Sunday, August 18, 2013

Occupying Utopia

Hello from sunny cloudy London, where I am here to spend a bit of time before I head off to Copenhagen for the Occupy Utopia literary festival run by the Danish publisher Korridor. The festival is part of the larger Images festival sponsored by the Danish Center for Culture which features artists, musicians, poets and writers from both Denmark and Asia, South America and Africa.

The organizers have been in touch to tell me the plans for the festival and I have to say I'm excited, confused, and slightly fearful about what I've heard.
From 30 August to 7 September occupies leading artists from around the world Aalborg, Aarhus and Copenhagen in the IMAGES FESTIVAL 2013 this year working on the theme OCCUPY Utopia.
IMAGES FESTIVAL has invited artists from more than 40 countries in Asia, the Middle East, Latin America and Africa: "Occupy Denmark with art and realize your utopias through art," In their own ways the musicians, visual artists, writers, filmmakers, dancers and actors occupying the Danish late summer of artistic expression will challenge our worldviews and create new visions for the future.
Queen Louise Bridge is the main artery in Copenhagen designated as UTOPIA city. On the occasion there will be built two footbridges on top the bridge itself, and under them an established space that will be inhabited by various exhibits, scenes, a restaurant and a coffee shop.
Publisher Korridor & The Heterotopic Library will create a space for literature on the Queen Louise Bridge. The BRIDGING UTOPIA space will serve as a stage for various literary events, a bookshop, and an installation made of 15,000 used books. Publications from IMAGES countries will be on sale there, as well as workshops for cooperation between Danish artists and visiting international artists. 
We look forward to seeing you at Queen Louise's Bridge!

So the festival will take place on a bridge, to match the theme "Bridging Utopia". I'm not sure if the bridge will be made of books, which might present a problem when we walk across it. But books float so if we crash down into the icy waters of the river below, we will just grab on to a tome or two and kick our way to shore. Plus, I've graduated from "beginner" to "intermediate" in my Swimfit program so I think I will be all right.

Until then, I'm occupying a small garret in West London, recovering from jet lag and the insult that international travel is on the body and soul. Sometimes you feel like your body has traveled but your soul hasn't quite caught up and the disorientation can be harsh. At other times it feels like a strange dream being controlled by circadian rhythms and Atlantic weather conditions.

Right outside my window is a block of council flats that looks like it was built some time in the 1960s.

The council flat is something new to me as a recent traveller to the UK. My only real exposure to Britain as a kid and teenager, besides the odd family holiday to London, was reading books. It wasn't Jane Eyre or Oliver Twist that helped me to understand contemporary Britain, though, but The Secret Diaries of Adrian Mole by Sue Townshend. Her helpful glossary at the back of the book for Adrian's American penpal made me understand all sorts of things about British culture in the 1980s, including "the dole" and "giros", "the never-never", ASDA, and "the council".

This was Thatcher's Britain, after all, and the UK was stuck in dire economic straits that working class British people detested their government for getting them stuck with a high unemployment rate and its attendant woes. I had no understanding of what benefits were, what a council estate was (to my mind, an estate was where Scarlett O'Hara lived before the Civil War), and other things that you could really only know if you grew up in Britain, working class and poor.

So overlooking these council flats, occupied by primarily Afro-Carribbean and Bengali families - ladies in saris, men in skullcaps, angelic looking six year old girls wearing hijabs - is very surreal, like watching Brick Lane or "East is East" come to life in front of my eyes. What utopias were the Bangladeshis imagining when they came to Britain? Did they imagine Britain would look like this before they got here? What fears and hopes do they have for their futures, for their children's futures? They expected, I suppose, a golden land, and instead came to a grey and rainy place of benefits, NHS hospitals, social workers, council tax. They came for health and safety and got Health and Safety.

Maybe I should walk across the bridge from my utopia to theirs and talk to them about whether the dream is coming true or whether it's someone else's dream, controlled by Atlantic weather patterns and the class system and political machinations.

No comments:

Post a Comment