The Nature of the Future. Idea of the festival

Right from the very outset, the Conrad Festival has been focusing on current issues, which are a cause for alarm and urge us to take immediate action. With every subsequent edition, the organisers choose the main theme – a concept or idea that becomes the central point of the festival, letting all debates and meetings revolve around this particular highlight. The choice of topics extends beyond literature and touch upon general social issues. In 2021, the festival headline is: “The Nature of the Future.” The double meaning embedded in this headline is deliberate, as we wanted to ask questions about the nature of the future, or what the future is going to be and what is it going to bring, as well as about the nature in the future, focusing on the environmental aspect.

Ever since we realised that we do not live only in the present, or since we became human beings, we could not stop thinking about the future. Until recently, we had no idea what we could expect from it, hence it is no wonder why we were so keen to pursue detailed visions of what was in store for the human race. For many centuries, the culture of the Western world, deeply rooted in Christianity, offered a clear and simple answer to that simple question that kept us wondering – what comes next? According to this worldview, the end times would coincide with the second coming of Christ and a final judgement, which would ultimately divide people into those destined for salvation and those doomed to damnation. Ever since scientific thought took hold of the Western imagination, the apocalyptic visions from the Book of Revelations were replaced by hopes of continuous progress for the glory of humankind. Thanks to the Enlightenment, the new human being was to conquer not only space – in the form of colonies – but also time, and at the stake of this conquest was our immortality, this time given not by God but by science. The emergence of fantasy as a genre in literature, followed by the film was an attempt to get the limited human mind accustomed to the idea of infinity in space (intergalactic expeditions) and time (time travel).

The spirit of scientific optimism instilled in us by the Enlightenment was still going strong until yesterday. Today we are already well aware that all the things that spurred our Western civilisation over the past two hundred years to work hard to improve living conditions are slowly turning against us. Climate change and environmental disasters are no longer something that we see in disaster blockbusters – these days it is enough to turn on the news on the TV. Our prosperity is not shared by the majority of the planet's population, and health turns out to be the privilege of a select few. Mass food is garbage disguised as treats, all while even in the most developed countries, hunger is not an exception to the norm, but an unpleasant reality. Air is no longer something that gives life – it also poisons our lungs. The mass of things we created is already higher than the mass of all the biomass. We became so enthralled with our dominion over the Earth that we stopped paying attention to it, focusing on growing profits from production that destroys the natural environment in its stead. Civilisation, something that was supposed to deliver us from the cares of the world, made them abundant to a degree that was unimaginable to people living not so long ago. Unfortunately, we all know what awaits us in the future, as we have been working exceptionally hard to ensure our own destruction. There is little time to turn things around.

What do culture, art, literature mean in this situation? What is their role? If it is to provide pleasant and mindless entertainment, it is no better than music on a sinking ship. The task of culture is not to sweep knowledge of an impending disaster under the rug, but to spread the word, present different points of view and explain the situation. If culture is an expression of the self-awareness of its users, an expression of their worries, fears and desires present in every corner of the world, these days we need it more than ever. And the culture we need should be aware of the threats to our civilisation and engaged in debates on how to best mitigate them. The Conrad Festival always wanted to ask questions about the nature of our common future and the future of our common nature. Today, these questions are more important than ever.

 prof. Michał Paweł Markowski
Artistic Director of the festival