Sensing & Knowing: A Dark Mountain Conversation with David Abram

In September 2010, I sat down in the gardens of New College, Oxford to film a conversation with David Abram, the philosopher and ecologist. We had met for the first time three hours earlier, the result of an email he had sent to Dark Mountain, thanking us for writing our manifesto. It was the first time I had the experience of receiving a mail like that from someone whose own work had profoundly influenced me.

The Spell of the Sensuous is a book that moves between passages of narrative that sparkle with David’s marvellously tuned awareness of sensory experience and chapters of intense philosophical reflection in which the conclusions drawn from this experience are grounded within the history of phenomenology. It is one of those magical books that have the capacity to act as landmarks by which to find your bearings, to become aware of the assumptions running through the society in which you have grown up and to glimpse what it might mean to orient yourself by other assumptions. Another world is not just possible, it whispers, but out there already, seen from the corner of your eye, just beyond the bounds of what you think you know.

It did not come as a surprise to discover, over breakfast that morning, that David had spent time as part of the travelling circus of ideas that gathered around Ivan Illich. In Mexico, a couple of years later, I mentioned his name to Gustavo Esteva, another member of that circle, and he smiled at the memory of the young man performing magic tricks around the dinner table. By the time they met at Penn State, David’s sleight of hand had already taken him from the famed Alice’s Restaurant to the company of the radical psychiatrist R.D. Laing, with whom he began exploring how the magician’s play of awareness could open unexpected lines of communication with people whose experience of reality had been deeply disturbed.

That work with Laing set him on the path to fieldwork with traditional magicians in Bali and Nepal, going to meet them not as an anthropologist but as a fellow magician. While his starting point was the healing role of magic within traditional culture, it soon became clear that this was secondary to the role these people played in negotiating the boundary between the human world and the rest of what David talks about as ‘the more-than-human world’ within which we find ourselves. This is the starting point for The Spell of the Sensuous and Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology, the book he had just finished when we sat down to record this conversation.

The camera was borrowed from a friend, placed in the grass in front of us, and I tried to keep half an eye on whether we were in shot. Ahead of us was the fragment of the old city wall that passes through the college grounds, a setting that seems appropriate to our theme. Our voices are interwoven with those of the wind and the trees. At one point, a leaf floats down between us as we speak. (Then, near the end, the battery gives out and we retire to the King’s Arms to get a few last thoughts on camera before David runs for his cab to the station, headed to Schumacher College.)

The calendar tells me that it is five years this month since we met, but it feels longer. A lot of life has passed by in those five years and somehow David’s path and mine have not yet crossed again, though I hope it won’t be long before we get the chance to pick up the conversation we began that day. It’s a rare and fine thing when a friendship begins in a morning, rarer still when part of that beginning is captured on camera.

A few months back, it was pointed out to me that the video had disappeared from the internet and I have been intending to get it online again. Today seems like a good moment to do so, not least because the themes of this conversation are moving to the centre of my work again, this autumn, as the Dark Mountain Workshop becomes a reality. When we open up our monthly workshop, the evening events we are hosting are called The Village & The Forest, a name that suggests the boundary or the meeting point between our human stories and the more-than-human world of which we are a part. And if you asked me for a place to start, to get a better understanding of what this might mean, then I can’t think of a better one than this wandering conversation of ours.

The Village & The Forest: A Night with the Dark Mountain Workshop begins at Kägelbanan, Stockholm on 12 October, 2015, 18.00-21.00, with special guest Martin Shaw of the Westcountry School of Myth & Story (tickets available here, scroll down for the English listing) and continues on 9 November, 2015, when our special guest will be the artist Ansuman Biswas (tickets here).

Västerås Conversations 2015: The City & The World

A city is what happens when people crowd together, living and working alongside each other, sharing the streets and the parks, the marketplaces, the shopping centres, the coffee shops, libraries and museums. A city is a crossing point, where strangers meet, where different ideas, beliefs and cultures rub up against each other, creating sparks of friction or inspiration. A city is an environment so human-made, we can almost imagine that the world revolves around humans. A city would collapse within days, if cut off from the food and fuel that flows into it, extracted from the more-than-human world beyond.

Join us this autumn in Västerås for a series of conversations about the city and the world. How do we do a good job of living together and making life work, here in our city on the side of Lake Mälaren? Can we learn from the experience of other cities around the world and from the different cultures present within our own city? Can we find new ways of working together to make this city a place of hospitality, conviviality and friendship?

Three conversations in three months

The first series of Västerås Conversations took place in the foyer of ABF Västerås (the Workers Learning Association) in spring 2014. This year, we’re back in a collaboration with ABF and the Västmanland County Museum, using the foyer of the museum building at Karlsgatan 2.

Each month, I’ll be joined by a guest who brings ideas for new ways of looking at the city and practical examples from elsewhere that might give us inspiration. The evening begins with a conversation between the two of us, then opens into a discussion in which everyone is welcome to contribute.

These conversations take place in English, but my aim is to be aware of the difficulties of language and to make use of this: by noticing the places where the words become awkward, we can slow ourselves down and think more carefully together. I want to create a space where people can think aloud and try out new ideas.

Each conversation is recorded and released as a podcast, so that others around the world can pick up on the discussions that we are having here in Västerås.

17 September: ‘The Art of Saying No’ with Matt Weston

What happens when you say no to the city council? In the case of the utopian regeneration agency, Spacemakers, what happens is that the council decides to hire you. In the city of Brighton, Spacemakers said no to the idea of a new public artwork – and ended up creating a public art school, instead. In the London neighbourhood of Cricklewood, they said no to an invitation to take over an empty shop and instead created a mobile town square, bringing people together in outdoor spaces up and down the high street.

Matt Weston took over from me as director of Spacemakers in 2012 – and this will be the first time we’ve had the chance to talk together in a public setting. I want to explore how you go about challenging the expectations of local government and official agencies in creative ways, making space for new ways of collaborating. How do we create new life and activity in the city in ways that have more in common with the spirit of hacker and maker culture than conventional top-down approaches to urban planning and development?

1 October: ‘Trust in the City’ with Ruben Wätte

What neighbourhood do you live in and what does this say about who you are? From the price of houses and apartments to the categories used by government agencies, our society ranks the areas of a city in a league table that runs from the ‘desirable’ neighbourhoods down to the ‘problem’ neighbourhoods. But the artist Ruben Wätte wants us to question this way of looking at our cities and the fantasies that drive it.

I’m a big fan of Ruben’s work, so I’m excited to have the chance to talk about it in an English-language context and hopefully put it on a few more people’s radar. In his first book, VISIT NORRTUNA, he introduces the miljonprogram neighbourhood where he grew up – and contrasts the levels of trust and confidence that exist among children there with the anxiety that he finds in the nearby villa neighbourhood of Södertuna. In this conversation, we’ll talk about how trust is built up or damaged within the city, and whether neighbourhoods that are commonly identified as ‘problem’ areas could help us question the desires that are currently shaping our cities. What if these are the places where new ways of living together in the city start to grow?

12 November: ‘Risk in the City’ with Sepideh Karami

When the Power Meet or the City Festival comes to Västerås, the city centre comes alive with people hanging out, talking to each other, inhabiting the streets as a place to be together. The rest of the time, though, the streets are mostly just a way to get from A to B. It feels like we need an official event to give us permission to use the spaces of the city in ways that people do every day in other parts of the world. Was it always like this in northern Europe, or is there a history behind this (lack of) street culture? And are there ways to start making our city streets more sociable?

The architect and academic Sepideh Karami grew up in Iran and now lives in Umeå. This conversation will draw on her research into how we find different ways of interacting in the city, as well as her own experience of moving to Sweden from the Middle East. How do we make spaces to pause in the flow of city life, pockets for being human together, and tiny changes in the way we act that can surprise us into questioning structures we had taken for granted?

All events are free and take place in the foyer of the Västmanlands Läns Museum at Karlsgatan 2, Västerås.

Doors open at 18.00 and we will be finished by 20.00.

A small story of hope

As I write this, the headlines are reporting the closure of Keleti station in Budapest. The Hungarian authorities are trying to block the movement of refugees, displaced people escaping Syria’s war. Last week, riot police in Macedonia were firing stun grenades to drive them back – and here in Sweden, for the first time, an opinion poll put the far right Sweden Democrats in first place nationally.

We need grounds for hope, just now, so I want to share a story my colleague Joakim told me yesterday from his hometown in Jämtland. (If you read Swedish, he’s written about it on his blog: what follows is part translation, part retelling and part my commentary.)

Nälden is a town of 800 people up north, inland, towards the Norwegian border. Disused military buildings there have been taken over as accommodation for refugees. When Jocke was back to visit this weekend, he was curious about the flags hanging from the lampposts.

It turns out that local people – starting with the ice hockey association, the largest voluntary organisation in the town – had decided to organise a welcome for their new neighbours. The flags are those of the twenty countries now represented within the community. This weekend, they are organising activities, where people can try out iceskating, mushroom-picking, ceramics, pony-riding and plenty more, followed by a bring-and-share dinner at the community centre on Saturday night.

One of the organisers wrote: “It felt impossible to just look on as a steady stream of refugees were bussed in to the old military base, having fled their war-torn homelands. Most of them have sacrificed everything with the hope of reaching a place where they can find safety – forever, or until the war is over. We have plenty of space in Jämtland Härjedalen and the strong connection to nature and outdoor life should be capable of being a platform for recovery. Here, we breathe fresh air and drink pure mountain water, which is guaranteed to do the soul good.”

When I compare Sweden’s policy towards asylum seekers with the attitude of the UK government, it makes me proud and ashamed in equal measure. But we still have a long way to go, here, to figure out how we make life work together as a society, rather than allowing the politics of fear and hatred to exploit people’s uncertainty and insecurity. From a lot of the media debate, you could get the impression that it’s the big cities that are the centres of progressive resistance to that kind of politics. Honestly, though, I see more hope of real integration coming from places like Nälden than I do in Stockholm, which feels alarmingly segregated.

Anyway, it’s good to have stories of hope. I suspect there’s more of this going on than we get to hear about, because it’s undramatic, small-scale, close to the level of people’s lives.