Back to listen

Gemma, Imbolc 2022:
the audacity of snowdrops

Gemma and Jo take a walk on Dartmoor to reflect on the themes and patterns that have emerged from our first constellation of audio encounters and initial research, and to look ahead to the next series.

Gemma explores these themes and patterns in more detail on our blog.

Made by Jo Barratt and Gemma Mortensen. Conceived by Jo Barratt and Gemma Mortensen, with Iris Andrews and Lily Piachaud.

Music is made for New Constellations by Art School Girlfriend.


Gemma Mortensen: So we are on the north-east corner of Dartmoor where I have lived with my family since just before the pandemic. We are on the banks of the river Teign, surrounded by huge pine trees. This is my happy place.

We’re going for a walk, Jo and I, because we thought it would be a nice way of looking back to look forward. It was a couple of years ago, I think, when we both came here to Dartmoor with a couple of other people and started thinking about a series of encounters that we would make with people in audio. And what’s emerged over the coming months, whilst we were all in lockdown, was a series of, I guess quite reflective pieces that people made – us having sent them a tape recorder that they were left with with some prompts to record their thoughts into. We just wanted to take a moment to look back on what emerged through those conversations that we had with people remotely, you know, some thousands and thousands of miles away, and through their thoughts and what was a very, very extraordinary moment in time.

adrienne marie brown: Possibility is beginning to enter after a long period that felt foggy, traumatizing and too fast.

Yo-Yo Ma: If we live in a world where you hurt, then I hurt, then we’re beginning from the same place.

Aaron Dworkin: Time and distance from an issue give you the ability to reflect upon it in a way that can often, I think, change the intensity of it.

Gemma Mortensen: We felt compelled to create some space to just have slow time to think and feel into the moment we were all living through. And by that moment, we didn’t just mean the pandemic, as extraordinary as that was, but really to zoom out in a way and to think about the larger historical moment in which we find ourselves.

And what we hear everyone speaking to in that set of encounters is this moment in which, as we know, there is this huge interlocking set of crises: the climate crisis, obviously, the climate and ecological crisis, which is beginning to really come into the forefront of our lives and minds – maybe not as prominently as it even should do yet. The advance of exponential technology and the very big questions that are being asked of us in terms of, you know, what does it mean to be human? What will it mean to be human? But also the very, very deep changes that we are seeing made to our culture and civilization as a result of these exponential technologies already. And obviously then the nature of late-stage capitalism and the extent of social inequality, the level of social division and that challenge and conundrum of how we solve these huge, kind of collective action problems really, through institutions and structures that were designed for a very, very different world.

The kind of inquiry that we set ourselves was to ask people to reflect on this moment in time and how we navigate through it and from it, and to start to feel into and sense like where we might want to go to. And people put this in different words, and they have different ways of seeing it and saying it but I think most people are sensing the same thing.

So someone like Margaret Levi, who’s a political theorist, she will talk about it as the end of one moral-political economy, where a moral-political economy is a system in which, you know, there are a set of values, which determine how the economy works and how the political system works.

You’ve got someone like Carlota Perez who’s really influenced our work. Who’s um, well, she’s incredibly multidisciplinary, but she studied technological revolutions and her work shows that with each new technological revolution there’s a new conception of the good life. And so I think that’s at the, you know, at the heart of what we’re all struggling with, and, you know, in this meaning crisis really that we’re all witnessing and experiencing, is what will this new conception of the good life be? The old one, in her words that of a kind of American materialism is bankrupt. And it’s leading us in a terrible and devastating direction. But what will that new conception of the good life be? She says it will be one of a kind of “green golden age”, but you know, we’ll have different ideas about that and I don’t think anyone knows yet because we’re in that place of the in-between, the unknowing at the moment.

And someone like Hilary Cottam would say that we’re working to an old pattern. You know, she talks about the pattern of Homo Economicus as the rational man that underpins all of our economic systems, versus her idea of a very integrated human being who sees themselves as interdependent with all the systems of life around them. The way I think of it is that we’re a hinge generation; we are the hinge between one thing and the next thing, and our role is to learn, not just to live with and cope with that huge spate of uncertainty, but to be able to ride and surf and find that flow that would enable us to deeply go on this process of enquiry and to create and hold space between the ‘what is’ and the ‘what can be’.

Charles Foster: We have porous boundaries; I bleed into you, you bleed into me, we all bleed into each other.

Geoff Mulgan: Much of the writing and talk about wisdom portrays it as something very individual. But in reality that’s, I think, quite a misleading view of how wisdom operates. I think in almost any context you depend from, with anything you do on the people around you to help you. They will have lots of knowledge and experience you don’t have, however brilliant you are.

Anna Murray: All this deeper understanding of pattern is twofold; so firstly, that we become more aware, and we start to see with this, this “new” (in inverted commas) way of looking and seeing, and really, really appreciating and noticing the interconnectedness. But also it’s this way of being and this, this next layer, which comes through an awareness, which is understanding, which is much more around how we can start to live through pattern, and how can we start to live in a way that is interconnected?

Gemma Mortensen: When we started off on what we’re seeing as an enquiry, rather than being instrumentalist about it, rather than thinking ‘who will say the things that we want to hear?’, we asked questions that were extremely open. And what we wanted to allow for was to see what emerged through all of the answers that people gave us – both in and of… you know, from any one individual, but more importantly from what were the themes that emerged. We talk about patterning, and what we mean by that is there were certain things that kept coming up again and again and again, in people who are incredibly different from each other, both in what they do in the world, their backgrounds, their worldviews, and yet what people were alighting on, and feeling and experiencing – and, it felt like, you know, in some ways pressed and desperate to say – were very, very similar. There were some very, very strong and profound resonances between them. And so it’s the discovery of those patterns, which speaks to, you know, those deeper things that are coming through in the more general field.

Bill Sharpe: So Newton’s laws of motion – really useful stuff, but it led to the idea of the past determining the future, these sort of forces unfolding into the future from the past. Whereas it’s just as legitimate, really, meditating on, to think about potential acting from the future, drawing things out, revealing their latent possibilities.

Gemma Mortensen: Many of the encounters touch on an exploration of what it means to be living through a time of such deep uncertainty. We’ve all experienced that moment of like pushing off, maybe leaping off a wall or where suddenly we’ve experienced, we’ve entrusted ourselves to gravity. And in a similar spirit, in a lot of the encounters, we’re hearing people talk about what we’ll need in order to entrust ourselves to this moment of uncertainty.

And one of the threads that comes through incredibly clearly is this idea of the need for a new Renaissance. Because in times of security and stability, in which we are in the middle point of one cycle, it’s been okay to depend on systems which are linear and predictable. But we’re now going through this period which is so uncertain, so whitewater, that there is this need as many of the people in the encounters for a new Renaissance that enables us to fuse the inner and outer, mind and body, or as we’d say in New Constellations the heart, the head and the gut.

And as Audrey Tang says in her beautiful encounter, this isn’t about moving away from, from science, from rationality, not at all. It’s so important that we bank that and stay rooted in it, but we need something else too.

Lonnie Bunch has this wonderful way of looking at history as a tool, and how much work we need to do in terms of truly understanding, you know, the past that has led to the present. And this idea that we can’t depart, we can’t depart to a better future until we’ve done that work. And he also says that we have to be comfortable reaching beyond what we already know. And I think that’s something that again is really difficult to do, but unless we create these new kinds of spaces in which we can imagine different possibilities, we’ll end up just iterating on the things that are already here, that already exist, and we won’t end up anywhere near close enough to the destined destination point we need to reach in the next 10, 20, 30 years.

I think people are feeling like they’re living in a world which is like wearing a shoe that doesn’t fit. We’re all being asked to live within systems and practices, to work in certain ways, to ascribe to certain principles that for so many people just feel wrong. And I don’t just mean wrong as a moral decision, I mean, like, in a deep embodied sense they feel deeply, deeply at odds and contrary to the things that we know we need to be doing at this moment in time for ourselves, for the planet, for each other.

And yet we’re not able to, because all of the incentive structures of the systems in which we live point us in the wrong directions. And I think that’s coming up I think in the tone of voice that you hear from people and the level of, you know, the depth of emotion and how much people need to tap into and process.

And one of the other things I really felt from the encounters was the desire for people to feel again. To feel what this moment means, to reconnect with their own feelings, but also to connect and feel each other and feel the world around us.

And the other things that were coming out are just like how, you know, bonkers, if you just take a step back and looking at, you know, we have a economy which necessitates the extraction of resources on our planet, it necessitates it, it leads to all these crazy, but obvious conclusions that of course you would dump pollution into the rivers. And of course you would extract value from the land and of course you would just do whatever was profit-making without looking at what was regenerative. And on so many levels that can be applied to how we work, how we care for each other, how we learn, the kids going through schools just to be trained to be kind of widgets in a greater production scheme. This can’t possibly help us be fit for, or create the future that we want to see. So I think there’s just a very, very clear and common assessment of the huge anomaly between what we need and where we are, on every single level.

Angel Acosta: There has to be a decision to change, a decision to be different, to become something else.

Hilary Cottam: The more that we can be part of making it, the more we can tell stories about it, the faster we move into this future. Which actually is already around us. It’s the kind of waters that we’re swimming in.

Rod Sudgen: I feel like it’s getting the balance right as well, between being and becoming; between being still and action.

Margaret Levi: The painting I’m staring at right now is a very small piece. I disappear into it. Sometimes it looks to me like a constellation of stars.

Gemma Mortensen: So the last set of encounters was very much like dwelling in this moment of quite deep rumination. And now I think everyone’s feeling a different energy, the energy of ok, had that moment, but now we need to press ahead. And now it feels like there’s a much more action-oriented kind of practical energy. And we’re hoping to tap into that by speaking to people who are at the cusp of exploring what could be.

So we’re really interested in talking to people who are either kind of thinkers, makers or doers in the realm of the new economy, or new food systems, or new ways of thinking about care, or learning, because we don’t think that it makes sense anymore to look at these things in siloed ways, but instead to bring people together across these otherwise kind of boundaried areas, to learn from and speak to each other and to share what they’re sensing and seeing and discovering.

Audrey Tang: By being playful, we turn the sense of peace into something that could moderate the change. Just like the ocean and its tidal waves, they’re all fine. It’s all okay.

Gemma Mortensen: The trees are bare, and yet, once gone, you see lichen over all of their branches, which is one of my favourite times of year bizarrely, because they have a copper colour, that’s an oxidised copper colour that is so incredibly beautiful. But it’s also, you know, it’s a time of everything being stripped back and hibernation, but just in the last couple of days, we’re starting to see the snow snowdrops emerge. And I can’t tell you how excited I get about that! They’re just so fragile and beautiful. And there’s something so audacious about these little things coming through at a time of otherwise such retrenched kind of energy. So yeah, it feels like we’re on the cusp of everything. There is nothing, and yet soon there will be everything again. And it’s one of those turning points of the year, which feels full of portent in a kind of, in its emptiness.