It’s apt that the exhibition Tomorrow’s World at Atom Gallery on Green Lanes– opening tomorrow, naturally – should explore ideas of Utopia and Dystopia so close to Newington Green. This is where the Dissenters of the 1600s and 1700s like Mary Wollstonecraft explored the notion of ‘perfectability’.
Could Enlightenment ideals like the triumph of reason over ‘superstition’ and religious oppression, could they create a better, fairer world? The notion of natural rights would lead to a happier and more egalitarian future? And surely human beings were capable, with a little thought, of becoming more capable of ‘virtue’? Thus posited the trailblazing yet still monument-less Wollstonecraft, to the chagrin of European (male) philosophers like Burke and Rousseau but the delight of other Newington Green pioneers like William Godwin.
If you think the Zeitgeist is riddled with uncertainty and a certain anxiety now, have a look at the late 1700s. Utopia and Dystopia, fear and longing were very much in the air: revolutions in America and then France meant that everything was potentially up for grabs. 140 years after our brief fling with Republicanism, the Americans had won independence from the restored British monarchy and the French had wiped out not just the notion of aristocracy but the aristocracy themselves. And the people who’d actually started the reforming movement but were then judged not radical enough by the next wave of revolutionaries as zealotry dominated the menu du jour in the City of Love.
Before that post-1793 disillusion set in over here in Hackney, some wondered were we on the edge of a brave new world, if we could just push a little further? Or were we on the brink of mob rule and chaos? There was no vote to be mobilised in that pre-Reform Act era so landowners and factory owners took more physical steps, raising and arming militia: vested interests in the property-based system that anarchists like William Godwin dissected, or paternally keeping a lid on an unruly populace and the more aggressive side of our natures? This tension would sadly come to a head at the notorious ‘Peterloo Massacre’ in Manchester 1819. On that day, swordplay trumped wordplay as the militia tore through the crowd.
There are PhDs to be written just about the trajectory of disillusionment that sets in when the inertia of the French Revolution steps into a higher and bloodier gear. Join a tour – like the ones Hackney Tours does for Stoke Newington Literary Festival – and you can hear more about that. But the debates are as current today as ever – how far do you go with reform? Does democracy work? What is freedom? What is freedom of speech and what is going too far? There was not Twitter, but there was fierce debate in the printed and oral realm.
And we can’t leave the subject of utopia without mentioning Walthamstow’s famous son William Morris and his famous News From Nowhere. The omnipresent Wikipedia sums it up as “a classic work combining utopian socialism and soft science fiction”. Utopia signifies an ideal place but its literal meaning is ‘nowhere’. I came to Hackney because of a link with a festival of that name that explores, as some festivals do – at least at the start – how we might be in a more utopian setting: one where money does not dictate how we are and what we do.
Looking back, my own trajectory seems to have an inevitability about it, that I would end up walking around Hackney reading and talking about the idea-explorers of the last 3.5 centuries, those who rocked the boat as they tried to nudge us towards a fairer world. The contradictions they encountered are still there. Some Greek guys in togas would probably have something to say about that if they weren’t long gone.
But like the events Hackney Tours has been involved in at the historic Unitarian Chapel on Newington Green (see #NGDissenters) tackling subjects like modern slavery, all we can do is try. As Bladerunner looks less and less like fantasy and more like a caricature of the next decade, the future is tinged with anxiety for many. But plus ca change, non?
Both ends of the spectrum will be on offer tomorrow at Atom Gallery, and perhaps that’s how it’s going to be, future-wise? 48/52? Some good and bad? I’ll be indulging in a little social lubrication tomorrow; “the future’s uncertain and the end is always near.” There are some certainties in life after all, like its end. Let it roll East London, let it roll.
If you like the intersection of art, politics and philosophy, you want to learn more about Hackney history or to even explore things like the social enterprises that shaping not the past but the future, follow @hackneytours on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and the occasional email. Vouchers are available as Christmas presents as are private tours. Walking Hackney – there’s a lot to discuss.