Laughing at the establishment
What do Vivienne Westwood, the godmother of punk fashion, and fugitive whistle-blower Edward Snowden have in common? The highlight of the Futurefest in London in March was the appearances of the two celebrities. One appeared live on stage, while the other was somewhere in Moscow and appeared via Google Hangout.
The septuagenarian dame asked Snowden a question that a child might ask: whether he was a traitor to America. Snowden seemed like a typical middle-class guy, but his eyes were sparkling behind his spectacles. He argued that what he did was very American, and the infringement of personal privacy rights by the National Security Agency’s surveillance system is illegal thanks to Article 4 and 5 of the Constitution of the United States.
Westwood made her name with provocative fashion and now she is a global warming activist. Snowden, living in exile in Russia, said he did what he had to do. By exposing illegal surveillance by the U.S. government, he accomplished his mission of asking Americans - and people around the world - what kind of government they want to choose. The audience applauded Snowden.
Futurefest is an event organized by the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts, or NESTA. Discussions, speeches, exhibitions and performances are presented, and they reflect an interesting approach to the future by the British. Unlike the United States, which focuses on technology and markets, the UK is concerned about the social consensus process, the future of capitalism, culture, the arts and humanity.
The idea goes to the roots of democracy, which believes that the future is created by a diverse understanding among different people, through a competition among ideas. Musician George Clinton, author and television show host Jon Ronson, the head of Oxford University’s Mansfield College Helena Kennedy and many more philosophers, scholars, creators and innovators pleased the audience with their insights and humor. The idea of the “economy of sharing,” which originated in the United States and is exemplified by ride-sharing service Uber, was criticized for not representing sharing but just another profit grab. But Michel Bauwens, activist and founder of the Foundation for Peer to Peer Alternatives, garnered much support for his lifelong pursuit of a true sharing economy rooted in symbiosis.
The cynical British sense of humor made exhibitions and performances quite interesting. What attracted our attention most was “Neurosis,” a virtual reality ride in which the brain activities of the rider created music and 3D visuals before the audience. As the title suggests, the audience can watch the brain activities of the riders on screen as he or she is trapped in a fast-shaking chair while listening to unbelievably loud, hypnotizing music and watching incredible space warp images. If this is the entertainment of the future, are we glad to welcome the future? That’s a future where everything is translated into data - and perfectly visible. (It was also interesting to experience robot arms that stroked the faces of audience members, a performance in which the audience was blindfolded and had to touch, smell, taste and listen to music, and a mobile phone solution that delivered taste and smell.)
I was most impressed by the British perspective on music at Futurefest. Music of the future often deals with changes in production, distribution and consumption or exploring a limitless world of music through digital technology. But at Futurefest, music was perceived as social media. Suddenly, it struck me that the British people regard music as something that allows members of the community to communicate, confirm homogeneity and encourage social changes beyond the object of personal consumption.
From funk grooves legend George Clinton to social activist and singer-songwriter Pat Kane to Adam Harper, who recently received a PhD. from Oxford for his study of future music, speakers did not fail to accept music as a social statement.
Music was communal at the human race’s beginning. People sang together when they worked and became one by singing and dancing at festivals. Capitalism made music a commodity trapped by intellectual property rights, but in the long history of humanity, the personal creation - and consumption - of music is a relatively recent phenomenon. Now, digital music can restore music as a medium of communication and unity. No one can stop the expansion of sharing platforms like YouTube.
Armed with artificial intelligence and automation, digital technology threatens the autonomy and identity of humans. On the other hand, the very same technology serves as a strong antidote through music. If it weren’t for YouTube, “Gangnam Style” wouldn’t have become a worldwide phenomenon. During a global economic slump, the horse dance by Psy provided people around the world an instant escape. Thanks to that, everyone enjoyed this obscure festival while dancing to Psy’s tune - and laughing at the establishment.
As the name of Futurefest signifies, will our future really be a festival and not a revolution or painful struggle? I sincerely hope so. If we want to see that happen, we must not forget the two treasures of humanity: democracy and music. This is the very message Futurefest is trying to deliver to us all.
*The author is the director of the Art Center Nabi.
by Roh Soh-yeong