WANTED: Companions for a journey to the underworld

Three months from now – when the long days of summer are a memory and the leaves are gathering in the gutters of Stockholm – a group of artists will set off on a journey in search of a cultural language that is capable of reframing the largest questions that the world is facing.

The search will take us deep underground, into the places inside ourselves that never see daylight, the kingdoms of loss and longing, the dark soil in which love begins again.

Time works differently down here.

Down here you are still a child.
You are older than the mountains.
You are bones that have shed their name.
You are waiting to be born.
All of this is happening always.

A thin thread of story is the safety line between us and forever: the memory of an upper world where cars wait at traffic lights and carry in their tanks the remains of ancient sea creatures, where cafés serve drinks brewed from beans shipped halfway around the world, and all of this looks as though it could go on forever.

It will not go on forever. We know this and we don’t know how to know this, how to make it real to ourselves, how to imagine what it is that will go on.

At night, this knowing and unknowing comes to us and takes the place of sleep.

It is what has brought us here, together, to this journey.

*

This time last year, the week after midsummer, I was holding a course in Devon, together with Paul Kingsnorth, walking the paths we first began to trace in The Dark Mountain Manifesto. One afternoon, a mail arrived from a guy called Måns Lagerlöf, who introduced himself as the new Artistic Director of Riksteatern, Sweden’s national theatre. He had read the manifesto, several years earlier – coming across it late at night, on the internet, through a chain of coincidences that began with a chance encounter on a train – and it had helped him to find his bearings, to work out what it means to be living in a time of ecological unravelling and to be working as a theatre maker in such a time. Now he had heard that I had moved to Sweden. He was starting his new role after the summer – would I come in for a meeting to talk about what we could do together?

That’s how, despite my stumbling Swedish and having no particular background in theatre, I come to be working inside this national cultural institution – and now I’m glad to be able to share the first fruits of that work and tell you about the Dark Mountain Workshop.

It starts in October, an artistic workshop, a group of artists from inside and outside the world of ‘stage art’ (as you say in Swedish), gathering for a day each month to go as deep as we can into what it means to be living now, in the shadow of everything we know about the mess the world is in. How do we make work that won’t seem irrelevant or offensive, when we look back, a generation from now, given what we knew?

Each month, we will be joined by a guest artist: Martin Shaw, Charlotte Du Cann, Ansuman Biswas, Monique Besten and others. And on the night of each workshop day, in the Kägelbanan space in the middle of Stockholm, we will open up our explorations to anyone who wants to join us.

We can do this because Riksteatern is making climate change a priority throughout its work, so that this workshop is one part of a larger mix of activities – if you haven’t done so already, then check out Run For Your Life, a race against time from the Arctic to Paris, to the COP21 summit this November. Within that larger mix, the Dark Mountain Workshop is the piece that relates to Riksteatern’s responsibility to provide ‘expert support’ to stage art in Sweden: so this is, among other things, an artistic development programme, where the experience of Dark Mountain is brought to deepen the capacity of artists to respond to the existential challenge of a crisis of which climate change is only the most alarming symptom.

What has culture got to do with climate change? How do you justify making art when the planet is on fire? The first answer we often reach for is to make art a communications tool to spread the message that the world is on fire – but, as I’ve written elsewhere, I don’t think this is how art works. Working towards another kind of answer, I remember some words from Mike Hulme, the founding director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research and currently Professor of Climate and Culture at King’s College London:

Climate change is not ‘a problem’ waiting for ‘a solution’. It is an environmental, cultural and political phenomenon which is reshaping the way we think about ourselves, our societies and humanity’s place on Earth.

A problem has a solution, but what we are facing is a predicament, and a predicament is something you have to live with, to come to terms with, to allow yourself to be changed by. How good or bad a job we do of coming to terms with our predicament will depend, to some degree, on our ability to rethink our assumptions about the world in which we find ourselves and our place within it. Go deep enough into this and you find yourself dealing with the stories that western culture has been telling itself for generations, stories we grew up taking for granted as ‘how things are’. And this is the terrain of culture, the ground on which art can sometimes have a powerful role to play, though in ways that are hard to predict or anticipate.

This is the kind of territory into which I want to go. I am looking for companions: artists, performers, writers and makers, here in Sweden, for whom this is the right moment for such a journey. Already, I have found an extraordinary gang of participants, and I’ll look forward to telling you more about them soon – but there are still places available and there are other worlds I would love to bring into the mix. Dance, circus, spoken word, opera, lajv gaming… I needed to start quietly, learning more about what the workshop will be through the conversations I’ve had over the past months, but now this needs to go wider, to send the word along different networks. So please, if you know people who ought to be part of this, pass this post in their direction.

When Paul and I wrote the Dark Mountain Manifesto, it wasn’t to stake out of a position to be defended, it was to name a conversation and collaboration that we were hungry for. As I look for people to join me at the core of this latest manifestation of Dark Mountain, I’m looking for those who are hungry to go deep into the kinds of questions I’ve sketched out here, not as a public debate or an academic discussion, but as something personal, vulnerable, daring to share our fears and uncertainties.

I want to make this something that has a chance of feeling like it mattered, when we look back, thirty years from now. Something that might just nudge the stage arts in Sweden (and maybe not just stage arts, maybe not just Sweden) on a course that will mean we can say: yes, we recognised the depth of the mess the world was in, and we didn’t pretend not to know, and we didn’t pretend that we knew how to fix it all, but we looked into the darkness and allowed ourselves to be changed by what we saw.

If you want to be part of the Dark Mountain Workshop, get in touch with me at dougaldhine@gmail.com. The workshops and the public events at Kägelbanan start on 12 October, 9 November, 7 December and will continue in their current form until May 2016. There will be more information about all this in August. Meanwhile, you might want to read the Dark Mountain Manifesto or watch this video, filmed a year ago in Devon, where Paul and I discuss what happened after we wrote it.

Image: Detail from Rima Staines’ cover for the second Dark Mountain book.

The only way is down: 18 notes on the UK election

So, good morning. I’m afraid it’s true: that nightmare you had, it wasn’t a dream. Let yourself feel the shock, the rawness of disappointment sharpened by sleep deprivation. If you ached for an end to five years of government by the rich, for the rich, then what you are feeling today is a blow to the soul. Stay with that for a while, before the pundits and the candidates in the coming leadership elections start to rationalise what just happened. There are other levels on which we need to make sense of this cruel result.

Labour is about to endure a tug of war between those who believe it needs to go leftwards and those who believe it needs to go rightwards. The truth is, neither of these directions will be much help. Right now, the only way is down.

What we have seen is a failure of politics, a failure of democracy at a cultural level, part of a larger story playing out across the struggling countries of the post-industrial west. For now, it may look like the Tories have won, but it is a fragile victory. If you want an image for the state of English politics today – Scotland is another story – then think of three cartoon characters who have run off a cliff. Two of them have just plummeted and flattened themselves into the ground, while the third is still hanging there, feet spinning in the air, oblivious to its situation.

The one cold comfort that Labour – and perhaps even the Lib Dems – could take from last night’s results is that events have forced them into a confrontation with reality, while the Tories will continue to govern on the basis of delusions, with ugly results, for a while longer, before gravity catches up with them. This could give the defeated parties a head start, but only if they are prepared to enter into a kind of soul-searching deeper than anything we have seen in British politics in a very long time.

For that to have a chance of happening, it will have to start somewhere else, somewhere beyond the party machines and the earnest, highly-educated, decent people at the centre of them, who are almost entirely unequipped for the journey to the political underworld which is now called for.

What follows are a set of notes that might help us get our bearings for this journey, some of which may turn out to be wildly off the mark. But I hope they are some use, this morning. Take care of each other. Give someone a hug today. Look out for the moment where you catch a stranger’s eyes and recognise the loss you have in common, a loss that goes deeper than the tally of seats. Grieve for the inadequacy of the ways in which we have tried to stand up to greed and fear and exploitation. But hold your disillusionment gently, don’t let it harden into damning conclusions about human nature. Get ready for a dark ride ahead. We are going to have to rethink politics on a level this election didn’t touch.

Everything is broken

1. Three tribes go their separate ways. About the only piece of commentary from the election campaign that felt truly prescient last night was Paul Mason’s analysis of the fragmentation of the UK into three distinct political geographies: a Scotland dreaming of a future as the warm south of Scandinavia, a south-east held up by asset wealth, and a post-industrial remainder of the union. There is no party that is now a major contender in all three parts of the country and their divergence means that there is no unified pattern of swing at a national level.

2. Labour talked to five million people, but it didn’t know how to listen. The sincere bewilderment of Labour figures as the exit poll turned out to be accurate says something about the failure of the “ground campaign” in which activists had five million doorstep conversations over the past four months. How do you talk to that many people and come away having misread the mood of the country this badly? Two easy answers will be given to this: Labour talked to the wrong people and/or people didn’t tell them the truth. There’s probably truth in both of these, but there’s a third reason that goes to the deeper levels of what just happened: the conversations they had on the doorsteps weren’t real conversations. We badly need new ways of having political conversations – and if we’re to start regrowing a democratic culture from below, it will start with finding ways to bring such conversations together.

3. The Lib Dems totally misunderstood their own voters. One of the most striking features of the night was the splintering of their vote in every direction: in some constituencies, it appeared to be dividing equally between Labour, Tory, UKIP and Green candidates. Some collective delusion convinced the Lib Dems that their MPs had earned the loyalty of local voters. It seems truer to see the party as having been a depository for vague dissatisfaction of a variety of flavours, whose raison d’etre disintegrated when they became an adjunct to the Tories.

4. People who are into politics just don’t get how puzzling and alienating it looks to the rest of the population. This is a broader version of the problem the Lib Dems had. Over the past week, I’ve worked with the #dontjustvote tour, a tiny playful art project making its way across the south of England on its way to Westminster, starting conversations about the election in all the places they stopped along the way. The stories they gathered along the way, snatches of which you can find on their Facebook and YouTube pages, brought home to me the sheer confusion, mistrust and disconnect with everyday reality which is most people’s experience of politics.

5. Social media is not delivering on its promises to change politics. There are lots of reasons for this, including that many of the promises were hype. But here’s one element in the mix. If you’re old enough to remember when Google was new, then think back to the first time you saw the Google search page: how long did it take before you got why it was good? Not much longer than a few keystrokes and a click. Then think back to the first time you saw Twitter: how long did it take you before you got why it was good? Probably months. Or maybe you’re still not convinced. The social technologies that have grown up over the past decade layer a depth of social and cultural subtlety on top of the technical platform in a way that wasn’t true for the information technologies of the internet in its earlier phases. This creates an under-recognised gap between the people who have invested the time to get initiated in the kind of active, engaged use of a tool like Twitter and people who don’t get it and aren’t likely to get it any time soon. So it’s not just the self-selecting echo chambers we create that make social media problematic, it’s also the unrepresentative section of the population who are actively present there and the detachment this fosters from the rest of the population.

6. Is it time to ditch the expensive American advisors? Hell yes! When I was a broke student, I spent my summers selling educational books door-to-door for a US company, first in the UK and then in California. Nothing prepared me for the difference in psychology between how Brits like to make “buying decisions” and how Americans do. Just because we share a common language, doesn’t mean American experts are well-placed to help British politicians.

A 200-year moment?

7. The unmaking of the English working class. The long trend underlying all of this is the unravelling of the social settlement that slowly emerged from the Industrial Revolution, from the destruction of pre-industrial ways of living to the emergence of the labour movement to the social democratic consensus of the mid-20th century. We have inherited political parties that belonged to a kind of society we no longer live in. As I rushed out the door yesterday morning, I found myself grabbing E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class, a pre-history of the labour movement that covers the period between 1790 and 1830. The period we’re in has many resemblances to that. (If I were a cartoonist, I’d be tempted to draw Cameron as the Prince Regent…) None of the forms of left-wing politics that we’ve inherited are adapted to the times in which we find ourselves – and the process of regrowing a democratic culture is, I suspect, going to require a search for new and unexpected political forms that resembles the history that Thompson tells. The roots of the popular political movements that grew up in the 19th century were deeply entangled with grassroots self-education movements – and something equivalent to this is going to be needed in the years ahead.

8. The British media make a joke of democracy. A handful of tax-avoiding billionaires control the agenda of almost all the national papers which then indirectly controls the agenda of the broadcasters. The grip of a cynical and decadent establishment is another feature that’s reminiscent of the period Thompson describes – and the creation of new grassroots media was part of the process that led to the emergence of the labour movement.

9. Love him or hate him, Russell Brand might just be our William Cobbett… It’s neither a precise analogy nor an unambiguously positive one, but Cobbett found a voice that captured the popular imagination, speaking in dramatic language about the monstrousness of the times. He was also a fantastic egoist. “Cobbett’s favourite subject, indeed, was William Cobbett,” writes Thompson. “But… his egotism transcended itself to the point where the reader… is asked to look not at Cobbett, but with him.” (I don’t know whether Cobbett also swigged from over-sized bottles, but if he did they probably weren’t full of water.)

10. Brand provides a clue to the only kind of revolution that is still even conceivable. The week he went on Newsnight and predicted a revolution, I’d been in England, giving a lecture about “the failure of the future”, in which I suggested that one of the symptoms of this was the impossibility of taking seriously the idea of political revolution in the way that had still seemed possible in the 1960s. As the video went viral, I wondered if I was wrong. And then I remembered something Martin Shaw says, one of his mythic metaphors for making sense of the kinds of times in which we’re living: “This isn’t a hero time, this isn’t a goddess time, it’s a trickster time.” When people like John Berger (one of my heroes) were young, it was a real thing to believe in the heroic revolution that Marx had seemed to promise. Today, the only kind of revolution that is plausible is a foolish one, one where we accidentally stumble into another way of being human together, making a living and making life work. (And whatever that might look like, it doesn’t look like utopia.)

A journey to the underworld

11. This is not just a battle of ideas, it is a battle for the soul. Another thing that Brand is onto, in his inimitable way, is what he would call the “spiritual” nature of the revolution. Margaret Thatcher was explicit about how deep the project of neoliberalism went. Two years into her first term, she told the Sunday Times: “Economics is the method: the object is to change the soul.” The left has never taken this seriously, we have never even tried to contest neoliberalism on the territory of the soul. The people at the top of today’s Labour party, a few of whom I’ve crossed paths with over the years, are in no way equipped to operate in the territory of the soul – so it’s probably going to take the help of some of us who’ve been a long way outside the pale of politics-as-we-know-it, if we’re going to work out how to do this. But one of the wrong notes that Miliband hit in the past few weeks, for all his decency and awkward charm, was his repetition that this election was “a clash of ideas”. The political battle in which we are engaged is deeper than that, it’s a battle for the soul, and until the left feels that, I don’t think it will find its way to the kind of new politics we are going to need.

12. We need to be willing to go to some dark places. I had a public conversation last summer with Steve Wheeler in which he sketched out a set of thoughts about the need for a politics of “depth”. I must edit the recording and get it online, but the thrust of it was that the left has associated depth and the darker, less rational side of ourselves with the worst kind of politics. His argument – which parallels the one Zizek makes about Nazism in his Perverts’ Guide to Ideology – is that it’s a terrible mistake to cede the territory of the intuitive, the emotional, the unconscious, the irrational to the far right. It’s only by people of good will engaging with these sides of ourselves, at a cultural as well as an individual level, that we can prevent a political “return of the repressed”. We need to go there vigilantly, but we need to go there.

13. We need to understand the amount of fear in the equation. Miliband used to talk about the “squeezed middle”, but it turns out the Tories can still count on the worried middle. As I’ve said before, there aren’t enough people doing well in Britain to deliver a Tory majority, but there are enough people who are worried, who hope the brittle prosperity of the housing bubble will sustain their way of living a little longer, who hope that what happened to the poor, the young and the disabled over the last five years won’t happen to them. The puzzlement I see in the despairing posts of friends on Facebook over the past twelve hours comes, I think, from the difficulty we have in understanding this. Somehow, we need a space for conversations where people can speak honestly about their fears, their disillusionment, their lack of belief in the possibility of change for the better – without trying too hard, too quickly to convince them they are wrong. Presenting big ideas or retail policies is no substitute for this.

Regrowing a democratic culture from below

14. Democracy doesn’t end at the ballot box. The aftermath of the Scottish referendum proved this, wrong-footing the entire UK establishment. Below the surface, barely capable of being translated into election results (except in Scotland), there is an extraordinary welling of anger, disillusionment, disgust with the lot of them. I wouldn’t like to predict the circumstances in which this will take louder, more visible shape, but it was one of the running themes that emerged from the #dontjustvote tour. The Scottish precedent needs to be the inspiration for an ongoing grassroots process of democratic renewal.

15. This needs to start outside of politics as we know it. Politics today is broken in ways that go deeper than our political institutions or the people who inhabit them are able to reach. While the kind of regrowth of a democratic culture that I’m talking about is not non-partisan in some detached, objective way, it can’t be on behalf of any one party, either.

16. Build a movement that starts by being present in the place where you are and supporting the most vulnerable. Look at the role that the grassroots movements around Syriza have played in helping people to endure the hardships of austerity in Greece. That needs to be one of the models for whatever happens in Britain, as five more years of austerity are piled on the weakest. And for heaven’s sake, work with the churches (and the mosques, synagogues, gudwaras and temples) – whatever the rational differences many on the left may have with people of faith, the everyday engagement of religious communities puts most of us to shame. And the churches have shown more courage in criticising austerity than most of the Labour frontbench.

17. Another party is possible. The FPTP system may be a steep obstacle, but we live in strange times. Look at the polls in Spain. Look at the polls in Iceland, one of the few countries hit harder than the UK by the banking crisis – they are now in the third (or fourth?) act of some kind of political revolution, where a left outsider coalition gave way to a centre right government, but that government is now losing support as the Pirate Party lead the opinion polls. Strange times, really.

18. Come to Sweden (but lose your illusions). I’m writing these notes in Gothenburg Central station, about to rush off to the Congress of the “popular movement” that owns the national touring theatre for which I currently work. Since the exit polls came out last night, I’ve had a stream of people, with varying degrees of seriousness, asking me if they should move to Sweden. I wish I could help you fulfil your wishes, but there are far more similarities between the reality of politics today here and the British situation than you would like to believe. The work that needs to be done here is much the same as the work that needs to be done there – though, for now, the harshening grip of neoliberalism is better hidden here, and we have been spared the kind of austerity the UK has seen. But precisely because the work that needs doing is similar, maybe there are possibilities to host conversations here that bring together people from both countries who want to engage in this work. I’m certainly interested in helping to make that happen.

Alright, enough words. Be kind to each other. And be wary of the tendency to allow a situation to be defined by the oppositions present within it. This is going to be a time for redrawing the maps, a time when things we overlooked or undervalued may end up making all the difference.

Taking The Power to Westminster

“How does it all look from over there?” people ask me, meaning the general election that is going on back in the UK.

The first answer is, strangely familiar. Sweden had a general election last year where the big parties of left and right got historically low votes, the Social Democrats and the Greens formed a minority government with the support of the Left party (though they wouldn’t let it into their coalition), the balance of power in parliament is held by the Sweden Democrats (think a slightly browner version of UKIP), and a second election was called and then called off again only when the centre-right alliance (think four different factions of the Conservative party, standing under different names) made a deal with the government to provide limited support. The details are Borgen-like, but squint so the details go fuzzy and you see a familiar shape. The rituals of voting work differently, but in both these countries, as in lots of other parts of the west, something similar is going on – what I’ve come to think of as a crisis of democracy that goes deeper than politics as we know it knows how to reach – and these unsettled election results are what that buried crisis looks like on the surface.

The second answer is nothing to do with Sweden: it’s personal, it’s about the kind of life I’ve had and the age that I’ve reached. I’ve been following UK elections with an unhealthy attentiveness since 1987, but this is the first time when there are significant players who are my age, some of whom I crossed paths with when they were rather less well known than they are today. Rachel Reeves lived on the same staircase as me as first-year undergraduates in Oxford and her passion for social justice and dedication to the Labour party as the vehicle for this has been unswerving from that day to this. When I listen to Chris Mason’s entertaining Election Desk on Radio 4’s PM programme, I have an extra chuckle because I remember him crashing in my spare room the week he worked his first few shifts for the BBC at Radio Sheffield. I’ve been getting my geek fix from Alberto Nardelli’s data analysis for The Guardian, while recalling pitching School of Everything to him in the days when he worked at Unltd. And I’m certain I remember Rowenna Davis – who is fighting an impressively organised battle for Labour in the super-marginal Southampton Itchen – throwing brilliant, awkward questions at me after a rambling talk I gave at a squat in central London a few years ago.

Name-dropping is about as attractive as nose-picking. But what I have in common with all of these people – none of whom I know well, but all of whom I have a lot of respect for – is that our lives have passed through places like Oxford, the BBC or the London social-activist-thinktank scene that are totally alien to the experience of anyone outside a circle of at most a couple of hundred thousand people in Britain. (You could probably draw the circle rather smaller than that.) And without bringing anyone’s good intentions or the worth of what they are doing into question, I think this is part of the problem.

All of which brings me to my own little quixotic long-distance intervention in this election campaign. If you happen to read Crossed Lines, the occasional newsletter I’ve been writing, then you’ve been hearing for weeks about #dontjustvote. But I’ve been slow to write about it more publicly because, if I’m honest, right up to when it got underway on Friday morning, I wasn’t quite sure what it really was or why I was doing it.

One thing it is is a week-long tour by my very old and dear friend Billy Bottle and his other half Martine Waltier, winding their way from Devon to Westminster, pitching up on high streets and seafronts, in marketplaces and community cafes, playing an exuberant acoustic rendition of Snap’s ‘90s rave-rap hit The Power, jamming with local musicians who turn up to meet them and starting conversations with everyone they meet along the way.

There is a kind of a message running through the project, the clue to which is in the name – do go out and vote next Thursday, but don’t let anyone tell you that your role in democracy is over for another five years when you leave the polling station.

But what gets clearer with every stop along the way is that this is not a campaigning project with a message it wants to get across to people, this is about what happens along the way, the conversations you get into when people realise you’re actually interested in what they think and what they feel about the state of the country. I’ve been keeping in touch with Billy and Martine as they go and helping to write up the experiences they have along the way in posts like this:

Everyone we meet feels disillusioned, disengaged, disenfranchised. They all feel like they’re not being heard. A lot of them aren’t voting. Yet they also believe that we as people do have power, they just can’t see a route to change that goes through the ballot box.

We’re not pretending we’ve got any answers. We’re definitely not pretending that wearing fluourescent tights and playing a song in the street is a way to change things. But it’s a way in, a way to start meeting people, catching little snatches of a tune that this country is humming under its breath, that nobody’s quite remembered the words to yet.

I’m not claiming that this is an intervention that is going to affect the course of this strange election, even if it was partly inspired by a short story I wrote where a Facebook post ends up (possibly) doing that. But two-and-a-half days in, I’m starting to understand why this matters and why I’ll be spending as much time as I can this week, in my lunch-breaks and on commuter trains, doing my bit to help tell the stories they are picking up along the way.

Firstly, one reason I’m doing this is because I’ve been trying to figure out what kind of role art can play in making sense of the mess in which we find ourselves – and I think what Billy and Martine are up to might have some clues to that. One reason I love working with them is that I have total confidence in them, not just as performers who come alive wherever and whenever they play, but as people who will roll with and play with whatever happens, and that’s what’s leading them into a constant stream of fascinating encounters, only glimpses of which reach the Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr we’re running for the project.

More than that, I know that a lot of what I’ve written lately could sound like I don’t believe that art that tries to be political can work – but that’s not quite true. What I’ve been poking at is the problem with art that thinks its job is to deliver a message to a (hopefully receptive) audience. What I believe in, though, is another kind of political art which doesn’t have all the answers, which makes a space in which people can meet each other and come alive together, where words are given to thoughts and feelings that hadn’t quite been articulated before, not carefully pre-prepared words, but words that arrive unexpectedly in the middle of things. This is something I’ve felt in the work of Troja Scenkonst, the theatre collective I’ve been collaborating with in Sweden since last summer – and you can get some sense of this in the talk I did with Lisa Färnström from Troja.

It’s what I love about the work of artists like Lottie Child, what I pick up from the impro practice of a teacher like Keith Johnstone. It’s what I’m hoping to talk about in the conversation I’m holding in Malmö on Thursday night, where I’ll be jamming words with the sounds of the saxophonist Ola Paulson.

So far, so arty… What about what’s going to be happening back in Britain on Thursday?

Well, for what it’s worth – and I’m not imagining saying this will shift a single vote – I do desperately hope that some combination of MPs will be elected that makes it impossible for David Cameron to form another government on behalf of the rich and the worried. (There aren’t enough people doing well in Britain to support a Tory government, but there are enough worried people, hoping the housing bubble’s mirage of prosperity doesn’t evaporate, hoping the things that happened to the poor and the unemployed and the disabled in the last five years aren’t going to happen to them…) I also hope that if such a combination of MPs is elected, the massed forces of the British press doesn’t succeed in preventing it forming a government.

I have some deep currents of loyalty to what Labour has meant to previous generations of my family, but I don’t have any illusions about what a Labour-led government is likely to mean in practice. But the ballot box isn’t a tool for building utopia, it’s a tool for damage limitation. So if I was voting in a seat where my vote had a chance of making it more likely that a Labour MP was elected rather than a Tory or a Lib Dem, that’s how I’d be voting. If I could help elect a Lib Dem rather than a Tory, I’d do that. In any other situation, including the safe Labour seat where I’m registered to vote, I’d vote for whichever party came closest to standing for something I could believe in, so that when the votes are added up we can all point to how absurd the system is that is set to give one party on 5% a single MP while another party on the same kind of share of the national vote gets 50 MPs.

So, in the unlikely case that you wanted my advice on who to vote for, there you have it. Meanwhile, back to the musical duo with the frizzy hair and the unfeasibly fluorescent tights…

What I’m getting from talking to Billy and Martine about the conversations they’re having along the way is a kind of below-the-radar read on the election in England. The gentle futility of their journey takes them out of the game of serious politics, played by the Oxford-BBC-thinktank types, and into the everyday worlds that they’re passing through. And out of those worlds comes a murmur of the great welling of discontent that lies about a quarter of an inch below the crust of our societies.

Whatever uncomfortable parliamentary coalition is cobbled together in the weeks after polling day, I expect that murmur to get louder over the years ahead. Something like it has already found its voice in Scotland, up-ending the confident assumptions of the entire London-centred establishment, and making an unmistakable contribution to the strangeness of this Westminster election. UKIP may tap into one part of England’s restless dreaming, the Greens into another part of it, but for different reasons, both parties struggle to become its voice.

In one of the newsletters where I started sketching out the ideas for #dontjustvote, I wrote that so much of what has happened politically in the past five years – from Wikileaks to the Arab Spring and its darkening aftermath, from the Indignados to Occupy, Beppe Grillo to Russell Brand, the Clacton by-election to the Green surge to #milifandom – would have sounded like wild political science fiction the last time Britain went to the polls.

I don’t expect the next five years will be any less weird. I don’t expect, sadly, that any result at this election will fully take the weight of austerity off the backs of the most vulnerable, or hold off the next financial crisis that could well make the autumn of 2008 seem just an early tremor, or reverse the polarisation between London and the rest of the country, and between the playboy London of the few and the struggle that, to varying degrees, forms the reality of London for most of its residents. I don’t expect a beautiful revolution led by the wildly gesticulating Russell Brand and commentated on with carefully calibrated enthusiasm by Paul Mason.

I don’t know what to expect, but like tuning the dial on an old radio, trying to make out a distant AM signal, I’m certain I’m picking up some weak transmission from the streetcorners and seafronts of southern England that my friends are strumming their way along as they take The Power slowly towards Westminster.

So, go out and use your vote on Thursday for whatever seems the least worst option, but be ready for whatever unexpected forms democracy comes to take in the days and weeks and years that follow. (And if anyone tells you that democracy ends at the ballot box, ask them how we got the right to vote. Clue: it wasn’t by voting for it…)

And meanwhile, if you’re anywhere along the south coast of England, check out this map of the route that Billy and Martine are taking and go give them some love.

#dontjustvote

The moment when the White Rabbit goes past

Back in November, I started writing an occasional email newsletter called Crossed Lines. Mostly, it just goes out to the couple of hundred people who have signed up to receive it – but I thought I’d share the latest issue on here. If you like it, then here’s where you sign up for more.

This letter comes to you from a hotel room in Kiruna, north of the Arctic Circle. The hotel is called the Arctic Eden. From the window, I can see the mine buildings that crown what’s left of Gironvárri, the mountain the city came here to devour.

The way I was told it, the Swedes knew there was a mountain full of iron ore, somewhere in this landscape, but the mountain was sacred to the Sami and they had no intention of letting the Swedes find it and tear it apart. Until eventually some prospectors got an old Sami man so drunk that he let out the secret.

The history section of the website of the company that owns the mine that tore apart the mountain is headlined: ‘Faith in the Future since 1890’.

In the foyer of the Folkets Hus is a scale model of the city. A red line loops across from the mine, taking in the whole downtown and chunks of the surrounding neighbourhoods. On the underside of the model, a reef of ore slants downwards more than two kilometres into the ground. As they keep following it, digging it out, the city itself will be undermined. The red line marks the zone in danger of subsidence. The answer is to take down the city and rebuild it three kilometres to the east.

You can take a bus from the current city centre that drives straight into the side of the mountain, the road spiralling down into the mine to a depth of five hundred metres, but that will have to wait for next time, because this time I came here to see a play.

Jag Kommer Härifrån is a story about what it means to come from a small place, to grow up with the idea that everything exciting in life is waiting for you somewhere else, somewhere bigger and brighter and more open-minded. Watching it, I was back in Darlington, twenty years ago, full of the desire to escape. There’s nothing wrong with that desire, it seems to me now, but there is a problem when it hardens into a claim about the objective superiority of life in the big city, held to be an obvious truth by people old enough to know better. This is the attitude I think of as ‘urban supremacism’ – what Anders Duus, who wrote Jag Kommer Härifrån, calls ‘metronormativity’.

The train from Stockholm to Kiruna takes seventeen hours. That’s a lot of time for talking – and the other reason I am on this trip is for the luxury of that time together with Anders and my new boss, Måns Lagerlöf, the director of theatre for Riksteatern. I still struggle to get my mouth round words like ‘boss’ and ‘job’, but for the first time in a decade or so, I have both of these things. Since January, I have spent much of my time in an office in a tower block in the concrete surroundings of outer Stockholm, trying to work out what it means that I am now the Artistic and Audience Development Lead for Sweden’s national theatre. If this job had been advertised in the newspaper, it would never have occurred to me to apply, but it came to me by one of those chains of coincidence which I have learned to trust.

I guess if you grew up in Sweden it probably seems normal to have a national theatre that is also a grassroots movement, a network of over two hundred volunteer-run local associations that own the national organisation and arrange performances in smaller and larger places, up and down the country. To me, this sounds like the start of some extraordinary story: the moment when the White Rabbit goes past, staring at his pocket-watch, muttering to himself, and you know that you have left behind reality as you knew it.

So, when the laughter and the applause have died away, the staging for Jag Kommer Härifrån is packed and loaded onto the tour bus, ready to head on down the road to the next town on a forty-date tour that stretches the length of the country. And having seen one of our productions out on the road for the first time, the organisation I’m working with just got a little more real to me.

I’ll be writing more about what I’m actually doing, as these newsletters get going again, and as I get further into the process of figuring it out. I should say that I’m working 70% (as we say in this part of the world) which means I still have 30% of my time available for writing, speaking and other freelance projects. Most importantly, I’ve wound up here because the things I’ve been thinking, writing and speaking about seem to resonate with what they want to do over the next few years, so this is a chance to put some of my ideas into action.

Jag Kommer Härifrån has fun at the expense of the hipsters of Södermalm, buying their organic groceries at Urban Deli on Nytorget. That bit reminded me of Venkatesh Rao’s essay, ‘The American Cloud’, where he suggests that today’s America consists of a Jeffersonian simulation, an imagined version of small-town life, running on a Hamiltonian platform of mechanised processes the scale of which is uncomfortable to think about. He starts with the example of a Whole Foods store, its pre-distressed wooden fittings connoting authenticity, while behind them is the concrete and steel of which the building is actually made. Steel that came out of a mountain like the one outside my hotel window.

The deposit of iron ore under Gironvárri is one of the largest and richest ever found. When mining began, there were 1.8bn tonnes of it down there. As part of the project of moving the city, the municipality held an architectural competition. The winning design was called ‘Kiruna 4-ever’. Today, less than half of the original ore remains to be mined. It seems that Kiruna has accepted the need to dismantle and re-mantle itself with little complaint. I imagine that only a city whose existence was this bound up with a single industry could be so accepting. The current rate of extraction of iron ore is over 25m tonnes a year. The new city hall will open next year and by 2021 the beautiful wooden church will have been rebuilt on its new site. The full project of moving the city will be complete sometime in the mid-2030s. By my reckoning, that is about when the ore will run out. I suppose that’s what they mean by faith in the future. Still, ‘4-ever’ seems an ambitious timescale.

That was a taste of Crossed Lines. If you’d like this kind of thing to turn up in your inbox on an occasional basis, here’s where to go.

Image via Tekniska Museet

In the future, everyone will be powerful for 15 minutes (February 2012)

For reasons I’ll come back to another day, I’ve been working a lot with theatre and democracy lately. So it seems timely to republish this essay, first written for Despatches from the Invisible Revolution, a book of reflections on the events of 2011 that I edited with Keith Kahn Harris. Another of the contributors, Andrew Taggart, observed that the most striking thing about the book was the speed with which it came about, barely three months from conception to publication. I’m not sure how well our reflections have stood the test of time, but I continue to come across people trying to figure out the same questions. (For example, the immediate prompt to dig this out today was this interview with Astra Taylor, where she makes a similar point about why consensus decision-making might work better for a Quaker meeting than an Occupy General Assembly.)

1.

Rioters smash the windows of banks, the drum beats towards war with Iran, protests fuelled by social media take over the streets of another capital city. As 2011 reached its endgame, the cinematic surface of Mike Bartlett’s play, 13, could have been taken from the next day’s headlines. Into its dark, refractive world, where everyone seems to be having the same bad dream, comes an unkempt young man named John, whose friends had given him up for dead. He takes to giving sermons in the park, pulling at the materialist threads of a fraying society. Someone films him and posts it on YouTube, and soon his message is spreading, sparking a movement whose aim is not just to stop the war, but to start… something better.

If the positive vision of the movement John finds himself leading was left undefined, this gave it a certain symmetry with the Occupy encampment across the river, at the steps of St Paul’s. In each case, the desire for change struggled to find a clear articulation, while cohabiting uneasily with matters of belief. As the play builds towards its conclusion, John meets his antagonist in the form of a polemically atheist and pro-war establishment figure – part Richard Dawkins, part Christopher Hitchens. Then his downfall comes when one of his followers acts on her interpretation of his message, with murderous consequences.

Bartlett seems to be using theatre as a form of public thinking: not simply to present an argument, but to make the process of thinking public. ‘In the moment of writing,’ he told an interviewer, ‘I genuinely changed what I thought.

I wonder if this willingness to rethink out loud, to voice our uncertainties, might be emblematic of a generational shift which leaves the winner-takes-all polemic of Hitchens or Dawkins looking suddenly old-fashioned: an intellectual Maginot Line, built for a kind of war we no longer fight? Among those whose thinking holds my attention, there is a fluidity to the way ideas emerge, flowing in and out of the projects, actions and movements with which we become involved. Careful thinking is valued, but being right is less important than contributing to the unfolding of the conversation, and discovering something you hadn’t seen. This reflects the habit of publishing our conversations in real time, thinking aloud in written form, sharing our ideas in progress through blogs and Twitter exchanges that weave into our face-to-face encounters, and formal publications that crystallise out of the wider conversation.

Continue reading In the future, everyone will be powerful for 15 minutes (February 2012)

Crossed Lines: An occasional email newsletter

Writing is terrifying. You have no idea where your words will go or how they will come back to haunt you. It freaked Plato out twenty-five centuries ago and it freaks me out today.

Your only hope is that the reader will assume good faith. That she is willing to step inside the text and feel through your words, rather than put them on trial and find them, as they will always be, wanting.

The internet is wonderful in more ways than I need to tell you, but it does not abound in a willingness to assume good faith. Words unaccompanied by bodies are more easily misunderstood. It is easier to be careless or unpleasant through a keyboard than in the flesh. Mailing lists go to war over which way to open a boiled egg. Comment threads sprout into a hydra of misreadings, some wilful, some innocent. Not always, but often enough to make us wary.

Years ago, at an exhibition opening, I staged a battle reenactment of a (pretty tame) mailing list fight. Twelve of us sat around a table and read aloud twelve minutes of extracts from what had been twelve thousand words of mails. The guy whose attack on me had triggered the original episode agreed to read my words and I read his. It shook us both.

The internet is not often a safe place to be vulnerable. Good writing, unless it is well-armoured polemic, requires vulnerability. I suspect this is why so many of the writers I know have an angst-ridden relationship to the internet.

To write with no fear that your words will be held against you, that is what it takes for written words to come alive. And the model for this, I think, is the letter you write to a friend. There are certain books which started life as letters and they come alive in this way. I am thinking of John Berger’s ‘and our faces, my heart, brief as photos’, parts of which must have been written as love letters, but I realise that I could be thinking of any of a dozen of Berger’s books or essays. I am thinking also of Hugh Brody’s ‘The Other Side of Eden’ which grew out of his letters to his friend Ted Chamberlin. Where technologies open gaps between us, whether the technology is the internet or the alphabet, friendship can make those gaps disappear into irrelevance. When you write to someone you know to be a friend, you don’t worry about whether they will assume good faith.

I stumbled into blogging more than ten years ago. I was living in wild west China, one of maybe two dozen foreigners in a city of 400,000. This is not the place to try to explain how the experience changed me, but some days it was all too much. I started writing “round robin” emails to friends back home, then I got guilty about clogging the inboxes of those I never heard back from, so I started using a site called LiveJournal instead. After a couple of months of posting there, I realised with a jolt that two people I’d never met had started following my posts.

For a long time, though, blogging still felt intimate, a place where I could talk through whatever I was working on and assume that anyone who was interested enough to be reading would assume good faith. Then it didn’t feel like that anymore. Lots of other things happened, I moved countries and changed the shape of my life, and I let my online life drift for a couple of years. Then this year, as I found my feet in Sweden, I started this site as a place to write about the work I’m doing.

I think it works. It’s a public home, a place for publishing things. But lately I’ve been feeling the itch for a more personal way of writing over the internet. Around the same time, I started reading email newsletters from people like Warren Ellis and Deb Chachra – and I was struck by how different a newsletter can be to a blog.

A newsletter arrives in your inbox without demanding any response, which makes a pleasant change from most of the rest of the email you get. Still, it has to be interesting enough to actually make you want to read it. There’s no comment thread. Often, there’s not even a public archive, so it lives somewhere just a little more intimate. Sometimes it can feel like a personal email a stranger has sent you by mistake.

So, because clearly none of us has enough words in our inboxes already, I thought I’d try joining in the renaissance of the email newsletter. I give you Crossed Lines, an occasional letter about what I’m reading, writing, thinking and talking about. And about what ever else I feel like writing about. I hope you’ll enjoy it.

The first letter will go out at sunrise, one morning in the near future.

Sign up for Crossed Lines here – make sure you click on the link in the Confirm email from TinyLetter.

(Image from here.)

Stir to Action: Crowdfunding a workshop programme

STIR magazine has been going for a couple of years now, based in Bridport, Dorset, born out of the moment of the Occupy and Transition movements, and doing its best to bring together currents of action and reflection, hacking, commoning and cooperation.

I’ve written for them a few times, most recently a review of Martin Shaw’s magical books about myth, wilderness and wildness in the latest issue. Here’s a taste of that piece:

What is at stake is not the planet, as such, but a way of living within it that we have created as a species, parts of which go back tens of thousands of years, while other parts are barely a generation deep, though we already struggle to imagine living without them. Our sense of loss at all the shadowed beauty being driven out of existence, our guilt, our still-remaining desire to feel proud of our place as a species – all of this exists in tension with our attachment to what we know and our sense of powerlessness within the structures we have built. These forces play out within us and on a planetary scale. To understand the relationships between the inner and outer worlds that define the crisis, something like the subtlety of mythological thinking is required, its ability to dance with paradox and its openness to surprise. And perhaps, even now, there remains within the stories the capacity to make those relationships anew. For as Shaw says, that has always been the power of story, to ground us in such a way that universe becomes a cosmos.

You can read the rest of that piece and lots of other great articles from people like David Bollier, Annemarie Naylor, Siôn Whellens, Anna Laycock and Tom Hirons (another Dark Mountain storyteller) in Issue 7, which is available here. I particularly enjoyed the cover story, Dan Gregory‘s essay ‘There Is No Such Thing As Capitalism’, which resonates with JK Gibson-Graham’s ‘The End of Capitalism (As We Knew It): A Feminist Critique of Political Economy’, another book I’ve been reading lately.

Anyway, what prompted me to write about STIR today is that they’ve just taken the next step in their larger project, launching a crowdfunding campaign to create a six month programme of workshops. The aim of these is to bridge the gap between reading about inspiring cooperative projects and actually making these kinds of projects happen in the place where you live.

Here’s a video where Jonny and Abby, the founders of STIR, explain a bit more:

They launched the campaign a couple of days ago with the aim of raising £5000 to cover the costs of the workshop programme and they’ve already passed the £1000 mark. I’ve just made a small contribution. If you feel inspired to join me, the campaign site is over here. As you’d expect, there’s a menu of offers available to supporters – in this case, many of them involve the work of the fine illustrators who make the magazine itself such an attractive read.

#FULLCOMMONISM

Update (05/11/14): I wrote this in haste, during the run-up to FSCONS. The videos from the day should be available soon – and we’re looking for other ways to develop the #FULLCOMMONISM conversation. Meanwhile, for a more detailed treatment of the core distinction between two ways of seeing the commons, see Ivan Illich, ‘Silence is a Commons’ and Anthony McCann, ‘Enclosure Without and Within the “Information Commons”‘.

FSCONS is the Free Society Conference and Nordic Summit, an annual gathering of politically-minded hackers. Last year I gave a talk there about why “post-scarcity” is such a problematic concept. They liked that enough to ask me to put together a whole track at this year’s conference, which takes place this weekend in Gothenburg. That’s how #FULLCOMMONISM came about.

#FULLCOMMONISM is the thing I’ve been going on about for a while (like here and here), an insistence on how big the difference is between seeing a “commons” as a pool of resources to be managed and seeing a “commons” as an alternative to resources.

The moment you treat something as a resource, you’ve already commodified it. This sounds totally abstract, until you think about friendship, one of the few areas of human experience where we still have any common language for talking about the idea that not everything should be treated as a resource. When someone you thought of as a friend treats you as a resource you say, “I feel used!” – and people know what you mean.

The idea of “the commons” has been on a long journey out of the history books and into lots of areas of public discourse. I don’t mean it’s become a household word, but it is in danger of becoming a buzzword, everywhere from conservation to architecture to internet politics. One effect of this is that same word increasingly gets used in different ways, sometimes incompatibly different ways. I believe there’s a desperate need for a shared language for talking about why some things shouldn’t be “used” (and also when it might be OK to “use” things). That’s why #FULLCOMMONISM matters to me – I want to defend a way of talking about commons that helps us hold onto the possibility of other ways of treating each other and the world, rather than allowing it to be smudged into another approach to exploitation – a more sustainable and equitable way of “using” each other.

I’ve written a chapter for a book that the University of Gothenburg are putting out soon, in which I take this further, sketching out a set of connections between what I think of as the “logic” of commons – the ways of thinking and acting that go with “commonism” in its full sense – and the logic of friendship, hospitality and gift. I argue that this logic is at odds with another, dominant logic which forms the hidden consensus between the supposed opposites of “public” and “private”. But that’s more than I can go into this afternoon…

For now, this is an invitation to join us in Gothenburg on Saturday – or online, where there should be videos of Saturday’s talks appearing in the near future – as we try to flesh out the kind of commons I have in mind, the thing that Anthony McCann often calls ‘the heart of the commons’. I’ll be helped in this by a fascinating group of fellow speakers, some of them longstanding co-conspirators, others new friends, who are interested in this kind of conversation about the commons:

  • Evren Uzer von Busch will be talking about communal meals on the streets of Istanbul in the wake of the Gezi Park protests.
  • Christopher Brewster will be talking about water, friendship and conviviality, where commons and infrastructure meet.
  • Geraldine Juarez will be talking about piracy and friendship (and Piracy as Friendship).
  • Lars Noväng will be talking about trying to turn ideas into reality with The Friendly, the organisation and project space he created in Malmö.
  • And finally David Hilmer Rex and Aslak Aamot will be talking about Organisational Imaginaries, new social infrastructures and ways of thinking about what we have in common that shape the ways in which we come together and collaborate.

This is all just one track within a conference that will be full of fascinating talks and conversations – and it’s also just one step in the development of a line of inquiry around the commons that is rooted in ideas from Ivan Illich and Anthony McCann, that I hope to take forward in other ways in the years ahead.

Tickets are available through the FSCONS website – 600kr for the whole weekend.

Remembering Uncivilisation

As you may have gathered by now, the weekend after next is Futureperfect festival – but it’s also the anniversary of the last Uncivilisation, the annual Dark Mountain gathering that we ran in the UK. There are plenty of differences between the two festivals, but what they have in common is the quality of conversation we’re bringing together – and I’m delighted to have some old friends joining us on Grinda, including Smári McCarthy and Ella Saitta, who were on the legendary Collapsonomics panel at Uncivilisation 2011.

Meanwhile, this seemed like a good time to share this essay that I wrote for the latest Dark Mountain book. Though I’m glad to say the 14-day weather forecast for the Stockholm archipelago is looking rather more encouraging…

The skies opened and all the waters in them fell at once. It was a rain so hard I remember the weight of it on my shoulders, so loud you had to shout to have a chance of being heard. Yet, uncommonly for England in summer, it was not a miserable rain. There was something triumphant about it. Perhaps because we all knew we would soon be in vehicles, heading back to the sheltered lives we had come from. Perhaps because we had already endured a weekend of hard showers, woodland mists and other watery intrusions. But also because it felt somehow like a seal of approval, a full-throated elemental roar in answer to the voices raised here in the past three days, the past four years, at the last moment of the fourth and last Uncivilisation festival.

Insist too hard on the significance of a poetic coincidence and you will make people uncomfortable. Better to recount such moments as jokes the world seemed to join in with than as some kind of revelation, but my experience of those four festivals includes several of them. The first came that first year, before we had found the site in the Meon valley that became our home, when several hundred people gathered in Llangollen, unsure what to expect. The landscape was darker, wild and splendid, but the venue itself was a converted sports hall. We had never organised anything like this, and our hosts were used to organising comedy nights and concerts for local audiences who bought their tickets, sat in their seats, enjoyed the show, applauded and went home. We were unprepared for the logistics of a festival and unprepared for the ways in which a festival comes alive. There were a hundred things wrong: plastic beer in plastic cups, a campsite too long a walk from the venue, a main hall where rows of seats faced a stage where speakers could barely see for the dazzle of the theatre lighting. Yet somehow, in spite of it all, this became a place where magic could happen.

The moment it happened for me, that year, was on the Sunday, as Jay Griffiths spoke about the shapeshifting power of language only for gremlins to take hold of the sound system so completely that the technicians could barely coax a murmur from it. After a couple of minutes of confusion, the room reassembled, people sitting in circles around Jay on the stage and on the floor. And there, the spell was broken, the face-off between speakers and spoken-to giving way to a shape as old as stories.

From there on in, the memories seem to dance with each other, as we found ways to open the circle and let others step in, until I am not sure which of the things I remember happened to me and which I only heard about. The wild figures in the fields, on the edge of sight. The late night tellings that bewitched us around the fire. The daylight stories of loss and pride, still fresh and urgent on the tellers’ faces. The music that picked up at the place where words ran out. The rhythm of rain on the roof of a marquee. Thirty people penned inside a square of rope to reenact the memory of a Russian prison cell. The sharpening of a scythe. Laughter and fooling and horns and antlers. At the end of everything, a singer’s voice going up into the night.

Someone said, one Sunday morning, almost embarrassed, that this was the closest thing they had to going to church. All along, it was there, the awkward presence of something no other language seemed fit for, the wariness of a language that so easily turns to dust on the tongue. Here is one way that I have explained it to myself. A taboo, in the full sense, is something other than a reasonable modern legal prohibition: it is a thing forbidden because it is sacred and it may, under appropriately sacred circumstances, be permitted, even required. Now, the space that we opened together, as participants, was a space in which certain taboos had been lifted: some that are strong in the kinds of society we have grown up in, some that have been stronger still in the kinds of movement many of us have been active in. Not the obvious taboos on physical gratification—most of what they covered is now not prohibited so much as required, in this postmodern economy of desire—but the taboo on darknesses and doubts, on naming our losses, failures, fears, uncertainties and exhaustions. In response to our earliest attempts to articulate what Dark Mountain might be, people we knew—good, dedicated people—would tell us, ‘OK, so you’ve burned out. It happens. But there’s no need to do it in public and encourage others to give up.’ Instead, it seemed, one should find a quiet place to be alone with the disillusionment. Perhaps become an aromatherapist. If I have any clue where the power of Dark Mountain came from—knowing that it came from somewhere other than the two of us who wrote the manifesto—then I would say it came from creating a space in which our darknesses can be spoken to each other. (From here, among much else, we may begin to question why the movements we have been involved in seem accustomed to use people as a kind of fuel.) By the second or third year of the festival, though, I found myself wondering if the sacred nature of taboo might not work both ways. If a group of people creates a space in which taboos are lifted, perhaps this in itself is enough to invoke the forms of experience for which the language of the sacred has often been used?

That is how I have explained it to myself, at least, for now; and if there is any truth in such an explanation, then it bears also on the role of those who take responsibility for creating such a space. We did not know, when we agreed—rather lightly—to that original invitation to host a weekend in Llangollen, that what we were creating was nothing so safe as a programme of talks, workshops and performances. Those elements were there, but they leave out much of what mattered most to those to whom the festival came to matter. The other, harder to name elements, which seem to have something to do with the sacred, call for another order of responsibility. The hard thing is not to create a space in which taboos can be broken, but to do it without people getting broken.

I have been reading stories from the 1960s, counterculture stories, uncomfortable reading, because there are things I want to understand better about the much-mythologised moment in which all that took place. There are plenty of broken taboos in those stories, and no end of broken people. By comparison, we were weekend amateurs, going nowhere near so high or so hard or so fast, but someone who had been through those years and lived to tell the tales told me this festival was the closest he had known to a reawakening of what he knew back then. If so, then here is confirmation that the taboos in which there is power today are of a different kind, for there is more hedonistic excess on a Saturday night in any high street in England than there was in four years of our Uncivilisation.

In the end, I think we learned to carry the responsibility, to hold this kind of space with care, though it took the wisdom of others who joined us at the heart of the festival-making. Nothing in the process of writing prepares you for such work, for a writer’s responsibilities are as bounded as the binding of a book, and the space from which writing comes is a solitary one.

We didn’t set out to start a festival, a festival happened to us. From those who came to it, we learned more about what Dark Mountain might be and what it might mean than we could ever have done at our desks. It felt good to have created it—and it feels good now to have brought it to an end. After all, there are reasons why no one tries to start a publishing operation and an annual festival as part of the same small new non-profit business in the same year. Somehow, we got away with it, although the price was paid in the fraying of our wits, and also in the inevitable carelessnesses—most of them small, but none of them unimportant—that happen when you are always trying to do too much at once. There are also reasons why a journal which is increasingly international, and not exactly enthusiastic about air travel, might not want to spend half its year organising a single event in the south of England.

For the next while, then, we are going to concentrate on doing one thing and doing it with the care it deserves, the thing we thought we were doing in the first place: bringing together books like the one you hold in your hands. We brought Uncivilisation to an end while it still felt like a joy rather than a duty. But the sparks from all those late night campfires carried further and there are friends of Dark Mountain organising events in the Scottish lowlands, the former coalfields of South Yorkshire and no doubt other corners of the world.

When the horns had sounded and the thank you’s and goodbye’s had been shouted through the downpour, a circle of friends sat for a few minutes in the shelter of a yurt. We sat quietly, the silence broken after a few moments, as one after another spoke about what he or she had taken from being part of Uncivilisation. Few of us had met before that first gathering in Llangollen and our stories echoed something I have heard over and over, from people who came every year and from people who came only once. A feeling of being less alone. For all the intensity of the mountain-top moments, what stays with us, what carries us through life, is this, the quiet magic of friendship.

This piece was first published in Dark Mountain: Issue 5, along with a photo essay documenting the four years of Uncivilisation – not to mention a whole lot of amazing essays, stories, poetry and art from around the world. Meanwhile, if you can make it to the Stockholm archipelago next week, there will be the chance to pick up some of the same threads at Futureperfect festival (14-17 August). For more information, see this post – or book tickets on the festival site.

On The Urgent Need to Slow Down

There are two weeks to go until this year’s Futureperfect festival kicks off – and every day now, I’m hearing from new people who are coming, people I’m excited to know are going to be there.

I’ve come to see gatherings like this as a necessary luxury.

A luxury because they allow us to take a couple of steps back from the day-to-day realities of our work, whatever that may be.

And a necessity because, without stepping back like this from time to time, we will drift off course, lose sight of that element within our work that is hardest to put into words, the element that was why it mattered in the first place.

In these spaces, we get to stretch out our minds and our souls a little – to have the conversations we never quite find time for among the rhythms of everyday life, or at more goal-oriented events and conferences. We step into festive time, a time of leisure in the deeper, older senses of the word: the kind of leisure that was long understood to be the precondition for learning. The leisure that allows us to attend to what matters.

I believe that such spaces matter all the more, given the tangle of crises around and ahead of us. I’ll say what I mean by this in a moment – but as I work my way around to doing so, you might like to put on a little music from one of the artists who’ll be creating the kind of leisurely atmosphere I’m looking forward to at Futureperfect…

Over the last few weeks, with some of my new collaborators here in Sweden, we’ve been starting to put words to the kind of work we want to do together in the name of The Västerås Group: the organisation that has been growing of the conversation series I hosted here in Västerås earlier in the summer. (Recordings of the first five conversations are available to download here, the rest are coming soon.)

There’s a question we’ve found ourselves circling around, which goes something like this: What do we do when our maps no longer fit the territory?

We seem to be living in a time of disorientation. A time of people who feel lost and confused, who followed the route they were given, but didn’t get to the lives they were expecting. Institutions whose levers no longer seem to work. At the root of this are a set of entangled crises: among them, the unravelling of the promise of economic progress, of the structures and culture of democracy, of the ecological fabric on which all of this rests.

These crises are still only starting to poke through the collective map by which our societies steer, the collection of models and stories that make up what I often think of as ‘official reality’. Politicians and the media struggle to incorporate them into their ways of talking about the world. But the lurching sense of disorientation is a product of the gap between that rapidly-dating map and the realities of everyday life.

And so, as we’ve been talking about what The Västerås Group might actually do together, we’ve started to sketch out what it might mean to build a practice around the redrawing of our maps. Taking account of the unmarked obstacles, resisting the illusion of a return to the way things once worked, learning to spot the unexpected paths where we had been told there was only a dead end.

Just now, for me, all of this comes around to Futureperfect. For the obvious reason that this is the first project we’ve undertaken as The Västerås Group: to host the festival’s Cocreation Space, a huge tent at the centre of the festival site, full of cushions and comfy sofas and conversations, where our Festival Faculty will be inviting people back from the more formal sessions going on over the four days, picking up the loose ends and unanswered questions, trying to draw each other beyond our preformed ideas, into the process of thinking together.

And for the larger reason that the space of necessary luxury and leisurely conversation seems to be a precondition for the kinds of work that we’ve started to identify as belonging to the process of redrawing. Gatherings like this are one form of such a space, there are others. They respond to a need that grows stronger in times of disorientation: the urgent need to slow down.

So here is my work-in-progress, back-of-an-envelope map of some kinds of work that make sense, when our maps no longer fit the territory. (I suspect it will be a while before we distill all this into a simple explanation of what it is we’re doing, but I hope the conversations on Grinda in two weeks’ time will help that process on its way.)

  1. Acknowledge the scale and significance of the gap that has opened up: the discomfort of losing our bearings, the attachment we have to how we thought the world worked and how we thought our lives would work out. Make room for this loss, and for the doubts and fears and darknesses that come with it. Wait for your eyes to adjust, without rushing to answers or to action. Allow it to pass from the level of information and facts, into the kind of knowledge we feel in our bodies, the kind that leaves us changed. (If I had to sum up why Dark Mountain has mattered to people, I would say it was because without fully realising what we were doing, we made room for this kind of process – a theme Paul and I talked about in the Five Years on a Mountain video.)
  2. Give attention to the maps, models and stories we grew up taking for reality. Take a step back and allow them to come into focus. Notice them, name them together, so that we can recognise the moments when they slip back in to our thinking, uninvited. This is the kind of attention I associate with what Cat Lupton calls ‘the place between stories’ (which always reminds me of ‘the Wood between the Worlds’ in The Magicians Nephew). It’s a process I talk about in this short video with Ākāśa Innovation.
  3. Give attention to the elements within people’s everyday experience that are left out of the maps and models we inherited. If loosening the hold of our existing maps means stepping back to the in-between place where we can reflect on the maps themselves, the counterweight to this – the guard against getting lost in our reflections – is to step closer to the unmapped texture of experience. Look for the places where things no longer work the way they used to, and also for the huge areas where people’s experience was never reflected in the map. There is pain here, exclusion and damage, but this is never the whole story: there are clues also, pockets of life that may have endured precisely because they went unmapped, possibilities that we had missed. I think of those lines of Eugenio Montale:
  4. History isn’t
    the devastating bulldozer they say it is.
    It leaves underpasses, crypts, holes
    and hiding places…

  5. Find different ways of having conversations. The situation is too messy and too serious to spend our time acting out the kinds of point-scoring debate that have too often passed for grown-up public discourse. With nice timing, a deck of Group Works cards arrived in the post this week from Dave Pollard, offering ‘a pattern language for bringing life to meetings and gatherings’, while Mark left a comment pointing me towards the example of Council Practice. Willow Brugh, one of the other members of the Festival Faculty, is working on a ‘recipe box’ of different flavours of conversation for the Cocreation Space. How do we move beyond these as ‘alternative’ techniques? How could we help parts of the mainstream media out of the dead-end of pointless backward-and-forward arguments that pass for intelligent discussion? That might sound naïve, but it’s what Per Johansson, one of our Festival Faculty, has been doing with his series for Swedish Radio’s P1, Människan och Maskinen (Man and the Machine) – and the response they’ve experienced suggests there is a hunger for this kind of media. Much closer to the hard end of broadcast news, I see something related in the way in which Paul Mason bridges between the networked conversations of social media, intellectual analysis and reporting for a mainstream TV channel.
  6. Recognise the role of culture and the imagination. Not to be pressed into service as a means to an end, a delivery mechanism for a message we want to communicate – but a place where the wilder sides of ourselves come to life, where the familiar can be thrown into question and new shapes can arrive from no-one knows quite where. Here, again, we meet a necessary luxury. I’m getting particularly interested in the role of theatre in this – not least, for some of the reasons that Paul Mason touched on in his review of the National Theatre’s Great Britain – so I’m excited to be bringing to Futureperfect the founders of the young Swedish theatre company Troja Scenkonst, currently working on a project called The History of Swedish Democracy, along with the remarkable Bembo Davies of the Institute for Non-Toxic Propaganda and the Society for the Promotion of Human Rites.
  7. Aim to create projects and experiments that continue to make sense in the widest range of possible futures. There is a criterion here, to be worked out further, which might start to help us shape practical work. Perhaps the unMonastery, which both Bembo Davies and Ben Vickers (Curator of Digital at the Serpentine Gallery and another of our Festival Faculty) have been involved with, is an example of this kind of experiment? I’m looking forward to hearing more about how its first phase in Matera has gone.
  8. Create pockets within our organisations and institutions that have permission to experiment with other maps. To operate according to other assumptions and other scenarios. And to exercise judgement as well as measurement, to take seriously things that don’t show up in the criteria other parts of the organisation are accountable to. (Christopher Brewster and I discussed ‘The Limits to Measurement’ as part of the Västerås Conversations – and he’ll also be joining us at the festival.) Again, this is something that needs working out, but it feels like there could be a rationale for a small part of an organisation’s resources to be used in this way, as a hedge against “map failure”. This is a conversation I’ve had a few times over the years with Ella Saitta, one of the hacker-thinkers who’ll be joining us at Futureperfect.

I don’t know if these kind of reflections are what the Futureperfect guys expected, when they appointed me as their Festival Professor.

As a model, it is a work in progress, a sketch of some of what’s been bubbling up in our conversations – and I owe a particular debt to Lucas Grind, who has spent the most time grinding through these ideas together with me. (He’ll be at the core of our Cocreation Space crew – as well as DJing on the Saturday night…)

But hopefully it’s also a taste of what to expect, if you’re thinking about joining us in two weeks’ time. Meanwhile, I’m going to take my own advice and slow down for awhile. I look forward to seeing some of you on Grinda!

Futureperfect is happening from 14-17 August on the island of Grinda in the Stockholm archipelago. Tickets are available from the festival website.