“Better late than never” This review from Marc Herbst, Co-editor of the Journal of Aesthetics & Protest explores art and activism at the time of COP26.
Climate Crossroads by the Human Impact Institute
Centre for Contemporary Arts, Glasgow, November 2 – November 4, 2021
Court for Intergenerational Climate Crimes By Radha D’Souza and Jonas Staal
Framer Framed, Amsterdam, September 25 – January16, 2022.
En route to Scotland in the Fall of 2021 to attend the launch of Jay Jordan and Isa Fremeaux’ We are Nature Defending itself that I co-published through the Journal of Aesthetics & Protest, I had the opportunity to attend the COP26 UN Climate Summit. In Glasgow, I checked out the Centre for Contemporary Arts (CCA). I was on an extended art and ecology trip – I had just been in Amsterdam at Framer Framed to see the Court for Intergenerational Climate Crimes by Radha D’Souza and Jonas Staal.
As publisher of the Journal of Aesthetics & Protest, I have come to appreciate how public protest sometimes appear as a synecdoche of the socio-political zeitgeist. So, the following review of these exhibitions and discussion of the COP26 protest are a meditation on tensions within the wider activist culture, tensions between what movements know—what needs to be done now—and the capacity for activist organizing to achieve those goals.
With a desire to attract media attention, protest movements often take pains to provide protesters with facilities to meet, eat and socially and tactically exchange. Organizers manage their protest’s image through platforming particular speakers, and also by providing workshop space and material for activists and activist artists to develop individual and collective expressions. Thus, through how protests appear, they can thus be understood as a synecdoche in ways similar to and different from art’s relation with the social-political zeitgeist. The similarities are around what is framed (in art or through protest) as notable to stage toward the public. The difference is that while art is present to sparks audience interest, critical discussion and some sort of identification, protest is organized towards some kind of socio-political effectivity.
En route to Glasgow, I’d listened to a then-recent podcast discussion between Tadzio Müller and Andreas Malm about the current limits of climate activism. The podcast was billed as ‘what’s next for the fight against climate disaster in the global north’. Malm is an academic and author of the acclaimed climate activist book, How to Blow Up a Pipeline. Müller was until recently a professional climate activist organizer whose earlier academic work I was familiar with through the Alter-Globalization era Turbulence Journal.
In the podcast, Müller outlines a history of recent eco-activist movements in order to describe the current state of activist affairs. He describes the post-cold war alter-globalization movements as different from the 1960s movements because of their distinctly contemporary context-based movement method, their own origin story, and a generational memory that generally wouldn’t know about ’68. With some narrative shifts, he describes Fridays for Future/Ende Gelende as the end of that activist cycle, one that in the moment he assumed would eventually be able to push for some meaningful action on climate change. For him the Covid lockdowns created a dramatic break in practice and perspective and timing—one whose break is so dramatic he feels it will need an entirely new origin story and practice. For what that story and practice are, Müller has no suggestions.
The uncertainty of what comes next seems reflected in the Climate Crossroads exhibition at Glasgow’s Centre for Contemporary Arts. Upon entering the exhibit, I’m unsure if I’ve just entered an NGO’s office; my first impression is that I’ve entered a room set aside for an NGO presentation. Though not in an arty way, the display feels impermanent. There are of several full-color vinyl print panels, hanging on a matrix of black PVC pipes. The prints are sizable, with high-impact illustrations and texts—each with an image and story of one an indigenous women or youth leaders.
I am taken by the image of the Watatakalu Yawalapiti, illustrated by Helton Mattei: each climate leader’s illustration was by a different artist, and Mattei’s picture of Yawalapiti has the graphic impact of a Killing Joke era Batman panel—gothic comic book chiaroscuro. Watatakalu is a founder of the Xingu Women’s Movement, and in her accompanying text Watatakalu’s says,
I was not far from the mark regarding the exhibit’s NGO aesthetic—this Climate Crossroads exhibit is an NGO presentation. It was an exhibit put on by the Human Impact Institute, a Non-Governmental Organization dedicated to bringing new voices, “women, youth, frontline, BIPOC and others” into the room. Two Impact Institute employees sat at the installation explaining how the Cop26 Coalition, a group of activists representing the broad swathe of protest groups at the summit, named it “the most elite and exclusionary COP ever held.” This because of the UK’s refusal to grant visas to many summit attendees from the global South and the high cost of travel and lodging in Glasgow. Thus, they say that their organization aimed to ensure that voices from beyond Europe and North America were present in Glasgow.
There was something similarly suspended on the streets during the early days of the COP26 protests where Extinction Rebellion’s (XR’s) aesthetics and organizing logic dominated. Extinction Rebellion is an activist movement founded in the United Kingdom that utilizes non-violent civil disobedience focused on pressuring governments to avoid climate tipping points. Though a grassroots organization made of independent local groups, they appear as a well-organized and broad movement because of their highly visible, uniform aesthetic. That many XR activists wear hi-vis outfits, in one of the many shades on the color wheel, unifies them. They appear here as serious, sincere, and direct in their communication. At the edge of one protest, a collective of print artists are doing on-the-spot printing with carved rubber stamps and fabric ink. Their table has collections of patches, free to take with the familiar hourglass logos and slogans like ‘rebel’, ‘act now’, and ‘post hope, post doom’.
I suppress a cynical critique about art’s inability to respond to this moment. I instead appreciate how during this possibly eventful climate summit gathering, the CCA has undone normal barriers between art and real political life. One thing that distinguishes protest from art is that while protests have the potential to become an actually politically meaningful in the encounter between protester and protested, art is traditionally bound to be an object of exchange—of meaning or money. So instead of critiquing CCA for short-circuiting loops between art and politics, I chose to instead appreciate CCA’s understanding of the moment’s gravity, and while the Climate Crossroads exhibit feels poorly staged, it does feel that the CCA suspension of art norms in this moment was laudable.
It is in this ‘post hope, post doom’ affect that these protests somehow appear in suspension. The crowd I’m in is subdued but very angry. I see no direct action but the disobedience of the protests taking unapproved march routes. The anger is directed at the expected failure of the COP and a fear of what comes next. For this reason, the protester’s attention seems to have turned inward. With the support of the City of Glasgow, the local coalition supporting the protests have set up ‘hubs’ for protesters to connect with each other; with many of the hub’s descriptions taken from self-care manuals. For example, the youth hub’s webpage says it is a space “to organize or just relax and chat with other activists, the Youth Hub is equipped with sofas and enough tea to sink a ship.” The Govan Free Space mirrors aspects of self-affirmation, “As the 26th COP sprawled a few blocks away from us here in Govan, we set out to declare our independence, our interdependence and radical dependence.”
I enjoyed the activist self-care events at the East Pollokshield Quads hub that was decorated with XR’s colorful banners. I attend workshops on activist burnout and a meditation circle held after a climate grief workshop. These workshops are explicitly connected to psychologist Joanna Macy’s The Work that Reconnects that trains people to deal with climate grief. This focus reminds me of Dark Mountain’s bold 2009 manifesto, coming from Climate Camp activists who saw that the “ecological, social and cultural unravelling that is now underway.”
Dark Mountain was accused of collapsitarianism—and also embracing a Eurocentric apocalyptic liberaltarianism. XR’s pessimism is like Dark Mountain’s—though with a major difference. Though they are ‘post hope, post doom’, XR has come to Glasgow to protest.
In Ending the Anthropocene Belgian philosopher and art historian Lieven De Cauter discusses XR’s melancholic pairing of hopelessness with activism. He identifies this melancholy’s root in the nature of our socio-political moment– where the state that has effectively divided and isolated its subjects in favor of just a few of the most wealthy’s interests. For him climate change represents global impoverishment, an affect of the total dispossession of global humanity, and one that exceeds the standard post-1492 boundaries of global dispossession dividing West and North from East and South.
In the book Futurity Report, art historian TJ Demos identifies an aspect of those traditionally dispossessed, that dispossession happened though life has continued. Demos then highlights the continuity of life after a common thread has been lost. Among other things, Demos understands dispossession as a failure of governance and mention’s Achille Mbembe’s concept of “becoming-black” (252) where Mbembe narrates the epoch of blackness over the course of 500 years. First the government-sanctioned Atlantic slave trade turning minorities into property, then successful abolition movements, and now neoliberalism’s financialization of the entire world.
This introspection of XR seems in part to be a reflection of the shock of recognition, that government’s favor has left them and that they like the rest of the world have been left to die.
So in high relief to XR’s melancholy, I appreciated the bravado of Jonas Staal and Radha D’Souza’s Court for Intergenerational Climate Crimes at Framer Framed Gallery in Amsterdam. Their court was in session for four days– from October 28 to November 1st. I attended two sessions – on 29th and 30th of October—these seemed pre-determined to end in a guilty verdict. The framework for the court is based on D’Souza’s legal scholarship, published in What’s Wrong with Rights? (2018)
I reserved a seat for two days—spots were limited due to corona regulations. We are all seated upon benches specially crafted for the occasions. Above each seat is a banner of an extinct animal or plant, painted by Staal. And below each drawing is the word “comrade” in an extinct or endangered human language. On the first day of my attendance, I sat below and felt responsible to the vanished Tobias’ Caddisfly above me. On the second day, it was the Ochrosia Kilaueaensis plant that was (and is) my friend.
Each day’s proceedings were carefully scripted to run something like a traditional court, though for each five-hour-long court sessions, the attending audience acts as juror, and their rulings are only enforceable through the spirit of the court. Staal, as court clerk, pointed to the legal docket provided to all attending jurors, containing information and evidence for the day’s proceedings. He calls the court to order. Lead Judge D’Souza instructs the jury and then asks the prosecutor to make their case. All court proceedings take place in the room’s center, at podiums separated by a settling pool of crude oil within which a petrified nautilus shell is sinking.
Each day’s trial is against a defendant tied to the Dutch capitalist economy. On October 28th it is ‘Comrades Past, Present and Future vs. the Dutch State’. On the 29th it is ‘Comrades vs. Unilever’. Then its ‘Comrades vs. ING investment bank’, and finally ‘Comrades vs. Airbus’. A prosecutor presents a legal framework and then calls witnesses. Witnesses are present [MH3] mostly via a digital livestream. These presentations are remarkable for the mundane fact that we jurors, sitting in Amsterdam, can question far-flung witnesses via digital technology. For the case against ING, witnesses included: Meiki Pendong from the West Javanese Indonesian Forum for the Environment, Fabrina Furtado from the Federal Rural University of Rio de Janerio and three villagers from Mbonjo Cameroon, representing the Synergie Nationale des Paysanes et Riverains du Cameroun. After their presentations, the lead and attending judges posed questions to the witnesses. There are perfunctory efforts to see if defendants want to interrogate the witness. No defense appears, and at the end of each day, I raise my hand along with the overwhelming majority of jurists in a vote to convict.
In her academic and legal work, D’Souza identifies how, within contemporary human rights framework, rights have become a thing to be traded and negotiated, like a sack of rice, a carbon credit or a slave. D’Souza sees the basic units for conventional justice as built upon the unjust disentangling of non-western people from their entangled lives. Land, for D’souza, is the heart of this entanglement where whole relations conceptually resist their own abstraction. But the West’s regime of rights have had the perverse effect of turning of all aspects of life into discrete objects, ‘things’ to be traded away.
Rather than waxing poetic like Dark Mountain or Extinction Rebelion at the ruin of their world, D’Souza, Staal and Framer Framed set up a court to put contemptable criminals on trial, regardless of the court’s ability to enforce its judgments. While this might demonstrate the court’s impotency, it also can be seen as an affect of the ‘hope beyond hope’ that is a promise in each jurors’ heart that perpetrators are guilty despite the ability to hold them to account for their crimes.
This intergenerational court is serious play. They and the CCA’s NGOs and the COP protests project extrajudicial visions that transgress governmental scales. All three projects start with assumptions of guilt, and all three demonstrate and go beyond institutional limits. The CCA demonstrates an actual transgression of art’s limits, XR feels the limits of government interests, and Staal and D’Souza’s embody an unfulfilled capacity for judgment to be meaningfully enacted. In this commonality and differences, there is at least one important thing that unites all three.
XR’s ‘post hope’ demands on governance embody a movement that has not yet begun to articulate a way to effectively organize through its origin story, even though it does demonstrate a way to act. The transgression of norms that CCA demonstrates by just helping activists get a message across demonstrates a similar frustration and one step towards a new cultural formulation—the old rules must be undone in order to come up with something that functions.
While D’Souza and Staal’s court does not provide an answer as to who will carry out their public judgements, their activity begs this question. The unanswered question as to what force can actually bring justice reminds me of decolonial scholar Sylvia Wynter’s analysis of the failures of the post-colonial struggles to build new worlds after the end of formal European domination, that narratives for how post-colonial subjects govern themselves has not effectively changed since colonialism. This need for a new narrative can be generalized as Müller hope for a new activist narrative to emerge. D’Souza’s legal scholarship suggest some practical contours where this narrative comes from—from a generalized critique of wrongs done and a common body to hold the guilt accountable. But overall, the bundles of possible stories that might be motivated through activist practice remains obscure within the sadness of a melancholy trying its hardest to renew itself, despite everything.
 From the October 30th 2021 Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/oct/30/cop26-will-be-whitest-and-most-privileged-ever-warn-campaigners.
 From the South Glasgow Environmental Heritage Trust website, on a description of the Pollak Free State, available at https://sghet.com/project/the-pollok-free-state-and-its-legacy/.
 In a 2014 article, New York Times writer Daniel Smith comments to Dark Mountain Manifesto co-author Paul Kingsnorth that many that many have seen him as a “collapsatarian”, cheering for an dooms-day scenario. To this, Kingsnorth responds that he does not want to have any false hope. Daniel Smith, “It’s the End of the World as We Know It . . . and He Feels Fine,” New York Time April 20, 2014. Available online at https://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/20/magazine/its-the-end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it-and-he-feels-fine.html. 9
 For his mixed interest in and hopes for activism and his very fishy politics, the Out of the Woods eco-theory collective has questioned Dark Mountain’s co-editor Paul Kingsnorth relation to eco-fascism. Out of the Woods, “Lies of the land: against and beyond Paul Kingsnorth’s völkisch environmentalism”, libcom.org Mar 31 2017. Available online at https://libcom.org/blog/lies-land-against-beyond-paul-kingsnorth%E2%80%99s- v%C3%B6lkisch-environmentalism-31032017.
 Demos writes, “Indigenous peoples, those of African Heritage, the colonized, the forcibly disposed and the displaced, the end of the world has already occurred, even long ago. Indeed, such events as colonialism, slavery and genocide, practiced over the last five hundred years during waves of globalization, have violently ruptured in many cases millennial-long traditions and cultural communities.” (Demos 252), In Eric C. H. de Bruyn & Sven Lütticken (Berlin: Sternberg, 2020) Futurity Report, 249-266.
 “Land is the glue that holds people and nature together to form places. Historically, rights transformed places into property, it transformed a relationship into a thing, a commodity.” (D’Souza 5)
 In a discussion with D’Souza and Staal about the Intergenerational Climate Crimes Act they authored for the court D’Souza says “when the rights of a river are harmed, the right of all humans, animals and plants that live in interdependency with that river are harmed as well. Thus you shatter the illusion that rights can be individualized: rights are interdependent, and intergenerational, meaning that our actions in the present will be inherited by unborn comradely humans, animals and plant life of the future.” (D’Souza and Staal, p.32).
 See Katherine McKittrick, ed. Sylvia Wynter: on Being Human as Praxis, (Durham: Duke University Press, 2015).
Radha D’Souza, What’s Wrong with Rights, (London: Pluto Press, 2018).
Radha D’Souza & Jonas Staal, Court for intergenerational Climate Crimes (Amsterdam: Framer Framed, 2021).
Lieven De Cauter, Ending the Anthropocene (Rotterdam: nai010, 2021).
T.J. Demos, “Beyond the End of the World: the ZAD Against the Anthropocene”, in Eric C. H. de Bruyn & Sven Lütticken eds., Futurity Report, (Berlin: Sternberg, 2020) 249-266.
Paul Kingsnorth & Dougald Hine, Uncivilization: The Dark Mountain Manifesto, (Croydon: Dark Mountain Project, 2014).
Achille Mbembe, Critique of Black Reason, (Durham: Duke University Press, 2017).
Frank B. Wilderson, “Afro-Pessimism and the End of Redemption,” Humanities Futures 216. https://humanitiesfutures.org/papers/afro-pessimism-end-redemption/.
Marc Herbst is an arts-based researcher, editor and publisher of the Journal of Aesthetics & Protest. He is finishing up a research project around precarious cultural work with child asylum seekers available at Always Coming Home. He teaches research methodologies at TransArt Institute and is leads play-based eco-social workshops and projects involving play, ecologies, dreams towards cosmopolitical futures.
The author would like to thank Max Haiven for his editing help.