What is progress? Artists, activists and academics come together at this one-day festival to radically imagine an answer.
To ask, “What is progress?” is to dive deep into a rabbit hole of past reflections and possible futures. At this year’s Long Progress Bar, the one-day festival curated by Brighton’s Lighthouse, this central question brought together artists, activists, academics and musicians to imagine what is needed to enact change. Talks were punctuated by screenings of short films by artists including Kate Cooper, Sam Rolfes and Lawrence Lek, while graphic novelist Warren Ellis acted as host, lending his darkly insightful commentary to proceedings. A Metahaven-designed projection loomed large throughout the day, announcing, ‘We are attempting to survive our time so that we may live into yours’. It was a sentiment that reinforced the urgency of this type of open and multidisciplinary discussion, demanding that we each take action towards building a new, more inclusive vision of the world. In 2016, what are our methods of survival?
SEEK OUT NEW SPACES
In his welcoming statement, Warren Ellis decreed the festival “a chance to shut out the world so that we can plot a forward escape.” By creating a bunker, if only for the afternoon, we granted ourselves the privilege of time, the luxury of aspiration and the benefit of distance from the magnitude of the everyday so that we could attempt to process it. Whether physical or temporal, ideas around the necessity of space in the fight for progress circulated throughout and what remained was the imperative to seek out new spaces in order to manifest alternatives.
We granted ourselves the privilege of time, the luxury of aspiration and the benefit of distance from the magnitude of the everyday so that we could attempt to process it.
From increasing incidents of racist hate crimes to the commodification of working class and immigrant culture, safe spaces for marginalised people in the UK are disappearing. In the case of London’s nightlife, which was given a swansong by journalist Aimee Cliff made all the more poignant by the closure of Fabric announced the day before, the demolition is rapid and accelerating. Counterculture in the city is being systematically destroyed by the power couple at large, the council and luxury property developers, to make way for a universal model of gentrified living. But with this gap comes an opportunity to fill it and, as Cliff suggested, room for DIY, homegrown parties and protests that refuse to assimilate into the homogenised landscape of pop up London.
The refusal to assimilate is a sentiment shared by Ash Sarkar, journalist for Novara Media, who knows that “integration ain't shit for anti-racism”. Racism, she asserted, is not an accident of the state but what makes it and therefore any demand for people of colour to participate in that oppressive structure is a call for complicity. For her, the goal shouldn’t be to integrate into an unjust society, rather it should be to transform it. To go about this, Sarkar cited three solutions: resurrect the radicalism of the anticolonial movements; identify whiteness, its function in politics and force it to declare itself; enact a marrying of direct action with community organising. To combat the colonial sentiments that underpin this country, community spaces that are Against Integration, must be nurtured.
The goal shouldn’t be to integrate into an unjust society, rather it should be to transform it.
Continuing this insistence on spaces that run counter to Western hyper-capitalism are NON, a collective of African artists, and of the diaspora, who primarily use sound to articulate the visible and invisible structures that create binaries in society, and in turn distribute power. After her VJ set, co-founder Melika Ngombe Kolongo vocalised NON’s intent, "It's about creating our own space.” It’s not a demand to be left alone, but to be seen. “We are beyond asking should we be in the room,” she stated. “We are already in the room.”
LOOK BACK IN ORDER TO LOOK FORWARD
The first short film to screen at the Long Progress Bar set a brooding tone for the day. In it, a British flag waves proudly outside London’s Rio Cinema, while we are taken through empty streets lined with luxury apartments, forgotten nightclubs and election booths. An EU sign sits in flames beside a deserted Turkish snooker club and washed-up rubber boats. Many histories, cultures, memories and traumas are collapsed into one space. This is Lawrence Lek’s video simulation Europa, Mon Amour (2016 Brexit edition). It is easy to recognise the post-apocalyptic London that it depicts less as a distant dystopia than a reflection upon the state of the world in 2016.
Numerous speakers raised the unavoidable weight of history, who pointed out that inequality in the present day is inevitably linked to global events of the past. “We are looking back, so that we can look forward,” Ellis told the crowd, which resonated particularly in artists David Blandy and Larry Anchiampong's short film Finding Fanon 2, screened after Sarkar’s talk. In it, they look to philosopher and revolutionary Frantz Fanon in order to understand their separate experiences of the world. As the film’s narrator decrees, “The great success story has been the consolidation of power, of wealth… a tale of progress overshadowed by revolution, uprising and protest.” The artists must recognise this in order to break down their own racial boundaries, the “invisible wall”, that exists between them.
“The great success story has been the consolidation of power, of wealth… a tale of progress overshadowed by revolution, uprising and protest.”
Meanwhile, as the UK immigration minister confirms work to start on a new, very real wall, nicknamed ‘The Great Wall of Calais’, writer and philosopher Nina Power drew attention to it as a metaphorical and historical event. She highlighted the political and cultural legacy of the Berlin Wall and Trump’s loudly applauded calls for a wall between Mexico and the United States. “We need to think about the relationship between empathy and history”, Power said. “We need to remember what this wall means. We need to take responsibility for history, and not allow it to repeat itself.”
DO THE UNEXPECTED
“Turn and face the strange,” festival host Ellis quipped, as he declared the past year to have been a decidedly weird one. It’s not hard to see why, from the rapid ascent of Donald Trump to the surprise resignation of David Cameron following the Brexit vote, to the ongoing and escalating global refugee crisis. Those in positions of power are either unable or unwilling to help those who need it most, and the wealth gap grows ever wider. But how do we turn to face the strangeness of the status quo? In an age of post-factual politics, in which societal inequality is reinforced from the top down, how do we confront the escalating absurdity of the world as we know it? Throughout the day, it became clear that little faith remained in the standard structures of authority, amongst speakers and artists alike. Instead, a radical mode of resistance emerged, situated far outside of the ordinary channels of power and government.
In an age of post-factual politics, in which societal inequality is reinforced from the top down, how do we confront the escalating absurdity of the world as we know it?
Focusing on the migrant crisis, Power argued, “If millions of people are living in this condition of limbo, we need to consider the disruption of the smooth running of the everyday.” She cited the direct action carried out by Sisters Uncut and protesters fighting for Black Lives Matter as examples of effective protest, something that was echoed by Sarkar as she stated that true progress would only be found within the collective action of the community. As the narrator in Finding Fanon 2 puts it, “Only the oppressor knows peace, because he is rarely challenged.” Power and Sarkar set out to mount this challenge, demonstrating just how essential it is that each individual understands their own potential and their own responsibility to change the way that things are. “We don’t yet know what we are capable of,” Power proclaimed.
Visual artist Roger Hiorns considered how this approach has played out in his own work over the course of the past decade. He makes the familiar unfamiliar, from filling an ex-council flat in South London with the dazzling blue of copper sulphate crystals to burying an aeroplane in the ground. “You’re seeing the structure of authority, but you’re either adjusting or insulting it,” he explained. “I like to enter these channels and change their direction.” Applying this attitude to the political situation in 2016, he concluded, “It’s important that we collectively learn how to operate outside of the expected way of doing things.”
All photographs by Roberta Matis