Art, Protest and Walking the Boundaries

With exactly two months to go until Uncivilisation 2012, the third Dark Mountain Festival, Douglas Strang introduces a series of blog posts, which will run over the next few weeks, covering different aspects of this year's programme.

Our third festival will be the most diverse experimental and uncivilised yet. Look out for the full programme up on the festival website later this week. There are fewer than 100 tickets remaining, and in previous years the festival has sold out -  so if you are planning on coming, it might be worth you booking soon!

is a writer, performer, and storyteller. He has co-created and directed many of Dark Mountain’s on site performances, including Liminal (Uncivilisation Festival) and The Night Breathes Us In (Festival of the Dark, Reading). He lives in South West Scotland by the River Ae, with his wife and two daughters.

‘For one long moment in my life, I heard the earthsongs of England. For one exquisite time, I saw the old gods honoured with an authenticity that left me in tears.’
– Jay Griffiths, ‘This England’, Dark Mountain: Issue 1

Twenty years ago, a band of travellers and activists took a stand against the extension of the M3 over Twyford Down in Hampshire, not far from the venue for this year’s Uncivilisation. Their action marked the beginning of a radical response to the government’s road-building programme. Looking back, the sustained protests at Twyford and at other sites such as Newbury, Pollok, and Solsbury Hill seem now to represent a high-water mark in the history of the UK environmental movement.

With a sequence of talks, exhibitions and workshops, Unciv2012 will commemorate the road protests and explore their legacy. In curating this strand of the festival I’ve chosen to focus not so much on the history or politics, but rather on the culture of the anti-roads movement and the creativity it unleashed: the protesters’ stories and songs and wild art, forged through an intense relationship to the sites they were protecting. Many of those involved speak of this relationship, of a passionate identification with place, with particular trees, streams, and glades, and of the distress felt when they were destroyed. At Unciv we will look at the ways people responded to that destruction, to the violence being done to the land and to those who defended it.

I’m also particularly interested in weaving links between road protest culture and some of the ideas behind the Dark Mountain Project. It seems to me that the protest camps embodied a distinctly uncivilised alternative to mainstream life, an imaginative defiant dwelling on the edges. Not that they should be romanticised: a recurring theme in all the accounts is how cold it was, how wet, how endless the mud and squalor and the tensions between groups and individuals, between those who ‘did’ and those who ‘lunched out’. And yet despite the hardship, so many found the experience to be transformative; found that they relished gathering fuel and food, cooking over an open fire and sleeping under a plastic tarp; found themselves most fully alive whilst living out of doors through all the seasons, or up on a platform in the trees in a storm. The camps were no utopias, but in their rawness and simplicity, their glorious dirt not just beneath the fingernails but clogging every pore, they remind us that it’s still possible, even desirable, to live beyond the pale.

Guiding us through this exploration of anti-road culture will be, amongst others, Jay Griffiths, reading from Anarchipelago, her dazzling novella based in the camps; Andy Letcher, musician, scholar and one time member of legendary protest band The Space Goats; and Adrian Arbib, whose photographs and films provide a defining record of those times.

Stories and songs and wild art, the honouring of old gods, a fitting theme for other strands woven into the section of the programme I’m curating. Distinct yet linked: a session on ‘dark fairytales’ with Simon Lys of the Gaia Theatre Collective; workshops offering the possibility of a shift in perspective, whether through wilderness rites of passage with Tom Hirons, or with Steve Wheeler who will invite us to ‘unprogramme the Apocalypse’!

And finally, a theme which culminates in Mearcstapa: a collective of artists and performers who have been granted a fool’s licence to bring something of that anarchic creativity, that honouring, to the festival. We will provide an extra layer, or under layer, to the scheduled programme: shape-shifting theatre, art and performance on the edges; the festival’s dark fringe spilling from the woods into the main spaces, looming and receding without set times or the gathering of audiences. There will be opportunities to take part, to make your own art, and to join us on a wild hunt and a dance in the dark to the strange enchanted music of Wod!

It’s very exciting to be helping to organise this year’s festival, and to watch as all the ideas and different layers to the programme are developed. I’m also delighted that we’re going back to the Sustainability Centre, which seems to be an ideal venue – Mearcstapa have met there once already this year, sniffing out trails and plotting mischief …

So do join us in August. I think it’s going to be quite good!

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