FutureFest: Vinopolis, London – review
14-15 March, 2015
Edward Snowden, George Clinton, robots and a vibrant pan-African futurism give Louder Than War’s Paul Margree an unrivalled view of times to come at FutureFest 2015.
“I’ve seen the future, brother and it is …. murder,” crooned that worn poet of love and the apocalypse Leonard Cohen back in the 1990s but you’d have to be living in a cellar without internet access to realise that these sentiments still resonate in 2015.
Climate change, growing inequalities of wealth and opportunity, horrific conflicts, racial intolerance, misogyny seem to surround us every day. With the constant grim torrent showing no signs of letting up, it seems churlish to expect things to get better any time soon. From this angle, Laughing Len was right. The future looks truly murderous.
But what if there was another way, a way in which we could try to shape the future into something a bit more hopeful, rather than being passively moulded by it?
That’s the rationale of FutureFest, a weekend of fun and frolics organised by the UK innovation foundation NESTA that casts its runes on the London sand to see what the next few decades hold for humanity.
Taking place right next to hipster foodie mecca Borough Market, the mood is generally, one of bright-eyed optimism, combining technology and people power to imagine a better, shinier world. Imagine Steve Jobs reprogrammed as Tony Benn giving a whole load of TED talks in a swanky central London location.
Social justice plus gadgets – sounds brilliant, right? Right on.
If the inaugural FutureFest, held in September 2013, felt a bit like a bunch techies obsessing about first-world problems, this years’ event punched a lot harder, with politics and technology more closely intertwined.
The speakers were amazing, too – tech dissident Edward Snowden, addressing us via a Google hangout from a secret location in Moscow, and P-Funk galactic supremo George Clinton were the keynotes in a line-up packed full of thinkers, artists, academics and general geniuses. Brains the size of planets, all of ‘em. Over two days my mind was blown by an incredibly forward-thinking programme of talks, discussions, installations and performances that addressed the notion of ‘the future’ in just about any way you would care to imagine.
I was tickled by a blind robot (cheeky) and took a ride in a virtual rollercoaster powered by own brain waves (groovy). I heard author Jon Ronson talking about mass hysteria, internet style (scary) and Baroness Helena Kennedy, QC, calling eloquently for new forms of justice to address our globalised, technological world (thought provoking).
I saw wearable technology for manipulating loops and sounds in real-time to create a half-composed, half electronic soundscape (more Enya, less FKA Twigs, unfortunately). And I saw a performance of contemporary classical music that combined taste, touch and hearing in a single listening event (gimmicky but fun).
I tasted the cakes of the future (yum) and heard leftie firebrand Owen Jones and Birgitta Jonsdottir – who represents the Pirate Party in the Swedish Parliament as well as being a WikiLeaks volunteer and hacker – exploring new, more democratic ways for politics to happen (inspiring).
Saturday’s agenda was – pretty obviously – dominated by Snowden, whose talk was streamed live to the festival’s main hall and several other rooms, all of which were packed. Perhaps surprisingly, this was a calm, considered talk, with a deep concern for the rule of law and a nuanced understanding of the balance needed between freedom and surveillance.
Talking about mass surveillance by intelligence agencies, Snowden said governments such as the UK’s “weren’t worried about the public learning about these capabilities because it would hurt our abilities to follow terrorists, or because it would cost lives, but because it would cause a damaging public debate”.
So much for free speech eh? Snowden also poured cold water on the argument that comprehensive surveillance was required to protect the public against terrorist attacks. Two White House inquiries had reviewed a decade’s worth of mass surveillance, he said. “Despite intercepting the calls of everybody in the country – 330 million people – it had never stopped a terrorist attack.”
Terrorists are not the main target of mass surveillance. “These programmes are not public safety programmes,” he said. “They’re spying programmes.”
In many ways, Snowden’s reflections on creating surveillance-free spaces in which people and communities can be themselves echoed through many of the sessions at the festival. The electronic musician Matthew Herbert took this one step further, calling for the creation of a whole new country. Called simply Country X, it is a territory of the mind, “united by ideas, principles, and unlimited immigration and emigration”.
Herbert, who has created forward thinking electronic music that addresses arms dealing, the global food trade and environmental collapse while retaining sleek, hip-shaking grooves, seemed to me to be the perfect standard bearer for this new country. “Our responsibility is to use our imagination to reset our connections with each other,” he said.
Herbert’s talk linked Snowden’s political concerns neatly with another major theme running through the festival – that of future music. There was ongoing discussion across the two days around what music would sound like in the future and how it will be made.
To a certain extent, second guessing future music is a fool’s game. Louder Than War readers more than anyone know that movements like punk, hip-hop, grime, acid house bubble up unexpectedly from the margins, each arising from a unique set of social, economic, cultural and technological factors. The next big thing never comes from where you think it will.
Musicologist Adam Harper, author of Infinite Music, contributor to Fader magazine and the Electronic Beats website and curator of his own, fantastic, Rouge’s Foam blog, understands the perils implicit in futurology. In his survey of possible futures for music, he started by looking back to the dawn of time, with bone flutes from 40,000 years ago.
The flutes embodied two key principles of music, said Harper: music needs tools and technology to make, and it is an inherently social thing. People will carry on using technology to make music – even if it no longer has chords, or melodies or anything we currently understand music to be – and it will continue to bring people together.
Harper said that new musical forms will either be totally new and alien or a synthesis of things that have come before it. And where better to look for that synthesis of new musical forms than Africa, the world’s second largest and most populous continent, with more home grown forms than you could shake a stick at, not to mention its embrace of hip-hop, reggae and many more non-indigenous styles?
Would you expect to see Africa at a tech festival? If not you better check your privilege and strap yourself in. “The future is in Africa,” declared writer Geoff Ryman, before introducing us to a discussion which took the ground-breaking sci-fi collection Lagos 2060 as a starting point.
Critic Ore Disu, songwriter Bumi Thomas, and editor Ayodele Agribabu opened our minds with a run-down of the vibrant tech and social activism happening in that west African supercity, a vision of potential futures that was much more optimistic than the usual stories we hear about this sometimes troubled country.
I got a taste of this optimism in musical form on Sunday morning, with a performance by Nigerian-Scottish songwriter Bumi Thomas, playing in a trio with Gambian kora player Jally Kebba Susso and Nigerian experimental musician Helen Parker-Jayne Isibor (also known as the Venus Bushfires).
Playing a piece written by Thomas and specially commissioned for the festival, the group mixed modern neo-soul with shimmering ambient textures. Isibor’s Hang – a kind of Swedish kettle drum –created a bed of soft-hued drones for Thomas’s guitar and vocals, while the notes from Susso’s kora skipped across the surface of the piece like golden raindrops on a pond.
After the performance, Susso told me that he came from 75 generations of Griots, the west African musicians and storytellers who, in the past, were responsible for keeping an oral history of their tribes. But rather than letting that tradition weigh him down, Susso has set his own musical direction firmly forward. His own band plays hip-hop and reggae, he said, and he fixes up his kora with wah-wah pedal and other electronic treatments.
A brasher version of the future came crashing in on Sunday afternoon, with songwriter and rapper Spoek Mathambo’s survey of South African electronic music. Distilling the hectic, diverse network of cultures, styles and influences across the country was no easy task, but Mathambo had a good try, aided by extracts from his upcoming documentary, Future Sounds of Mzansi, (directed in partnership with filmmaker Lebo Rasethaba).
20 years of post-Apartheid democracy has given black South Africa an economic and social freedom to allow creativity to thrive, said Mathambo. He told us about a thriving, entrepreneurial DIY culture flourishing in the townships. Blocks with one PC shared between a hundred people. Wannabe producers with cracked versions of fruity loops and Ableton, create tracks and, using web services like Soundcloud, distribute them to a wider audience across the country.
Mathambo’s film ranged from artists like Soweto’s Nozinja of Shangaan Electro – signed to Warp and relatively well-known in the UK and Europe – through to lesser-known but rising artists like Johannesburg’s Aero Manyelo, DJ Mujva, Mash O, Jakob Snake, African Dope and Christian Tiger School. “Electronic music is part of our daily lives,” said Mathambo.”We party like our lives depend on it.”
George Clinton is an artist who could credibly claim to have created the afro-futurist vision which artists like Mathambo would extend, and it was Clinton who gave the final keynote of the festival. I say ‘keynote’, but in reality it was a marvellously bonkers Q&A with critic Kodwo Eshun.
Eshun has written evocatively about how Clinton’s bands, Funkadelic and Parliament, opened up a joyful, liberated imaginative space in the 1970s and 1980s. A place where racism, harassment, poverty and crime faded into insignificance, replaced by liberty, equality, opportunity and amazing music. One nation under a groove.
Unfortunately here Eshun was relegated to the role of straight man as Clinton embarked on a wonderfully meandering stream of left-field anecdotes and reminiscences , much to the audience’s (and Eshun’s) delight.
Describing the mongrel mix of rock, soul and disco that made up the distinctive sound of P-Funk, Clinton said: “We were black and proud at that point. So I took it to the next level. We called it Loud Motown!” There was much talk of Clinton’s famous sci-fi stage set. “I wanted to be bigger than everyone. Not just any black artist, but all the white artists too. That’s why I said: give me a spaceship!”
Clinton also punctured some of the myths around him as a creative visionary. “I got to tell you the truth: we were loaded!” was his response to one of Eshun’s probing questions about the P-Funk universe. “I’m here for the dope and pussy,” he continued. “When people start taking me seriously, like: ‘bring on the knowledge, brother’, I had to get out of there!“
Clinton’s talk – warm-hearted, hilarious, completely out-there – was the perfect way to end the festival. But as I shuffled out to catch my tube home on a chilly Sunday night, it was the present, not the future, the occupied my thoughts. Is there a danger we spend too much time looking forward? The next deadline, the next paycheque, the next holiday, the next technological development to improve our lives? Perhaps we risk missing what’s happening right now. In fact, one of the things that has continued to resonate for me in the days following FutureFest were Edward Snowden’s final words:
“One of the unexpectedly liberating things about becoming a global fugitive is you don’t worry so much about tomorrow, you worry about today. Unexpectedly, I like that very much.”
More highlights from FutureFest are available here.
Thanks to Richard Hind (@) for letting me use his fantastic sketch of Matthew Herbert.
Thanks also to John Doran, whose Fat White Family piece in August 2014 planted the initial seed for this article.