Bracing myself against the bitterly cold February day, I huddled on the steps of Risley Hall, poring through Instagram and Facebook — with no success — for any word of the Climate Justice Cornell art event. Just as I was set to head back and escape the cutting wind, Avery MacLean ’23 opened the door and greeted me with a rush of warm air. We exchanged introductions as she led me back to the woodshop, which was filled with scattered newspapers and the acute aroma of spray paint. To the left of the doorway, cast in gold and glitter, lay a diamond engagement ring the size of my head.
CJC’s takeover of Ho Plaza Thursday on Feb. 13 took on a more darkly humorous tone than the rallies and sit-ins of the past. This was a black-tie — or rather, orange-tie — occasion to celebrate the “wedding” of Cornell University to the fossil fuel industry. CJC joined 50 other campuses across the country to recognize Feb. 13as “Fossil Fuel Divestment Day.”
Art was a major component of this historic disruption. I was lucky enough to meet the members of the “wedding party” as they were preparing for the big day. Groomsmen — caricatures of trustee members complete with grotesque, exaggerated wrinkles, tufts of white hair and smug expressions — were captured in their newspaper-cast faces. Bright posters of major fossil fuel companies, B.P., Exon and Shell, accompanied the party as bridesmaids. Familiar faces were among the additional guests, including President Martha Pollack and Touchdown the “ring-bearer.” And of course, the lovely bride was gorgeous as a massive silhouette of the iconic McGraw clock tower; she was prepared to dance with her groom, a three-foot long mask of an oil baron with a stern gaze.
MacLean, the brains behind this idea, cites the theatrical company “Bread and Puppet,” based in the Lower East side of New York City, as the inspiration for the spectacle. Puppets were selected as the medium of choice for standing out, a key component of their long-term divestment campaign. The construction process began with cardboard base pieces, while the faces were built up little by little with newspaper paper mache and an abundance of painter’s tape. Deep contours dappling the forehead of these crafted faces spoke to an unspoken, sinister nature. Even before the paint-job, the wedding party sent a chill up my spine.
“We have sort of an escalation plan, with the goal being that we put more and more pressure on different parts of the administration,” explained Evelyn Kennedy-Jaffe ’22. “What we’re looking to do is make it harder and harder to ignore the presence of student disapproval of investment [in fossil fuels].”
The sheer absurdity of this event is meant to pique curiosity, and — with any luck — get people thinking.
Beyond that, art is clearly an important part of camaraderie for this spunky band of activists. Mixing paints to create the perfect color for Touchdown’s fur and gathering to debate effective ways to construct an oil rig display made planning action enjoyable, creative and uniting. There was a shared sentiment of frustration among the CJC members about the way that the arts are undervalued in the current political schema, but efforts to use arts as a source of power and controversy — a tool for protest — turns that on its head. One thing is for certain: Attendees of the wedding were left with stark images in their mind – images which, like Cornell’s continued commitment to fossil fuels, will be hard to ignore.
Anna Canny is a junior in the College of Agricultural Life and Sciences. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.