An open letter to the Director of the Dark Mountain Project

or, On Painting by Numbers

Dear Paul

I hope that speaking my mind in the context of my own blog will not constitute, in your mind, an act of antagonism.  Perhaps it will help if I preface my remarks with my reassurance to you, sincerely and publicly, of my admiration for the Dark Mountain Project and for the fascinating and sorely needed discourse which it explores in the avenues of its published journals, its events, and its online presence. I might also remind you that I have supported the project since its early days, by contributing financially to the publications of books 1 and 2 (you’ll see my name there on those back page rolls of honour); by attending events in Wales, Hampshire, and Dumfries as well as helping to organise more than one meet-up for interested parties in Scotland; and by giving you the best part of my spare time and energy last summer to help run Uncivilisation 2011 – no laughing matter for a single working parent, and an experience which ate up more time and burned me out more than any stint of volunteering should ever do to anyone. I hope you can recognise my contributions to the project and agree that I am entitled to form an opinion from my experiences and observations.

The reason I am writing this is to invite some dialogue with you regarding the gendered dimension of the Dark Mountain Project.

Just this morning I received a link to this blog post by Naomi Smyth, and when I read it I was surprised that I hadn’t come across it before now.  Feedback about the DMP is usually circulated via the @darkmtn Twitter thread. You were certainly aware of Naomi’s post, having commented at the end of it yourself, so I am curious as to why it’s not been shared with the wider DM audience. It includes a very reflective account of Naomi’s impressions of Uncivilisation 2012, as well as some great video footage of the 2011 festival, including an unusually succinct interview with yourself and Dougald – altogether a neat little promotion of the project.

I have to admit that I wonder if you’ve been unwilling to draw further attention to the issues raised in Naomi’s post. You do remark that her perspective will be “useful to mull over” so I am hoping that you will mull over the following thoughts as well.

I know that the DM ethos favours qualitative experience over quantitative number-crunching. Nonetheless, I would like to paint a picture with some numbers. It’s the short work of a morning, over my cup of coffee and using my Dark Mountain Journals 1, 2 and 3. Very informal, this piece of research, and governed with a hasty methodology (page flipping and pencil scratching): I set out to determine the numbers of contributions to the DM journals, by gender.

Now, I can guess your views on such an exercise. Doesn’t tell the whole story. Content is what matters, the spirit of it is what counts. We’ve tried to include women. We can only publish what we receive.

I agree. But in any case, here’s what I found, in respect to the three journals together:

  • Total number of male contributors: 80
  • Total number of female contributors: 23
  • Total number of articles/items by or including male contributors:  130
  • Total number of articles/items by or including female contributors: 41
  • Total number of pages by or including male contributors: 722
  • Total number of pages by or including female contributors: 164

Pedantic? Certainly. Numbers can be pretty boring (perhaps someone could produce an infographic?) but they can also tell a story about who is the main protagonist, who holds power, whose thoughts and perspectives warrant a platform – in short, who matters enough to be listened to. The numbers there tell me that DMP is for the most part exploring its wealth of ideas from a man’s point of view.

The numbers also show that you’re onto the case: women’s contributions increase with each successive publication. For instance, Book 1 contains 17 pages of content by or including women; Book 2 has 53; by Book 3 we’re up to 94. You are trying to include women. That’s nice of you.

A final observation I’d like to make – using numbers again – is in respect to your reply comment to Naomi’s blog post. You remarked that “there were a lot of women running the festival this time around – as opposed to three men, which it was the first year.”

By my count there were four people running the first Uncivilisation festival in Llangollen: three men and one woman by the name of Kat Dunseath. I’m surprised you have forgotten her so readily, as my own memory of Kat during that event (she tented beside me in the field) was of someone entirely harassed with responsibilities, not to mention someone who was a vital coordinator in the pre-festival preparations. She also worked at Uncivilisation 2011, in fact she was an indispensible member of the ‘backstage crew’ for that second big DMP event, and she has been employed by the project in other ways since then. Surely you do remember her? How is it, then, that she doesn’t figure in your account of “running the festival”?

Perhaps this is just a minor detail, an understandable oversight. Well, unfortunately, I would suggest that our civilisation’s accounts of its own history are crammed full of such oversights. I’m sure there are plenty of feminist scholars who could present the argument more thoroughly than I can.

I’m focusing on gender, but obviously that is only one of many characteristics that contribute to identity and create differences which can lead to discrimination. Equalities legislation these days makes reference to “protected characteristics” which the Equality and Human Rights Commission lists as: “age, disability, gender, gender reassignment, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief and sexual orientation. ” All of these aspects of personal and social identity will continue to exist as our culture greets the consequences of its choices, and our collapse unfolds itself. I would suggest that, for all the 94 pages that it grants to women in Book 3, the DMP is missing out on a great deal of the stories that are out there.

One of the DMP’s clarion calls from the very start has been a demand for new stories, different from the ones which are currently driving us into an unprecedented quagmire of environmental and social problems. The story in those numbers cited above? That story isn’t new.

Here’s my own wish: that the future’s stories are fully inclusive of all those voices which the current stories marginalise, outnumber, or simply omit.

Is the Dark Mountain Project up for that? I’d be willing to bet that it is.

I’ll end here with my very best wishes to you and to the project.

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