Intergovernmental policy conferences are one of the key settings where major decisions and legally binding commitments are made on addressing climate change and related environmental issues. The most famous of these are the series of United Nations COPs (Conferences of the Parties) on Climate Change that have included COP15 in Copenhagen, COP21 in Paris, and COP26 in Glasgow. There are also United Nations COPs on biodiversity and many other issues, as well as different global forums, conferences and platforms. These are where negotiations take place, declarations are signed and major decisions are formalised but they are also spaces where governments seek to promote themselves and where non-governmental organisations, businesses and others exert strategic pressure to further their own goals.
Artists who aim to reach politicians or others working in policymaking may want to use these events as an opportunity to effectively target that audience. This requires markedly different methods from much climate change focused creative work, which is more frequently open and public rather than working in closed and private spaces. Many have commented on how the ‘corporate’ nature of the large conference centre venues that play host to these events can benefit from creative intervention and pointed to the ability of art to offer alternative avenues for discussion that can evade the restrictions of more formal methods. However, finding a meaningful role for the arts in policy conferences can be difficult and there are unique barriers and complications that apply. This article uses the organisation DISPLACEMENT: Uncertain Journeys as a case study for how the arts can develop a role in these contexts.
Origins and Foundation
DISPLACEMENT: Uncertain Journeys is a project using artistic methods to improve international policy on supporting and protecting people displaced as a result of disasters and climate change, an issue often referred to as ‘disaster displacement’.
DISPLACEMENT originated through the work of Hannah Entwisle Chapuisat, a lawyer by training with experience in operational and policy issues related to humanitarian affairs and displacement via the United Nations (UN). In 2009, she undertook a masters degree in fine art at the Geneva University of Art and Design (HEAD), looking at how contemporary art practice can be a method for researching international policy issues.
In 2013, Hannah was hired as a researcher for the Nansen Initiative, a group of states led by Switzerland and Norway working outside of formal UN processes to advance international action on the issue of cross-border displacement in the context of climate change and disasters. Although Hannah’s role was not arts-focused, it created an opportunity to advocate for the inclusion of art in the intergovernmental consultative process.
In 2015, Hannah was able to work with Professor Walter Kälin, the Nansen Initiative’s Envoy, and Professor Chris Wainwright, environmental artist, curator and Pro-Vice Chancellor at the University of the Arts London (UAL), to develop the idea. Establishing DISPLACEMENT as a UAL project, Chris led DISPLACEMENT’s first exhibition about disaster displacement as part of the Nansen Initiative Global Consultation in Geneva in December 2015.
After Chris Wainwright unexpectedly and tragically died in 2017, UAL was no longer able to host the project. Subsequently, Hannah co-founded the Swiss-based arts association La Fruitière to host it and partnered with the Norwegian Refugee Council in Geneva, Switzerland. Although a doctoral candidate at UAL at this time, Hannah maintained her professional collaboration with the Platform on Disaster Displacement (PDD), which replaced the Nansen Initiative in 2016, as an independent research consultant and member of its Advisory Committee. Her continued engagement and discussions with the PDD Secretariat resulted in the inclusion of DISPLACEMENT as a component of the PDD communication strategy.
DISPLACEMENT now operates primarily at international policy conferences and seeks to engage an audience of international policymakers, rather than a ‘general public’ audience. Initially, the project relied on ‘in-between’ moments, such as coffee breaks or relaxation spaces as delegates move between formal conference proceedings. Increasingly, they incorporate art within broader official sessions or have dedicated art events. DISPLACEMENT often uses immersive and interactive artworks that invite international conference participants to understand disaster displacement in innovative ways and focus more sharply on the emotional and human side of disaster displacement, which too easily feels abstract and distant in these contexts.
Lucy + Jorge Orta’s Antarctic Village-No Borders and Antarctica World Passport Bureau, installed as part of the DISPLACEMENT exhibition at the Global Forum on Migration and Development in 2018, organised with the PDD and supported by NRC, UAL and others. Credit: DISPLACEMENT/Photo by Gorm Ashurst.
Past projects and ongoing work
For the 11th Global Forum on Migration and Development Summit in Marrakesh, Morocco as part of Migration Week 2018, DISPLACEMENT arranged for artists Lucy and Jorge Orta to set up their Antarctica World Passport Bureau, built from reclaimed materials, where delegates were invited to become a ‘world citizen’ by receiving a stamped Antarctica World Passport, ‘a universal passport for a continent without borders’. The work was visually striking and participatory but also invited crucial reflection on the arbitrary nature of national borders and the need for cross-border solidarity in responding to climate change. DISPLACEMENT also featured Søren Dahlgaard’s Inflatable Island, and presented contemporary artworks from Rhino Ariefiansyah, Lars Jan, Relocate Kivalina, Marie Velardi, and Chris Wainwright to highlight challenges and solutions related to disaster displacement.
This thread was continued at the 2019 Global Platform on Disaster Risk Reduction in Geneva, Switzerland, where DISPLACEMENT was commissioned to curate an exhibition by the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR). The panel exhibition on the Lake Geneva border featured nine artists and collectives whose work spoke to different themes related to avoiding disaster displacement and living with future disaster risk. Contributing artists included Rhino Ariefiansyah, Amy Balkin, Søren Dahlgaard, Mary Mattingly, Sidney Regis, Relocate Kivalina, Din Muhammad Shibly, Marie Velardi, Veejay Villafranca, and Chris Wainwright.
Through collaboration with the Norwegian Refugee Council and PDD, delegates were also invited to participate in performances that involved carrying Søren Dahlgaard’s sculpture The Inflatable Island around the conference venue, bringing delegates together in a collective act of collaboration that also encouraged active and physical identification with the ideas embodied by the artwork, which represents disaster displaced persons from the Maldives and elsewhere, who will likely need to find a new home due to rising sea levels. Hannah and Søren also presented the DISPLACEMENT project to the conference delegates from one of the conference stages.
For the 2019 UN Climate Change Conference (UNFCCC COP25) in Madrid, Spain, DISPLACEMENT partnered with the Coalition for Art and Sustainable Development (COAL) in Paris to present the winners of their annual art prize, which that year was dedicated to the theme of ‘Climate, Disasters and Displacement’. PDD, COAL and DISPLACEMENT collaborated to present all ten of the COAL prize finalists’ work to negotiators and policy experts inside the COP25 ‘Blue Zone’ – which is open only to negotiators and designated observers – during a side event hosted by the Warsaw International Mechanism Task Force on Displacement and during three dedicated sessions at the French Pavilion.
The Platform on Disaster Displacement invited the COAL Prize Laureates, Lena Dobrowolska and Teo Ormand-Skeaping, to receive the prize from the French Climate Ambassador at the French Pavilion for their project You Never Know, One Day You Too May Become a Refugee. Lena and Teo explained their project to the conference delegates and received feedback on which issues would be best for their planned film to tackle. An interview with the artists was also featured on the Platform on Disaster Displacement Website.
For this project, Lena and Teo created a feature-length film set in a not-so-distant future that portrays the displacement and subsequent migration of a family from a fictional island state, off the coast of the UK, called the Isle of Grain. Throughout the film, the family’s story is retold by “Mother”, the head of a household, to a resettlement officer from an anonymous African country who has been tasked with deciding whether or not the family will be accepted onto a progressive re-settlement scheme offered by his state for those displaced by climate change.
Looking ahead, the artists plan to organize interdisciplinary screenings and workshop events at major climate and migration conferences, universities, and art institutions to bring those working in culture, research, policy-making and human rights together in public forums to imagine ambitious future scenarios in which people being displaced because of climate change are adequately supported. They have also since presented this project at the UN Office at Geneva’s 2021 Peace Talks.
A still from the film You Never Know, One Day You Too May Become a Refugee, courtesy of the artists. Credit: Lena Dobrowolska and Teo Ormond-Skeaping.