kunst (All in Favour of Art) –a documentary television series aired on Franco-German TV channel, ARTE –and protégé to jury-member Caroline Smulders, Hammadouche’s main source of inspiration is time, smartly dissected, monitored, and challenged. Superb in its simplicity, ‘1/60’’ shows a second hand breaking down into as many pieces as seconds elapsed.

When entertainment itself doesn’t bring an artist to the fore, it may drive them in their practice, as with Korakrit Arunanondchai, starting his European career with Brooklyn’s C L E A R I N G gallery. Inspired by his favourite Thai performance artist Duangjai Jansaunoi, mostly known as the Thailand’s Got Talent ‘boob painter’, Arunanondchai decided to experience painting using his body for a whole year. From there, emerge paintings created using digitally-printed flames, superimposition and texture-mapping with bleached pieces of denim resembling earth from outer space. Obviously, we’re in the presence of a new form of digital expressionism.

But the focus on performance also turns to the Internet. The Berlin-based net artist Constant Dullaart, at the XPO Gallery stand of Loft Sévigné (YIA) is a case in point. Here, his famous webpage Revolving Internet features the Google search page spinning to the tune of Dusty Springfield’s ‘The Windmills of Your Mind’, as she sings, “the world is like an apple, whirling silently in space”, alluding to those backroom dealings that fool no one, while lulling them to sleep. For the prank, Google blocked the i-frame and removed all the comments from Dullaart’s millions of hits in 2011, citing security reasons before developing their own rotating page –just type “do a barrel roll” in the search field and see.

Korakrit Arunanondchai, ‘Untitled (Body Painting 2)’ (2013). Image courtesy of the artist and C L E A R I N G.

Photography was notably absent from FIAC overall, the best pieces no doubt reserved for Paris Photo Art Fair, coming in two weeks. Nonetheless, outside of the overrun grounds, there was the work of the Belgium’s Geert Goiris at Private Choice in a historic Parisian house. Describing his work as “traumatic realism”, the artist captures authentic places cleared of any recognisable geographical, social or physical features to generate purely mental images.

Though there’s little truth to the presumption that one learns through comparison, you could argue that the FIAC is an object in itself, to be admired  in the same way as a masterpiece like Da Vinci’s ‘Mona Lisa’. The single most important factor to make such a comparison is the undeniable mimetic desire at work. It is not about desiring the thing itself but being like everyone who saw the thing. The fact that so many visitors emerge for celebration creates a feeling that it’s worthwhile. And there is no reason to expect that this would change. Buried in the Porte de Versailles Métro station only ten years ago, since then the FIAC has flourished into a fully-mastered curatorial service with a clear and distinct identity, while its exceptional setting in the Palais and its fitting natural light exert beneficial immunology effects. The on- and off-site events are like the yin and yang of what has been labelled ‘Paris Art Week’. Inextricably tangled up with one another, the ‘on’ only enhances the visibility of the ‘off’, while the latter relieves the congestion from the ‘on’, often deemed too generalist. By shifting focus across different areas of the market –digital art at Show Off, folk art at Outsider Art Fair or the under-the-radar scene at YIA –it is thus beyond dispute that there is a pacific ‘balkanization’ of the fairs. Some art stakeholders regret it, others hope it will give them a chance to participate in that great mass of contemporary art. **

FIAC (International Contemporary Art Fair) is an annual event running at October at Grand Palais.

Header image: Nøne Futbol Club, ‘Work n°888, Get rich’ (2013). Courtesy of the Republic Gallery.

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An interview with Laurent Pernot

5 August 2013

Laurent Pernot is among those enlightened artists who are neither boring nor condescending. If his work is often backed up with the cerebral social sciences, it has a deep and immediate sensitivity, turning up that way because the topics haunting him surround individuals and society, since time immemorial, and are universal in scope. Some of them include the elusive nature of power, childhood tales and memories, death or the passing of time. Using symbols that our imagination and childhood memories can refer to –like a King’s cross on a pile of dust, an enclosed window with curtains still moving –the first level of understanding is easily reached; his approach to art, frugal, intimate, and effective.

The next step, for most viewers, will be to understand why the atmospheric power of his art lingers on for so long. Most of his works are opened-ended poems, combining joy or hope with the idea of death and hopelessness. They engage the audience on a very personal level, with craft, imagination and subtlety. The unbridled intellectual curiosity of the artist involves travelling through time -from Antiquity to the present day -to the point that it may be a question of recognising the past to provide a better understanding of the future.

Laurent Pernot, 'Le roi est mort' (2011). Image courtesy of Gallery Odile Ouizeman. © Laurent Pernot.
Laurent Pernot, ‘Le roi est mort’ (2011). Image courtesy of Gallery Odile Ouizeman.

This goes hand-in-hand with Pernot’s permanent development in the use of media. Indeed, at the start of his young career, he was focused on purely image-based work, being immersed in learning photography. But, he quickly realized that he was “not at all interested in the commercial pictures market”, while studying photography and multimedia under the guidance of renowned critic, Dominique Baqué, at the University of Paris VIII. That’s when he started opening up to video, digital pictures, the history of photography, semiology and contemporary art.

At 33 years old, Pernot gives the impression of a calm strength, the kind that was built slowly but surely. There is an air of the “self-educated man” around him, probably due to the fact that he came from a family with fewer cultural resources. His intellectual and personal development, as opposed to a model probably too restricted, took the path of art, travel and, of course, extensive reading. One of his recent pieces, ‘Cartography’ (2012), embodies the role of books in access to the outer world, as an object of knowledge, but also the precariousness of memory and culture for each individual. Committed to representing the globe, the artist used the ashes of his own books by the likes of Gaston Bachelard, Charles Baudelaire, Samuel Beckett, John Keats, Susan Sontag and Simone Weil. But Pernot is not the type to waste time name-dropping. Discreet but open, deep and talkative when comfortable, Laurent Pernot’s is certainly an intriguing presence.

aqnb: Your work combines many media. How do you address the issue of transdisciplinarity?

Laurent Pernot: I first explored photography, then I moved to video, installation and, more recently, sculpture. But far from a conceptual approach, that would merely delve into an idea and then apply it to different media, it came naturally. Moving from a medium to another keeps me from repeating myself or falling into conformity, but it’s also a mean of satisfy my curiosity, the same way that makes me express a keen interest in science, astrophysics or philosophy.

Also my work started to deal with new subjects, and I needed more than just images to give a full account of them. With image, I was interested in the matter of time, in Henri Bergson, Roland Barthes, Maurice Blanchot or Etienne Klein. When I came to consider themes like identity, origin of the world and history of life, my questions have been further complicated and led me on the look-out for new formalisation media. I never wondered if there was a relation between my research and the fact that I’m particularly prone to use various media, but it may be linked.

aqnb: Your artworks seem ruled by the fundamental and universal notions of fragility, existence and finiteness. Are these features your driving force?

LP: The central subject is human being. Mankind is at the origin of language and, by extension, ideas with which people build worlds. Through the prism of history, biology, religion, psychoanalysis, archaeology, astrophysics or mathematics for instance, experience shows that there is are infinite worlds, which then constitute points of view, where thought is used to seek answers to our lives. I think this outnumbered quantity of worlds and possible answers makes all of us fragile, unstable, uncertain, and thus vulnerable to beliefs proposing over-simplified worlds. I am passionate about man’s place in humanity, life, nature, and the universe. As time passes, my research expands, as do my questions.

aqnb: And precisely, what are your current interests?

LP: I’m coming back to the issue of time but on a geological scale, close to the universe, and integrating religious concerns, like the conflict opposing creationists with naturalists. I’m actually reading Ways of Worldmaking by Nelson Goodman, a philosopher and art specialist who theorized how worlds are multiple and complex.

In his book, he explains that the world isseen and understood either in an affective way, or sometimes in a scientific way. The conclusion is that no way is more valid than the other. In my work, I need to rub against these plural ways. To talk about current and real-world examples, I’m experimenting with processes to stop time and trick its perception. I artificially freeze plants, objects, watches and other everyday life things, reflecting the most realistic appearance of cold. I also stop the motion of curtains in the wind and candles that, when ignited, will never melt thanks to their bronze casting.

Laurent Pernot, 'Still Life' (2013). Image courtesy of Gallery Odile Ouizeman.
Laurent Pernot, ‘Still Life’ (2013). Image courtesy of Gallery Odile Ouizeman.

aqnb: The project ‘Transit’, launched with Gurwann Tran Van Gie and following the lengthy transformation of an overweight actress, is totally different from the rest of your work, referring more to a personal mythology than the collective and universal memory. Can you tell us more about it?

LP: This project was born out of a meeting with Gurwann Tran Van Gie and a French actress who doesn’t want to give her name. We decided to follow this person over the course of several months or years, seeing her transformation process on an on-going basis. The issue involves the metamorphosis of the body, the changes of seasons. We film the actress at various times of the day and stages of her regime and we will cut it off when she will have achieved her goal or simply decided to move on. So this is an experimental project in progress lasting for more than two years and that will probably be in the form of a video accompanied by her texts.

aqnb: Your first film, Still Alives, earned you a commissioned video projection for Jean-Paul Gaultier’s in 2009 haute couture Autumn-Winter fashion show, dedicated to the Hollywood icons. Is there any collaboration that you would love to develop in the future?

LP: I did have intermittent contact with live performing arts. I’m thinking about taking over a theatre space to highlight things, bodies or texts. I will surely renew my teamwork with choreographers or stage directors. But I would also really appreciate meeting and joining forces with theorists I find fascinating, such as Edgar Morin, Georges Didi-Huberman or Etienne Klein.

aqnb: In 2010 you were awarded the SAM Art Projects Prize, founded by collectors Sandra and Amaury Mulliez, and aiming to foster an exchange between the young French art scene and emerging countries. Did this award represent a turning point, a stepping-stone or an endorsement in your career?

LP: Yes, there is no doubt that it is a prestigious prize. The project that I was able to produce and exhibit at the Palais de Tokyo influenced other ones afterwards, directly or indirectly. It was an extraordinary stroke of luck. Sandra Mulliez has a strong-willed, intelligent and passionate personality. She’s not the only one, but she’s a reminder that the art scene in France still has tremendous potential.**

Laurent Pernot is a Paris-based artist working across media.

Header image: Laurent Pernot, ‘Help’ (2008). Image courtesy of Gallery Odile Ouizeman. © Laurent Pernot.

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