On COP & the Art of Change

Climate change communicator Julia Marques helped amplify COP26 reporting from the Blue Zone in Glasgow. Here she looks at the artworks she encountered at the COP and the value of creative activity alongside the activism and negotiations.


2,570 words: estimated reading time = approximately 10 minutes


As I entered the Blue Zone of COP26 in Glasgow last November, I was struck by how artificial the place was. It seemed strange to be discussing the environment within extremely unnatural surroundings, with just a few plants dotted around.

COP plant: Showing a plant looking a bit droopy in the main thoroughfare of the COP26 Blue Zone
A plant looks a bit droopy in the main thoroughfare of the COP26 Blue Zone. Photograph: Julia Marques © 2021

But my eye was looking for art. Any art. Just something to indicate that the organisers had thought about more than merely providing four walls and a roof for negotiators to agree on what each country would do to tackle climate change for the next year.

I was feeling fairly nervous and overwhelmed. This is one of the biggest summits of the year, and it’s about one of the biggest issues that we are currently facing as a species on Earth. 

I was at the COP with the editorial team of Climate Home News — an independent news outlet specialising in the politics of climate change — as their community engagement manager. Although I have been thinking and working in the climate space for several years, I am fairly new to the media world and the specialism of working in the climate politics space. There’s a lot to learn, and COP is a big part of that world so I felt very privileged to be a part of it and wanted to experience it to the fullest. 

As a community engagement manager, I am constantly learning what captures people’s attention and keeps them coming back for more. At Climate Home News, we report on a fairly niche topic and aim to appeal to climate specialists but also those who are more generally interested in what is going on in climate politics. Art can bridge the gaps between specialist knowledge and public understanding; unfeeling data and a myriad of emotions. 

We know that data and science aren’t enough; we need good communication that speaks to people’s values and worldviews. I was hoping that the COP organisers had taken this into account. I certainly wanted to see more than just MDF and concrete. I was there to work, but also to be inspired by the spectacle of COP.

Did I find any art? Well, yes actually, I did.

Into the Action Zone

After the security area and initial entrance hall, there was the Action Zone, which, funnily enough, is where I saw most people napping due to the comfy seats available there.

But this was also where a huge globe slowly turned over their sleeping heads. It was beautiful, gently showcasing the wonderful place we live and what’s at stake in the discussions taking place below it. It gave an incredibly relaxing feel to an otherwise manic venue, with 20,000 people running around each day for two weeks, on their way to meetings, debates and other events.

I personally enjoyed going to this area to take a break from the madness of the negotiations and trying to capture them on social media as part of my role at Climate Home News.

COP art: Showing 'Gaia' by Luke Jerram in the Action Zone at COP26
‘Gaia’ by Luke Jerram in the Action Zone at COP26
Photograph: Julia Marques © 2021

After the Action Zone, I spotted this piece — Hurry Up Please It’s Time by Cornelia Parker. A very timely reminder to all those involved in the process, but especially the leaders. This COP included a leaders’ summit in the first two days (not all COPs do). So there would have been many world leaders walking by this piece of art. It was stark and direct, a counter to the convoluted and complex negotiations (unsurprising when you have 197 countries trying to agree on something).

COP art: Showing 'Hurry Up Please It’s Time' by Cornelia Parke
‘Hurry Up Please It’s Time’ by Cornelia Parker
Photograph: Julia Marques © 2021

The COP Pavilions

Further down this main corridor, I reached the Pavilions. This is the part of COP that many people say reminds them of an oversized trade show. Seemingly anyone can have a pavilion, some were country pavilions, others were themed — such as the methane pavilion — and others were run by organisations such as Chatham House.

This area was a bit of a maze but there was a lot going on and it felt like quite an exciting part of the venue. Confusing — each pavilion had its own agenda of events, which were not available anywhere other than the pavilion itself — but buzzing!

I personally enjoyed this area as a place to meet others and explore what each country or organisation wanted to showcase. A lot of the leaders and some celebrities who attended could also be found walking around this area and it was very likely that you would bump into one or two just by being there! In my case, Justin Trudeau casually ambled by as I was waiting for Leonardo di Caprio to emerge from the meeting room of the UNFCCC pavilion. I also saw Nicola Sturgeon several times, walked past John Kerry by the country offices, and brushed shoulders with Alok Sharma more than once.

However, my personal favourite encounter was with Christiana Figueres in the Action Zone. She was sitting eating her lunch when I noticed her and stood nervously summoning up the courage to go over and talk to her. Eventually, I did, and she was very happy to meet me and revealed that she is a big fan of Climate Home News. We took a photo together before parting ways, and I was thrilled. She has been a big part of previous COPs as former head of the UNFCCC, and was influential in getting the Paris Agreement finalised. 

COP talk: Showing Julia Marques with Christiana Figueres at COP26
Christiana Figueres (right) and Julia in the Action Zone at COP26

One aspect of the conference that I found pleasantly surprising was the accessibility to leaders and other people of note that you had in the venue. There were a lot of indigenous peoples attending COP and they could be seen harassing leaders over their lack of action on indigenous and environmental rights. This is something I don’t believe happens at any other conference of this scale. Kudos to COP for keeping this particular aspect alive and well.

The Indonesia pavilion, COP26
Photograph: Julia Marques © 2021
The SDG7 pavilion (“affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all” by 2030)
Photograph: Julia Marques © 2021
The Turkey pavilion
Photograph: Julia Marques © 2021

Indigenous art at the COP

Right at the back of the pavilion area, I came across a huge piece of art. Although it was quite hard to see fully due to space limitations, it still left an impression. This was the only piece of indigenous art that I saw in the entire Blue Zone. It turned out to be the Bamboo Ark Vela Mola, a sail sewn together by 37 Guna mola artists from the Gunayala islands off the coast of Panama. 

It had symbolically travelled across the sea to Glasgow and they had managed to sneak it into the Blue Zone and display it near the Panama pavilion. A ‘mola’ is a colourful hand-sewn cloth which is unique to the Guna people. The organisation behind the sail’s appearance at COP was Geoversity, and two indigenous leaders formed part of the group bringing this piece of art and indigenous messaging to COP26. 

I was glad to have found some form of indigenous art. There was also an Indigenous Peoples pavilion in the area, where various leaders could gather and share experiences. Indigenous representation is crucial to these negotiations, although much of the time these voices are not included in the main plenary meetings. 

I think the fact that the sail was not an official piece of COP art says it all — indigenous people are not barred from attending but the barriers for them to do so are higher than for others. Many had long journeys to get to Scotland and return home, with various quarantines due to Covid19 along the way. The accreditation process is online and bureaucratic, and then of course there is also the cost of travel and accommodation (something which many people struggled with, including the Climate Home team – I’d like to thank the Human Hotel for their great initiative in sourcing homestays for many delegates and attendees).

Beautifully colourful and vibrant, this piece certainly stood out and was in stark contrast to the blue and white of the rest of the venue. It’s a shame it wasn’t in a more prominent position, but I think the fact it was there at all is testament to the resilience of indigenous peoples around the world.

As I made my way further into the venue, there was a long corridor between the pavilions, the country offices and the plenary and meeting rooms. Here I found another turning globe, but this one was not so exact and had UV writing on it which only appeared under the lights at the back of the installation. These words proudly proclaimed that “people live here” with arrows pointing to all the ‘four corners’ of this particular globe.

‘People Live Here’ by Oliver Jeffers
Photograph: Julia Marques © 2021

This was a piece by Oliver Jeffers and seemed to me to be raising awareness of the fact that we are talking not only about climate, but about people. People do live nearly everywhere on Earth, and it can be easy to forget this when following high-level negotiations with technical language. It is people causing rapid climate change and it is people (among other beings) who are being affected by it.

I thought the sentiment of this piece was nice, but I think the writing could have been more obvious — would it not have made more of an impression to have words squeezed into every bit of land to show the scale of human occupation?

Further down the corridor there were some satirical cartoons about climate change and also some children’s messages to the leaders (although I am unsure whether they would have had time to stop and read them). The Eden Project also had a hive-like structure situated at the border between where nearly everyone was allowed and where you had to have a media, observer or party pass to get through. Hexagonal shapes creating a dome emulated the biomes of the real Eden Project in Cornwall, UK. The idea was to bring a ‘cabinet of climate curiosities’ to COP26 that represent what change is needed to tackle the climate crisis. 

I suppose this was quite a significant location for the pavilion; a physical area of transformation from a fairly accessible part of the Blue Zone to a more restricted area reserved for those who were more involved with the actual nitty-gritty negotiations. It prompted me to ask myself: Is this the transformation needed, or do we actually need to allow more people in?

The Eden Project pavilion at COP26
Photograph: Julia Marques © 2021

This led to the pre-fab part of the conference, which noisily wobbled and leaked when Glaswegian wind and rain swept in towards the end of the first week. One of the plenary rooms also started leaking part way through week one, meaning they couldn’t let anyone in until they’d fixed it. I’m not sure if the people knee-deep in the process were too aware of the natural world outside making its presence felt inside, beyond being grateful not to be out in it! 

Art — cause for contemplation

There was increasingly less art as you walked through; some photos of innovators in the e-waste space and a little display on nature-based solutions. By the time I got to the media centre (all the way through the entire venue, about a 20-minute walk) the organisers had obviously given up, with only white walls and blue signs left to adorn the hallways. 

One of the corridors in the media centre
Photograph: Julia Marques © 2021

However, this was the concentration centre of the conference. Journalists need a place to gather their material and their thoughts, compose a piece of audio, visual or written work, and publish it to (often tight) deadlines. I witnessed many journalists miss family birthdays and children’s bedtimes so that they could report on the negotiations. I would like to acknowledge the dedication to the cause that many of them have. The media often gets vilified, but there are many reporters and editors who do care deeply about the climate crisis and diligently report on it. So perhaps in this instance, there is no need for any other art; the art is being created in a quietly studious way in this very practical place as the negotiators bustle around the rest of the venue with its more decorated areas.

There was, however, a beautiful view of the sunset from the media centre windows — Nature’s art, in all its shining glory. I was told by the more seasoned reporters that it was actually quite nice to even have windows in the media centre, as sometimes they are merely provided with walls, floor and a ceiling. In a way, this was the best art of all as the rest of the venue had little access to the outside.

Sunset from the media centre at COP26
Photograph: Julia Marques © 2021

Art is there to give us cause for contemplation, to give us the space we need to think about things. Art can also prompt us to think about them in a different way, and this is what we need when it comes to climate change. We need a mindset shift to figure out how to live differently. Perhaps the negotiators, technical experts and policy makers also need to be given some time to reflect and process things in an unconference-type way. Art can help with this, and I’d like to think that the little pieces of art dotted around the venue may have made a few of them stop for a minute and wander into another world before the pull of the negotiations brought them back to where they were. It certainly helped me.

This COP was the 26th Conference of the Parties on climate change. They’ve been going since 1995. That’s 26 years of talking. Now is the time for action, and perhaps art can spur that action through imagination and time for contemplation. Let’s have more of it in future climate negotiations.


Find out more

You can explore some of the artworks Julia has featured in her post:

Gaia by Luke Jerram
Hurry Up Please It’s Time by Cornelia Parker
The Bamboo Ark Mola Vela by Geoversity (with more in
Hoisting the Mola Sail Designed by the Indigenous Guna at MAHB, the Millennium Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere)
People Live Here by Oliver Jeffers.

The Eden Project brings a “cabinet of climate curiosities” to COP26 describes how the Eden Project partnered with international architecture practice Grimshaw in the delivery of the Eden Project Pavilion at COP26.

Julia mentioned the Human Hotel: the COP26 Homestay Network supported people attending the COP by enabling people in Glasgow and surrounding areas to offer space in their private homes as overnight accommodation for visitors from the climate justice movement.

Julia is Community Engagement Manager for Climate Home News whose mission is to deliver original journalism that informs and inspires action to tackle the global climate crisis. You can follow them on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn

Julia Marques
Julia Marques
A climate change dramatist, activist and communicator specialising in social and cultural aspects of climate change who has worked in the nonprofit and media sector.
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