Recap of the opening night

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This summit is not about party politics and the usual, 24-hour news cycle. It’s about radical change. It is not just an opportunity to complain collectively – therapeutic as this might be – but to develop principles of public intervention that can touch the hearts and minds of people far beyond the rooms we are working in. “We are not insular and privileged,” as Dominique Willaert, artistic director of Victoria Deluxe, put it in his remarks last night, “we are here for all Europeans who wake up each day to make their wage.”

Thursday’s opening session took place in the shadow of an enormous blue and gold-starred flag, embossed with the words ‘Europe, it can be different’. This was no gimmick. It was a living artefact produced as an action in Ghent, in a statement against inhumane migration policies. Its presentation here in Ghent, among other things, is a symbol of this city’s contemporary reality, and its opposition to a new resurgent nationalism which is gaining ground across the continent. The flag’s presence here is also an invitation. Because if Europe can be revitalised this will not be achieved by distant, far off forces, but by our own participation. “Our work is almost done”, as Willaert put, “it is up to you to have a good alternative summit.”  

Ana Cecilia Dinerstein, the activist and academic whose book provided the festival with its name, also embraced this sentiment, and delved deeper into the core of why we’re all here. ‘The Art of Organising Hope’… it’s a seductive phrase, I think we can agree. But what does it mean, really? “We’ve been told we can’t do anything about anything,” she clarified, “this has created hopelessness and hopelessness is socially constructed. Neoliberalism requires that construction in order to induce its discourse of pain and sacrifice because there will be no future. For me the art of organising hope is about reaching out to our potential as people. It might sound naive but the first thing we have to do is to contest fear. The people who spread it don’t even have anything to promise. They don’t even have powerful lies to turn to!”

The task now, for active citizens across the world, is to deconstruct the false premises of both neoliberalism and nationalism, to reject the hollow core of these projects and work towards something that is both better, and more convincing. From the Zapatistas to the global justice movement, the ongoing struggle of increasingly precarious European citizens alongside undocumented migrants, there is a living, breathing legacy and reality of struggle. For us today, in Dinerstein’s formulation, and I’m sure many attending, the real, complex, challenge is to find the language for a “hope-based, response to capitalism, patriarchy and colonialism”. The programme for the next days was conceived with such a principle in mind. There are sessions on public ownership, the commons and the right to the city, on race, gender, sexuality and class, art and activism, on participation and social movements. Just as importantly, however, is the cross fertilisation of ideas across the sessions. “We are not here because we are optimistic people living in La-La Land”, reflected Dinerstein, “we are anticipating and building utopia.”

Doing this will require mutual learning. Last night’s hip hop performance by A Velha Capital, which saw Juliano CT use rap to cast aside the bigotries of a tired worldview, was a challenge to apathy and inaction. It was a celebration of art as one of the most powerful tools we have to transform the world. The poetry of Luciana Carmo, in a similar vein, brought the intimate, usually private energy of individual emotion, into the foreground as a point of transformation for all of us. While these two performances were inspirational, they were not just spectacles to be consumed. All of us here have brought with us to Ghent a ‘square meter of hope’ – an object, an idea, an experience, that unites personal and collective ideas of hope. The next four days are a unique opportunity to dive deeper into these stories, a chance to share and perhaps re-think them. The challenge is nothing less than to defy the darkness of our age, and make utopia – “too often a fantasy concept”, as Dinerstein concluded – into something concrete, and forward-looking. A part, in other words, of our everyday lives. (JM)


Photo by Joe Lampasa.