Each year, Oslo World picks a theme that provides the booking and seminar program with a direction. This year, the theme will be Utopia.
In music and other art forms, utopia thrives. We are free to dream, to fantasize and to create structures and connections more perfect than real life allows for. In music, the idea of utopia can feel liberating here and now. For marginalized or oppressed cultures, futurism and the belief that better days have yet to come has been a place to turn to when the present – and the past – are painful places. Afrofuturism is an obvious example where technological possibilities, visions of the future and new forms of musical expressions meet. The resulting art doesn’t just offer a glimpse into what’s to come – it also moves boundaries and changes art right here and now. Every year, Oslo World features music that in some way or another encapsulates this spirit, for example in the different meetings between folk music and electronic music, which has become a stamp of both the festival and modern global music.
The idea of utopia is also relevant in the setting of Oslo World – the modern city with all its possibilities and pitfalls. One hundred years ago, the American historian and sociologist Lewis Mumford wrote that the invention of cities was “the first utopia” – a radical reshaping of the way human beings lived, in the hope of realizing potential we had only dreamt of. A lot of the discussions about the future of cities are still shaped by this language, for better or worse. If you look at architect sketches of new buildings or neighbourhoods, it doesn’t seem like a vision of the future where people from all walks of life fit in.
During this years festival, Oslo World has invited a host of artists who try to reshape old identities in the light of the new forms of life that we are faced with in the cities. Indigenous people in modern urban environments is a central theme for the festival.
We also have to ask what the point of utopias outside of art is. The answer is not necessarily obvious. Sketching out an ideal isn’t the hard part – getting there is the problem, whether you dream of a green shift or an independent country for that matter. We know more about the problems we are facing than ever – but never has the political and societal laws of gravitation, which hamper progress, been more visible.
In Norwegian daily speech, “utopian” has become synonymous with something “impossible”, and not only that – a “utopian thought” is something we waste time on. Time which could be better spent on dealing with real problems. We prefer small pragmatic steps – and silently pray that greater leaps will follow later.
But still, dreams of utopia shape society. Technological optimism is permeated with utopian language. Dreams of a society without car crashes, without diseases, without ideology, are passed off as possible. And of course, it is here that the most obvious reminders of the harmful potential in utopian thinking show up, when companies with enormous amounts of new, unchecked power but with a minimal of ethical reflection exploit – or let themselves be exploited.
So what’s the point of utopias? A banal answer is that we need a bit of both. We need utopia both as an inspiration and a warning. As a parody, but also as a somber reminder of what’s at stake. We need utopian concepts to set out clear goals for the future – but also to anticipate what could go wrong. We want to discuss what happens when utopias fail, but also how we can get closer to making them a reality. We want to discuss how utopias differ, but also what they have in common. This year, Oslo World dreams of other places – both good and bad.