Radha D'Souza and Jonas Staal's exhibition brings climate crimes to court

In the Court for Intergenerational Climate Crimes in Amsterdam, writer-lawyer Radha D’Souza and artist Jonas Staal mount a large-scale installation in the form of a tribunal.

by Vidur SethiPublished on : Dec 23, 2021

There is no gavel to put order in the Court for Intergenerational Climate Crimes (CICC). There is no bench for judges, no witness being boxed; there isn’t only one theatrics of presenting exhibits in this court, nor is there the hierarchy which marks the architecture that a court of law must entail. Instead, there is a cavernous sound of delayed accountability that is conjured once comrades in extinction stand both as witness and evidence; when activist groups and individuals are summoned along with the accused transnational corporations to the hearings inside an ecology that dismantles the human-nature binary. Looming around are ancestors of the past and future who occupy the court even after the hearings end, and – Silence! The trial of rights individuated is still in session as a video introducing the alternative legal framework of the CICC plays on a loop.

A collaboration between Indian academic, writer and lawyer, Radha D’Souza, and Dutch artist, Jonas Staal, The Court for Intergenerational Climate Crimes (September 25, 2021 – February 13, 2022) basis its legal framework on D’Souza’s book What’s Wrong with Rights? (Pluto Press, 2018). Looking at rights from the lens of interdependent ecosystems, the collaborators mount a court within the contemporary arts space of Framer Framed in Amsterdam; its curatorial design founded on the institutional critique of rights extends to the critique of institutional climate crimes through a large-scale installation in the form of a tribunal.

Court for Intergenerational Climate Crimes in session | Court for Intergenerational Climate Crimes | Radha D'Souza and Jonas Staal | STIRworld
Court for Intergenerational Climate Crimes in session Image: Ruben Hamelink

The infrastructure of this installation, designed in collaboration with architect Paul Kuipers, is composed of a fragmented wooden construction modelled as a landscape. In a conversation with STIR, Staal shares, “The fragmentation acknowledges that we are a part of a violated ecosystem – and yet, CICC seeks to evoke an intimacy with the bodies of the jury present on the landscape (…) At the same time it is a disturbed spatial setting that does not fall in the trap of green washing of architecture and design.” D’Souza, adopting an acerbic tone, revisits her own time in the Bombay High Court sharing, “The meaning of justice always changed dramatically inside and outside the court.” For her, the landscape of CICC then becomes a crucial, perhaps more real point of encounter with both law and climate, and within its architecture, is also drafted a new statute -- the Intergenerational Climate Crimes Act -- transforming the exhibition into a social space with the hope of achieving a political reality.

Installation of CICC in collaboration with architect Paul Kuipers| Court for Intergenerational Climate Crimes | Radha D'Souza and Jonas Staal | STIRworld
Installation of CICC in collaboration with architect Paul Kuipers Image: Ruben Hamelink

Using eco-pressed wood and repurposing different materials, the exhibition looks at sustainable models of instituting both art and the court. Simultaneously, ecological propagandas of the Anthropocene epoch are attacked as the centre of the court inhabiting a pool of hardened refined oil -- a non-recyclable poisonous material representing both the inherited earth memories and the toxic nature of oil’s processing. Holding a stone ammonite fossil in the middle, a family of octopus and squid that perished 66 million years ago, the dark mirror creates an intersectional investigation of extinction which roots from racial capitalism – still burning to accelerate our present and consequently, still continuing to ossify our liveable futures. As wooden curves of different heights and a central site of assembly calls upon prosecutors, witnesses and judges to oversee public hearings against corporations such as Unilever, Airbus, ING and the Dutch State, the court becomes a permanent resident to comrades of present, past and future, who in turn keep their eyes on each proceeding, every absence.

Ammonite fossil at the center of CICC | Court for Intergenerational Climate Crimes | Radha D'Souza and Jonas Staal | STIRworld
Ammonite fossil at the centre of CICC Image: Ruben Hamelink

In CICC, 65 paintings of extinct animals are mounted on signs. On 20 woven banners are the ghostly presence of extinct plants held by bandages. In between them are ammonite fossils from the Moroccan region of Agadir - realising the presence of millions of years - a deep past that agitates “the necessity to struggle for deep futures for all,” reads the catalogue of CICC. These animals and plants appear silent but in being termed as comrades in different languages, they become actants within a collective political, ecological, and existential struggle. They are no property and possessions to be owned. Instead, they are fellow agents and martyrs who never die. They are the comrades of past, present and future – the witness and evidence of climate crimes, finally witnessing hearings against corporations in a court.

Comrades Past, Present and Future in the CICC | Court for Intergenerational Climate Crimes | Radha D'Souza and Jonas Staal | STIRworld
Comrades Past, Present and Future in the CICC Image: Ruben Hamelink

Though CICC works with an alternate legal framework, it borrows heavily from adversarial form of legal justice – having statutes, judges, and hearings. To D’Souza the court incorporates the dominant language within the popular imagination of the court, only to subvert it for "in CICC evidence is the court,” she states. On the question of past, present, and future as a linear articulation of time, Staal states, “The concept of time holds the same tension as the form of CICC. The paradox of any transformative cultural or political work is in ways that the forms that become possible in the emancipatory process cannot be recognised within the conditions of present oppressions. In a way, the future is possible but not legible for languages we use are borrowed from the institutions of the past. And so, CICC is clearly different, but ‘enough’ the same to be recognised as legitimate. It hijacks legitimacy of one court and moves it to another – addressing intergenerational crimes.” For D’Souza, on the other hand the articulation of time is serialised in this court only “to challenge the premise of this articulation itself once ancestors of the past and future are present.”  

05 mins watch Court for Intergenerational Climate Crimes (CICC) - Comrades Past, Present and Future vs. Airbus | Court for Intergenerational Climate Crimes | Radha D'Souza and Jonas Staal | STIRworld
Court for Intergenerational Climate Crimes (CICC) - Comrades Past, Present and Future vs. Airbus Video: Courtesy of Framer Framed

While conversing with STIR, D’Souza and Staal share that some of the participating witnesses in the court have initiated the possibility of organising hearings with them directly after having presented evidence, which Staal says, “are not just an exhibit”. Envisioning a varying geographical composition and a broader framework for the court to structurally provoke climate action, D’Souza and Staal look at the future of CICC in terms of widening popular imaginaries on how we see, speak of and witness climate change. The CICC aims to create an arena of embodied experience of an alternate framework that might provide the possibilities for sustaining networks of artists, lawyers, organisations and activists coming together in solidarity to process an interdependent ecological system of rights. For D’Souza the fact that people in the court wept is a testament for CICC to keep pushing people’s imaginaries in terms of climate action and justice, to ultimately, create care and in Staal’s words – “speak truth to power”.

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