Every year, the Elevate festival recognises organisations and individuals who have done outstanding work in the struggle against alienation, selfishness and capital; in the struggle to liberate creativity and compassion in the name of humanity and the planet.
The Artivism Award supports creative projects as ambidextrous as Elevate, projects that use the left and right hand, both art and activism, in concert. Meanwhile, the Steiermark Award and the International Award honour the festival’s local heart and global vision.
The €1500 prize money is as welcome to the winners as the publicity granted by the Elevate stage is to all nominees.
Nominations for the Artivism Award included Hypertopia, an ambitious city planning project, NANK Wien, a revolutionary shoe factory, openArtist, a piece of open source universal creative software, and Reni Hofmuller, a musician who took the opportunity to recognise the refugee protest camp here in Graz.
Hassan, a Syrian living in the protest camp, delivered an impassioned speech to the Dom, describing his journey to Europe like “ashes blowing in the wind, while our wives and children are still in the land of death”.
The winner of the Artivism Award was Manu Luksch, an artist who studies Big Brother and the constant surveillance of CCTV cameras.
Festival chocolatier, Josef Zotter, was on stage to present the Steiermark Award and once again the breadth of local activism was an inspiration, showing that not all action must be grand in order to be revolutionary.
A food cooperative, a network for regional self-sufficiency, a homely social centre and a group dedicated to the promotion of digital data encryption were all recognised on stage with interviews and presentations. But the winners were AllerLEIHLaden, a social club based in Graz where people can swap and gift their unused objects that would otherwise collect dust.
Given this year’s Elevate theme, creative response, it is fitting that the International Award celebrated a very immediate response to perhaps the greatest political and social challenge facing European citizens today: migration.
The White Helmets are a group in Syria who respond to rescue survivors from bombed out buildings. So far, over 70000 people have been saved by their fast reactions. On stage in Austria is a video screen and on the video screen is Mohammed, the scars of war clearly marked on his face, to accept the award on behalf of the White Helmets.
“Thank you to the Austrian people and I know that you support us from your heart,” Mohammed says. “I’m so happy to feel somebody behind us.” Mohammed himself had been seriously injured and then rescued from a collapsed building before he joined the White Helmets to help others. “I should help the people because we are all human, we must help each other,” he says.
The work is not easy, of course, and the rescue missions themselves have recently been targeted by bombing. “Thank you to the people who support us,” Mohammed says. “I will make sure that the money will be for injured people and for the situation.” Applause echoes around the Dom in standing ovation.
Vandana Shiva, a bolt of colour in the darkness of the cave, picks up the threads of the Syrian story. In 2009, there was a drought in Syria, a particular tragedy in the fertile crescent where agriculture first took root. Following this drought, one million farmers were displaced. This was the first wave of refugees, forced to the cities, where they were met with violence instead of justice.
Vandana sees the parallels with the 1984 agricultural crisis in the Punjab. In the same year as the Bhopal disaster that killed 3000 people after a pesticide factory leak, Punjabi farmers protested the use of chemicals that was destroying their agriculture, just like it would destroy Syria. The protests descended into violence and the violence was recast as religious conflict: “No more about land and water, no more about farmers’ livelihoods,” Vandana says. “And exactly the same thing has happened now.”
“My own history goes back to my own mother being made a refugee by India and Pakistan being chopped up along religious lines in 1947,” Vandana explains. “A world order which is based on grabbing the last drop of water, the last inch of land and the last seed can only create refugees.”
“We’ve got a twisted mindset that labour and land are inputs into an economic process,” Vandana says. “Land is the earth, she’s not an output; she supports all life. Humans are not just labour; we are bursting with creativity, as the Elevate festival so deeply celebrates.”
But Vandana assures us that there is a way out of this economic process. “If only we align our energies and our intelligence and our hearts with the amazing creativity of nature, and, instead of seeing ourselves as conquerors and masters, we start to see ourselves as co-creators and co-producers, there is limitless abundance.”
In order to reach this abundance, however, we must come together. “As fear becomes the currency for winning the next elections, let’s hold our hands together, let our hearts touch the earth and say we will not be conquered through fear, hate and insecurity.”
Vandana shares, as she did last year, her favourite quote from Gandhi: “The earth has enough for everyone’s needs, but not for a few people’s greed.”