This past weekend the Dark Mountain artist collaborative held its third “Uncivilization” Festival. For those unfamiliar with the project, Dark Mountain was launched by Paul Kingsnorth and Dougald Hind with the publishing of their Manifesto, a bleak, brilliant declaration and exposition of the unsustainability of civilization culture, the inevitability of its terrible collapse in this century, and an encouragement of artists and writers sharing this informed, pessimistic worldview to collaborate to chronicle our civilization’s collapse and to imagine better ways to live.
The purpose of this chronicling and imagining, using a variety of artistic and literary media, is for the benefit of its survivors, who might seek an explanation of how the most astonishing culture of the planet in millions of years came so rapidly and disastrously unsprung, and for the solace and understanding of those of us dismayed, bewildered and searching for meaning and appropriate useful actions in the face of this collapse, so we can at least appreciate what went so horrifically wrong and how to cope with the grief and mayhem of our culture’s dreadful attempts to continue on (at a ghastly cost in ecocidal destruction and unprecedented global suffering), during its descent towards extinction.
At least that’s my impression of why the Manifesto was written and why Dark Mountain has come to exist, offering us joyful pessimists who share Paul and Dougald’s grim and unpopular worldview a sense of community. Not surprisingly, this radical worldview has occasioned outrage and even ridicule from those who find it defeatist, threatening or absurd.
As a result, much of the energy of the project’s network members has been siphoned off explaining and debating their worldview, and in the hard work of networking a large disparate group whose members have come from very different places to a roughly common understanding of where we are and where we are headed, but who for the most part do not share a sense of why it has come to this, or what should or can be done about it. As a result, much of the writing and public debate and the collective events are taken up with this discussion of why it’s happened and what to do. That may be necessary, but it’s a distraction of the real work of chronicling and imagining. I would also argue that others (e.g. scientists and philosophers and cultural theorists) are probably better equipped to do this secondary, non-creative work than artists.
Three volumes of quality writing and art have been published, to be sure, presumably on the basis that the chronicling of civilization’s collapse would benefit from some common imprint to give it impetus. Likewise, well-received (from what attendees have told me) festivals have been held to build community and support and provide a venue to present some of the work that has been produced by the collective’s members. I read the first volume of writing and have reviewed the programs of the festivals, including listening to much of the music featured at them. But rather than being inspired to write something for the next volume or attend the next festival, I feel deflated, and I’m not sure why. I have rarely found collections of literary work to be exemplary or revelatory, and my experience with various alt-culture events is that they generally suck, through no fault of the organizers or attendees. The best they seem to be able to produce, at least for me, is one or two haphazard meetups and conversations with individuals which have turned out to be astonishing, the basis for important enduring personal relationships, remarkable insights, and/or highly-effective collaborations.
As I’ve told Paul and Dugald, I think they have done their work simply by publishing the Manifesto. It should not be their job to somehow organize the Dark Mountain collective, at best a herding-cats exercise, nor to try to capture its (best) work-products (or as they put it “to promote and curate”). They quote Robinson Jeffers as an inspiration in their Manifesto. Jeffers’ job was to write poetry that exposed the flaws and fragility of our human-centred civilization — to chronicle civilization’s collapse, in his own remarkable way. His job was not to go on the speakers’ circuit to explain what he meant or defend it from critics. His job was not to promote, curate and publish collections of like-minded thinkers, or to organize events to provide readers a forum for self-expression and solidarity.
Let me say it again: Our work, as artists and writers, is to chronicle civilization’s collapse and imagine better ways (than those employed by civilization culture) to live. There may be opportunities to collaborate in this work, but I think they will be rare, small partnerships of artists and writers whose work and style and chemistry lend themselves to such partnership. For the most part, our work will be, as it has always been for artists and writers, mostly a solitary undertaking, each of us bringing our own way of expressing ourselves, representing (re-presenting) the world, and exercising our imaginations based on what we know, feel, and dream, and what we do best.
Up to now my way of doing this has been mostly through expository writing — chronicling my own discovery that everything I had been told about our culture and how the world really works was wrong, and what I was learning in my slow, ponderous, analytical way. Now, though, it is shifting to creative writing, including poetry, music, and possibly theatrical/film writing. I think I’ve written enough about what I (have come to) know, and now I want to write about what I feel, because I think that could be much more powerful, influential, important and enduring (though in ways I can’t possibly know or predict). That is poet’s work, as ee cummings and TS Eliot have explained. It is the work I somehow know I’m now meant to do.
So I asked myself: What would it take to attract me to a Dark Mountain festival or other event? I would certainly love to engage Paul and Dougald (and a few others I know of who have become, as I have, de facto Dark Mountaineers) in conversation, though I could probably do that better outside the constraints of a large event and might be able to do it perfectly well via a Google+ Hangout without leaving my home. And I’m uncomfortable with the idea of “salons” of leading writers, artists and thinkers — I think they tend to be elitist, un-self-critical and posturing (though my experience is limited to just two such groups).
I think the reason so much current writing and art is crap is that most writers and artists don’t practice their craft enough, don’t look at their work with a critical eye to its improvement, and don’t study the work of those they most admire. That’s true of just about every profession in modern civilization culture, to be sure, but it especially shows in the creative arts.
Having said that, I can conceive of one type of Dark Mountain event I would probably attend. It would be a true workshop (not what passes for a workshop at most conferences these days) — a roll up your sleeves, participate from the first session, produce real work-product collaboratively with others session. Its objective would be to forge new creative working relationships, to practice one’s craft intensively over 2-3 days in consort with other artists, and to prompt work projects that will continue and evolve long after the event ends.
I can envision providing some high-level structure to the event, but not having any presentations, forums or classes. And the purpose of the minimal structure would be to help the attendees self-organize and just get them started — it would be entirely up to them where to take it from there. This structure might take the form of three “work-streams” each with a proposed work-product:
- This is the Way the World Ends: A Concert for the End of the World. The objective would be to produce music and theatre that represents our collapsing culture and/or the kinds of culture that might emerge after collapse. One work, multiple works, performed at the end of the event or developed in the months following — all of this would be up to the participants.
- The World We Want: A Travelogue Set in the Year 2200. The objective would be to produce film/theatre scripts/skits/murals that depict a hugely diverse set of communities/cultures in a depopulated future world in which the remaining humans have reintegrated into the natural world.
- A Better Way to Live: A Working Model Community. The objective would be to design/demonstrate a self-sufficient, sustainable, resilient, realistic (i.e. accommodating members with various challenges) community, much like some heritage organizations depict and demonstrate past cultures, showing what life in such a community could be like.
That’s all the structure I think such an event would need. The three streams would appeal to different interests/talents among Dark Mountaineers, and provide some creative impetus. The work-products, whether they were produced during or after the event, could be enormously valuable, and probably beyond what any one person could produce independently. And I think it could be tremendous fun.
Thanks for this. The festival was a corker, I think. Though you had to be there. But anyway: I’m going to write a bit on the blog next week about a DM event I’m running later in the year which I think will meet some of these criteria. Would be interested to hear what you think about it.
“I think the reason so much current writing and art is crap is that most writers and artists don’t practice their craft enough, don’t look at their work with a critical eye to its improvement, and don’t study the work of those they most admire. That’s true of just about every profession in modern civilization culture, to be sure, but it especially shows in the creative arts.”
Dave, i have known you for some time. On what first hand exposure to art and artist do you base this assessment?
My presupposition is that what you have exposed yourself to is a tiny tiny part of what is Fine Art, both historical and contemporary. Sure, reading Voltair or Dostoevsky is relatively easy armchair stuff. But how man great orks of art have yoo travelled to stand in front of or -be with- for more than a few seconds?
I am sure that these Dark Mountain artists are with possibly a few exceptions third, fourth and fifth rank ‘artists’ and ‘artistes’ and assorted ‘performers’ (an assessment based on a little bit of research.)
I’m still following your journey, though sporadically. This piece reminded me of something I wrote a while back:
“Here’s another idea that occurred to me recently. It relates to the fundamental ways in which people “see” the world, that is, how they use their cognitive apparatus to make sense of the world, and to guide their learning. The idea is this:
There are three fundamental ways of seeing and exploring the world available to us: the scientific, the spiritual, and the artistic. (Don’t put too much weight on the particular words; I don’t identify the scientific way of seeing with science (per se), or the spiritual way with religion, or the artistic way with any particular medium, form or school of art.) I consider them distinct in that they can be pursued independently of each other, and no two of them entirely encompass the third. I also feel that they are most powerful, and most profound, when they are informed each by the others. In particular, I have a sense that science and religion are currently in the early stages of parallel crises, which for each may only be fruitfully resolved with the help of the other.
Extending this last point further, I envision a future cadre of people who are adept at seeing in two of these ways simultaneously, not separately by compartmentalizing their minds, but by joining them in a complementary way. Further along, some will combine all three ways in this fashion.
Seeing the number three, the obvious question is, why not four or more? There may be, but I haven’t found any fourth way that seems natural and right to me. As above, this is still a concept in progress, though.”
Since writing this, I’ve seen considerable evidence that it has some truth. Based on that, I’d guess that a project like this would definitely require the complementary and creative joining of multiple ways of “seeing”.
It feels like you are changing the boundaries of purpose in this post.
Jeffers has this job, rather than this other job. Paul should not look beyond his efforts on the manifesto etc.
About yourself you state-It is the work I somehow know I’m now meant to do. Our work, as artists and writers, is……We all seek purpose as you well know.
What is the purpose of describing the pain that animals suffer. What is the purpose of feeling their pain. What is the difference when no human has intrinsic purpose- only self illusion.
We can not live without purpose it seems. You either expand or contract your idea of purpose at this moment of time. Maybe some whales will chronicle the passing of our kind with more purpose than we could muster.
One purpose I pretend that I have is to sow seeds in young people so that they will find more purpose than clocking a game on their Iphone. A lot of us are so in worship of our pathological culture, extended personal survival is a responsibility and purpose for someone else. Saving seeds might as well happen in a doomsday vault.
Yet I look in my childrens eyes….and I must give them purpose…I can only try. It is the little things that matter. Art escapes purpose only from time to time.
The Unciv event I would come to would be on the order of a summer camp, where people create their community. Like Burning Man or Rainbow gathering in miniature, with the unciv values pushing the event forward. It would be self-organized by the attendees (unciv tribesfolk).
It is easy to be distracted by the pessimism of the name of “Dark Mountain”. It is the pessimism of an intelligent environmentalist that recognises that professional environmentalism has failed to halt the Global Human Economic Machine. Paul Kingsnorth gets the credit of being intelligent.
So what could you do? He has turned to art. The purpose of the art is to reach out, edify and inspire people whom have gotten tired of words and logic.
This is commendable. What worries me is that artists whom hide themselves in festivals and closed groups gain even LESS exposure than traditional artists whom exhibit in galleries in Central London. Such art would serve only the purpose of consoling its own creators. This is why The Dark Mountain Project currently appears to me to be disappointing.