A Festival of Future-Imagining: Reflections on What Shall We Build Here 2023 by Ella Alemayehu-Lambert
Artsadmin’s festival of art, climate and community returned in the summer of 2023 for its second iteration, incorporating the two-day Art, Climate, Transition (ACT) Symposium co-hosted by the European ACT network. What Shall We Build Here was an invitation to gather together and imagine different ways of being in alliance with the more-than-human world.
Through talks, workshops and performances, the festival asked how we might remain present with one another through social and environmental destruction, inviting participants to dream up a better future in its wake. Through policy-making, poetry, radio, feasting, discussion, card-games, films, walking, performance and a mural that emerged over two days, the festival explored what can grow in the cracks that destruction leaves behind and how we might move forward through uncertain times.
Mathieu Négathe-Charles’ historic, poetic and speculative keynote speech opened the festival. Seated in rings that expanded out from Mathieu, we were invited into the big bang of the modern world: a moment marked by an interconnected maelstrom of ‘isms’ – white supremacy, capitalism, colonialism, ableism, queerphobia and patriarchy. Mathieu pinpointed the origin of our complex world to a single point in history: 1492, when Christopher Columbus begun his conquest of the land and peoples of Turtle Island, today known as North America. What Shall We Build Here explored the climate crisis as one formed of these interconnected threads of oppression, threads that can be followed out into murky histories and speculative futures.
We are always living in the moment before – before catastrophe, intervention, connection, unravelling – this is the notion behind Sarah Vanhee’s lecture-performance, We Are Before. Over seven years, Sarah disrupted 328 meetings in twelve different countries to perform her Lecture for Every One. The lecture explored how we can live together as human beings in this moment, before. Sarah’s reflections from her seven years of performing Lecture were connecting and poignant. We Are Before spoke to the power of intervening with conventions, and of the many ways we can intervene with power. Katy Rubin’s punchy policy change workshop engaged participants in challenging power, using Legislative Theatre at a toolkit. Drawing from Augusto Boal’s interactive forum theatre exercises, we proposed and tested-out ideas for policy change in an energetic, creative, and oftentimes thoroughly entertaining process.
Haeweon Yi’s movement-based workshop, A Fairy Ring for Human Fungi saw myself and others weaving through Toynbee Studios and into the garden outside, reimagining our connection to the ecologies that move within and around us, as we experimented with thinking and feeling as an interconnected mycelial network might do. Dora Taylor and Zarina Ahmad hosted a spectacular three-course feast, starring the potato as fuel for envisioning a just food future. We discussed potatoes and poetry at House of Annetta – a place with its own radical history.Dancing figures, donkeys, high heels, apples and other human and nonhuman performers presented surprise encounters during I walked too long and became a landscape, an audio walk by Tery Žeželj & Maria Magdalena Kozlowska, that guided us through the streets of Tower Hamlets.
Nwando Ebizie’s performance installation, Extreme Unction, Vol. 2 moved audiences through a transformative, meditative experience, alchemising grief into ecstasy through otherworldly sonic rituals that echoed from within a domed incubator. Throughout the festival, The People’s Palace of Possibility, The Bare Project’s outdoor installation in Mallon Gardens, provided a space for refuge, hope and dreaming. The palace had several rooms, including an escape hatch, a radio station, a library and a central space for discussion, feasting or modelling fragments of the future from clay. Each room served to restore our energy for the future, through rest and play.
What Shall We Build Here was a diverse and vibrant gathering of artists, scientists, utopian-thinkers and earth-lovers, all exploring the fear and hope that marks this unique and troubling segment of life on our planet. I left the festival thinking about what futures we might build for ourselves, and how they will depend on our sensory engagement with the environment, the change that we advocate for, our willingness to disrupt systems of power, what we eat, how we eat it, our capacity to imagine different ways of being and the extent to which we embrace our kinship with forest, fungi, flora and fauna.
What Shall We Build Here 2023 was supported by ACT and BE PART through the Creative Europe programme of the European Union, by Aldgate Connect BID, the City of London Corporation, and Arts Council England.