Utopia as a place, or a state of things, where perfection exists – no war, hunger, unhappiness – has been a dream of many for centuries for good and bad: Thomas More in his classic book (500 years old in 2016); the Romantics, who wanted to create a utopia in Pennsylvania; the twentieth-century political utopias that led to ruin and disaster….
But can a perfect world exist?
As part of the Bristol800 programme, we asked how do we create utopia in the twenty-first century? What can past examples of utopian thinking – in Bristol and elsewhere, in reality and on the screen – teach us about utopia now and for the future? Who decides what a good utopia might be? What can technology offer? Does the threat of climate change make new utopias possible?
To launch the Bristol800 Weekender – and the Festival of Ideas May season – we held a special evening of readings of newly commissioned poetry on the utopian theme on Friday 20 May in At-Bristol. It was hosted by historian and presenter David Olusoga and included an introduction by the recently elected Mayor of Bristol, Marvin Rees. The commissioned poets were: Fleur Adcock, Dean Atta, Helen Dunmore, Anna Hoghton, Matthew Hollis, Sarah Howe, Nick Laird, Tim Liardet, Andrew McMillan, Hollie McNish, Daljit Nagra, Ruth Padel, Jo Shapcott, Michael Symmons Roberts, and Jane Yeh.
You can listen to our two-part audio recording of the event in the Utopia Weekend playlist on SoundCloud. The photos below were taken on the night by Jon Craig. Transcripts of the poems (which in some cases were revised after the event) can be read and downloaded as a PDF HERE.
The following day there was a session on Coleridge’s iconic Romantic poem ‘Kubla Khan’, first published 200 years ago.
Also taking place on the Saturday were sessions held in association with Creating Real Utopias in the 21st Century, a series developed by the University of Bristol’s Anticipation Research Group (supported by the AHRC Connected Communities Programme, the University of Bristol Brigstow Institute and the Cabot Institute). The topics were utopian cities; climate utopias and dystopias; making utopias; sex robots and utopian fantasies; and creating utopia through play. On Sunday there was a session on imagining the future which included a special screening of Alexander Korda’s Things to Come (1936).
Audio recordings of these events are included in the Utopia Weekend playlist on SoundCloud.
In addition, this year’s Coleridge Lectures series has explored the utopian theme. The series began in 2015, inspired by Coleridge’s radical lectures in the city in the late eighteenth century. For 2016, the speakers were Ruth Levitas on the different meanings of the term ‘utopia’; Margaret Heffernan on feminist utopias; Sarah Churchwell on utopia and the American Dream; and David Aaronovitch on utopia and twentieth-century communism. Audio recordings of the lectures – with the exception of the one given by Margaret Heffernan – are available in the Coleridge Lectures playlist on SoundCloud.
The specially commissioned image of Utopia used to promote this series of events is by Cai Burton.