The Art at COP27 Offered Opportunities to Move Beyond ‘Empty Words’

While the goal of effecting decisive global change proved largely elusive at the United Nations’ annual climate conference in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, the art at COP27 offered other road maps for moving forward. 

“We don’t need more empty words,” said Jenni Laiti, a Sámi “artivist” whose five-minute video was shown at the World Health Organization’s Health Pavilion curated by the arts studio Invisible Flock. “We need action. Art is a way to see differently, but art is also a really important tool to find another solution,” she said in an interview after COP27 ended. 

Laiti’s film is about the Atlantic salmon and its critical importance to the Sámi people who live in the Arctic regions of Norway and Finland. The Sámi way of life is gravely threatened by climate change. “We live with the end of the world every day,” Laiti said. “Our world, the Arctic, is dying and disappearing.”

Art, said Victoria Pratt, the creative director for Invisible Flock, can help us to move beyond human-centric ways of thinking. “We’re not the only species on the planet,” she said. 

Bahia Shehab, an Egyptian-Lebanese artist who worked with Fine Acts on her COP27 project, “Heaven and Hell in the Anthropocene,” also spoke about the need for climate discussions to incorporate a wider array of perspectives. “You can’t keep having these conversations amongst yourselves as politicians and academics and scientists,” she said. “We’re not getting anywhere. We need to open up the conversation.”

Shehab’s interactive exhibit in the conference’s Green Zone gave visitors a questionnaire about their daily habits, generating a sustainability score which then directed them to proceed into one of two rooms. Within the confines of Hell, there was darkness, grating noise and oppressive heat–the temperature inside was set to 100 degrees Fahrenheit. The space allocated for Heaven was bright and pleasantly cool, with a soundtrack of birdsong and leaves rustling in wind. “People are scared, and they feel helpless,” Shehab said. “The aim of the artwork is to make people feel empowered. Even in their little choices, they have a chance to create change.”

Like Shehab’s work, Kasia Molga’s “How to Make an Ocean” is concerned with how to avoid paralysis when we are inundated with dire information about the state of the planet. Twelve shadow boxes from “How to Make an Ocean” were on display at the Health Pavilion, each containing a tiny glass bulb that held a miniature ecosystem made of algae, seawater and human tears. 

“I cried so much, I decided to collect my tears,” said Molga, a “design fusionist” who is originally from Poland and now lives in the United Kingdom.

She explained that the process of creating “How to Make an Ocean” involved discovering how best to trap and save her tears, as well as tracking their ability to sustain marine life. The algae in the bottles came from the North Sea near where Molga lives on the English coast. 

In her research, Molga learned that crying often happens when people feel powerless or overwhelmed; tears are one way of finding clarity and catharsis. The tears that nourished “How to Make an Ocean” began with Molga’s own personal grief, but eventually, her reasons for crying expanded to include the distress she felt about climate change.

“I needed to train myself to cry in order to continue feeding those tiny marine ecosystems,” she said. 

So Molga designed an algorithm, called the “Moirologist Bot,” which assails viewers with alarming environmental news headlines. (A moirologist is a professional mourner.) She paired the bot with tools, like a silver “tearspoon,” for participants to collect their own tears. Molga hoped the algorithm might give people the space and time to slow down long enough to truly feel the emotions that the headlines triggered.

Sitting with our climate grief, she believes, can be empowering, a means of interrupting the endless, numbing cycle of doomscrolling. “We are so bombarded by the news all the time,” she said. “We become immune to it.” The Moirologist Bot offers the chance to look anew.

Perhaps art can also teach us how to walk into uncertainty. Last year, I visited the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in the Berkshires, where there was an exhibit of the Light and Space artist James Turrell’s work, including his immersive piece “Pink Mist (Space Division).” A small placard outside an open doorway off the gallery warned that it could take up to 15 minutes for your eyes to adjust to the lack of light in the space ahead and suggested guiding your steps by placing your hand on a waist-high, raised line on the wall. 

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When I entered “Pink Mist (Space Division),” I was alone, and I took a few tentative steps before I froze, the darkness settling around me like a thick curtain. Every time I tried to inch forward, my legs felt heavy. I could no longer see my hands or feet or the contours of the floor and ceiling, and I clung to the wall. This unmoored feeling, I thought then, was not unlike what it feels like trying to negotiate the ever-shifting chaos that is climate change: caught between an unknowable future and a tenuous present, hoping you’ll be able to adjust to each new reality, but not entirely trusting you ever will.

Shehab, one of the artists at COP27, told me that some of those who participated in “Heaven and Hell in the Anthropocene” at the conference reacted similarly to the uncertainty inherent in her project.“Some of them were too scared to walk into the room,” she said, even though the rooms looked identical from the outside, and they didn’t know what awaited them.

When I spoke with Laiti, she talked about collaboration, not just in her work but as the key to finding “our way out of the crisis,” she said. “The greatest changes happen when people get together.”

Her words brought me back to that afternoon at the museum. When I was alone in the dark hallway, I retreated to the sunny gallery without reaching the end of the hall, feeling somewhat bewildered that I was so scared of an empty room. Later, I returned to “Pink Mist” with others. With someone else walking beside me, I found it was easy to conquer the abyss, and that right around the corner from the spot where I had stopped before glowed a dim but constant light. There was light in the darkness all along—I just couldn’t see it yet. 

Kiley Bense is a writer and journalist whose work has previously been published in the New York Times, the Atlantic, the Believer, and elsewhere.

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