WHAT ROLE DOES PERFORMANCE HAVE TO PLAY IN CLIMATE ACTION: GESTURE AND SPEECH AT COP26
Three years ago, I started writing a show called Wastelands. In creating that piece, I studied the plastic waste and climate crises. I went in feeling that we were in trouble, that was the reason for writing the show, but as an artist I didn’t see what I could do. This was a job for policy-makers, scientists, and industry. My skills weren’t useful here.
Vaguely sensing we were in danger, however, is a very different experience than learning in detail that every day is a ticking timebomb of unrecoverable biodiversity loss and extreme weather events. The more research I did, the more incomprehensible the whole situation became. The science was clear. Why on earth weren’t we executing the kinds of emergency protocols warranted when the doomsday clock ticks a trifling 100 seconds to midnight.
I wrote this article on the eve of COP26. The UN has been gathering this Conference of the Parties to address climate change for over two decades. Two decades. Twenty years of international climate summits. How does time pass so quickly, so repetitively? This COP, having just concluded in Glasgow on November 12th, was anticipated to be a pivotal moment in international environmental policy. We needed decisive action, seizing the minute hand and silencing the telltale tolling of our doomsday clock. What we got was a gesture. Maybe not even that, maybe only some words. Or at worst, a few sounds. “Blah, blah, blah.” Gesture and speech. Curious that for an artist so impractical in the trades of climate action, I somehow recognize and am a craftsman of its tools.
Gesture. Literally meaning a movement of the body, thus an action. But it can also imply a performative or oftentimes “empty”, or meaningless action. Gesture is therefor either real action or performative action. It’s this latter interpretation being levied against COP26 and its attendees: that their participation at yet another climate change summit and their pledges at these same summits are performative gestures. Afterall, why are we 2 decades into these conferences and still in a climate crisis? And if the climate summits do actually accomplish anything, why do we need even more policy after the Paris Accord? And then what was the point of the Kyoto Protocol before that? We start to wonder, why not call this year’s policy like it is: The Glasgow Gotcha?
We don’t want performative action. There is a famous quote by Brecht: “Only when the strutting takes place over corpses do we get the social gest of Fascism”. Bertolt Brecht’s gestus and his work on epic theatre are the most prominent source of gesture theory in theatre. In the quote, Brecht seems to be suggesting the performative “strutting” gesture of Hitler’s military parades is not unrelated to the very real performance of violence they enacted. The real vs performative nature of the gesture though is not binary, it is duality. Think of Brecht’s metaphor of strutting boots. The performative action can be a precursor to the literal action. The performative action can be a communication of intent towards the literal action. Or the performative action may remain the same, but change its context, and it becomes literal action. Gesture is neither passive, nor meaningless, and its performative nature in no way contradicts nor mutually excludes its potential for literal action. Performative gesture may even be a necessary step towards transitioning into literal action, particularly when that action is extreme. The performative gesture can prepare us and therefore ease us into an intense or sudden action. Making it seem less intense and less sudden. It can win is over in favour of the drastic change by introducing us to the idea gradually.
Speech. John L. Austin wrote a book called How to Do Things with Words. In it, he identified the speech act as not only an utterance, but an action. In saying “I apologize” one apologizes. In saying “I promise”, one promises. These are not empty sounds. They do something. An actor on a stage delivering lines is not passive, they are actively doing, and in the doing completely re-shape and manipulate our reality with their words. Numerous headlines have called out COP26, and other climate summits and conferences, for their “performative politics” and lack of tangible action. But Austin’s performative speech acts say that a speech is indeed an action. It is doing. Through this lens, the pledges made at COP26 and other such events, could well be performative, but they are still action. And if the speech act is a performative action, then it can also be a performative gesture.
It is not my intent to defend the politicians, policy-makers, and industry leaders at COP26. But when we level our critiques against them, the problem is not their performative gestures and performative speech acts. There isn’t anything wrong with using these tools, in fact they can be extremely effective. The critique should be that the time for performative actions and symbolic words is long past.
Limiting temperatures to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels is a puzzling goal to set considering our current levels are already at 1.1°C and devastating environmental repercussions are triggered at that 1.5°C mark.
It seems as though we have resigned ourselves to midnight. What does midnight look like for Alberta? According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Sixth Assessment Report released this summer, their Regional Fact Sheet projects “strong declines in glaciers, permafrost, and snow cover” and “severe storms” and “dust storms” will become more extreme. We will experience temperature increases “very large compared to the global average” and “precipitation increases (mean and extremes)”. Storms, dust storms, devastating heat waves, torrential floods. Midnight for Alberta is a dangerous hour. There will be casualties.
We are in a climate emergency, and despite what we have been told or been telling ourselves, we artists are very much equipped to contribute to climate action. Performance is action, and performance is our métier. Artists: It is 100 seconds to midnight. We are out of time. Where are you? What are you doing? The politicians are gesturing and speaking, we know these tools well. What else is left in our toolboxes? Perhaps it is time for the most sacred performative tool of them all: our bodies. So where can your body perform its loudest, angriest, most joyful protest against the end of the world? How will you blaze a spotlight on the apocalypse? How will you make a scene?