Friday, 7 October 2016

Paths to Utopia

I didn't enjoy visiting London, this time. My destination was the Paths to Utopia exhibition at Somerset House, King’s College London, exploring ideal societies. This theme seemed divorced from immediate experience.

King's Cross resembled a 1960s overpopulation movie, with crowds of stressed commuters heaving against each other like tadpoles in a tiny pond. I wouldn't have been surprised to find Pret a Manger serving Solyent Green.

Even more distressing were the homeless people; just outside the terminal, I was approached by three people, begging for money, and there were plenty more in Charing Cross Road. A society that treats humans as garbage is hardly an ideal one, and seems in some ways closer to dystopia.

So by the time I reached Somerset House, I was wondering what utopia still had to offer.

The exhibition was part of a 2016 celebration of the 500th anniversary of the publication of Thomas Moore’s Utopia, a work of fiction and political philosophy. The word, which means no place, has come to signify an ideal society, but it can also mean a mode of thinking where our current reality is reimagined as something new and hopefully better.

The entrance to the exhibition was a cave with a distorting mirror. This created the feeling of stepping out of the everyday,  into a different imaginative space. Caves are symbolic of the womb, death and the subconscious, and offer passage from here to elsewhere. Lord Lytton's The Coming Race, featuring a somewhat totalitarian society of superbeings, begins with a traveller lost in the caves, so it's an old and appropriate trope.

The first exhibit, 'We account the Whale Immortal' by Jessica Sarah Rinland, was installed in a darkened room with three, continuously projected screens.  Flickering images showed the sea, and glimpses of a nautical journal, a man climbing in a whale's mouth, a hand strumming whale baleen, old depictions of whales and whaling, water lapping on steps, whale watchers, icebergs, and bones.

The films had been edited during a live performance featuring Rinland and Philip Hoare, the author of Leviathan. The theme was the historical arrival of three whales in the Thames, and the piece had a special mood, although I struggled rather to link it to the utopian theme.

The Utopian Lab, meanwhile, featured a film exploring the thoughts of people in health care. A group of nurses and carers were allowed to discuss, draft and illustrate their ideas for an ideal health care system. It was novel to see people who were used to working within a regulation-bound profession enter a space of freedom and creativity.


Medical technology can also be the source of new utopian visions. 'All the things that you are not Yet' by Karina Thompson, was a singing quilt showing two embryos, who have now become two year old toddlers. This quilt was a symbol of a moment of new life,  and the 'possibilities of in vitro fertilisation.' There is nothing more utopian than the creation of a new human being, with all their potential for good or evil.

One of my favourite pieces was the installation film by Le Gun collective entitled 'the Temple of Perpetual myth,' which you can view here, at about 34:10 minutes. The imagery in this film recalled for me comparable spectacles from the carnival celebration of the Mexican Day of the Dead. According to the collective, the film shows cosmic shamans, writing messages in the ink of creation.

I also liked the installation that dealt with the work of Roger Fry (1866—1934), an english artist and art critic. Fry promoted a movement called post-impressionism and saw deep themes linking art from traditional cultures and modern.

The intersection of traditional cultures and utopian thinking has long interested me. It finds its expression in a kind of science fiction called ‘future primitive.’ This is SF where we have rediscovered or reinvented modes of living that recall our prehistoric past. These modes of life often coexist with high technology, and are illustrated by the works of Ursula Le Guin and Kim Stanley Robinson.

Le Guin's novel the Dispossessed was the subject of another film installation, discussion and performance entitled 'Night School on Annares.' The film and discussion is viewable here. The Dispossessed depicts the interactions between a hierarchical, capitalist world and its anarchist moon, and in my view ranks alongside Brave New World and Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Both Le Guin and Robinson were name checked at the exhibition’s end, which featured a blackboard with quotes from a number of other utopian thinkers like H.G. Wells, Oscar Wilde and Maya Angelou. There was also space to write your own thoughts.
Facing that blackboard was difficult. What are my thoughts on utopia?

It seems to me that we're currently living through a very reactionary phase of British history where introverted, backwards looking and nationalistic values are on the ascendent. As a result, utopia might seem impossibly distant, but the mode of thinking has never been more urgently required.

For me, utopia is about the latent possibilities of existence. Anyone with a glancing knowledge of world history and anthopology will realise that the claim that 'there is no alternative' to consumer Capitalism is false. There are many ways of ordering existence; and some of these are probably better, maybe vastly better, than our current environment-wrecking, people-discarding, data-frazzled and xenophobic realities.

So what did I write on the board? See below....

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