UB Humanities Festival to explore utopia during free, two-day event

Graphic of the logo for the 2021 Buffalo Humanities Festival.

Release Date: September 14, 2021

Portrait of David Castillo.
“We need to start over, and starting over begins with imagining new narratives. That’s what we’ll be doing during the festival. ”
David Castillo, director
UB Humanities Institute

BUFFALO, N.Y. – The University at Buffalo Humanities Institute (HI) — along with regional partners SUNY Buffalo State, Canisius College, Niagara University and Daemen College — will present the 2021 Humanities Festival this weekend at Silo City. The free two-day event begins at 1 p.m. Sept. 18 and 19 and features speakers, panels and community conversations dedicated to exploring ideas addressing the theme of “Utopia.”

Utopia is a place of the imagination. It’s an ideal that can embody a goal. If there’s a whiff of impracticality in the word’s contemporary usage, the thematic utopia of the festival rings with distinct overtones of possibility. Utopianism is the first step in imagining better, more equitable futures, a conversation that brings communities together to affirm environmental and social justice, according to festival organizers.

“In many cases, utopianism is about roads not taken; it’s about roads that may have emerged, but were never traveled,” says David Castillo, HI director and UB professor of Romance languages and literatures in the university’s College of Arts and Sciences.

A complete schedule of festival sessions is available online. Guests are asked to register beforehand, but registration can be done on site on either day.

Since its founding in 2005, UB’s Humanities Institute has established itself as one of the most important entities supporting the humanities in Western New York.

Castillo says this year’s festival, with its utopian theme, arrives as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to ricochet off current cultural, political and societal environments, further amplifying already overplayed dystopian themes.

That apocalyptic saturation has created a crisis of the imagination that has contributed to a clipped vision of the future. Better alternatives to the current historical moment have been cropped from that image.

“If we don’t reclaim ownership of our situation and imagine new futures then we surrender to our existing destructive inertia,” he says. “We need to start over, and starting over begins with imagining new narratives. That’s what we’ll be doing during the festival.”

It’s no coincidence that Silo City will host this year’s Humanities Festival.

Organizers specifically chose the site for its symbolic power. Silo City speaks to the festival’s theme and demonstrates how utopian conversations can take shape and effect change, according to Christina Milletti, an associate professor in UB’s English department and the HI’s executive director.

“Silo City itself is a transformative space and an ideal location for transformative thinking,” says Milletti. “The pandemic obliged us to re-imagine the festival’s shape and structure, so it seemed an apt moment to also move the event to a site where imagination is visible as a tangible landscape. Silo City has evolved from a space of thriving industry and subsequent ‘rust belt’ decay and is now reemerging as a thriving cultural and ecological community space populated by artists, homes and businesses surrounded by an innovative natural habitat.

“Silo City’s historical legacy has been repurposed into a new modern reality that considers both people and the environment. It represents the possible, the realization of imagination as a new future.”

Milletti’s research and writing interests include contemporary fiction and narratives.  With several UB colleagues, she’ll be part of a panel that considers how fiction regularly influences the real world. “In this moment, when fraudulent narratives increasingly exert magnetism over public discourse, our panel will speculate how the power of fiction offers paths of resistance over spin, propaganda, alternative facts, imposture and doublespeak.”

The festival opens at 1 p.m. on Saturday with a discussion of the legacies of utopian movements in New York State. That’s followed by a presentation on Ritual and Place: Towards a Utopian Policy. The Power of Fiction panel comes afterwards; then a presentation on Walt Whitman’s “Calamus,” a daring, sometimes utopian, sequence of poems about camaraderie, friendship and love, and how that love can save American democracy.

Sunday begins with a session from Dalia Antonia Caraballo Muller, UB associate professor of history, and three UB undergraduate students, called The Impossible Project: The Truly Inclusive Classroom. Muller is the project’s founder. The Impossible Project is an innovative learning practice that prepares students to take on social justice challenges.

All the festival sessions serve to illustrate how the humanities are a natural platform for critical inquiry and imagination, while the Humanities Institute in particular provides a bridge for that inquiry between the university and the surrounding community, according to Milletti.

“We invite our communities to join us at the Humanities Festival this weekend to imagine socially and environmentally just futures,” she says. “Let’s start a conversation together.”

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