I never wrote the blog post I promised after last year’s Uncivilisation festival. It took some processing and was a much deeper, more emotional experience than I’d expected. In the end I left it too long and lost that strong emotional impact in favour of watching and cutting the footage- which largely emphasised the factual and editorial.
Better late than never, the results of last year’s footage have been edited by Vivi Stamatatos and are ready for viewing:
I think it’s a good snapshot of what the festival and accompanying movement is about, though it does leave out the strand of neo-primitivist art and spirituality, discussed below.
Now it’s 2 weeks after the 2012 festival and I’ve just read the third Dark Mountain anthology produced by the same team. The combination of the festival and the book provoked many responses in me, both positive and critical. It’s a long post, but if you like to read, you probably won’t mind.
Firstly, the tiny size of the festival is fantastic for meeting people and the urgency of the issues involved means you dive straight into deep conversations and debates with strangers at the drop of a hat. It’s totally fine to sit yourself down at a group of people and join in the conversation without introducing yourself. It’s dizzying at times- I know some people who live their lives like this but I’ve never been one of them. I’d like to be.
We did shoot footage at this year’s festival but rather than the sessions and organisers this consisted of interviews with two attendees. We met lots of other people, both wonderful and perturbing, and hopefully became more plugged into this network of people. All are in their way working diligently against denial.
In contrast to last year’s festival with its factual sessions on ‘collapsonomics’ and economic bubbles, there was little in the sessions that dealt with the likely shape and detail of the problems we might face. Instead there was a strand reflecting on the lessons of the 90s road protests and lots of spiritual and creative workshops focusing on reconnecting with ‘the wild’. I enjoyed those, and loved the tales of the road protests as I have friends who were there and speak of it as a huge watershed in their view of the world and in British activism. But I did find last year’s combination of debate on the empirical and political issues of today and the more spiritual ‘re-wilding’ very refreshing and well balanced. This year’s emphasis seemed a bit nebulous and fluffy. Apparently last year’s controversies caused some tension and forced people into ‘entrenched positions’ which was unhelpful. I was raised in an argumentative family, though, so I like that sort of thing. I’d rather thrash things out and then heal rifts with communal rituals afterwards than smother tensions before they arise.
As far as the art and music, again I was torn. There was some very beautiful art by Rima Staines with a wonderful wood-smoked and folk feel to it. Also a combination of paintings and poems called ‘The Fixing of Things’ that recalled the ripping apart and re-merging of natural structures and patterns- storms, wood-grain, stars, mud. The absolute highlight of the festival was the storytelling session by Martin Shaw, a broad bearded man like a dearly beloved uncle, full of exuberant love for his art. He made us laugh, sigh and cry tears of pain and healing joy with his vivid characters and tales that celebrated freedom, love and the wild in us all. Some great acoustic musicians played too, though the ‘Brythonic’ folk band Wod reminded me of the bit in the Mighty Boosh where Vince and Howard make an ill-judged effort to bring Medieval music to the hipsters of East London. The special circle dances they held a workshop to teach were strangely monotonous and the music very repetitive. Having seen my friend Red Vic orchestrate 1,000 very drunk people into a complex barn dance with no practice whatsoever, I felt more could have been achieved. If this is the future of music I will spend the rest of my life weeping for amps, synths and drum machines.
Having said that, there was a magical moment during the dance, when into the firelight stepped several masked figures- a deer man, a tall white figure with a curved beak and walking cane, and a woman with a face. The mask was just slightly more stylized than a ‘real’ face and expertly crafted. As the firelight flickered over it and showed grief, then innocence, then compassion, I experienced a deep shudder of unreality.
These moments that connect me to the sacred place of art and spectacle in ancient times, and remind me how little is needed in terms of resources to touch and transport an audience, are what grab and hold me about the Dark Mountain approach to art.
The third Dark Mountain anthology is a gorgeous piece of work, and features many of the visual artists and writers from the festival. It’s very well balanced in its combination of essays, poems, stories and colour prints. Its balance in terms of theory, reportage, dream, memory, beauty, hope, rage and sadness is stunningly well judged. It’s less well balanced in its inclusiveness.
I’ve heard women attending the festival complain of its macho bias before, and I’d previously shelved those concerns because the movement was so inspiring to me in other ways. Also because although it was chiefly young white men running it, they seemed like awfully nice and intelligent men with great ideas and lots of talent. I do reach a point with my feminism that it can stop me from enjoying the plethora of wonderful things that men make and do because I’m always screaming inside ‘where are the women?’ And that gets very tiring. So I switch it off. I have to do this quite often to enjoy some of my favourite art. I’m used to it.
But after reading several stories in which troubled men find a deeper connection to woodland spirits, dead badgers and mountainsides than their female partners, I started to feel uneasy. Though a few great women writers are featured in the anthology, a theme emerged through several of the fiction pieces of a shadowy female figure smelling of chemical perfumes who represents ‘normality’, ‘civilisation’, numb consumer comfort and everything Dark Mountain stands against. The male protagonist rails against, preaches to or simply deserts this woman without a word, to embrace the wild alone.
If you’ve read Alex Scarrow’s ‘Last Light’ books you’ll know they’re basically pulp horror, dystopian sci fi with a Peak Oil twist. At the start of the first book the protagonist’s wife is about to leave him because he talks too much about Peak Oil and embarrasses her at dinner parties. By the end of the novel the Peak Oil crash has decimated the world she knew and after a tooth and nail struggle across feral England she’s ready to fall back into his arms, wailing apologies. You get the impression this is a private fantasy of Scarrow’s and that possibly Mrs Scarrow is no longer returning his calls. (To be fair though, the second part involves a renewables-powered matriarchy on an oil rig run by the same woman after her husband sacrifices himself for his family in a hand to hand battle. Great stuff if you like that sort of thing).
The Peak Oil forums Sam joined in 2008 are full of men who’ve become geeks on the subject complaining about their wives’ stubborn refusal to uproot their lives. One of the men we interviewed at the festival said his recent marriage breakup was partly caused by his obsession with preparing for the breakdown of civilisation. He’s keeping a place for her at the rural ‘doomstead’ he’s building, in case she ever needs it.
All this is just to say that this field of interest is, like many others, very male dominated. And that can result in the Dark Mountaineers and friends seeing themselves as lonely pioneers, out on the clifftop leading the way, dragging us recalcitrant girls along behind, like as not whining that there’s no power for our hairdryers. Though there is much that is compassionate and good in this movement, this posturing should be taken with a large pinch of salt.
There is also a fetishisation of physical labour and the toughness of withstanding the elements. I’d agree that as more of us need to grow food, and ecological conditions become more erratic, we will all need to become reacquainted with the elements and stretch the capacities of our own bodies. We do need to get in touch with the ecology that we rely on in every possible way. Our alienation from it has caused such irreversible devastation. In that case though, where does the Dark Mountain movement begin to address how we take care of the growing elderly population, and others who are unable to take on this kind of physical challenge? While the Dark Mountaineers are encountering stags in the wilderness, who will look after their elderly mums or disabled children? Or maybe that won’t be such a problem. A few attendees at the festival spoke with casual bluster of ‘die-offs’, and how the key to survival will lie in managing to sit those out until it’s safe to emerge and reconnect with the resourceful few who made it. One man in his 70s joked nervously about ‘killing off all the oldies’ for fuel. Ha ha.
My friend Zoe Young led a session called ‘Bright Valleys’ at last year’s Uncivilisation that I was too involved in to shoot properly. I filmed some of it but it was so full of emotion and deep personal moments that it seemed wrong to use the footage (at least just yet)- especially as there was nobody to film me. When it was my time to share my feelings of fear, shame and grief over the impending loss of the ways of life I know and my part in the damage done, I sobbed my heart out.
Part of Zoe’s point in this session was that come what may in the outside world, the essentials of home and hearth remain the same. The food must be prepared, the fire lit, the children cared for, friendships and loves nurtured. Globally and historically the bulk of this work has fallen to women, and changes less between eras than the range of economically viable careers. From her work on witchhunts among tribal peoples, Zoe said that often when hard times come, the men find it harder to cope because their identity is bound up in going out into the world to provide. This could apply equally to career women whose identities are not also rooted in something more durable. When the particular role they play loses its relevance, they can enter a tailspin of panic and violence.
Women are also often scapegoated in hard times, bearing the brunt of poverty in the developing world, and the harsh end of the cuts in the UK. Witchhunts are not just for so called ‘primitive’ societies. So the alienated way women are portrayed in several of the stories in DM3, and in many of the other ‘survivalist’ and ‘collapse’ narratives out there is a source of disquiet to me. I missed Zoe’s session at this year’s festival as I felt it helped to process and allay the fear some of the other sessions stirred up.
The stated purpose of Dark Mountain’s third anthology is the ‘search for a home’. A couple of the Uncivilisation sessions also touched on founder Paul Kingsnorth’s belief that a strong ‘connection to place’ and ‘belonging to a landscape’ is a good way to a simpler life. The word ‘indigenous’ was used, which sparked off quite a discussion, as nobody wanted to sound like a BNP member. It was meant in the sense of being connected to the land and invested in its well being as much as your own- wherever you choose to make your home. But it’s not hard to see how those ideas could (and do) inform an exclusionary, fascistic narrative in other contexts. In many of the pieces in DM3 and the Unciv sessions, I got an elusive sense of where a home beyond collapse might be found, for me, for Sam and for our family. In the stories of the lonely men and their woodland spirits, though I found beauty, I found no home for me.
These seeds of disquiet don’t extend to a rejection of the group/movement/idea. It’s still the best place to share my much greater disquiet over where our culture is headed and how we might deal with it- on both practical and creative levels. As last year’s interview with the founders makes clear, it’s an ongoing search for meaning and mythologies, not a set of statements or imperatives. I’d recommend seeking out the books and attending next year’s festival. It’s always an eye opener, and the conversations, singing and sharing around the fire are worth the trip on their own.