Thursday, 31 January 2013

Dreaming of a Better World...

For thousands of years, since at least the writing of Plato’s Republic (and possibly before) people have crafted visions of utopia: imaginary perfect worlds or lands. These utopias tend to embody the principles of a lifestyle, system of philosophy or politics that is favoured by the author. We can state, broadly, that all visions of utopia, whether designed for practical realisation or not, carry within them a polemic purpose, if only in the way they contrast with the current condition of the world. The utopia, therefore, is an inherently political form of literature; it offers us a vision of the world as it could be, if only we embodied its virtues and lived by its principles. However, attempts to realise utopian visions in the real world have either had only limited success, or have been spectacular and unsettling failures.

Unfortunately, the number of potential ‘perfect’ worlds is practically infinite. There are not just the different visions of perfection that have been held by each individual person who has ever lived, at all the different points throughout their lives, but the different interpretations each person has, or could have of each other person’s visions. Out of this maelstrom of competing visions much of western history has created; the Christian concept of the post-apocalyptic thousand year Kingdom of Christ on Earth (itself arising from a fusion of older traditions) has provided the core of an eschatological narrative that has infused political ideologies as diverse as marxism, primitivism, fascism and neoliberalism. The fallout of utopia is seen everywhere, in all the things people hoped might lead to a better world; from religions, economic systems and the shape of countries to the design of fonts, shopping centres, transport systems and public gardens. In the 20th century, an increasingly cynical world began to turn away from the utopia to the dystopia. Though it grew out of tradition of satires of utopia stretching back at least to Gulliver’s Travels, this was essentially a new genre, taking form in the late 19th century. Where utopia is a promise, dystopia is a warning, a nightmare vision of what our world could be. Often a system that may on the surface seem utopian, but in fact conceals deep flaws (often a suppression of individual freedom of thought and action) dystopia can be seen in many cases as a reaction to the rise of the great utopian, eschatological ideologies that dominated much of the world in the 20th century. It is a realisation of the fundamental truth that one person’s dream is very often another’s nightmare. Where the utopian is a call to action, the dystopia is an admonishment against inaction; a portent of what society might become (in the dystopian’s mind) if things are allowed to continue down a certain path. They attempt to show the end result of a philosophy or way of life from the perspective of the sceptical, or downright hostile outsider.

In the face of the onslaught of dystopia, utopia has retreated. Though we could say that the world we live in is a dystopia made up of fragments of other people’s utopias, new visions struggle to take hold. Techno-utopians of various stripes have made some headway in recent years, attempting to imagine a scientific vision of a rational utopia, without politics, and preaching the gospel of the singularity, an imagined future point at which artificial intelligence and nanotechnology will come together to create an exponential increase in human capability, but their critics are as numerous as their proponents, the criticisms of their alternating chauvinism and naiveté often cutting. In keeping with this retreat, utopia has singularly failed to colonise the new mediums of the 20th and 21st centuries. It is easy to list dystopian films, many of them very good: Brazil, Children of Men, Metropolis, La Jetée, Blade Runner, THX 1138. It is much more difficult to list utopian films. An online list of ‘5 utopian films’ that tops a google search is forced to suggest Metropolis and Logan’s Run, questionable indeed. Computer games give us more hope, with civilisation building, 4X and simulation games such as Civilisation, Alpha Centauri, SimCity and Dwarf Fortress all offering at least the potential for crafting a utopian vision. In narrative games, however, we find dystopian and post-apocalyptic visions abounding in titles such as Deus Ex, Bioshock, Beneath a Steel Sky, FinalFantasy VII and Syndicate. Even in the simulation games, the possibility of dystopia is just as present as that of utopia, and unethical and dystopian actions often offer a quicker route to victory, surprisingly easy to take when only virtual lives are at stake.

The 21st of December 2012 was the latest in a long string of potential millennial turning points, times of feared apocalypse. It seems a propitious juncture at which to examine the state of utopia and dystopia. At the beginning of the project, my questions are:

  1. Has utopia or dystopia been a more effective means of trying to affect change on the world?  
  2.    Are utopian and dystopian visions largely Western literary forms, relying on Christian eschatological thinking and narratives of historical progress, or are they a more universal form, with alternative views suppressed by western hegemony? If so, what are some key non-western utopian and dystopian visions, and how do they differ from western ones? 
  3.   Is utopia still a viable genre?
  4. Is dystopia useful? Science fiction critics have sometimes lambasted the popular dystopian and post-apocalyptic novels, often written by literary authors who eschew the ‘sci-fi ghetto’ (Margaret Atwood, George Orwell, JG Ballard, Cormac McCarthy etc.) for their polemicism. pessimism or failure of imagination. Science fiction remains, one avenue through which utopian ideas still find expression, though science fiction often refrains from trying to portray a perfect and unproblematic world. Science fiction also offers speculative tools that might be used to create utopias by altering reality, re-writing history, creating free energy, etc.
  5. What is the visual language of utopia and dystopia? If we move out the literary sphere, can we find common themes that unite many apparently disparate visions of perfect or imperfect worlds? How might book design express utopian concepts, and how has book design been ruled by utopian ideas in the past?

I also have a number of potential concepts or fragments of ideas to explore. The works of Umberto Eco (Foucault’s Pendulum) and Jorge Luis Borges (Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius) offer possibilities for literary or artistic creations to enter reality; what might happen if we were to follow the idea of Patrick Keiller’s fictional ‘Robinson Institute’ to more radical ends. What would my utopia look like, and how might I go around visualising it or even implementing it using artistic methods? Is it possible to create a heterotopia that encompasses and accomodates many different visions of utopia, and would such a concept in itself be utopian? Is the modern world literally a dystopia? There are many potential leads to build from in my work up to this point. There are also many artists, writers, concepts and ideas to examine.

The eventual result of the process that begins with asking these questions would be either one book entitled UTOPIA / DYSTOPIA or two books, entitled UTOPIA and DYSTOPIA. If one book, the book might be split into two sections, to be read on alternating pages in opposite directions, or contained in a dos-à-dos binding, or some other conceit. For final display, the idea presents itself of providing a reading area, with a number of chairs and a bookshelf, perhaps with the artist present as a performative element. The bookshelf, as well as the end work, might contain a selection of carefully chosen (in terms of both their content and aesthetic appearance) utopian and dystopian works. The audience would be encouraged via signage to read these books and to engage fully with the artwork, as if it were not in a gallery. There is a potential for an element that involves the audience by asking them to contribute their competing visions of utopia or dystopia, and perhaps to erase or amend the visions of others. A hand-bound blank book, a set of brushes and a pot of black and a pot of white paint. A chalkboard or whiteboard. A suggestion box, a noticeboard, etc.

The first stage of the project will be a wide-ranging survey of literature, recorded on this new blog. During this stage, visual and literary experiments inspired by the reading will be undertaken. Then, a form must be decided for the book(s). I found the strict externally imposed structure of Vectis both stimulating and constricting, and wish to perhaps try a different approach with this work. By April, I should have finished this stage and have begun work on the book itself, parts of which should already have begun to accumulate during the previous months. I foresee the end result being a work comparable in size to Vectis, perhaps 400 A5 pages split evenly between the two sections. There is also the potential for some parts of the work to be realised in alternative forms using different scales and methods, something that was suggested in Vectis but not seriously engaged with.