Category Archives: The Dark Mountain Workshop

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).

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 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.