Review of Twoty-Twoty-Two: Revival of the Bristol Utopian Book Collective

One of the best bits of news from 2022 is the revival of the Bristol Utopian Book Collective! UBC is up and running again.

We had seven great meetings in 2022. For a while we were the Bristol N. K. Jemisin fan club, when we read the Broken Earth trilogy one book at a time from July to October. (Hols in August, for the mathematically astute among you who will have spotted it took us four months.)

My favourite meeting of 2022 was in November, when about a dozen of us turned out for an animated discussion of Brave New World. Then, we headed through to the cinema for a screening of Neptune Frost. We meet in the cafe bar of the Watershed, an independent cinema in Bristol, UK. By fortunate coincidence the “exhilarating Afrofuturist anti-capitalist sci-fi-punk-musical” was screening at 9pm after our book group meeting at 7.

Utopias past and present

Brave New World is, of course, a classic. But would anyone still have anything to say about it, is it still relevant? Turns out yes, everyone had a lot to say. We could easily have done three or four discussions on this one book. Is it really a dystopia? Does it matter to not have free will if you’re happy? Why is art and culture better than centrifugal bumble puppy and electromagnetic golf? Who wouldn’t want to go to the feelies? Also, we got into some sticky stuff about eugenics, ableism and ageing.

I enjoyed going straight from Brave New World to Neptune Frost. It was like journeying from utopias past to utopias present. Neptune Frost defies easy explanation. To start off with my brain was furiously trying to work it all out as it went along but I had to let that go. I experienced the music and the action and the visuals. It is there now inside my mind and I get the feeling it may be changing things as yet unbeknownst to me in there. Unanimous goldmine!

Neptune Frost film poster, highlight since the revivial of the Bristol Utopian Book Collective

What a difference 198 days makes

The official relaunch or revival of the Bristol Utopian Book Collective after lockdown took place in April 2022 as part of the People’s Republic of Stoke’s Croft School of Activism. On that occasion, two people arrived to the meeting. We had a wonderful discussion centred around The Deep by Rivers Solomon. But given the low turnout for what was a relatively well publicised event, I wondered if there was any appetite for continuing the book group.

I was already mulling over ideas for an offline, meetings-free Utopias Club. It involved newsletters and badges and I might still do it one day. But thankfully Emma and Nathan, who had joined me that day, were full of enthusiasm for the book group. I felt somewhat obliged to arrange another meeting. On that great and successful November evening only six months later I was grateful to them that I did.

It’s brill to have the group up and running again. If you’d like to join us, check out our upcoming events here.

Review of Twoty-Twoty-Two (2022): Becoming a Spike Island Associate

Spike Island Associates banner

In the autumn of 2022 I was working on a book review. To get a bit of headspace and exercise, I was cycling or walking to work on it at the Spike Island Cafe.

Spike Island is an area of Bristol (UK) almost entirely surrounded by water. The name suggests it should be fully surrounded, I know, but it ain’t. It has the docks on one side and on the other the ‘New Cut’. New in a geological sense, but this channel to divert the River Avon was dug over 200 years ago. It takes the tidal waters of the Avon in and out of Bristol while a series of sluices and such keep the docks at a constant level. The New Cut, by the way, is an absolutely massive channel, which is has to be, because the Avon has the second highest tidal range in the world.

Spike Island is also a world class contemporary art gallery situated on Spike Island, the not-quite-island in Bristol. It recently staged (if that’s the word) Veronica Ryan’s exhibition Along a Spectrum, for which she won the Turner Prize.

Spike Island (the artspace) is housed in a former tea-packing warehouse. The industrial history of Bristol, like that of many British ports, is intricately connected with colonialism. Within the repurposed building there are artists studios and co-working spaces as well as exhibition spaces. Like all good art galleries, it also has a lovely cafe. That’s where I found myself reading ‘Dystopias and Utopias on Earth and Beyond‘ in preparation for writing my review. And it’s where I found out about the Associates programme.

Joining the Spike Island Associates programme

The Spike Island Associates programme is open to artists, curators, writers, designers and producers. There I was, writing notes in my book, preparing to write my review. I am genuinely writing something, I thought. I can tick the box that says I’m a writer. As I was writing an academic book review, I ticked the ‘academic’ box on the application too.

I joined the programme for the following reasons:

  • 24/7 access to a workspace. This means whenever I can escape for an evening, or whatever time in the morning I manage to make it in, I can work without needing the cafe to be open
  • The money I would save in the cafe would more than pay for the membership fee. (There are kitchen facilities available by the workspace for making a cuppa or putting lunch in the mee-crow-wah-vay)
  • To be part of a community of artistically-minded people and all the potential cross-fertilisation of ideas that could bring
  • Some of the events open to Associates looked cool, including gallery tours and workshops

So those were my practical reasons for joining. But the biggest benefit to me so far, I think, has been that moment where I self-identified as a ‘writer’.

Like university, but for utopians

Previously, the structure that confirmed the validity of my work was university. Doing a Master’s degree brought a kind of legitimacy to my endeavours. What are you doing? Oh, it’s my MA research. However, I’ve continued to work long beyond finishing my degree. And while I have considered a PhD, lately I’m turning against university as a focus and locus for my work.

Becoming a Spike Island Associate has given me confidence to see myself as a practising thinker and writer. It has also been a way of securing some of the benefits I previously associated with university: a library-like workspace, a set of cohorts, mentors. As a utopian, I’m always pleased when I can find my own way of doing things when I’m uncertain about the system I’m working within. And becoming a Spike Island Associate has been one of those utopian moves for me this year.

Utopian Studies Society of Europe coming to Brighton!

Brighton beach on a slightly overcast day
The beach at Brighton, location for Utopian Studies Society conference 2022, on a slightly cloudy day showing Brighton Pier, striped deck chairs and sea gulls.

I’m very excited that this year’s conference of the Utopian Studies Society of Europe is being held in Brighton, UK!

I’ve been to previous conferences of the USS in Lisbon (2016) and Prato (2019). Lisbon was my first academic conference and it set the bar high! The Prato conference was also important for me as it was on a pressing topic: utopia, dystopia and climate change. It coincided with a heat wave in Europe with temperatures around 40°C (104°F), which really brought home the theme of the conference. As a result, I decided with a heavy heart that I would no longer fly to academic conferences. So I am beyond thrilled that the next USS conference is in my home country.

I expect I’ll go to the conference whether or not I give a paper. There are lots of reasons why I want to go. Firstly, I’d like to catch up with people I’ve met at previous conferences. And I want to visit Brighton, I’ve never been before, but I think I’ll love it. They have a Green MP, lots of independent shops, a big veggie and vegan food scene, and it’s by the sea! Sounds great.

Then there’s the content of the conference itself of course! This year’s conference is going to centre around the theme of hope and new directions in utopian studies. The call for papers is published on the USS website.

I’m excited to see that the programme is set to include events with local activists in Brighton. I like to explore and be active when visiting somewhere for a conference. I’m working on having a more physical aspect to my eco-utopian practice rather than getting stuck in the abstract and theoretical.

Let’s all submit proposals for the conference and then maybe I’ll see you there!