A Fair Share of Utopia, Nest // AltVisions Festival 2020
If you would die today and reincarnate one generation later, in what world would you want to be born, regardless of where or who you are?
A Fair Share of Utopia poses this question. Guest curated by Manon Braat and dually presented by Den Haag’s Nest and Amsterdam’s CBK Zuidoost, it aims to inspire a conscious (re)thinking about potential alternative realities as a method of addressing global systematic inequalities. The exhibition(s) opened in Amsterdam and Den Haag on 3 and 4 September 2020 respectively. In Den Haag, it was synergistically planned alongside the AltVisions Festival, a three-day festival of ‘humans, artworks and ideas’, and a panel at Stroom followed an early viewing of the exhibition in Nest.
On 4 September, a small group of us were introduced to A Fair Share of Utopia by Nest’s artistic director, Heske ten Cate, who introduced the inspiration behind the theme. Michelle Alexander’s social experiment and thought piece in the New York Times in 2018, What if we’re all coming back?, challenges its readers to imagine a life in which they experienced the same conditions as the minority of the world’s citizens. Living on less than $10 per day, unlikely to have higher education, and likely to be at risk from the climate catastrophes that threaten health, security and food distribution. Nine artists and nine writers were commissioned to respond to the piece, with four artists presented in the Hague.
Müge Yilmaz’s interactive sculpture, A Garden of Coincidences, is testament to the power of the nurturing female and a throwback to a life lived more in tune with her ancestors. The shelter is based on one of Turkey – and the world’s – oldest-known temple and community spaces. Its roof is made from gathered leaves and degradable material, and supported by individually designed logs, with each coming from a fallen tree and acting as an ode to (unnamed) women who fought for progress and change. The low ceiling has a democratising effect, forcing anyone taller than 120cm to sit and allowing younger people to stand. Particularly inviting is the installation’s aroma: fresh leaves, weeds, branches and sunflowers. Equally intriguing is the roof’s underside, which is held together in some places with USB wire chargers and lit with a purple LED light, giving the impression of parallel but incongruous lives.
Simphiwe Ndzube also presents a roof in his contribution to the exhibition: the iron roof of his childhood home in South Africa acts both as a shelter and a magic carpet. Some of the residents – unmistakable faceless figures – of his existing alternative reality, the Mine-moon, decide its direction and float in the hall. Entering the city of Mine-Moon, his commission for A Fair Share of Utopia, is a dual-panelled painting of a flying double-headed phoenix. Working in a genre described as ‘magic realism’, and celebrating both colour and utopia, his process and outputs reimagine alternative realities and the potential of post-apartheid Africa.
Brook Andrew’s large, inflatable, rubber-duck-like installation – BUNYIP; wiray ngaay gir-nya-la-nha (don’t just look and talk) – is actually a bunyip, a mythical water-dwelling creature in Wiradjuri culture, Andrew’s ancestral indigenous community from West New South Wales, Australia. The very size of the piece leaves little space for contemplation: rather it confronts the viewer with its stark imagery and messaging, even when you haven’t understood the language. Its simple colour palette and artificiality stands to highlight the messages that underpin Andrew’s work, of equity and respect for indigenous people and their culture. Andrew also presents SMASH IT, a 2018 video installation that splices interviews with heritage experts with archival film footage, that further brings the message home.
The artificiality of contemporary life’s supply chains, interactions and exploitative habits are brought to the fore in the final commission for the exhibition by Raul Balai. A grotto-chapel worships those who brought normality to his life during lock-down, the delivery and pizza guys. A real candle offering can be made at the altar, allowing communal worship of those who risked their lives to ensure that others could isolate. Fitting to the message of the piece, it consists of items ordered online and delivered during lock-down. Both Balai and each one of us becomes a sinner, complicit in the exploitation of those manufacturing, packing and delivering goods for us across the globe.
After the introduction to these works, and their humbling messages, we headed en masse to Stroom. Our panel focussed on how to take the models of activism and art to ignite a social response to the biggest challenges of our time. Inspired by the alternative realities and connections with other lived experiences presented by the four commissions described above, this was a chance to talk about the possibilities and limitations of change. What would it take to make the wider public engage with art in a way that inspires real change? How can policy-makers become more aware of art’s potential (realised or not) to inspire real, tangible social change?
There were few answers here, but rather, demonstrations of the power of art as and in activism, and the necessity for it. The Flag of Compassion has inspired many to pick up the literal banner worldwide, and on this panel, was welcomed as a co-panellist. Extinction Rebellion’s Red Rebels Brigade is an example of how art can massively visually and conceptually amplify a message. In peacefully performing in spaces like Schiphol Airport or in front of Shell HQ, they challenge society’s sense of its own certainty.
In another case, we were introduced to the paradox of policy and messaging at EU level around growth, sustainability and the future of our environment. It has been acknowledged widely that green growth is unachievable and that it won’t effect address the catastrophic impact climate change will have on the world. Yet the EU’s Green Deal continues to posit this as a way of driving economic growth, sustainably. Growth cannot be the objective. At stake is something bigger than current economic structures: humanity. Can degrowth be imagined? And what role can artists play?
Likewise, other movements, like minimalism, ground people in privileged self-but-not-collective responsibility without addressing the underlying structures at play: competition, capitalism, consumerism, privilege, ideas of well-being, entitlement and satisfaction. How can art help individuals and communities imagine an achievable utopia, a life better than what we are currently living, that can have positive impact on the lives of the world’s citizens, and not just our own?
Together, A Fair Share of Utopia and AltVisions Festival help to amplify an urgent discussion about our collective futures, invoke a social experiment, and press on each of us the reality of this being less comfortable, but more rewarding, than we could imagine.
A Fair Share of Utopia is open in Den Haag and Amsterdam until 22 November 2020.
The recordings of this year’s AltVisions Festival are online.
All images Nicole McNeilly (2020), CC BY-SA.