Elevate Creative Response: Opening Speech

“My speech was going to be very simple,” Antonino D’Ambrosio says with leather jacket Italian-American charm. “The Elevate festival is creative response, thank you.” He takes a step back off stage and smiles.

Antonino steps back, more serious. “I’d like to acknowledge the refugees who were on stage,” he adds. “Please give them a round of applause.” The applause rises again for migrants who are fighting for compassionate and humane treatment in Austria and around the EU.

 The Elevate organisers used their opening show to give a louder voice to migrant protesters who have set up a permanent camp near the police station in Graz. That voice is broadcast live on Austrian television and videostream online around the world. They’d been welcomed to the stage with the biggest round of applause of the Elevate opening night.

The refugees gave a simple speech also: “We are not from Iraq or Syria, we are just humans like you,” a young man called Hussain says. “Many of us want to serve this country as a thank you for putting us in a safe place. We can do something for this country, but we are unable under the current conditions. Please help us. We are humans, just like you.”

Back to Antonino: “This is a point that makes me fucking very angry, being an immigrant kid from the United States and seeing what’s happening.” He echoes Hussain’s words. “There are only one people. When you’re creating situations through wars of aggression in pursuit of expanding a dying economic system and watching countries like Greece collapse, you’re affecting your own people.”

For Antonino, this idea is deeply embedded in the concept of creative response, and the Elevate Festival embodies the concept perfectly: “Ideas that turn into action, actions that bring people together, [helping] people to think differently about the world around them, to remember that we are indeed one people.”

“Creative response is about reminding people that we share the human condition,” Antonino says. “And that requires storytelling.”

 Antonino developed his concept of creative response as a counter to the Reagan and Thatcher ideology that was dominant when he was growing up – and that has been successful to a great degree in fostering today’s political and social cynicism, the idea that “society” does not exist, that compassion is a form of weakness and that self-centred consumerism is selfless.

But Reagan and Thatcher were wrong. Compassion is not weakness; compassion is central to the human condition, central to the cooperation, coexistence and communication of families, which are the founding blocks of a society that does exist.

“Don’t fight back, fight forward,” Antonino urges us. Creative response stakes out what we are for, not what are we against. Antonino uses storytelling to look back at the past, understand the present and, in the words of punk demigods The Clash, “grab the future by the face”. This leads us to the overwhelming question: “What kind of a world do you want to live in?”

That question raises a discussion over “the possible”. Slavoj Zizek, the Slovenian philosopher, notes that, in the United States, flying to or even colonising the moon is talked about as being “possible”, but decent healthcare for all or eliminating poverty is not “possible”. Here, creative response has the power to change our definitions or ideas of what is possible.

“Before I step off the stage, I want to ask you a question that Ai Weiwei had asked me: Imagine one day that the hateful world around you collapses and it is your attitude, your words and your actions that put an end to it – would you be excited?”

“This is our challenge, our creative response, our big vision of the world. Not I, not you, not them, but we. A dream that we dream together is reality. We are creative response. We own the future.”

We stand, raise our hands above our heads, join them with our neighbours. We are creative response. We own the future.

Elevate Outroduction

This is the last in a daily series of articles taken from Elevate #10. I hope you have enjoyed reading as much as we enjoyed being there!

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Words beget worlds. From “consumer” to “citizen”, the words we use and the stories we tell do create the world we live in today and the not yet worlds we can imagine for our future.

For all our technological advances since the invention of writing in ancient Sumer, we cannot yet experience life exactly as another experiences it; we must use words to share our stories. In order to receive each other’s stories clearly, we must practice empathy. From empathy comes solidarity and from solidarity comes community, resistance and change.

Politics is a story. When politicians tell us stories about immigration, immigration wins elections. When politicians tell us stories about hope, hope wins elections. Economics is a story. When economists tell us stories about consumerism, we become consumers. When economists tell us stories about cooperation, we become citizens.

Surveillance is also a story, extracted from us without our permission, and told back to us in ways that change our behaviour. The corporate media tell us stories of fear and tragedy; advertisers tell us stories of luxury and anxiety. We hear thousands of stories every day and it’s hard to know which to believe when those with the most money get to shout their stories loudest.

The Elevate Festival is a festival of storytelling that gives voice to the quiet stories. This book is amplification. I hope you have, within these pages, heard fascinating, shocking and inspirational stories. I hope that, like me, you feel stronger for having heard them and are ready now to act by sharing your story with the rest of us.

We must hold onto our right to share our stories directly with each other; we should not have our stories mediated through third parties who try to control and profit from them. Our stories are not the sum of our data and our stories are not theirs to sell, they are ours to tell.

Whatever your message, whatever your medium, have a creative-response. Share your story because, ultimately, life isn’t about survival; it’s about sharing.

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Thank you for reading – I hope you found something here that was enlightening and inspirational. If you did, let me know!

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This header image is beautiful.

The 2014 Elevate Awards

This is the twenty-seventh in a daily series of articles taken from Elevate #10. I hope you enjoy the read – and come back tomorrow for more!

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The Elevate Awards shine a light on people and projects that cultivate a more sustainable, innovative and just planet. Goaded on by our host Herr Hermes and watched by the crowd in the Dom Im Berg and on Elevate’s live media channel, the award nominees have the chance to share their work. The winners also take home two thousand five hundred Euro in prize money to elevate their work to the next level.

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There are three awards to be handed out tonight. The International Award is given to projects based outside Graz, the Artivism Award to artistic groups with a message, while the Steiermark Award is presented to projects from the local region of Styria.

The International Award garnered twenty-four nominations from across the world, from Latin America to South Africa, and on global issues ranging from the environment to human rights. Ksenia Ermoshina, the jury representative presenting the award, made special mention of the fourth placed nomination: the solidarity letter for the liberation of Josef S, a German student who was arrested for participating in an anti-fascist demonstration. “Everyone could be Josef S tomorrow,” she says. “As a Russian,” she adds, “human rights are being oppressed everywhere – and the western world is not an exception.”

The international jury came to unanimous decisions on the top two nominees for the award. Both were projects concerned with internet privacy. “Maybe we’re all paranoid on the jury,” Ksenia jokes, “but we do think that, for all of the twenty-four other projects, encryption, privacy and security are needed.” Second place went to riseup.net, which provides secure communication for activists. “This platform helped me and my friends when we were fighting against Putin’s regime in Russia,” Ksenia says, “and helped a lot of people all over the world.”

But the winner of the 2014 Elevate International Award is Cryptocat, an encrypted internet chat application. “I think it’s a great choice,” Ksenia explains, “because their initiative is about making privacy accessible and easy for everyone – even if you don’t think you’re a radical activist.”

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Nadim Kobeissi, the founder of Cryptocat, comes on stage to accept his gold painted statue and oversized cheque. “I’m sorry, I don’t speak German,” he says. “I think I know how to say, Ich liebe dich.” The audience laughs. “Am I supposed to say a few words?” he asks Ksenia. “Encrypted please,” she replies. Nadim laughs. “Do you all have your AES encryptors ready?” Bafflement creeps over the crowd. “I don’t know if anyone got that joke,” he adds. Then we laugh.

Nadim explains the ethos of Cryptocat. “I’ve never appreciated that some people took something and tried to make it more complicated instead of simpler,” he says, echoing the Van Jones quote from Let Fury Have The Hour. “There’s a lot of elitism in technology and that’s always bothered me,” he adds. Nadim started developing Cryptocat in college.

Nadim wasn’t even studying computer science, so relied heavily on the open source community. “They were the people who pointed out better ways to do encryption, security problems and ways to make Cryptocat more secure,” he says. Nadim feels this collaboration, community and mutual respect was and remains the most important aspect of the project. “If we deal with each other and the world honestly and transparently,” he says, “this is what ends up benefiting us and benefiting the public.”

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Everywhere I look now, I’m seeing creative-response, no less in the code of Cryptocat than in the nominees for the Artivism Award: from a photographic exploration of the housing conditions for asylum seekers in Tirol to a theatrical extravaganza called Sorry, we’re fucked – YOU are the climate catastrophe!. The winners were decided by a public vote on Austrian national radio FM4, involving more than two thousand three hundred people.

That vote chose a group called Partycipation, who, through their camps and festivals in Lower Austria, encourage community and lively exchange on an intellectual and practical level. They bound on stage to give us a demonstration that involves a song about how “the fishes are going to love me more than you ever done” and a drawing of dancers with broken hearts skipping hand in hand across an ocean. Julian Leutgeb explains that Partycipation are trying to show how art can be meaningful and fun.

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The Steiermark Award, organised in cooperation with the local Kleine Zeitung newspaper and regional broadcaster ORF Steiermark, attracted twenty-seven local projects. After the counting of over one thousand five hundred public votes, the winners were Kama Graz, an organisation that flips the usual educational experience of asylum seekers on its head.

Instead of forcing them to attend German classes and classes in Austrian law and culture, Kama Graz provides the opportunity for migrants to use their talents to become teachers. In Austria, as in the UK, asylum seekers are forbidden from working throughout the long years their case is considered by the authorities. Teaching these classes gives them an opportunity to use their skills and to participate in society. The classes are also the perfect setting for exchanges between asylum seekers and local residents in Graz, over an African cookery class or a lesson in martial arts. Creative-response begets creative-response.

Hermes throws in one last gag before closing Elevate 2014. “I’ve heard I’m booked until 2024,” he says, “so the festival will continue!” He bows low, the lights play over the applause, and Elevate is over.

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***

As for me, after four days of discussions, deliberations and dancing, I am a stronger person than I was before. I am stronger because I know I am not alone in believing that a more commonistic, connected and creative world is possible. In fact, thanks to Elevate, I don’t have to only believe; that world is already here, waiting for me to join.

In a post-party human circle, thirty or forty of the organisers, producers, artists, activists, technicians and musicians who make Elevate elevate, raise shots of Zirbenschnaps to the only toast we’ll ever need:

“Ich liebe dich!”

Thank you for reading – I hope you found something here that was enlightening and inspirational. Come back tomorrow from 8am for more from Elevate #10.

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Elevate Awards Show 2014 from Elevate Festival on Vimeo.

The header image is a free cultural work under Creative Commons, author unknown. Thank you!

Amy Goodman: The Journalist Connection

This is the twenty-sixth in a daily series of articles taken from Elevate #10. I hope you enjoy the read – and come back tomorrow for more!

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Amy Goodman, host of the independent daily news show Democracy Now!, has been working to change the dominant narrative of capitalist media for three decades. “In independent media,” she says, “we have to tell the story as it’s happening and we have to de-construct the story being told in the rest of the media.”

The success of Democracy Now! proves that there is a mainstream appetite for alternative narratives, but the programme is almost unique, eschewing advertising dollars and funded entirely by its listeners and viewers. Corporate or government-sponsored media will always have the bigger resources to dominate the airwaves. And, as we all know, the first rule of journalism is: Whoever pays the most gets to tell the story.

Strangely, Amy believes that journalism should be something else. “Go to the person closest to the story and let them speak for themselves.” She calls this the first basic tenet of good journalism. “If they can’t speak,” she continues, “if they’re disappeared or if they’ve been imprisoned, if they’re afraid for their life or their livelihood or their family, tell their stories until they can tell their own.” It sounds straightforward enough, but doesn’t seem to be followed on most corporate or state media, which Amy claims are dominated by “a small circle of pundits, who know so little about so much, explaining the world to us and getting it so wrong”.

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One example of the mainstream media’s incompetence in representing the people’s narratives, was their response to the Occupy movement. “The corporate media would often mock the Occupy movement,” Amy says. “Most of corporate media ignored Occupy for a week. There was even a segment on CNN about Occupy called Seriously?!”, which mocked the movement for the crime of trying to connect crises.

The people could see a narrative that was not permitted by the corporate media or by the government: the connections between Troy Davis, climate change and the treatment of military veterans; the connection between the war at home and the war abroad. “These issues are all connected,” Amy says, adding that, despite not being taken seriously by the media, “it’s not the weakness of movements to show these connections.”

The truth is that the government and the corporate media were afraid of Occupy. And, regardless of the frequent accusations that the occupations didn’t change anything, they are still afraid. Occupy gave us a new vocabulary of resistance; if you talk about “the ninety-nine percent” or “the one percent” today, everybody knows what you’re talking about. “They occupied the language,” Amy says with obvious pride.

We know that corporate media and governments are still afraid because the response of the one is still ridicule and the response of the other is still militarisation. The 2011 riots in the UK were almost exclusively characterised as the work of a criminalised underclass, rather than as a consequence of the shooting of a black man by the police or as a reaction to rising inequality and a government that is in it for themselves.

In the US, the killing of an unarmed eighteen year old African-American, Michael Brown, in Ferguson, Missouri, by a white police officer triggered popular peaceful protests. The protests were met by tanks, automatic weapons and tear gas. The officer who killed Michael will not be prosecuted.

According to Amy, the corporate media have been conveyors of lies to protect the push for war. The mainstream media, she says, has been “for the state”, instead of “the fourth estate”; disabling journalism’s important social function of helping hold government to account for their actions.

Given this sorry state of affairs, the role of independent media like Democracy Now! is more important than ever. “We go to where the silence is and say something,” Amy says. “We’re there to bear witness.” She still believes in the power of journalism. “When you hear someone tell their story,” she says, “you don’t have to agree with them, but it’s the starting point for understanding and that’s the starting point to peace.”

So when Amy says that journalism has the capacity to be the greatest force for peace in the world, I believe her. Stories are our way of sharing different points of view with each other, helping us build empathy. And I like to think that, if you feel empathy for someone, you won’t then go and shoot them in the head.

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Amy’s faith in journalism comes directly from the power of the grass-roots voices she airs on Democracy Now! She refuses to believe that people are apathetic, despite demoralising statistics like low voter turn-out. “I thought they were civically engaged,” she says, “but just perhaps in different ways, thinking that their vote might not make a difference.”

For the last nineteen years, she has dedicated herself to finding those alternative stories of engagement that aren’t often heard on corporate media. Amy describes these grass-roots voices, concerned with war and peace, inequality and injustice, as “not a fringe minority, not even a silent majority, but a silenced majority”. For Amy, this majority are silenced by the corporate media, who ridicule and scorn them, or refuse to tell their stories.

The government silences voices in an even more literal way. “Obama’s prosecuted more whistle blowers than any other administration,” Amy says. In the aftermath of the Edward Snowden leaks, government seems to be attacking even well-known journalists who try to protect their sources.

“When Glenn Greenwald came back,” she continues, “he said that, when populations feel they’re being surveilled, they become less creative and more sheepish.” For Amy, the fight against surveillance is bigger than all of us. “We have to fight back against the fear,” she says. “It’s where creativity is, it’s where Elevate is: it’s people conspiring together.”

Amy settles back with a half smile on her face. “Which is why we have to take the media back. You’re the me in media.”

Thank you for reading – I hope you found something here that was enlightening and inspirational. Come back tomorrow from 8am for more from Elevate #10.

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Everything is Connected >> Elevate Festival 2014 from Elevate Festival on Vimeo.

Interview: Amy Goodman – Elevate Festival 2014 from Elevate Festival on Vimeo.

Header image © Lia Rädler

Dean Puckett & Sengwer: Conservation vs Communities

This is the twenty-fifth in a daily series of articles taken from Elevate #10. I hope you enjoy the read – and come back tomorrow for more!

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Dean Puckett is a film-maker from the UK. His films Crisis of Civilisation (based on the book by Nafeez Ahmed) and Grasp the Nettle are Elevate favourites; you can see his promo stickers all over Forum Stadtpark and in the most unexpected of public toilets.

He is currently working on two documentary films, one set amid house demolitions in the Kenyan mountain jungle and another set in a volunteer-run radio station in Totnes, Devon. They might sound very different, but they are bound together by Dean’s driving fascination: communities. “I’m fascinated by how human beings function in small communities,” Dean says. “It’s kind of anthropological,” he adds. “People open up to me. I remember, as a kid, people would just come up to my mum at the bus stop and open up to her. I’ve inherited that.”

I ask Dean how he sees his work in the context of Antonino D’Ambrosio’s concept of creative-response. “Any art is creative-response,” Dean says. “It doesn’t have to be political, but with the Sengwer, there’s a fundamental injustice that I’ve been attracted to.” The Sengwer are a Kenyan tribe whose ancestral lands have been demarcated as national park by the Kenyan government, in a programme funded by the World Bank. Dean is filming the resistance to what has become a brutal campaign to evict the Sengwer from their homes.

Sengwer man

Grasp the Nettle (embedded at the bottom of the page) is another politically-charged film, about an environmental activist community in London. Dean lived and worked alongside the activists as they occupied a stretch of waste ground in Kew and followed them to a three month occupation of Parliament Square. There is one key difference between the Kew occupiers and the Sengwer in Kenya, however. While those at Kew chose their struggle, the Sengwer have had their direct action forced upon them; their houses are being burnt to the ground.

What draws Dean to make these kind of activist films? “I do get addicted to those kind of things. I’ve always felt like a total outsider myself,” he says. “It’s like a force of nature,” he adds. “I’m not thinking, I want to be a film-maker, I just feel utterly compelled to make these films.” The fact that film is the medium through which he tells these stories appears to be entirely coincidental. “I always wanted to be creative,” he says. “My career as a film-maker has risen hand-in-hand with the tools of my generation: digital cameras, YouTube. It was just the thing that I got into.”

Dean is keen to stress that his films aren’t “black-and-white” campaign films. “There’s quite a lot of humour in my work,” he says. “I’m attracted to the absurd, even with the Sengwer.” Despite the ongoing destruction of their way of life by the Kenyan Forest Service (KFS), Dean does not want to gloss the Sengwer as the one-dimensional miserable victims you often see portrayed in emotional campaign films.

Embobut Forest

“There’s a gallows humour there too,” Dean says. “One minute they’re talking about getting arrested and their house getting burnt down and the next minute they’re joking about their co-wife.” It’s these contrasting moments that capture reality in full colour. “Nothing’s black and white,” Dean says. “There’s often humour side-by-side with tragedy.” He doesn’t want to ignore those elements of life, which would limit the scope of his films. “You can either do a campaign film about the Sengwer,” he says, “or you can do a film about the life of the Sengwer.”

I appreciate his nuance. I feel betrayed when I see a one-sided film that doesn’t concede areas of grey; it makes me distrust the premise, no matter how well-intentioned. “I think that’s my strength as a film-maker,” Dean says. “I embed myself in the community and allow the grey areas to come out.”

It’s exactly the same approach he took with Grasp the Nettle, which shows every aspect of activist life, from the everyday struggles of cooking and cleaning to the more extraordinary struggles with accidental arson and a self-proclaimed messiah. “It’s about what it’s really like to live in an activist camp,” Dean says. “I do agree with the anti-war message, but I didn’t want to make a campaign film.”

Dean feels the same about his work with the Sengwer. He does believe that his film can make a difference – he has recently been contacted by officials from the World Bank and believes that pressure can be brought to bear on them – but that isn’t the limit of his scope. He wants to show us the Sengwer’s way of life in all its richness and complexity. “What some NGO films do is give you a warped view of Africa,” he says. “I understand it’s sometimes appropriate, but if you’re going to make a film about a community, then people should find out how they really are.”

Sengwer man and boy

Dean remembers shooting one beautiful scene of a group of women sitting around in a hut, chatting. When his interpreter translated the conversation later, he discovered they’d been talking about how they thought Dean should give them money for the filming, while another person off-camera berated them for such an idea. “The world on the one hand is a dark place,” Dean says, “and these funny moments can really bring things down to earth.” He quickly adds that this kind of cynical conversation was a rarity. “The Sengwer are a wonderful, warm people,” he says. “It’s surreal,” he adds. “You’re in this misty forest, up on a mountain, and people are having their homes burnt down, but you’re enjoying being around these warm people.”

Dean found the same thing when he went to support around four hundred travellers who were to be evicted by riot cops from Dale Farm in Essex. “On the one hand, they’re about to have their homes destroyed,” he says, “but on the other hand they’re cracking jokes.” This is another common thread to Dean’s films: communities under siege. Grasp the Nettle was a film about a community under siege by police, by the government and, eventually, by themselves as well. “It’s about the human spirit,” Dean says, “to laugh even when the worst things are happening.”

Dean’s words remind me of a fundamental flaw in the capitalistic ideology of more, more, more: we humans have only a limited range of feeling. While more might be more for capital, more isn’t more for us. You can always add five pounds to the bank balance of a billionaire, but you can never add five “pleasure points” to the happiness balance of a boy bouncing around on a trampoline. The human scales of happiness, pain, pleasure, fear, suffering, love and joy are finite.

This explains why you can neither measure nor compare the joy of staring into the eyes of your newborn baby niece with the joy of sharing a lingering kiss with a lover or a gasp of fresh air after being sucked under by an ocean wave. It also explains the absolutism of our emotions; how, whenever the worst thing imaginable happens, it feels no worse than it did when you got fired from a job you loved, when your teenage crush ditched you or when you lost your favourite blankie as a kid. Prisoners on death row are as happy as lottery winners.

Understanding the finite nature of our emotions explains otherwise difficult questions: How can disabled people be happy? How come billionaires get depression? How could I ever come to terms with the death of my grandmother? The answer is simply because there is no profit and loss account of emotions, there is no capitalism-style more, more, more.

The moral consequence of this realisation is not that we should leave the Sengwer – or anyone else – to find the light moments in the darkness of their suffering. The daily hardships of their persecution has a chronic damaging effect on their happiness that no one deserves.

Dean illustrates this with a story about two Sengwer women he met, who had just been released after being arrested by the Kenyan Forest Service. To escape, the women had to tell the KFS that they didn’t live on the land, but were just passing through. As they were “just passing through”, the KFS decided that the women wouldn’t need the bags of flour that they had carried all the way over the mountain. They slit the bags with knives and poured the flour out onto the floor. The two women passed the incident off with a laugh, but faced the prospect of a night away from home and a week without flour.

Sengwer woman

No. The moral consequence of the finite nature of our emotions is that we should support each other, not in our pursuit of more, more, more, but in our pursuit of enough. The Sengwer are having their enough, their homes, their livelihoods, taken away from them by people who are pursuing more, more, more. The same is true, on a broader scale, across the entire continent of Africa, where western corporations extract natural resources for profits that rarely return to their country of origin.

The question we need to ask ourselves is why do we subject ourselves to capitalism’s addiction for more, more, more, when we humans fundamentally can’t process more, more, more? We have nothing to gain in going after more precious metals or more money or more slaves; we have enough. Ultimately, happiness is not gold, frankincense and more, but a blood red sunset, a dive into a cold river or an apple straight from the tree. We have no more need of more; happiness is enough and there is enough enough for all on earth.

Thank you for reading – I hope you found something here that was enlightening and inspirational. Come back tomorrow from 8am for more from Elevate #10.

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(Yes, that is the same Simon in Grasp the Nettle who inspired me to write about why we need people who go on crazy, stupid and arduous adventures!)

All photographs © Dean Puckett, taken from the Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign for his film Sengwer.