As the UN prepares for Cop27, we look at which arts initiatives are working alongside governments to create real environmental change

As the 2022 UN Climate Change Conference, or Cop27, approaches, world leaders including US President Joe Biden, most of the EU prime ministers and now, at the last minute, UK Prime Minister Rushie Sunak will gather in Egypt for this year’s attempt to find global solutions to the climate and environmental crisis. So it seems timely to assess how some international environmental initiatives are harnessing the power of art in myriad ways to bring about meaningful systemic change.

Chief among these is Art 2030, a non-profit organization operating in Denmark that facilitates artist projects and lobbying initiatives to link art and artists to the 17 interrelated UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). These goals were drawn up by world leaders at the UN General Assembly in 2015 as “a shared plan for peace and prosperity for people and the planet, now and in the future.”

The SDGs β€” also known as the Global Goals β€” were included in a UN resolution known as the 2030 Agenda, which sets out the goal of achieving them by 2030. These 17 broad, interdependent and highly ambitious goals cover all social, economic and environmental foundations. These include the absence of poverty, affordable and clean energy, and protecting, restoring and sustaining life and ecosystems on land.

Even in 2015, it was always known that even partial implementation of any of the above was an impossibly difficult task – and especially after two years of a global pandemic. But Agenda 30 and the SDGs nonetheless stand as a key aspirational marker for our beleaguered globe and its population, and even partial successes should be seen as success. The main role and importance of Art30 is the way it engages directly with the infrastructures of the United Nations to integrate art and leaders in the art sector with the resolution of Agenda 2030 and its goals. As his manifesto states: β€œIn the true spirit of the Global Goals, we believe that bringing together the voices and actions of visionaries who believe in the unique power of art contributes to our 2030 goals for a strong and sustainable world , leaving no one behind.”

To this end, in 2021, Art 2030 brought together environmentally conscious global art leaders, including Tate Modern director Francis Morris, artist Alfredo Jaar, the Artists Team Lab and the international charity Gallery Climate Coalition, to address to world leaders at a UN event on culture and sustainable development organized in collaboration with UNESCO.

Having direct access to the UN gives Art2030 significant profile and lobbying muscle. Between the opening of the 77th UN General Assembly this September and the launch of COP 27 this month, Art 2030’s multi-format campaign Art for Hope, which launched at the last Venice Biennale with presentations by the President of the UN General Assembly and artists including Dahn Voh and Tino Seghal, issues “change declarations” by artists, museum directors and prominent non-profit organizations that propose a set of actions to be taken by UN members in response to the extraordinary climate and environmental crisis, and include the SDGs .

Interspecies Assembly, installed in Central Park, New York, 2021. Photo: Lance Gerber

Another strand of their work is Art for a Healthy Planet, which shares SDG-related artwork from a list of prominent artists on social media on World Earth Day and World Environment Day, and has also commissioned significant works that mark Agenda 2030, such as the tour Interspecies assembly from Superflex and Dahn Vo’s permanent garden in Niva, Denmark, dedicated to local biodiversity.

Another significant initiative is S+T+Arts, which is funded by the European Commission and aims to bring together art, science and technology to protect the environment. This cross-sector collaboration sees the humanities as central to finding environmental solutions and emphasizes putting artists at the forefront of innovation processes that seek to mitigate the effects of climate change. In February, S+T+Arts selected 21 artists to participate in thematic residencies in 12 European locations under the general title Repairing the Present. Each residency was inspired by a specific objective of the EU Green Deal or a New European Bauhaus and invited artists to propose creative and interdisciplinary initiatives that propose sustainable practices for the future of the continent.

The results of these residencies include the Algerian-Italian Samira Benini Alouat’s prototype for a public garden exclusively illuminated with light coming from a specific type of bacterial cultivation that generates free electricity; The nomadic film festival of Greek artists Ioannis Koliopoulos and Paola Pallavidi, entirely fueled by agricultural crops, which will take place in different agricultural locations each year; and Austrian Markus Jeschaunig’s prototype installation designed to store heat that would otherwise be wasted during the day. Also, Britain’s Kate Austin and Italy’s Fara Peluso created a video sculpture that highlights a circular alternative to extractive models and includes a biomaterial prototype that could replace vinyl records with a low-carbon way for listeners to acquire sound work.

Installation view of REWILD in MAXXI. Courtesy of MAXXI

These and other artistic solutions are presented in a trio of exhibitions: NEW WORLD at MEET Center for Digital Culture in Milan is now closed, but you can still catch it REWILD at MAXXI, the National Museum of 21st Century Art in Rome, through November 13, and TRANSFORMATION at the ZKM Art and Media Center in Karlsruhe, from November 18 to December 18.

It is a depressing fact that artworks made in response to the environmental crisis often carry a heavy carbon footprint themselves. In what we hope will resonate with art commissioners around the world, this conundrum is addressed head-on in A Feral Commons, the new global public art project co-commissioned by four members of the Global Cultural Districts Network (FCDN). World Association of Arts Districts. These neighborhoods are: Alserkal Avenue area in Dubai; Jamaica Creative Arts Kingston District; The Onassis Stegi Multidisciplinary Cultural Center in Athens and the Victoria Yards complex in Johannesburg, and each is currently in the process of commissioning a site-specific public work to be unveiled late next year.

Importantly, each of these works of art will not only address their immediate surroundings and climate catastrophe, but each aims to occur with as little environmental impact as possible. To this end, all works in A Feral Commons will undergo a full social and environmental audit – carried out in collaboration with Australian company Urban Art Projects – which will assess and monitor the effect that their construction and installation has on both the environment and and on each of their surrounding communities. Public art commissioners, take note! So whatever comes out of COP 27 this weekend, at least some sectors of the international art world are continuing to rally and work with both local and national leaders in an effort to make a difference.

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