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The Embassy of Utopia: Positive Uncertainty & Bold Thinking in Manchester

The Embassy of Utopia is a sanctuary for positive uncertainty, bold thinking, and untameable imagination. It is a meeting place for poets who never write any poetry and for those for whom writing is the only possible form of existence, for vagabonds on their way to new tomorrows, and for archaeologists whose shovels dig into the sands of the future.

~ Prima Vista Tartu International Literary Festival Brochure, 2023


A Duet

I remember sitting in the original ‘Embassy of Utopia’ in Tartu in May 2023 watching an accordion duet. It was at some strange twilight hour on a warm spring evening in the middle of my whirlwind two-week creative residency. The accordion players did not speak nor sing, they simply smiled at each other in that gentle Estonian way as they squeezed the bellows and tapped the keys and made the music. The Embassy itself was inside a requisitioned jeweller’s shop, just big enough for an audience of thirty or forty people. That evening there were about twenty of us listening, perched on the tall stools, with the historic town square behind us as a backdrop. The musicians only played for five minutes but their tune was perfection; jaunty but sweeping, amusing but with a soulful depth. It was one of those tunes you want to hear again straight away, but it only existed for those five minutes and whatever the sequence of notes, I’ve long forgotten it. They took their applause, the next performer stepped up to the space, and the accordion players made their way outside into the square. Soon enough, their sounds drifted back into the space as they settled on the rim of the fountain to entertain the passers-by.


A very European scene, of course, but one that really stuck with me. The performative installation experiment of The Embassy of Utopia had become my new favourite thing. It ran throughout the Prima Vista festival across all five days, where the organisers Jan and Oliver aimed to showcase 555 performers doing 5 minutes each on the broad theme of utopia. I’m not sure if they quite managed that number, but every time I visited the place was popular and there was always something intriguing and exciting taking place. Most of it was in Estonian, but I didn’t mind that so much. Sometimes I had a friend muttering interpretations into my ear, other times I just sat there listening to the tone and timbre of the moody, rumbly language. The Embassy would stay open long into the night and still the crowds would come, as if thirsty for an alternative to the bars and clubs. For those five days and nights, The Embassy seemed to glow from that old jewellers, far more brightly than any gemstone.

The Empty Space


The Embassy of Utopia is a neat and simple idea; a temporary but borderless speaker’s corner that offers a platform for future-positive thinking and expression. The doors are always open and entry is free, and anyone can sign up to speak or read or perform on any topic they wish. It’s a forum for uniting our transient selves and focussing our attentions on the things that matter. More than anything else, it’s a space to create and to host togetherness; whether that’s in temporary appreciation of a performer’s thoughts, or the forging (or strengthening) of a community collective. In practice as a place of performance, it reminded me of Peter Brook’s ‘empty space’ theory of theatre. All that is needed for theatre to take place is an empty space, a person walking through it, and another watching. At its simplest, The Embassy is just a creation of an empty space and an invitation to fill it.


My Estonian adventure was part funded by the Manchester City of Literature group and, in turn, they asked me to organise an event for the Festival of Libraries. I toyed with the idea of doing some kind of reading or talk about Estonian folklore or literature, but there was a flatness and dullness to that concept which somehow betrayed the expressive magic that I’d encountered at the Prima Vista festival. So, I pitched The Embassy of Utopia instead in the hope that the borderless nature of the original version meant that the concept was free to roam and emerge in other cities. Thankfully, Jan & Oliver and the team at Prima Vista agreed. And so, the Embassy came to Manchester.

Friday, The Embassy of Utopia

Mancunian Utopias


I had a good feeling that a spoken word event themed on future-thinking would play well in our fair city, and the Mancunians did not disappoint. Last weekend, on the 14th and 15th June, the midpoint of 2024, we took over the performance space of Manchester Central Library for two days and put 92 people onto our little riser stage. We had an abundance of poetry, a fresh serving of original literature, a sprinkling of live music, a drag act, a clown, various representatives from local community groups and charities, a full-scale fashion show, performance art, percussion, emotion, laughter, tears, debut performances, and, at one particularly lovely point, a baby on stage. The audiences flowed in and out, some people staying for many long hours to take in as many performances as they could. Behind the stage, the tall windows of the library showed us Peter’s Street, the Midland Hotel, and the spreading flagstones and tooting trams of St. Peter’s Square. The hustle and bustle of the city passed by as we collectively imagined utopian futures of inclusivity, social cohesion, environmental restoration, and technological synergy. The trees outside the windows dappled the June sunshine across the stage whenever the clouds parted. It couldn’t have been more Utopian if it tried.


At one point on the Saturday afternoon, a pro-Palestine protest marched past outside. It was timed fortuitously as we’d just stopped for a half-hour break, and many of our audience members took the opportunity to go and witness it, perhaps to join in. As the ever-dutiful host I stayed inside watching from the windows. Soon enough, it became clear that trouble had broken out. A protester was being arrested right in the middle of the action and the police were quickly surrounded, the situation on a knife-edge. From the window I could see one of our Embassy Ambassadors, the magnificent Maarja Pärtna, striding at the periphery of the chaos with her phone aloft. Somehow the situation calmed, and the protest re-organised and continued along the designated route down Oxford Road. Conscious of time and a few nervous performers, I got The Embassy started again and the audience began to filter back in. How strange to have that burst of the present moment taking place just across the invisible threshold of our creative cocoon, and yet how strangely apt too. Maarja herself expressed the contrast and coincidence beautifully in her recent Instagram post:

Between 'Reality' & 'Utopia'

A day earlier my Opening Ceremony had led a gathering of people in a meditation to explore a utopian biography within an imagined library. In turn this led to the chalking of messages and phrases on the flagstones at their feet. We’d already written the words ‘Reality’ and ‘Utopia’ as bookends to the contributions of the audience, creating a loose pathway of positivity towards the entrance of the Library and the Embassy. I saw ‘Enlivenment’, ‘Dreamworld’, ‘Freedom’, ‘Common Ground’, ‘Justice for All’, and later I saw the Mancunian rain rush down to wash most of it away. But by that point the Embassy was in full swing, and the chalked topics had transmogrified into words, applause, and lyrical rhythms. The topics and performances were broad and wild, ranging from thoughts about AI to trans liberation, via the politics of accents, the dismantling of materialism, the importance of public art, and the protection and preservation of neglected ecosystems. And that was just the tip of the iceberg.

Pendleton College Fashion Show

I have many personal highlights, but chief among them is the fashion show. Earlier in the year, we’d commissioned the Art & Design students of Pendleton College in Salford to respond to the theme of ‘Utopian Folktales’ for their final projects. Their incredible work was displayed on the walls throughout the two days of the Embassy, lending colour and visual energy to the room. We had Arthurian poster art, feminist fairytale collages, hand-woven carpets, long-exposure mythic photography, and all manner of other bits and pieces. In middle of the Friday session the fashion students paraded their creations across our stage. For a glorious five minutes it was like the Chanel show all over again (only ours wasn’t morally vacuous, so we win).

The Ambassadors 

On both days we gave over the central moment to specially commissioned Ambassadors. On the Friday it was myself and Henri Hütt in our third collaborative outing. We pulled together a strange and haphazard half-hour performance centred on the boundaries between books and their readers. It was called ‘The Book Participates’, taken from an Ursula Le Guin quote, and featured me concocting a nonsensical conversation between Alice from Alice in Wonderland and Poirot from Murder on the Orient Express, before Henri pranced around the space struggling to mimic the closing and opening of books. We’d borrowed an armful of dusty tomes from the Reference section of the library, which we proceeded to open and shut in a series of percussive claps. We also incorporated the audience in an orchestration of book-claps, then ended on a story-poem created from the closing lines from a tower of novels.


It was, I fully admit, quite odd. Like our previous collaborations, it came summoned half-formed from Henri’s mercurial mind, and then we gradually gave it shape through playful experimentation. The point, as always, was the crossing of boundaries, in this case the sometimes stuffy and sacrosanct border between a book and its reader. I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the problems that arise from our reverence of books as sacred objects, and how that adoration is manipulated and exploited by industry forces. I’ve been feeling quite stifled and drained by the relentless and glossy nature of the book industry, both as a reader and author, and worry a little that we’ve stumbled into something of a creative dead end. Maybe with ‘The Book Participates’ we were trying to put these objects back into the hands of the people by interrupting the reverence and instead imagining the book as an instrument, or as an object of ridicule, or a toy to be played with. Whatever the meaning, whatever the interpretation, it was a performance I greatly enjoyed putting together. I didn’t have the energy or time to be nervous or anxious about it, so the emphasis was firmly on abstraction and fun. And it seemed to go down well.

Penny & Jane Boxall

On the Saturday, our Ambassadors were the aforementioned Maarja Pärtna and her collaborator, the wonderful poet Penny Boxall. They also brought along Penny’s sister Jane who had gathered a load of found objects to create an array of percussive instruments. Penny opened proceedings with her gorgeously crafted ‘Future Folktales’, underscored by the pings, twangs and thuds of Jane’s wine glasses, kalimba and wooden trinket box. We heard tales of missing rainbows, shifting mires, and an ultimately heartwarming conflict between a fox and woodpecker. It was, as it sounds, utterly delightful.

From Maarja came a deeply moving eco-essay about the wetlands of Estonia, from their creation to their destruction and present-day efforts at restoration. I fell into a reverie watching Maarja. Her delivery is gentle yet commanding, like the visitation of a celestial envoy here to set us back on track after we’ve strayed off the path. Jane remained on stage, plucking away at the tiny keys of the kalimba to punctuate the falling away of the precious habitats. Behind them the city seemed to shiver in shame, the tree leaves fluttering a quiet retribution. I’ve been fortunate enough to visit the wetlands of Estonia on three occasions, twice with Maarja. I was with her last May when she told me to take off my shoes and socks and ‘bog-walk’ across the mulch and the mire. We strode out a few metres, my toes freezing cold, while a crescent moon hung in the twilight above us, and a persistent cuckoo called from the trees. The world had felt so very solid, and yet so fragile at the same time.

Inviting People


With the presence of Maarja and Henri and Penny, Estonia had been brought to Manchester. A duet of my two worlds, old and new, where each had shown the best of itself to the other. Across the two days of The Embassy not one of our 92 performers put a foot wrong or a word out of place, and it was the greatest pleasure to see friends and strangers stride with boldness and spirit to that lonely microphone at the heart of our amazing city. Collectively we’d created a brief haven for Mancunian ‘positive uncertainty’ and, hopefully, we’d diverted the ripples of the anxious present towards a slightly brighter realm, if only for a brief two days. But I don't want to suggest that The Embassy of Utopia is a fragile, temporary thing. Quite the opposite. The point is not to draw a temporary box to briefly allow expression, but to slice open a window of space that reveals the energies of hope that always and already exist.


Utopia, of course, is an impossible fantasy. But utopian thinking will always be essential, and the utopian impulse instinctual, and there will always be people keen to share their vision of a better future and plenty of others keen to listen. My hope now is that The Embassy shifts on beyond Manchester to somewhere else that needs to think forwardly. At the end of our iteration, we held up books and snapped them shut in a single percussive beat. It signalled the end of our Embassy, but the reverberations of that small but mighty sound sent the concept itself back into the borderless aether. How great it would be if our Embassy was in fact the second stepping stone on a long pathway through Europe and further. From city to city, from country to country, without concern for borders or boundaries, creating that empty space and inviting people to fill it.


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