An 8-week series of ‘Carbon Occupation’ happenings based on the ‘C-Words’: Carbon, Climate, Capital, Culture

When the Director of Arnolfini invited PLATFORM to come to Arnolfini Contemporary Arts Centre in Bristol and “do our work”,  we responded with a proposal to fill the galleries with our networks, our current concerns, and to commission new work from seven collaborative artist-activist groups to stimulate new thinking and action. These were African Writers Abroad, Ackroyd & Harvey, Hollington & Kyprianou with Spinwatch, Institute for the Art & Practice of Dissent at Home, Laboratory of Insurrectionary Imagination, Trapese Collective and Virtual Migrants.

C Words brought together artists, campaigners, activists and the general public to open a critique of how race, power, and climate change interact; and to promote creative activism on climate justice in light of mobilisations for COP 15. It aimed to listen to artists, activists and those whose insights are often overlooked in European-dominated “high-concept” contemporary art contexts and to give them a platform. This included activists and artists from Bolivia, Chile, Jamaica, Canadian First Nations, Nigeria, Bangladesh, as well as the particular testimony and interpretation brought by two of the commissioned groups: African Writers Abroad and Virtual Migrants. UK activists and campaigners who contributed included Camp for Climate Action, new economics foundation, Carbon Trade Watch, FERN, The Corner House, Leigh Day (Lawyers), Sustrans, Spinwatch, Stakeholder Democracy Network, Indigenous Environmental Network, New Internationalist. 

C Words was plural: it had no intention of being a neat, tidied up experience, trying to state one message or one manifesto overarchingly. It was an experimental social space embedded in a gallery, and it worked best for people who participated in the events and for artists, activists and other people in Bristol and the region who came repeatedly, and for whom the season built momentum. Many new relationships were made.

This creative hubbub and sense of action was the art-activist contribution C Words made to the field of art and climate change. A real sense of multiple social movements was created in public; how collaborations work, how difference is negotiated, and consensus is reached.  It stands out from other “static” art and climate exhibitions for this reason. It certainly wasn’t always easy for us or for Arnolfini’s staff, and there was a lot of muttering from the ‘art world’ in terms of “Is this art?” We are very grateful to Arnolfini for the opportunity, and for rising to the challenge.

Here are two poems from C Words, published in ‘No Condition Is Permanent’ a book of 19 poets on climate justice and change (available from www.platformlondon.org at £4.00):

Prudhoe Bay

“I tell you, it sucks. It’s a freaking waste-
land. Just shitloads of birds we’re not allowed
to shoot. Food’s okay and there’s a work-out
room, but it’s still a real bitch being based
here.”  “It’s awesome. I was, like – wow – amazed
when I first saw that giant pipeline. Proud
too – these fields are the world’s cleanest, no doubt
about it, Jesus our Lord God be praised.”
Two thousand men work here and hundreds more
come to leer at all the rigs, airports, drills,
roads, wells, waste pits, and power plants which gore
the tundra, licking their lips as black blood spills.
The boss, it’s clear, has big tumescent plans
to pump it dead with his plump, slickered hands.

Sue Richardson – African Writers Abroad

You Could Lose Everything

You could lose everything.
The smell of prairies in the wintertime
the forty shades of green
the taste of bread
the profile of the skin of your loved one
the grey screech of the seagull.
You could lose everything.
The land that sheltered your steps,
the memory of the sea
even the sound of your mother’s tongue.
You could lose everything.
What you know, what you think
you know, the prophecy.
You could lose everything.
But if you can no longer love,
cry, for you have lost yourself.

Carmen Borja – African Writers Abroad

In concrete terms, C Words achieved the following:

  • Over 31,000 people visited C Words
  • c.2299 participated in events, workshops, teach-ins, 3 courses and performances.  
  • 133 artist-activists contributed work to C Words (including the 7 commissioned groups comprising 21 people)  
  • 53 activists/campaigners were invited to share their skills and insights through events etc.
  • The high-profile launch of a UK national campaign tour by Canadian First Nation activists against the Tar Sands; with Indigenous Environmental Network and New Internationalist. 13.11.09; the event triggered the founding of BrATS (Bristol Against Tar Sands)
  • Hosted a press announcement by Cristian Dominguez, Bolivian Secretary of State for Environment & Resources on the upcoming COP 15, with Trapese Collective; 13.11.09
  • Addressed energy in Arnolfini’s building (Bush House), through catalysing ongoing meetings with all tenants, plus symposium “Embedded! Arts, Energy, and Climate Change”, on issues of finance, sponsorship and intrinsic practices (such as moving artists and artwork around the planet). Also a guided tour of the Bush House was developed by James Marriott called “Stopping the Bush Fire”.
  • Two commissioned groups – Labofii’s “Bike Bloc” and Institute for Art & Practice of Dissent at Home took their C Words projects to the streets of Copenhagen during COP 15
  • Ackroyd & Harvey’s Walking Forest project meant 180 trees have helped to re-tree Bristol.
  • Virtual Migrants’ ongoing work with Pierian Centre and Black Development Agency, plus their 10 interviews with climate justice activists now on youtube
  • Bristol Street Trees campaign: active support given to save historic tree in Cheltenham Road.
  • Raised funds towards Indigneous Environmental Network, and Bolivian Grassroots activists through Hollington & Kyprianou’s Late-Capitalist Auction and the Tar Sands benefit.
  • C Words ranked as 9 out of top 20 environmental arts projects of 2010 on RSA Arts & Ecology website. http://www.artsandecology.org.uk/magazine/features/2009highlights
  • 10,000 copies of the C Words newspaper catalogue published Facebook site: 289 friends, still active site. http://www.facebook.com/pages/Bristol/C-Words-Carbon-Climate-Capital-Cul…
  • New web portfolio launched of C Words and past projects
  • Challenged notions of what public funding is for – press frenzy over paying for artists to go to Copenhagen.
  • Challenged notions of what can happen in a publicly funded art gallery; who it’s for.

The impacts of C Words are still unfolding in different and unexpected ways. A long-term approach is a consideration when trying to evaluate a social project of this nature.