‘No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main’ John Donne
‘I’ve realised that since being at this Festival that I’ve been involved in politics and activism my entire life.’ Peter Macfadyen (Independents for Frome)
To say it was disconcerting to be led into the dark barn by a volunteer clad in black is an understatement. After being handed a pair of earplugs, myself and the other twelve people I had entered the barn with, just minutes before, were encouraged by the volunteers to begin moving around the empty space. The sense of confusion was palpable amongst us, but after nervous laughs and awkward smiles, we began to do so. As I became acutely aware of my own breathing and heart beat in the silence, I saw the words ‘Join our Movement’ painted on the far wall of the space. I felt uncomfortable, isolated and cold. After a few minutes of aimless movement, the volunteers began to reach out to us. Slowly we came together in the middle of the space in a quasi-football huddle. The feeling of being connected, part of something, a group, after our few minutes alone was wonderful. The room immediately seemed warmer and a sense of comfort and safety returned to the space.
As we were silently led out of the room, it felt as if we were closer as a group. We had undergone an experience together that had united us and allowed us to trust one another. Just minutes ago we had been virtual strangers to each other, but now it felt like we were a group.
This sense of belonging and coming together was a key trend that ran throughout every event that took place during the Rethink Activism festival in Aarhus, Denmark from 15th-17th September 2017. The Kaospilot session described above was perhaps one of the more creative, off-the-wall and memorable, but each of the festival events held a similar pattern of guiding principles. The nature of the festival itself was one of inclusivity, a lack of hierarchy. It was full of life, laughter and joy. From seating arranged around the festival site that encouraged participants to have a conversation with a stranger, to Trust beer (a beer with provocative questions written on the bottle around the theme of trust); there were a number of ways the festival provided a space for people to connect with one another as human beings, and more importantly as citizens.
Working for a network organisation is not without its downsides. Although you connect with, and discover brilliant projects, organisations and people on a regular basis, there is sometimes a sense of disconnect between yourself and solutions that are occurring around the globe. However, every once in awhile, you will go to an event or be directly involved in a project that not only reminds you of the value of your work, but also makes you feel renewed and inspired. This is exactly how I felt upon returning from the Rethink Activism festival. The event was a reminder that even in times of great uncertainty, there are like-minded people creating solutions to societal challenges where they find that there is something missing. They are innovators, activists and citizens that are enacting change every day in their cities and communities. These people are much like those who took part in our Unusual Suspects Festivals organised across the UK over the past few years.
Rethink Activism organiser, Paul Natorp, mentioned a number of times the key aim of the festival: there is a need for new narratives to be created around citizenship, democracy and power. People can be empowered to make huge change within their communities, and much like the point raised by Alternative UK during the opening of the Unusual Suspects Festival in June, there is a growing need to reframe what it means to be an activist, and what it means to take part in politics. Given that a mere 2% of the UK population is a member of a political party, it appears clear that alternatives have to be offered to keep democracy vibrant and flourish.
One such alternative to the status quo can be found in Frome, Somerset, where the Flat Pack Democracy movement has been championed by Peter and Annabelle Macfadyen and the Independents for Frome (IFF) party. A feature of numerous Rethink Activism events, Peter and Annabelle shared their story of growing frustration with the local council that eventually led them to create an independent political party, and win power in local council elections. By pursuing politics driven by values, rather than ideology or a manifesto, the IFF managed to reestablish trust and broken relationships with the local community, through handing out direct control and power to local citizens. For instance, when the local allotment association came to them asking about reallocation of funds for new allotments, the council simply gave them direct power and control over the town’s allotment budget. Peter spoke of a need to recognise that giving away power (as well as a willingness to change and admit past mistakes ) can be mutually beneficial for all. IFF are just one example, but other organisations present at Rethink Activism (Barcelona en Comú and the Alternative party) similarly reflected a willingness to put citizens, humanity and humour at the heart of politics.
As a Scot, and particularly as one plugged into green-left, pro-indy politics, Denmark is often held aloft as a model nation/ society that Scotland should aim to emulate. That said, judging from what I saw and experienced during Rethink Activism, Denmark is facing and trying to deal with problems that are uniform not only across Europe, but around the world. Although Aarhus is a beautiful city with a seemingly wonderful quality of life, the festival did not shy away from depicting its more gritty edge. The venue for the festival was an industrial space that had been transformed into a temporary city within the city. Squeezed in between still operational factories and an abattoir that participants were assured had suspended business for the weekend, the space was perfect to demonstrate civic change and development within Aarhus.
Once industry began to slowly move out of the area around 25 years ago, the space was occupied and used by artists and homeless communities as it was cheap and available. Although signs of this are still clear, in somewhat predictable fashion, business and development is now slowly starting to creep into the area. Organiser Paul Natorp lamented to me that this development is not geared at all towards citizens, and the fact that next to the Rethink Activism site, a huge Danske bank building was building constructed reinforces this. Only time will tell how this development, combined with corporate influence and thinking, will affect grass roots, community projects in the area, but the change reflects the tide of gentrification that is creeping across many European cities.
The quotations at the beginning of this article are both from Aarhus. The John Donne one, originally written in 1624, was part of an exhibition at the ARoS Art Museum in Aarhus. At its core, it is a warning against isolationism and the need for collectivity and collaboration to tackle our challenges. The exhibition focussed specifically on the uncertain future of Europe, but the parallels between the quote and Rethink Activism are remarkable. Whilst the second quotation was from a festival session that Peter Macfadyen took part in. It speaks about the need, now more than ever, to connect and join up the dots of activism and engagement, locally, nationally and internationally. It speaks to why events like Rethink Activism and the Unusual Suspects Festival are so necessary.
More often than not, this activism already exists. Seemingly everyday activities, such as having a conversation with a stranger in the street, or taking part in a gardening group, or even organising a dinner party can be crucial forms of this, and can be indicative of a thriving civil society. A reframing and rethinking is vital. Given that individuals and society are so closely interlinked and mutually dependent, it seems that the tools with which we can better society are already available to us. We just have to rethink how we use them.