A NECESSARY ICARUS
The critical reception of utopias has been historically quite unkind for a lingering, single reason: utopias exist in the realm of fiction. The imaginings of those who helped define the classic utopian canon(1) are a mixture of fantastical detail and vague generalizations, often lacking even a mild ground in reality. Charles Fourier’s plan for 8,000 years of perfect harmony includes six earth moons and approximately 37,000,000 poets equal in talent to Homer, exemplifies the absurd fiction of this history of thought.(2) In terms of narrative theory, as the Russian Formalists conceived it, utopian thought could be said to represent a very strong structural example of defamiliarization and estrangement, something intrinsically unrecognizable through its fundamental reliance on the visionary.
For this reason, the utopian project has often found its most convincing and enduring vehicle in its dystopian double. If the utopian imagination is characterized by its lack of specificity and unfamiliarity, the promise of dystopian fiction and speculative satire resides in its complete recognizability. The strength and popularity of science fiction in particular has been its ability to provide biting, specific criticisms of the present through a sustained focus on the future. Whereas utopian thought presents an Icarian, transcendent vision of progress, often leaving the confines of earthly hardships and injustices (floating cities, for example), dystopias generally come from the future or outer space to locate the social urgencies of life—and like the Ghost of Christmas present, warn not of what could be, but is. Utopian thought renders the real as fiction, a figurative escape route from not only human suffering, but often humanity itself—vice, flaw, mortality—whereas dystopian fiction always underscores the resolutely real.
A number of recent utopian projects are marked by a direct acknowledgement of the shifting fictional states this discourse implies. The architecturally based projects of Yona Friedman, Constant, John Hejduk, Atelier Van Leishout, Multiplicity and Stalker, for example, suggest that if one is to offer any credible vision of a utopia, with all the practical and ethical problems inherent in this subject, there must be an acceptance of the project’s structural weakness, its inability to actualize itself, and certainly its dystopian shadow. These projects downplay the idea of a totalizingGesamkunstwerk of utopia with a focus on the transient, narrative contexts of the utopian promise. Concepts of equal exchange and social reordering are attainable though fleeting moments, specific “autonomous zones” “relations” and fluid social “situations”, that lend themselves to states of transition and discreet moments of resistance, change and emancipation. These projects reveal a utopian imagination fueled by ideas of its own limitation, a fundamental acceptance of the dangerous, myopic nature of the Ideal and a necessity to incorporate the dystopian narrative into its structure: unpredictability and madness, death and decay.
Constant’s infamous New Babylon, the sprawling raised metropolis he began during his brief tenure with the Situationist International, presents an early example of this line of thinking. New Babylon, which was born out of great distrust in the exclusive singularity of vision derived by the International Style favoured in post-war urbanism, conceived of a movable, nomadic architecture that would simultaneously display its own inevitable shortcomings (allowing for continual reparation and evolution) and enact a utopian transformation through small, momentary civic actions. Although New Babylon is never able to shed its own grandeur, romance and distant fantasy, there is something deliberately unsettling about Constant’s vision. This, in turn, gives New Babylon its possibility: its actualization is reliant on its fiction. That Constant would set his city among a world populated by machines and robots, the most basic of science fiction tropes, is neither a optimistic prediction, nor an ultimate goal. The technological progress that Constant suggests will transform us from Homo Faber to Homo Ludens, liberate us from a culture of spectacle, becomes a way for him make an imaginative space for the project’s own inherent dystopian narrative, ground his project in something familiar, the technopoly, a focal point of both our desires and horrors.
Atelier Van Lieshout’s AVL-Ville, a functioning “Free-State” that existed in the port of Rotterdam in 2001 provides a similar, more sinister version of this utopian plan. Acutely aware that any plan of sovereignty contains an intrinsic violence of subjectivity, this collective endeavour included security (arms), warfare, perversion and madness into its plan for a liberated society. AVL-Ville’s cultish overtones—complete with orgy rooms, sensory deprivation implements, a weapons factory, and labs experimenting with turning human waste into nourishment (a kind of soylent brown)—activate a space of resistance to the utopian as a means of protecting its utopian dream. It builds notions of hell-on-earth into its structure as a means of empowering its own promise of equality, autonomy, peace, environmental sustainability and creative living. AVL-Ville openly addresses the fictive site of utopian thinking, placing the actuality of this experiment directly within the dystopian narrative. As Joep Van Lieshout, the founder of the collective notes to Melissa Milgrom, the project combines a human “urge for harmony with the insatiable beast in him.”(3)
The late John Hejduk, who imagines our built environments (physical and social) as an extension of poetic practice, a world constructed upon an architectural vocabulary based on narrative structure, includes suicide houses, a collapse-of-time tower, a ministry of disease and a public punishment tower as part of his project:
In Execution Square stands a quadruple guillotine tower with the operator’s can in the centre…The tower is enclosed by a ten-foot-wall. All during the day the citizens of the town can hear the thud of falling bodies. They hear the sound of death.(4)
In acts of architectural subtlety, compared with Van Lieshout, Hejduk presents his vision through a willingness to embrace loss, suffering and notions of inequality as functioning components of a healthy, progressive society, well aware that the architect and urban planner can only offer the promise of transcendence through a rigorous, if in his case graceful, architectural inclusion of a society’s own sadistic or masochistic drives. Throughout his work, documented through numerous books, Hejduk emphasizes the role of writing in his practice, drafting his proposals as illustrated stories to enact the belief that narrative is the prime tool to uncover the urgency of the present.
A recent return to a more sweeping utopian vision is undertaken in Ben Nicholson’s book The World Who Wants It (Black Dog, 2004). Composed as a farcical plan to return American values back to America—a project that manages to marry Swiftian satire with the exigency of Thomas More—this book the most thorough, and risky, stab at a vision of world harmony in recent memory. Nicholson, a Chicago-based architect whose practice often operates in a fairly Hejdukian mode of lyrical exploration, gives weight to his project by placing it directly in the path of the prototypical argument against utopian thought: that one person’s paradise is easily another’s hell.
The World Who Wants It takes the form of a government commission report on the state of America. As the report suggests, things are not well. In specific, concrete terms, Nicholson spells out numerous actions that will help solve America’s problems, itemized in the chapters “An Aid Package for the USA,” “Restructuring Federal Government” and “International Policy.” The premise is simple: under the guidance of a Bilateral Peace Corps, comprised of the many developing countries who “vividly remember the generosity of the last 40 years of untiring work by the American Peace Corps…albeit largely symbolic,”(5) America will be helped to reeducate itself in ways of self-sufficiency and nutrition, environmental responsibility and fashion, peaceful negotiation and military effectiveness. America, under Nicholson’s watch, will learn to take pleasure in eating well, with restraint and respect for the food source from expert chefs from around the world; it will learn how to extend the life of an automobile from the Cubans, how to change its superficial ideas of beauty from the Afghanis.
Similar to the work of Constant or Atelier Van Leishout, Nicholson’s project begins to take its shape through at the same time its hopeful vision begins to go sinister, as the reference point—the crisis of an America that has lost its way, both unloved and unhealthy—begins to come clearer. Women are supplied with t-shirts that count-down their years of fertility, or start wearing burquas, Philip Glass is hired to compose a super opera to commemorate the opening of Tabula Rasa, a polysecular temple on the mount near Jerusalem, the newly titled “Heaven on Earth,” and warfare will “no longer be brought right into the living room, but the living room right into warfare.” In these moments the satire takes on a bite as the text’s utopian imaginary falls back on itself, responding to the gravity of its overzealous vision. And to the author’s credit, he doesn’t cut this off. About half-way through many of his texts, Nicholson’s insightful, at times hilarious, flights into drastic states of defamilarization take a turn towards the destructive and the morbid, something more recognizable and vital than his most positive proposals.
As Oscar Wilde once maintained, any map that doesn’t have utopia on it is not worth looking at.(7)And yet its seems as though that the value of that map remains unclear, as well as the map itself, as the discourse gets subsumed in a discourse of speculative fiction. It is these narrative structures, however, which seem to be providing prime space for current utopian thought. Often grouped these days into discussions relating to George Bataille’s idea of l’informe (formless), the utopian/dystopian binary is well suited for theories of instability and formlessness, which generally places more value on how it operates than what it is. Within the context of a shifting, indefinablel’informe, the equally nebulous notion of utopia sometimes comes into focus.
1) Plato, Thomas More, Francis Bacon, Charles Fourier, Theodor Hertzka, William Morris, Karl Marx among them.
2) Jonathan Beecher, Charles Fourier: The Visionary and His World (Berkeley: University California Press, 1987).
3) Melissa Milgrom, “Target: AVL,” Metropolis (May 2000).
4) John Hejduk, Vladivostok (New York: Rizzoli, 1989), 94.
5) Ben Nicholson, The World Who Wants It? (London: Black Dog Publishing, 2004), 12.
6) Nicholson, 66.
7) Vincent Geoghegan, Utopianism and Marxism (London: Methuen, 1987), 139.
Lance Blomgren is the author of Practice (1995), Walkups (2000) and most recently Corner Pieces (2004), a collection of urban fictions and text-based art projects. He has exhibited work in Montreal, Vancouver, Banff, Berlin, Chicago and New Mexico. He is currently the Co-Director of the Helen Pitt Gallery, Vancouver.