Three vignettes from Copenhagen show that personal responses to the conference might be the greatest cultural happenings around.
I am running through the crowd with the French artist Thierry Geoffroy. He is saying (in a deep French accent): “Zee, it is getting dark. They are closing in. They are going to kill us all. This is the plan. But then we keep going and we move around a corner and Geoffroy is saying. Ah, but you see, now it is more calm. We have come to a different part. All that has past.”
Such was my experience of the mass protest in Copenhagen this past Saturday. Estimates vary widely as to how many marched. Fox News says 25,000; the organizers say 100,000; and the police say 60,000. There were arrests of 968 (this number appears exact).
In the media centers and on the street, more intense interest has been paid to the possibility of violence than any particular detail of the negotiations. This is understandable. In addition to our seemingly innate tendency to be fascinated and compelled by images of violence, there is the fact that the expression of violence is the one real thing happening here.
“Violence, when not in the hands of the law, threatens [the state] not by the ends that [the violence] may pursue but by its mere existence outside the law,” writes Walter Benjamin. “By what function violence can with reason seem so threatening to law and be so feared by it, must be especially evident where its application, even in the present legal system, is still permissible.”
The example that Benjamin gives to illustrate this point in “A Critique of Violence” is the worker’s strike – the state allows it to happen, despite its violent nature, because the power of the massed workers is sufficiently dangerous. The strike, like the protest, is violent regardless of whether it employs overt violence as a particular technique because it opposes order and the interests that constitute the state. Of course, even protests and strikes can go too far in the eyes of the state and claim a level of violence that the state cannot abide without losing authority. Protest, in both its permitted and non-permitted forms (both of which, by Benjamin’s definition, are essentially violent) is the most available and most direct negotiating tool for the 6 billion people not inside the Bella Center.
Four people from different parts of the world arrive at Lykkesholms Alle 7C. They are greeted by a Danish family: husband, wife, and three boys, the youngest a baby. Also in the home are three women from Peru – two dressed in traditional highland clothing, one in jeans?and a camera crew of two people. After some small talk and a little getting to know each other, people take seats around a coffee table, others on the floor, some on chairs and a sofa. The camera crew remains standing. The children come in and out. The older of the Peruvian women asks for a photo from each person. She places the photos (given in the form of IDs) on some yellow flowers in the middle of the table, then gives each person a yellow candle. Each person writes his or her name and also his or her wishes for the next year directly onto the candle. The woman then lights each candle, muttering various incantations. She sprinkles sugar over the flowers and the photos and the candles. And then we sit and wait for each flame to burn down the wax entirely. Where we were rushing before, we are not rushing now. It is just the 14 of us in the room and the early northern darkness that presses against the window becomes a hypnotic abyss.
A dinner of about 25 people in a home near the center of town: home-cooked food, arrangements of dried flowers on the table, and several bottles of wine. Many at the dinner are involved in one form or another with a labor-intensive intervention project that is calculated to have an effect on the media coverage of COP15. The dinner is a break in the preparatory work for this intervention. Again there is a camera crew filming the event. At some point, people start giving speeches. This has been planned, which surprises me, because everything leading up to it has seemed so casual. The first speech is by a scientist, who gives a long hymn to Tycho Brahe and the scientific process (truth above ideology, and so forth). He is followed by an art student talking about the power of images, who in turn is followed by a business professor on the topic of learning not to be frightened by the facts of a new world, who is followed by an artist and activist on the need to avoid the grips of institutions. Then the planned speeches end and one woman stands up and proposes that the fundamental problem with comprehending climate change is our inability to come to terms with death. She then speaks about a friend, Brad Will, who was recently shot dead during a protest. She gathers herself and sings a song the she and Will used to sing together. ??My karma is to good for you to worry ’bout the crazies / I love everybody and there’s nothing that I own??
I almost didn’t stay for the dinner. I said that I needed to go get some work done, that I was writing a blog about cultural response to the conference. The host said, “This is culture.”