CALUM GARDNER: Seeds Under Snow – Cardiff’s Utopias Salon

This title is a quotation from the anarchist philosopher Colin Ward. Far from being an idealistic dream, he argues, in his book Anarchy in Action, the notion of a non-hierarchical society, although buried under the cold weight of how we live now, has roots in the basic elements of human life. For the last six months I have been collaborating with a colleague, Laura Basu, on a project we call the Cardiff Utopias Salon. Most people know the word utopia is a conflation of eu-topos and ou-topos: good-place/no-place. The idea is that the perfect society is imagined, but can never exist. The word, therefore, also gets used to talk about the projects that imagine these societies; the books are more real than the worlds they describe.

We asked various people to contribute to “show-and-tells”, a name we arrived at after jettisoning seminar; there was one on education, another on food systems in utopia, and at time of writing I eagerly anticipate the one on utopian and post-capitalist fashion. Ironically, the people we wanted to talk about post-work and work refusal were working too hard to give a talk; this was one of the many obstacles we found.

Another problem that presented itself to us was where to hold it. For a while, our regular home was the Abacus, an arts space that used to occupy the bus station ticket office in the city centre. When the artists were, sadly, moved on to make room for a branch of Boots, we found ourselves struggling. Unable to find community spaces we could occupy for free, or for a donation of a couple of pounds, we ended up in upstairs rooms in cafés and people’s unusually large living rooms.

It was important to us that this not be a kind of academic course, which seems about as un-utopian as it is possible to be; the learning was to be collaborative, and we’d learn from each other. We also, having looked at some potential utopias that are spelled out in exacting detail, shuddered at the prospect of utopian “meetings”. From the first cup of tea over which we hatched the plan, we were determined to avoid the word; Laura came up with “salon”, and we looked forward in the future too to evening “happenings”. Did our phobia of the word change how we did things?

We also didn’t set it up from the point of view of a particular ideology, beyond a general distaste for/horror of late capitalism, though doubtless bias crept in. While not necessarily a feature of idealised society, much anarchist thought is married to utopianism, I suppose because of the leap it takes to imagine a society without hierarchy. The gold standard in the contemporary utopia is Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed. In our salons, we alternate between reading politics, or theory, and reading science fiction; The Dispossessed was the first novel we tackled. At first, I felt elated: Le Guin was describing exactly the society I had imagined, often without knowing I was imagining it.

There is no money on Annares, the desert moon where half the novel is set. Unlike on lush Urras, the planet (modelled on twentieth-century Earth) whose anarchists colonised Annares, there is little to spare on Annares. However, despite the harsh conditions, the fair apportionment of tasks means that their working week is half the length of hours. Everyone cooks, or cleans, or works in the gardens, and nothing is wasted. Of course, there are disadvantages, such that by the end of the book there is disillusionment all round, but for much of the novel, it paints such a romantic picture of this communal life that the precarious, hard-scrabble nature of it seems not only bearable but inviting. There is a certainty that the Annaresti will always share what little they have as long as they have something. Living in a society where you knew this about yourself and your neighbours would be psychological luxury.

At the Salon, Laura shared that at the end of her Kindle copy was a study guide for American highschoolers. This told them that most Americans today would find Annares a dystopia. This, of course, makes perfect sense; being asked to make the transition into such a society from ours would be almost impossible. And indeed, in Annares, the egalitarian values of the society are encoded as social conventions which are every bit as restrictive as ours; it’s just that, a lot of the time, I happen to agree with theirs. Of course, I should then have returned to a discussion we had in our very first Salon, which was a general (probably too general) and wide-ranging discussion of what utopia is. Many people concluded that anyone else’s utopia could not, almost by definition, be utopia for them. At first, this made my hackles rise. Didn’t they see, I thought for a flash, that we had set up this project in order to guide society smoothly to its best self? A moment’s reflection told me this was absurd, but I still felt that I had been robbed of the possibility of a real utopia arising out of the muck. This made me wonder, is what I want out of life so different from everyone else that pursuing it politically is pointless?

At Roath’s g39 gallery, a former dental supply warehouse turned innovative arts space, we held our first evening event. At first we had envisioned occasional parties or artistic interventions, “happenings” in our meetingless nomenclature. The lack of spaces bit that dream hard, and the only one we’ve been able to pull together is the PechaKucha night at g39. Six people gave short presentations on different aspects of utopia, from Peter Kropotkin to urban farming; I had been supposed to talk about the Black Mountain College, but having been too ill to do much research the week before, I reverted to something I knew much better, the writing of Roland Barthes. I scanned his books for their mentions of utopia, and it struck me that while Barthes can imagine a better society, he also acknowledges that utopia is a trope as much as anything else, a literary or even rhetorical idea. Utopias can be found in moments of neutrality, like the “slack time” after waking but before we remember who we are, or in the “fantasmic” pull of an enticing scene in a photograph. For Barthes, it is outside of the normally sanctioned orders and patterns of things that the utopian swerve (which is, as one of our discussion topics, Donna Haraway, likes to remind us, is what trope means) can happen; it’s the room the seeds have to wriggle around in the hard ground under the snow.

Is there an activity we can perform that doesn’t feed the market, or that feeds it as little as possible compared to what we get out of it? How do we best spend our time unprofitably. Pushed into cafes, paying for the arts spaces we did find with whip-rounds, and, probably, causing tiny spikes in the sales of a handful of books, Utopias Salon has not been such a thing, cannot be such a thing, but it imagines them.



Calum Gardner is a poet, PhD student in English literature, editor of the poetry journal Zarf (available from, and one of the organisers of the Cardiff Poetry Experiment reading series. As well as being involved in poetry, Calum helps organise the Cardiff Utopias Salon (


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