Utopian art is a reflection of the society we live in. Utopian art could be a good art, or no art at all (if we follow the double meaning of the word Utopia). Utopian art is not about making better art, more suitable for contemporary needs of humanity, nor to make the world a better place engaging with a concept of ideal art. Utopian art could be a contribution or attempt to preserve constructive creativity and art production in any technological civilization. It provides the human existence and continuation of upgrading the materialistic human society. In the process of rebuilding a contemporary society, and by rebuilding I mean urban development and regeneration of urban (public) space, the utopian art integrates the modes of verbal-visual expression with the elements of postmodern narrative. If the regeneration of the city could be understood as an utopian attempt to rebuild the society as a better place, then the purpose of the utopian art would be to humanize the city as a collective environment of vital human existence. The main question would be if the utopian art can exist at all, or if utopian art can only represent the utopian idea/concept of itself instead of having an active involvement in the society. Could be that utopian art is making ground zero of contemporary art history nowadays? Following Plato's categorization of citizens in his Republic (as a first recorded utopian proposal), the similar concept of a class structure could be applied to arts. Could be that arts within the concept of utopian art are going to be classified according to its purpose and general contribution to the human existence? Would the utopian art be just a foundation for creating a unique art production that will support social development in the future cities dictated by the economy? It seems that Utopian art, as an independent division within the philosophical idea of Utopia, is a necessity rather than hypothetical ideal that could never actually exist, but only to serve as a critique on contemporary society. At the same time, the utopian art could be a construct of the conceptual idea in a mission to overcome its own idealization and become artistic extreme for a reason to establish a new social order.
Over the last few days our intrepid explorers have been recording footage of Neo-utopia around Southwark. The footage presented here was recorded at too low a resolution to be useful for anything else but web publishing, and it seemed a waste not to use it (some more footage is being recorded in the mean time so don't panic).
This visual and auditory anthropological approach to the dramatic but subtle shift in the ideal of Utopia in modern contemporary culture.
Reading through the last few posts I am reminded of this documentary called "Let's Make Money" and particularly the part below that explores the real estate boom on the Costa del Sol - we see examples of exclusivity and enclosures, deserted resorts and unfinished plans. Also interesting to grasp the global and local impact of these projects, and how different levels of interest and agency intertwine and produce these 'places' ...
an imaginary island described in Sir Thomas More's Utopia (1516) as enjoying perfection in law, politics, etc.
(usually lowercase ) an ideal place or state.
( usually lowercase ) any visionary system of political or social perfection.
< Neo-Latin (1516) < Greek ou not + tóp ( os ) a place + -ia -y3
Failed utopia, this term seems to be banded around a lot. In reference to idealist schemes that have fallen short. It seems to stand for good intentions, thwarted by harsh, often economic realities. I wish to suggest however, that in using the term utopia, surely we are setting ourselves up to fail? There should be no sense of surprise with which we refer to a utopian ideal that has failed to come into fruition. In fact, to use this phrase at all is perhaps something of a tautology.
The term 'utopia' came into general use as a result of Sir Thomas More, who in 1551 chose it as the name for his imaginary island that had, at least as far as he himself was concerned, perfect legal, social and political systems. However, the word utopia, far from simply referring to something ideal, heavenly, in fact comes from the Greek 'uo' to mean 'not' and 'topos' which translates as 'place', literally 'no place'. As late as 1609 there is record of it being used to mean simply 'having no known location'. It isn't until 1621 that it can be found defined as 'impossibly visionary, ideal'. As we can see, based on its origins it doesn't necessarily have positive connotations. It is perhaps more accurate to suggest that it is a place that is always just out of reach, both theoretically and practically.
If we look back to Moore's Utopia, the title page in fact reads 'the perfect place'. Many consider that his labelling of the island as Utopia was a joke, a comment on the idea that this perfection can never really exist. There is also the school of thought that More did not see his island as perfection at all, as a strict catholic he could not possibly have seen a legal system that allowed divorce to be anything other than abhorrent, but for now let us subscribe to the idea that he was aiming at the ideal.
If we bring this definition of utopia, as meaning 'of no known location' into a modern context, there are some interesting implications. In light of the current economic climate, land developers find themselves in great difficulty. Gone are the days in which huge loans could be taken with which to procure land and build luxury homes which would sell without question. There is suggestion that the new breed of land developer is concerned only with gaining planning permission which can then be sold to the highest bidder.
Handing over the keys is no longer the finish line, developments are commonly halted at various stages while deeds and debts change hands, in some cases never to be finished. Ghost towns are effectively created, where dreams crumble along with infrastructure. Is this the new utopia? The forever unfinished project, the promise and not the delivery.The no place.
If these spaces do exist, if we take the 'ideal' definition that recent rhetoric seems to have favoured, what then? Let us also look at the implications of the way in which utopia tends be commonly used, as a synonym for heaven. Utopia as a heavenly place, does not strive to provide the best for all, it is inherently selective. Each heaven has its own conditions of inclusion or exclusion, there are those who will and won't be allowed through it's gates. Perhaps this provides the basis for the new utopia, one that is no longer about inclusion, the best for all, but in fact about exclusivity. High end new builds such as Neo-Bankside and One Hyde Park (the penthouse having recently sold for £136m) trade on exclusivity, once you have purchased your utopia, the feeling of satisfaction that follows is based as much upon the amenities you know have access to, as it is on the knowledge that you are among a privileged few.
Is Utopia now reserved for the chosen few, those who have the means to buy their entrance through the pearly gates? Utopia is seen as marketing device that can be packaged neatly and sold to the highest bidder.
Which ever way we choose to define our utopia, one thing seems abundantly clear. It is no longer about the best for all, a future that is better than the present. It can be bought and sold, and benefits only those who know how to trade it. The only thing that can be said with any great certainty, is that in its current state, More would no longer recognise it.
Utopianism is not about being “no-where” it is about desiring to be “elsewhere”. This fact means that utopian desire has both hopeful and pessimistic sides; it yearns for happiness but only because it is so unhappy in the existing world…Utopian desire is the desire to desire differently, which includes the desire to abandon such desire…
Tobin Siebers – ‘What does postmodernism want? Utopia’
Utopia as a concept has had a number of incarnations, but its beginnings as a project are attributed to Thomas More and his book Utopia written in 1516. The title he chose for his imaginary society played on two Greek words: u-topia meaning “no-place” and eu-topia meaning “good-place”. An expression of what humanity might be, it was a place where human reason and rationality produced dignity, democracy, uniformity and equality for all. More’s project however was only ever philosophical, it was a way for him and his followers to critique the real world they lived in, but not to necessarily change it.
Fast-forwarding to the twentieth century then the project of utopia becomes modernist and concrete and a central vein of ideology in the aftermath of WWII. Utopianism promised hope for a better future, it was feverishly optimistic in which equality and opportunity for all were central values. Sadly these values were unsustainable in the increasingly competitive market driven economy, and the fear of totalitarianism and a realisation that one size does not fit all contributed to its demise.
It is commonly articulated that the post-war socialist utopian project failed and that it was dangerous and degenerating. This is a troubling view, but nevertheless the limitations of the project need to be considered. Clearly the fantasy of utopia must hang on a double edge between optimism and ruin, like many utopian novels, instability is always omnipresent. What is sacrificed or hidden? What is excluded from the plans?
I wonder if utopia as ‘a place’ conceived and represented can ever really exist, for does it not then risk becoming a heterotopia (a different place) or an isotopia (the same place)? - just another council estate inscribed with all the failing of the others? - a homogenous place, or an enclosure that is reserved for particular practices? Can, then, utopia really exist in the present?
In chapter two of The Urban Revolution Henri Lefebvre briefly turns his attention to the matter and presents utopia within a dialectical framework. (see pages 37-40)
Now, there is also an elsewhere, the non-place that has no place and seeks a place of its own. Vertically, a height erected anywhere on the horizontal plane, can become the dimension of elsewhereness, a place characterized by the presence-absence: of the divine, of power, of the half-functional, half-real, of sublime thought… Obviously the u-topic in this sense has nothing in common with an abstract imaginary. It is real. It is at the very heart of the real, the urban reality that can’t exist without this ferment. Within urban space, elsewhere is everywhere and nowhere.
For Lefebvre utopia is found in the dialectical urban form, in the possibility of contradiction and its own negation (possible-impossible and presence-absence). Above and below, near and far, there are spaces in the urban form that are unattainable yet ever present, that attract our attention and desires, they symbolise power structures but escape our full comprehension. He goes on to say,
The urban is defined as a place where people walk around, find themselves standing before and inside piles of objects, experience the intertwining of the threads of their activities until they become unrecognizable, entangle situations in such a way that they engender unexpected situations. The definition of this space contains a null vector (virtually); the cancellation of distance haunts the occupants of urban space. It is their dream, their symbolized imaginary, represented in a multiplicity of ways – on maps, in the frenzy of encounters and meetings, in the enjoyment of speed “even in the city”. This is utopia (real, concrete). The result is the transcendence of the closed and the open, the immediate and the mediate, near and far orders, within a differential reality in which these terms are no longer separated but become imminent differences.
Within a differential reality separations are transcended, and flows and assemblages are in free form. Optimism is exchanged for possibility and anything is possible as long as you desire it enough… Utopia becomes a set of relations, it is pieced together rather than given, and it is lived.
Utopia of urban reality is characterised by its everywhere and elsewhereness. This is interesting when considering our places of interest, particularly Neo-Bankside, not only for those who look on excluded from the plans, but also for those global inhabitants, who are neither here nor there (present-absent), who are always on the move and in a state of un-belonging (but long a place of their own). Not satisfied with owning the property they are also promised the ‘ownership’ of the view, of status, of luxury amenities, of speed - the folding in of time and space. The giddiness in this conception of utopia promises heterogeneity, freedom and agency, it is awash with networks, opportunity and diversity - no less, a marketing dream. But the drive towards completeness and happiness cannot be satisfied; this desire always seeks something else, even if we’re not sure what that is yet (hence more luxury apartments and shopping malls and leisure facilities).
Utopia as a desire to be elsewhere seems quite different from the modernist utopia that projected human values and reason into another time and space. Siebers suggests that ‘[postmodernists] are utopian not because they do not know what they want. They are utopian because they know they want something else. They want to desire differently’ so (ignoring any arguments as to whether we are postmodern or not), it appears then that we are stuck in this utopia even if we don’t like it very much, as a desire to change is thus a utopian desire: this, it seems, is the utopianism of present. But this is not satisfactory at all! Perhaps we should go back to classical utopia and not wish it to be a reality, but maintain it as philosophical and critical project and keep it away from desires?
Of course what all this talk of desire misses is the presence of hope that drove earlier utopian projects. Hope in transformations… Perhaps it is hope that needs regenerating and not utopia?
Can utopia really exist in the present? Its existence relies on an inherent contradiction: it is possible and it is impossible. As soon as it is realised it dissolves into another desire, or it becomes yet another place just like any other, or it reveals itself as a quasi-utopia - a marketing ploy. It shows itself best in moments of transformation, in sets of unstable relations, and in unfinished plans.