The revival of Utopia

Along with the rising interest in alternative constructions of society triggered by the global advents of economic and environmental crises, the concept of Utopia also seems to go through a revival. Deservedly so – Utopia is more than just a concept for treehugging idealists and radical dreamers. Often connoted as a blueprint concept that would never work in practice, the idea of Utopia is easily depreciated as exactly what it etymologically means: the non-place that will never be achieved. So why bother to even think about something that is always going to be a dream?

The Society of Utopian Studies, which was founded in 1988 by a group of interdisciplinary British scholars seems to think otherwise. Since their foundation, they have organized, amongst other activities, 14 conferences so far dealing with the concept of Utopia from social, political, literary and artistic points of view. This year’s conference was entiteld Topographies of Harmony and took place in Scottish New Lanark, a model village conceived after Robert Owen’s concepts of a socialist Utopia.

During a getting-google-lost session in the beginning of the year, I accidentally came across the society’s webpage. Curiosity and interest made me and a friend book a flight to the UK and travel all the way to the small village, situated in a valley next to the town Lanark, just an hour on the train from Glasgow. We were not the only international visitors; there were scholars and academics from around the globe – the Netherlands, Poland, the Czech Republic, Brazil, Greece, Portugal, Spain, and the UK, adding up to around a 100 delegates. The atmosphere was quite inviting and open-minded, even though it sometimes seemed that it was mostly academics focussing on presenting papers and their research and only few independent scholars and practicioners. Still, the overall feel was unusual and inspiring due to the interdisciplinarity of the participants and the overarching theme of Utopia.

The mother-son-team Docey and Owen Dale from New Harmony, direct descendents of Robert Owen and David Dale presented their socially responsible practice of carpets and wallpaper produced in collaboration with artisans from Bangladesh, Nepal and other countries of the developing world, together with impressions from their home in New Harmony, Indiana, another model village established by Robert Owen in 1825. The independent scholars Chris Coates and William Rubel also presented contemporary practices of applied Utopias – the first introducing his new publication Utopia Britannica, mapping intentional communities in Britain between 1939-2000, the latter sharing his ideas about traditional foodways, the fireplace and consumption in the garden.

Fatima Vieira made a nice presentation on the last day, reinvigorating the importance of Utopian studies and positing it as a subject worth studying for all. In order to redefine the reasons for Utopian thought being so important, she shared a video clip showing the Uruguayan author Eduardo Galeano to the audience which you can see below:

Ruth Levitas, in a way the contemporary heroine of Utopian theory, presented an interesting paper on the political radius of art, refering to the English artists Jeremy Deller and Alex Hartley‘s project Nowhereisland. How can artistic practice reintroduce the concept of Utopia in people’s everydays? The question was left open for discussion – a very interesting one, since art (design, and all the other creative and cultural practices) have a huge potential of affecting social change. But under what premises?

There will be room and the opportunity to discuss this topic more – the 15th conference is already being planned and will take place next year in Prague on 2-5th of July. We will definitely try to go again with some sort of contribution to the program.

Thanks again to the USS and Lorna Davidson for organizing this great conference and all the inspiring presenters – hope to see you again next year.

KM, 15.08.2013

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