Did I find Utopia? Well, your mileage may vary. My darling Pierce Penniless wrote me a beautiful letter which he's turned into a blog post here, and I'm trying to gather my thoughts on what I experienced, crammed on a ship trying to teach everyone consensus decision-making whilst we held down our lunches as the Noorderlicht dived through the waves, trying to group-write a theoretical constitution for a speculative nation.
I had, I admit, arrived with pre-conceptions about my shipmates, especially when I turned up at Heathrow on the 10th of September to find that every single one of us was white and middle-class. As we discussed our ideal society on the lower deck over delicious snacks served to us by an accommodating Dutch crew, it really did feel like the last colony ship off a burning planet - like we were the chosen, special ones strapped to a cosy life-shuttle, looking for a new world at the touching point of symbol and substance. This, surely, is how the privileged will experience the end times.
However, you can't spend two weeks on a boat with twenty strangers without realising that nobody is quite the class cliche you'd like them to be. Against my instincts, I found myself becoming more and more committed to our airy Utopia, as we talked and talked and talked about what this NowhereIsland society might look like. Well, it was that or lie in my bunk listening to Kanye West for a fortnight, trying not to vomit bits of ship's pasta out the window onto an iceberg.
For me, this trip was partly about what can and should be salvaged from the liberal project, as it rummages through what's left of its selfhood after decades of neo-liberal capitulation. I discovered, gradually, that just because people are fortunate and insulated doesn't mean that they can't have good, brave and noble instincts that are worth hearing. I discovered that the world is full of bright, decent people doing important, beautiful things, and because of that, it might not be too late to build a better one. I also discovered that Geography professors CAN dance to dubstep. On the latter point, sorry Tim, there's video evidence.
Of all the myriad problems with the Nowhere Island project, the press have inevitably focused on the most anodine and inconsequential: the money. The main criticism, raised by commentators from the Guardian to 'Lucy, 26' on page 3 of The Sun, was that the project is expensive: half a million of dedicated Arts Council funding over several years. This is paying for construction costs, transporting the island material from Svalbard, travel funding, publicity, building a website which involves thousands of people in an accessible philosophy project about citizenship and the failures of nation-states to solve financial and ecological disaster, and employing an entire staff team for two years. Given that there are many other projects receiving the same non-transferrable funding as part of the Cultural Olympiad, one of which is apparently a set of giant crocheted lions, attacking Nowhere Island on the basis of cost to the taxpayer might seem a little snippy - but in the end, it's an argument that, if you choose to engage with it, can't be won. Of course a speculative Utopia involving lots of schools projects is better than a crocheted lion, but so is re-employing twenty nurses, or stopping a library from being closed down.
Is this it, though? Is this what human progress has come to? Fighting over the scraps of money left as the markets crumble? If we're going to argue the balance, the money being spent on replenishing nuclear weapons stocks and subsidising the Royal Bank of Scotland is wasted far more massively and comprehensively than the money being spent on the Cultural Olympiad. This, however, is about something more important. I believe in art, and folly, and dreams. I believe that if we can't collectively subsidise artists to imagine new worlds for us, we have no business speaking of social progress. The question is not whether we can afford to imagine a culture beyond the control of capital and the nation state, but whether we can afford not to.
For me, I found something up there, in the cold and clean and quiet, something I'm struggling to unpack, along with two weeks of dirty washing, bits of rock and memories. It was something between an epiphany and a sense of perspective, something between a manifesto and a dream, and it's hard to put into words, and for the rest of my life I'll feel lucky for having been invited to see NowhereIsland. We went looking for Utopia. What we found was each other. What else do dreamers do?
*Yes, it IS a LOTR Reference. Well done you. Well done US. *geekbiscuits*.