Thursday, 29 September 2011

News from Nowhere 2

Well, I'm back.* I spent two weeks on a tiny, beautiful ship, pitching and tossing in the middle of the high Arctic. I met a polar bear, a whale, some reindeer, several fat seals, an arctic fox, many drunk Russians, a statue of Lenin, and a very dear and well-meaning collection of British academics, activists and journalists all of whom, after three days throwing up at sea, found ourselves rather unsure what we were doing standing on a bare mud island underneath a collapsing glacier, four thousand and three miles from Islington, shovelling nine tons of rocks into plastic sacks. You can read more about the journey on the NowhereIsland website, or in a longer writeup I'm working on.

Did I find Utopia? Well, your mileage may vary. My darling Pierce Penniless wrote me a beautiful letter which he's turned into a blog post here, and I'm trying to gather my thoughts on what I experienced, crammed on a ship trying to teach everyone consensus decision-making whilst we held down our lunches as the Noorderlicht dived through the waves, trying to group-write a theoretical constitution for a speculative nation.

I had, I admit, arrived with pre-conceptions about my shipmates, especially when I turned up at Heathrow on the 10th of September to find that every single one of us was white and middle-class. As we discussed our ideal society on the lower deck over delicious snacks served to us by an accommodating Dutch crew, it really did feel like the last colony ship off a burning planet - like we were the chosen, special ones strapped to a cosy life-shuttle, looking for a new world at the touching point of symbol and substance. This, surely, is how the privileged will experience the end times.

However, you can't spend two weeks on a boat with twenty strangers without realising that nobody is quite the class cliche you'd like them to be. Against my instincts, I found myself becoming more and more committed to our airy Utopia, as we talked and talked and talked about what this NowhereIsland society might look like. Well, it was that or lie in my bunk listening to Kanye West for a fortnight, trying not to vomit bits of ship's pasta out the window onto an iceberg.

For me, this trip was partly about what can and should be salvaged from the liberal project, as it rummages through what's left of its selfhood after decades of neo-liberal capitulation. I discovered, gradually, that just because people are fortunate and insulated doesn't mean that they can't have good, brave and noble instincts that are worth hearing. I discovered that the world is full of bright, decent people doing important, beautiful things, and because of that, it might not be too late to build a better one. I also discovered that Geography professors CAN dance to dubstep. On the latter point, sorry Tim, there's video evidence.

Of all the myriad problems with the Nowhere Island project, the press have inevitably focused on the most anodine and inconsequential: the money. The main criticism, raised by commentators from the Guardian to 'Lucy, 26' on page 3 of The Sun, was that the project is expensive: half a million of dedicated Arts Council funding over several years. This is paying for construction costs, transporting the island material from Svalbard, travel funding, publicity, building a website which involves thousands of people in an accessible philosophy project about citizenship and the failures of nation-states to solve financial and ecological disaster, and employing an entire staff team for two years. Given that there are many other projects receiving the same non-transferrable funding as part of the Cultural Olympiad, one of which is apparently a set of giant crocheted lions, attacking Nowhere Island on the basis of cost to the taxpayer might seem a little snippy - but in the end, it's an argument that, if you choose to engage with it, can't be won. Of course a speculative Utopia involving lots of schools projects is better than a crocheted lion, but so is re-employing twenty nurses, or stopping a library from being closed down.

Is this it, though? Is this what human progress has come to? Fighting over the scraps of money left as the markets crumble? If we're going to argue the balance, the money being spent on replenishing nuclear weapons stocks and subsidising the Royal Bank of Scotland is wasted far more massively and comprehensively than the money being spent on the Cultural Olympiad. This, however, is about something more important. I believe in art, and folly, and dreams. I believe that if we can't collectively subsidise artists to imagine new worlds for us, we have no business speaking of social progress. The question is not whether we can afford to imagine a culture beyond the control of capital and the nation state, but whether we can afford not to.

For me, I found something up there, in the cold and clean and quiet, something I'm struggling to unpack, along with two weeks of dirty washing, bits of rock and memories. It was something between an epiphany and a sense of perspective, something between a manifesto and a dream, and it's hard to put into words, and for the rest of my life I'll feel lucky for having been invited to see NowhereIsland. We went looking for Utopia. What we found was each other. What else do dreamers do?

*Yes, it IS a LOTR Reference. Well done you. Well done US. *geekbiscuits*.


  1. Beautifully written and quite mysterious!

  2. In a way, much as hell is other people, utopia is other people too - as Epicurus pointed out, the good life is when you have a few trusted friends with whom you can share your hopes & fears & you have space & enough to live on. One needs little else - & you can make these little islands of utopia anywhere, even in Islington.

  3. This sounds wonderful, I'm profoundly jealous :-) Svalbard!

  4. The money argument thrown at you by the press is always going to be tough. £500k would fund my local Arts centre for more than eight years but it would only fund one of our orchestras for a couple of months.

    Perhaps that's the way to argue the money side - it's only a couple of months of orchestra funding or a small handful of missiles somewhere.

    Even so, if you're going to spend that much on an arts project in one go, it's got to be amazing because people will have sky-high expectations.

  5. Calling money "inconsequential" got me thinking. Without it, your trip surely would not have taken place. How can that be inconsequential -- unless the trip as a whole is inconsequential?

  6. Ran across your last post awhile back and, inspired, I (uncharacteristically) applied for citizenship.

    Figure a little constructive whimsy never hurt anyone.

    Seriously, though, I will be rapt over the Constitution-drafting exercise.

  7. I want to know more things that you decided upon. What about solar, methane, and wind power?

  8. I received my citizenship certificate just the other day and have since burned by passport. In hindsight, I should have delayed burning it until I got to NowhereIsland.

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