By Sasha Myerson
Organised by Katie Stone and Raphael Kabo, ‘Utopian Acts’ was a one-day mix of art, activism and utopia hosted by Birkbeck at the beginning of September. The conference provoked us to explore ideas set out by Ruth Levitas in ‘Utopia as Method’ and consider utopia as an act. Aiming to challenge the dystopian pessimism of our current moment, it asked whether examining the intersection of academia and activism might provide a way forward, out of our current impasse, towards a better future. Such thinking informed the structure of the conference, which included a mix of interactive workshops alongside talks by artists, activists and more conventional academics. In a welcome break from the norm at conferences, the event was free and substantive effort was made to ensure inclusivity and accessibility. This included grants to reimburse speakers, step free access to the building, gender-neutral bathrooms, a policy on pronouns and encouragements to keep academic language clear and intelligible. Overall, the conference made an ambitious attempt to relate its content to its form, putting some of its ideas into practice.
The main events of the conference were preceded by a workshop aptly named ‘The Art Of Listening’, run by Tanaka Mhishi and Silke Grygier. Responding to the #MeToo movement, it used writing exercises to explore how we respond to disclosures of sexual abuse. Although at times challenging, the organisers handled the subject sensitively and expertly, demonstrating the importance of dialogue in tough situations. This was followed by a more conventional keynote talk from Davina Cooper (King’s Law School). Cooper presented us with several frameworks through which to analyse and conceptualise the future. This involved asking what circumstances and situations we might need to enable us to think differently about the future. The particular future which interests Cooper, is one in which the state might become a playful entity based on plurality rather than verticality. Cooper concluded by arguing that rather than treat these futures as abstract, we must find ways of enacting them in the present. Plurality and playfulness were very much wider themes for the day, with up to four panels or workshops running together at any one time throughout the day. As a result, this report can only hope to give a glimpse into the diversity of content available.
The first panel ‘Queer Utopia and its Discontents’, as summarised by Tom Dillon (Birkbeck College), focused on how queer relationships in the present point towards a Utopian future. The panel explored how tables, BDSM and slam poetry structure the way in which we relate to each other and how they might provide ways of restructuring society. Dillon’s talk [co-written with Linda Stupart (Independent, UK)] questioned how an everyday object, such as the table, can be re-contextualised by marginalised groups and transformed into a revolutionary barricade. This talk drew upon ideas from Sara Ahmed’s Queer Phenomenology and the concept of the novum from science-fiction studies. My own talk analysed the sexy utopian potential of Lewis Call’s book BDSM in American Science-Fiction and Fantasy. I critiqued the book through a queer and intersectional lens, examining whether the active consent and desire required by BDSM practices might provide an alternative to the begrudging and passive consent required by neo-liberalism. Finally, poet Rebecca Moses (London Queer Writers) also stressed the importance of intersectionality when studying the utopian potential of queer poetry slams. Moses explored the tensions and contested meanings of the word queer, asking whether it is an identity, movement or feeling? From this debate, she concluded spaces such as poetry slams—where queer people can explore, experiment and fail—have a vital purpose in creating utopian hope.
After lunch, a workshop by Amy Butt (University of Reading) focused on feminist architecture and the construction of utopia. This workshop used feminist-utopian SF to encourage us to think about how conventional space, such as that of a seminar room, can be used in alternative configurations. Practically, this involved rearranging the room and using common items to construct interpretations of Marge Piercy, Sally Gearhart and Ursula Le Guin’s SF architecture. The aim of this was to regain our spatial autonomy. By learning through practices of play, we were encouraged to be like children again who do not assume rules about what space can be.
The next panel centred around ‘Eco-Utopianism’ and began with a screening of Ayesha Tan Jones’ short film Indigo Zoom: The Awakening. Utilising the techniques of cyberpunk-cinema and vaporwave aesthetic, this independent production explores one person’s escape from a dystopian future without clean air and the quest to breathe free. Both Jones and the panel’s final speaker, Kavita Thanki (Ulster University), explored the idea that to survive under climate change we need to re-evaluate what we consider “waste” and “trash”. Both argued that, through using waste and embracing reclamation, we must change what we place value on. This shift in value, they argue, opens up new possibilities for creating utopian futures. Following this theme, Sheryl Medlicott (Bath Spa University) challenged pessimistic narratives of climate change. She argued that climate change does not inevitably have to lead to a dystopian future. Instead, in the process of meeting the challenges of climate change, we might strive towards a future which is better than the present. Thus, the work of all three panellists strongly echoed the writings of Ruth Levitas in ‘Utopia as Method’. Utopia was presented as a process, an act of striving, rather an end goal.
The conference closed with a second keynote from the prolific feminist academic and writer Lynne Segal (Birkbeck College). Segal’s talk concerned the moments of collective joy that stand out in a moment obsessed with dystopian media. This traced the history and interactions of activism and utopia from 1968 to the present. Segal touched on the history of early feminist utopia, the temporal fragility of joy, and the need for radical happiness in a present haunted by the spectre of right-wing populism. Alongside this she also discussed the fallacy of current corporate definitions of happiness, which see happiness as an inner attribute independent from the environmental factors of capitalism. Segal argued that we must seek more meaningful engagement in society and protest. In this she echoed the days key statement: we must act.
Utopian Acts provided a unique opportunity to develop interactions between activists and academics. It took the form of the academic conference, jumbled it up and rooted it in radical politics. With an impressive diversity of speaker, Utopian Acts echoed the lively heteroglossia of contemporary utopian studies.