Social justice and the arts

A review and response to Dartington’s social justice festival

“Are we disposable to each other?” So asked a collaborative art project greeting visitors to this past weekend’s ‘Interrogate! Festival’, billed as the UK’s first festival of social justice. Held at Dartington Hall just outside the town of Totnes, ‘Interrogate!’ brought together two of Dartington’s core projects – the arts and social justice – in an interactive exploration of the many facets of social justice in the UK and around the world.

The very idea of a festival of social justice is a rather unique one. Festivals are generally gatherings of celebration and creative expression – but how do you celebrate issues like income inequality, crime and punishment, poverty and hunger, protest and power?

Participants graphed their personal wellbeing, as measured by overall satisfaction, emotional health, physical health, and social support

The grounds and halls of Dartington’s 14th century estate played host to a wide variety of music, poetry, comedy, debate, art, dance, and film performances, all of them highly interactive. Indeed, the many avenues of expression and discussion which these activities introduced allowed for a much deeper and imaginative approach to issues so often considered with either cold rationalism or raw emotion. Through poetry and dance, music and participatory art, lecture and debate, visitors were challenged to examine their own assumptions about these issues and come together in rethinking solutions.

That said, the festival, in its first year, drew a somewhat socially homogeneous crowd. Saturday saw roughly 400-500 participants from the local community as well as London and other parts of the UK, though it was largely white and middle/upper class. Many of the performers, who often intimately engaged with the crowd both onstage and off, provided a much needed alternative perspective on issues, representing cultures from Nigeria, Ethiopia, India, and across Europe.

Troy Davis compared to the total number of prisoners in the world (background), with each grain of rice representing one person

Some of the more provocative and thoughtful performances included a searing look at violence and incarceration in Jean Abreu’s dance performance Inside, poetry and spoken word on the themes of protest and inequality by Phrased and Confused, and a shocking presentation of global inequality represented visually in grains of rice. Workshops on offer also included protest song writing, creative writing, and a community clothes and treasure swap.

Art, as a medium of political and social engagement, creates the space necessary to deal with injustice and inequality in a personal way. Given the global scale of the issues, it’s often easy to be overwhelmed and dis-empowered when confronted with inequality on an intellectually and quantitative level. However, it seemed that freeing discussion from the realm of the purely rational and numerical allowed participants to engage on a deeper level, turning the act of interpretation and reflection back on the audience and beyond the domain of “experts” and academics.

The impact of this festival was limited, however, by at least one significant absence: the role of ecology (or sustainability, to give an over-used word). Particularly since Dartington’s ethos is expressed in three main initiatives – arts, social justice, and sustainability – I found the lack of any ecological discussion to be a hugely missed opportunity. Given how inextricably interconnected our world is today, continuing to look at these issues in boxes – ‘social justice’, ‘the environment’, ‘the economy’ – as distinct from one another gives an incomplete and ultimately insufficient understanding of the dynamics at play. We can no longer afford to address issues of income inequality without understanding ecological devastation, just as we cannot expect to deal with environmental collapse without understanding the social, political, economic, and spiritual impacts.

Is it possible to free 1 billion people from absolute poverty on the limited and already overstretched resources provided by our planet? How are consumption and materialist values undermining ‘rich’ societies by casting millions into relative poverty? Can we save humanity without saving the earth?

Dartington, as a center of experimentation and innovation, is uniquely positioned to bring all of these issues together in a creative and enlightening way. I hope they are able to the broaden the scope, and thus the relevance, of future festivals. True progress on these issues depends on it.

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