Yesterday was a Saturday. I spent several hours of it sitting in an underground room in a Manchester Art Gallery having a conversation about technology with a group of artists, hackers and visitors. It was part of running exhibition on apocalyptic themes, and we were discussing what civilisational collapse looks like, whether it ever really happens, what you would do if it did happen, and whether our ever-accelerating technologies might be part of the problem or part of the solution. We didn’t come to any conclusions, of course, but that was part of the point.
Today is a Sunday. I have spent most of the day at a former smallholding, now a shrine to modern art, in a remote valley in Cumbria, discussing place, belonging, art, Dadaism and local food with a different group of artists, writers and curators. We were talking about the role of the imagination in times of planetary crisis, and how much mainstream art had given up attempting to challenge or change anything at all, settling instead into a culture of commerce and bling.
This wasn’t quite an ordinary weekend for me, but it’s not uncommon that I find myself doing this kind of thing. It stems from my decision, four years ago, to launch onto the world something called Uncivilisation: the Dark Mountain Manifesto. This little self published pamphlet was an effort by myself and fellow writer Dougald Hine to kick mainstream writing and art up the backside. We felt that many writers and artists were not facing up to the reality of the planetary crisis we are living through. Instead, many of them simply inhabit the bubble of industrial culture, fiddling with their novels and conceptual exhibitions while the planet heats up and the forests fall.
Not that our manifesto was a call for artists to hitch their work to some political bandwagon, or use their pens or lightboxes to promote a clumsy cause: art as propaganda never works. Rather, it was an effort to suggest that anyone who would regard themselves, in the widest sense of the word, as an ‘artist’, should be on the front line of engaging with the realities of the human war on nature and the disintegration of much of our own culture that has resulted from it.
To cut a long story short, the result of that manifesto was the Dark Mountain Project, a now-global network of writers, artists, musicians, thinkers, activists and others who have stopped believing the stories our civilisation tells itself, and who have begun looking for new ones. Our central belief is a simple one: all cultures are built on stories, and when those stories malfunction, the cultures malfunction too. Or it could be the other way around. Either way, the myths that underlie a civilisation determine how its people live and see the world.
What are our culture’s myths? They seem clear enough. We’re a materialist, post-Enlightenment culture, and we believe the world is knowable and controllable. We believe we can access truth through objective science. We believe in linear progress. We believe that humans are more important than anything else that lives. We believe we can attain utopia through economic growth. We believe that technology will solve our problems. We believe that reason is superior to emotion. We believe that God is dead and we are taking His place.
What do you do if you don’t believe some, or all, or any of this? What do you do if you believe that our stories, as much as our technologies or our political structures, are at the heart of the crisis of our culture? That is the question that the Dark Mountain Project came into being to explore.
One of the ways we have been answering it for the last four years is to run an annual festival, which we also call Uncivilisation. Around 400 people have attended every year, and the result has been a giant, rolling conversation around all of these issues that has gone on for three days and then branched out for the rest of the year into any number of projects, initiatives and continued discussions. The Dark Mountain festivals have been life-changing for me, and I know for other people as well. The sheer breadth and depth of the conversation, and the diversity of people who come, continue to fascinate me.
This year’s festival kicks off in just under three weeks time, at the Sustainability Centre in Hampshire. It will be the usual mix of talks, discussions, music, ritual, practical skills, and working with both body and mind. My personal highlights this year include the powerful Dartmoor storyteller Martin Shaw investigating the meaning of myth in the modern world, Orion editor Jennifer Sahn talking about the end of nature writing and novelist Margaret Elphinstone explaining her novel set during the Mesolithic period. I’ll also be looking forward to a lively Saturday night music lineup (all acoustic: we have no electricity in the woods), our very first (and possibly last) uncivilised stand-up comedian, the sessions on slow walking and barefoot running, and the teach-in on the legacy of Ivan Illich.
I’m particularly proud of the fact that we will be leaving a permanent memorial at the Sustainability Centre this year, which will last long after our festivals are a memory: a ‘Life Cairn’, created in memory of extinct species around the world. Life Cairns are starting to appear around the world as this age of extinction unfolds, and the founder of the movement will be with us this year to explain their significance and help us to ritualise a sense of loss that many of us feel powerless to act against.
Finally, something else is different this year: we have decided that this will be our last annual festival. We want to concentrate our resources on expanding our successful publishing operation (our four anthology of uncivilised writing appeared just last week), and we now have a wide network of ‘Mountaineers’ around the world who are beginning to run events themselves. For these reasons, we decided to bring our annual festival to a close while it is still a joy rather than a burden. It’s made me want to go out on a high, and I think we will: if it works, this is going to be something that people will remember for some time to come.
Sometimes I sit around a fire at these events and I imagine I can see new stories and ways of seeing circling us in the air above. It is quite something. Perhaps I’ll see you there.
Uncivilisation 2013 takes place from 15 – 19 August at the Sustainability Centre in Hampshire. Visit the festival website to find out more and buy your tickets.
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