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!

Saved by the saplings: developing a physical eco-utopian practice

Saplings on Toboggan Hill, Long Ashton
Saplings on Toboggan Hill, Long Ashton, Bristol, UK, 18 August 2021
Saplings on Toboggan Hill, Long Ashton, Bristol, UK, 18 August 2021

Studying literature can seem like an indoor sport. As an ecocritic, I can spend days thinking about what it means to be an ecological being while only physically interacting with a desk chair and computer. As a utopian scholar it sometimes feels like I’m trying to work out how society could change to avert climate catastrophe IN MY HEAD. Often, the efforts I make to reach out, like starting a blog for instance, result in more time spent in front of a computer. Recently, I’ve realised that as part of my eco-utopian practice I need to get out of my head.

In July 2021 I responded to a call for volunteers to care for saplings planted on a hill known locally as Toboggan Hill. The land, on Fenswood Farm, Long Ashton, is owned by the University of Bristol.

Field in Fenswood Farm, Long Ashton, Bristol

A field in Fenswood Farm, Long Ashton, Bristol, taken on an evening walk, 18 July 2021. The mound in the background is Toboggan Hill. In February 2020 the hill was planted with 1,600 saplings by University of Bristol along with local group Long Ashton Nature, Community & Environment Trust (LANCET).

It’s simple work clearing grass from the base of the new trees to make sure they aren’t being choked. While participating I’ve found out more about the land around where I live. What I’ve learnt is kind of shocking. I’ve glimpsed how this patch of land is connected to the whole web of human activity affecting (and effecting) the climate crisis. But on the positive side, I’m seeing the work that can and is being done locally to tug on those threads of connection, loosen them and rework the land into a healthier place.

Long Ashton -what’s gone wrong?

Long Ashton has the claim to fame of being the place where Ribena was invented. It was developed at the Long Ashton Research Station in the 1930s. I was beyond thrilled to learn this after moving to the village. If my childhood self knew I would grow up to live in the birthplace of Ribena…

For the benefit of those who didn’t have a UK childhood, Ribena is a very sweet blackcurrant cordial. It is high in Vitamin C, which was handy during World War II when we couldn’t get oranges. For decades afterwards it was marketed as healthy and dutifully my Dad and Gran would give it to us when we were poorly. I still turn to a hot Ribena when I get a cold today and have an emergency bottle in the cupboard in case I get COVID-19. There is a low sugar version, which I bought once by mistake and I don’t want to talk about it.

Long Ashton Research Station closed in 2003 and much of the land around it was sold for housing development. The University of Bristol retains Fenswood Farm, land that I understand was gifted to it for research purposes.

While the agricultural land is available as a resource for academics and students, it seems under-utilised as such. In practice the land is used to grow arable crops, which are exported for animal feed. This, and its ‘further development potential’ as noted on the university website, leads me to think it is primarily being treated as a financial asset.

What should we expect of the countryside?

Long Ashton saw a massive increase in desirability in 2021, as the pandemic led people to seek homes outside of the city. While right on the edge of Bristol, it has a lot more space and access to countryside. According to The Sunday Times, it was one of eight postcodes in the UK where average house prices rose by more than £100,000 in a year.

But what is this ‘countryside’ that surrounds the village? By moving here are you any closer to nature? When the fields are dusted with slug pellets and the produce goes to feed industrially farmed animals overseas?

The other side of the village is bordered by a golf course, which is also intensively managed with no doubt widespread use of herbicides and pesticides. What we are surrounded by isn’t ‘nature’ but global commodities on the one side and leisure industries on the other.

I haven’t yet mentioned the climate crisis, but I trust readers can see the current usage of the land around Long Ashton is perpetuating behaviours that have led to the climate and ecological emergencies. We often think of green spaces as a tonic to industrialisation, pollution and our worries about the environment, but any comfort taken here might be misplaced.

Fenswood Farm fields after harvest, 7 September 2021
Fenswood Farm fields after harvest, 7 September 2021

Seeing land as land

LANCET is working to increase biodiversity in Long Ashton. This includes the usual advice to residents to sow bee and butterfly-friendly wildflowers, make a hole in your fence for the hedgehogs and install a bug hotel. But what makes me really excited about their work is they are engaging with the university about the 62 hectares it owns in Long Ashton. The saplings are growing, and the next project is to lease another field to plant a wildflower meadow.

Ultimately, it would be fantastic for the fields around Long Ashton to be supporting a range of wildlife and potentially growing food to be consumed locally – or at least by humans.

I’m glad I made it away from my computer, out of my flat and into a field full of saplings. I feel a little connection to every tree I help, I’m connecting with a group of local people, and noticing the connections between my village and global ecologies and economies. I’m doing physical work, spending time in my body and in my surroundings. The work feels meaningful, necessary and relevant, and makes me feel the same about my academic work. I’m enjoying the way they feed into each other.

Toboggan Hill, Long Ashton, September 2021
Toboggan Hill, 7 September 2021

Misunderstanding
Saved by the sapling
Sapling was growing

Misunderstanding, This Is The Kit

Three utopian things bringing me joy this month

As I mentioned in my last post (the one before Rob Bryher’s article on car free cities and environmental justice), I haven’t been reading novels lately. Since admitting this, I’ve felt more able to focus on what I am currently enjoying in the world of utopia, and consciously taking pleasure from those things. This includes essays, online talks and events, and adding to my reading list for that future day when the book lust kicks in again. It’s a lesson in being led by what I enjoy. So here’s my round up of the utopian things bringing me joy this month.

1. Adding to my awesome utopian reading list

Loyal followers of the blog will know I have an awesome utopian reading list focusing on Afrofuturist, African Sci-Fi and Black Utopias. I featured it back in my inaugural blog post.

This week I’ve added the following:

Essays by Eugen Bacon

Bacon shared her essay ‘Black Lives Matter – The Rise Of Future Forms, Genres and Modes’ on twitter this week. The essay is something of a wormhole, leading to more of her own essays and a whole host of recommendations of work from other Black writers. Particularly high on my list are the New Suns and New Suns 2: Original Speculative Fiction by People of Color anthologies edited by Nisi Shawl (more from Shawl below).

Octavia’s Parables

I read Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower in July 2019 during an extreme heatwave in Europe. I was in Prato, Italy for a conference on utopia and climate change and it was 39℃ (103℉). We were melting while we talked about climate catastrophe and apocalypse, the air conditioning failing around us. Trump was in power in America. It was all too real.

I really want to read Parable of the Talents but now we’re living through another dystopia (yes, the pandemic) I’m worried about finding it a bit much. This is where I see Octavia’s Parables stepping in.

This podcast (which I missed off my utopia and climate justice podcasts list), hosted by Toshi Reagon and adrienne maree brown, takes Parable of the Sower (season one) and Parable of the Talents (season two) one chapter at a time. I feel that in this supported way, chapter by chapter, I could read Parable of the Talents, at what is undoubtedly a pertinent time to do so. Based on brown’s key note discussion of Butler at the New Suns online literary festival, I know she has both a deep love of Octavia Butler and doula skills for guiding people through potentially traumatic experiences. So I’m going to trust in the podcast, is what I’m saying.

Prato. It was sooo hot.

2. Sitting in my PJs watching authors talk about utopia

Here’s a zero effort way to indulge in all things sci-fi and utopia. I treated myself by making time to catch up on this recorded event from February 2021, featuring Meg Elison, Nalo Hopkinson and Nisi Shawl, with Terry Bisson as moderator.

Highlights for me were:

  • Everyone being super relaxed and chatty
  • Nalo Hopkinson on the pandemic – “I didn’t want to be living in an Octavia Butler novel!” – and on the mainstream – “I’m not going to get normal anytime soon”
  • Nisi Shawl on Everfair as a utopia: “Although, Everfair, the people in it are trying to create a utopia, I think of it more as the process of utopia rather than as the goal that everyone gets to. It’s getting there that is the important thing, not having arrived”
  • Meg Elison on her upcoming utopian noir novel, The Snatch (does this mean the same in the US as in the UK?)
  • Meg, Nalo and Nisi putting Terry straight on contemporary publishing (deadlines aren’t elastic and no-one’s got an expense account)

3. Attending live online events and feeling part of something exciting

Back home in Bristol, the People’s Republic of Stokes Croft have been running a three week School of Activism. One class, hosted by Invented Futures, was on ‘Speculation, Visionaries and Modern Mythologies‘. Invented Futures is a collective based at Spike Island in Bristol looking at new technology and the stories that drive the tech we invent. (That’s my interpretation of what they do anyway, I’d like to talk to them and find out more!) One of the speakers was Katie Stone of Utopian Acts, a collective I’ve collaborated with before. So I felt at home on several accounts and relished the discussion.

One text that Katie brought up was Nalo Hopkinson’s Midnight Robber. She spoke of how the book contrasts the technological knowledge of two different worlds, one hi-tech and the other seemingly primitive. Since watching the Stranger Than Fiction roundtable I was thinking I wanted to read something by Hopkinson. As usual though, I couldn’t pick which book to start with. But here was Katie talking about Midnight Robber… Is this a sign, I thought?

And do you know what, I think it was a sign. I think I’ve chosen my next book to read. I might be about to get back into reading, spending delicious quiet hours with a book, tea and quite possibly also chocolate. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Utopia on the radio: climate justice and utopia-related podcasts.

For those times when reading is impractical – chopping vegetables, folding laundry – you can still absorb utopian content through your ears. Have I made that sound appealing? What I mean to say is you can listen to inspiring and funny podcasts about climate justice and the possibility of a better world. Such as these.

Free-Thought Podcast by Shuddhashar

I came to this podcast for an interview with Dr Heather Alberro, an academic working in the area of social and political sciences. Alberro has an interest in green utopianism and the interview discusses the challenges of ‘creating a world that is sustainable and environmentally just’.

Alberro explains with such ease how the good health of economies and the environment are intertwined it makes you wonder how anyone thinks we should have to choose one over the other.

The whole idea behind environmental justice is that these things are very closely intertwined, you can’t have ecological wellbeing and sustainability without guaranteeing social wellbeing, breaking down hierarchies around class, race, gender, access to resources.

Dr Heather Alberro

After the interview with Alberro, I rolled straight into the next episode – an interview with anthropology scholar Avery Delany about decolonisation. I am very intrigued by this podcast series.

Jon Richardson & The Futurenauts

Comedian Jon Richardson, of BBC 6 Music Sunday morning radio show fame (yeah he’s done some telly and stand up since), hosts this podcast with futurists/Futurenauts Ed Gillespie and Mark Stevenson. The structure of each episode on subjects such as food, work, energy and nature is based around two questions. Firstly, how fucked are we? (Invariably, royally.) Secondly, how do we unfuck ourselves?

In series two they consciously invited guests in to break up their all-bloke line up a little. Highlights for me were Kate Raworth, author of Doughnut Economics, on the Future of Economics and an episode on the Future of Shit (yes, human faeces) with Rose George. I think about that one every time I flush the toilet, and every time I don’t.

I have to say though I think I preferred the first series. Three people saying stuff I agree with about topics that worry me and making it funny, with some practical ideas too. I found it reassuring and hopeful.

Mothers of Invention

Climate change is a manmade problem with a feminist solution. Boom! Each episode of this podcast features women around the world who are taking action in their communities to change the world for the better. The show invites them to tell their own stories of inventing sustainable solutions to the climate problems they face.

Learning about these womens’ fights for climate justice is inspiring and inspires hope. This is another hugely uplifting podcast about terrifying issues.

The hosts are former Irish president Mary Robinson and comedian Maeve Higgins, joined by their producer Thimali Kodikara in series three.

ASLE EcoCast

This is the literary entrant in my list. The ASLE EcoCast is the podcast of the Assocation for the Study of Literature and Environment, an academic society. Each episode the hosts are joined by a different academic working in the areas of literature and the environment.

I have two favourite features of the show. Firstly, host Jemma Deer exploring the etymology of an apposite word like ‘forest’, ‘scene’ or ‘book’ in a poetic kind of way at the start of each episode. Secondly, I like hearing about the guest’s route into academia and whatever specific area of interest they are currently working on. Hearing their way in gives me a way into their work. It also makes me wonder what story I might tell in the future…

Listening to climate justice and utopia podcasts
That’s it folks, happy listening! Let me know your recommendations in the comments or contact me here.

Black Utopias, Forecast and New Suns

Hello, how are you doing? Spring is coming where I am and it’s all taking off. Here’s a round up of the utopian books and events on my radar this week.

Black Utopias, Jayna Brown

I was excited to receive my copy of new release Black Utopias by Jayna Brown this weekend. I pre-ordered after spotting a tweet from the author and I have a copy in my hands now too! I’ve come for the interpretation of Octavia E. Butler and Samuel R. Delany’s speculative fiction but I’ll stay for the Black women mystics and Sun Ra.

Arrived here too!

Forecast by Invisible Dust

Coming up this week (3rd – 7th March 2021), Invisible Dust are presenting Forecast, a series of online events, performances and screenings. Invisible Dust is an organisation bringing artists and scientists together for creative projects and discussion on environment and climate change.

I’ve tried to pick out a few events to highlight but honestly it all looks amazing. I love the questions being posed for the panel discussions: What is shaping how you think about the planet’s future? How can we use the past to understand the future? What will our view of nature bring to the future? Who chooses our future and how? Then there are all the fascinating artist projects being showcased too.

Contributors hail from all over the world, which is brilliant to see. This is as it should be for a programme of events on climate change and the future but often isn’t the case.

I’m hoping to catch a couple of lunchtime events live but the early evening events are at an awkward time for me (dinner time and bedtime for our 4yo, not a time when I can get away with watching stuff on my computer when we’re all in the flat together). Luckily, there’s a weekend pass giving access to all the recordings from 9pm on Fri 5th March to 11pm Sun 7th March (GMT). Even so, I know I won’t get enough time over one weekend to catch as much of it as I want to.

New Suns: A Feminist Literary Festival

I just found out about the New Suns festival happening virtually at the Barbican this weekend, 5-7 March 2021. The whole weekend is dedicated to exploring the legacy of Octavia E. Butler’s science fiction, in particular the Earthseed series. It’s a clash with Forecast of course but the New Suns pass gives access to recordings until the end of the day on Tuesday 9th so I’m hoping to find enough hours to squeeze in both.

Events I definitely do not want to miss are: the screening of Donna Haraway: Story Telling for Earthly Survival, which I’ve wanted to watch for ages; the keynote talk ‘The Parables of Octavia Butler: adrienne maree brown in conversation with Ama Josephine Budge’ (adrienne maree brown’s book Pleasure Activism is on my want-to-read list); and the workshop on journaling/diary writing with London Review of Books.