I’m in Minneapolis right now and have been anxiously anticipating my first encounter with the the Walker Art Centre. Having followed their programme, blogging, Herzog & de Meuron’s architectural feats – it was time for the personal experience. For the whole summer this summer, their public programming has taken a major risk, calling it an experiment in public space, and basically “loaned” their gigantic backyard space to museum users to do with what they will – creatively. The Walker Open Field project creates a kind of “common” where anyone from violin students to yoga instructors to anarchist reading groups can meet and share knowledge and time. I thought – nice idea in theory, but would it really work in practice? And it seems to. With very little control from the top. A simple kiosk at the front entrance tells you the daily programme (which you can also find detailed online) and you can also pick up some reading material, board games or an iPad from inside the museum. One local chef has also set up a grill bar serving veggie burgers and sauerkraut with local beers. Idyllic.
Well, maybe not. One group who are participating in the Open Field is a collective called, Red76 who are known for setting up Anywhere/Anyplace/Academies (AAA) using surplus building, shipping, storage materials. And this idea of recycling also applies to ideas – their discursive programme is entitled ‘Surplus Seminars’ where they revise old ideas in new ways, giving an ephemeral, do-it-yourself (truly American!) context.
Last night’s Surplus Lecture was delivered by Stephen Duncombe of New York University who spoke about ‘Utopia is a No Place’. You can see the video link here.
Taking the surplus nature of this phrase a little too far i.e. it ain’t the first time someone’s provided an exegesis on the etymology of the word Utopia – Duncombe did proceed to make some interesting assertions about art’s current obsession with speculation. Unconstrained by what he called ‘the tyranny of the possible’, Duncombe presented a project by the Yes Men’s fake New York Times edition which heralded the end of the Iraq War, free health and education for Americans and the end of poverty, as the perfect example of how contemporary artists are finding their footing between truth, belief and Utopia in order to reanimate the imaginative organs of (Western) society. He looked at some basic assumptions about ‘truth’ and how art is supposed to relate to these – that it has some revelatory function and that it should debunk the myths inhibiting that truth from being made known. He cited the story of the Emperor’s New Clothes, saying that usually, the artist is the small boy pointing the finger at the naked emperor. The truth however, is never a static thing – always ‘protean’ – and to remain dynamic that little boy must do more than point the finger.
“It makes me feel good when I critique stuff,” Stephen said as he bluntly spelled out the norm in most intellectual circles. But criticism is not generative in itself. He said what art can do, following on from the original Utopian, Thomas More, is present what could be as opposed to what will be. More never claimed that Utopia was a real place, or indeed one that could ever be achieved. He used his parable as a strategy to critically engage with the society that was, pitting it against an image of the one it could have been (one with no money, no debt, no lawyers, etc.) However, what Duncombe didn’t really address here was More’s position as the white, educated, lawyer living in the Western ‘civilised’ world. Imagination in this context, in the context of complex critique is…privileged. Despite Duncombe’s justification during the question and answer session that in fact the greatest act of imagination came out of poor black communities in America and resulted in the Civil Rights Movement, he did say that as soon as that Utopia of equality for all humans regardless of skin colour became a legal, administrative process, the Utopia was gone. He implied that, like the horizon, it cannot and must not be reached in order to be maintained.
For me this was a disappointment. Not that Utopia can never be realised, but that this critical distancing, the privilege of pulling back from the imagined world when it is shown to be just that – imagined – as Thomas More might have done when receiving criticism for his ideas – means little for our sense of responsibility over that imagination, over that realm of impossibility. Why make the steps towards the horizon in the first place if we do not believe that by taking those steps we get somewhere at least? I think Duncombe was not advocating that we don’t get anywhere, but anywhere is not somewhere. Just as Utopia is a no place, we might adopt de Certeau’s notion of space instead – space is practiced place – when we take ownership, through enunciation, through bodily inhabitation, through personal risk of ridiculousness, Utopia becomes a space of imagination. A realm of the possible as well as the impossible.
Duncombe ended by talking a little about dialectics and the need for any substantial, Utopian artwork to simultaneously support two contradictory ideas – the possible and the impossible – without satire and without providing any ready made solutions to that contradiction. ‘A dreampolitik,’ he called it. And I wonder in the context of the Van Abbemuseum’s quest to imagine the world otherwise, how this dream actually works out, how it is made visible and how it is journeyed towards. What happens when we take a public with us, what, indeed, are the ethics of imagination?