The word ‘utopia’ dates back to 1516, but it seems that recently we’ve lost our ability to be positive about the future
I had planned, in the run up to the very real election (taking place this Thursday, unless you’re voting conservative in which case remember to vote on Friday 9th), to focus on all things Theresa May-or-may-not-take-us-back-to-the-poorhouses-of-Victorian-England… But looking back at the last few weeks of my residency I noticed that she’s taken up lots of space already. So in a bid to fill this week with positivity and hope (the other options were fear and despair), I have decided to focus on alternate futures, Utopias if you will.
Whilst I’ve made it painfully clear that Magna Carta is a document with many shortcomings, it nonetheless is an example of how change imagined becomes change manifested. Before the landowning barons met with King John, they probably went through a thought process that involved: 1 realising the current land owning laws were rubbish 2. Imagining how their lives would be improved with better land owning policies 3. Setting out to talk to the king about making it happen. It took the envisioning of a different future for Magna Carta even to be drafted. In light of this, I’ll be spending the week exploring different artistic permutations of Utopian worlds, in a bid to conjure up alternate possibilities to the Brexit Britain reality we are currently experiencing.
Thomas More’s famous text Utopia, published in 1516, was a fictional exploration of an island society. Thanks to Wikipedia, I know that Utopia “literally means nowhere” ( derived from the Greek prefix “ou-” (οὐ), meaning “not”, and topos (τόπος), “place”, with the suffix -iā (-ία). But I’d like to think that whilst Utopias are inherently unreal spaces, the elements that make them desirable, such as equality, freedom and peace could at least manifest themselves more frequently in our day to day lives.
In 2016, Somerset House tried to bring some of these elements to life in their commemoration of the 500th Anniversary of Thomas More’s book. Bringing together several artists and thinkers they tried to envision a contemporary Utopia (which you can check out here). Whilst some have criticised the inherently intangible elements of Utopian environments, I think they’re a great, and more positive way of critiquing present-day shortcomings in our society. For example the tender idea of “destroying schools beautifully… Teach us how to love education, don’t lock us up with it daily”, from a contributor named Maximilian, highlights the oppressive and restrictive nature of our current education system. Whilst the real work is figuring out how to re-jig the system and provide education that is inspiring and engaging, the first step is admitting that the current system does not work.
When thinking about what a Utopic Britain might look like, images of lush greenery, affordable housing and absence of hunger come to mind; not too dissimilar to the landscape conjured by Sandra Simons’ in her poem The Garden of Eden where George Michael blends with “flowers and crystals”. This obscure mesh of lush imagery comes from a longer poem Simons is writing called Atopia, which looks at the idea of ‘Atopia’, a space somewhere between utopian and dystopian ideals. Whilst I’m trying to move away from dystopian imagery for the sake of positivity, it is still useful to look at other people’s ideals in order to pick and choose elements of my own. And the magic of utopias, is that they allow unbridled imagination, and can be wholly personal, political or a-political – it is a space for play.
Janelle Monae’s playful concept of Wondaland, which enables her to imagine a space of African American freedom and prosperity (more on this in tomorrow’s post). She is no doubt inspired by the pioneer of Afrofuturism, musician and scholar Sun Ra. During his career he set out to create as many signifiers as possible of a positive future for black people, be it music, poetry or visual imagery. The video below is a short crash course in the roots of Afrofuturism (narrated by UK artists Little Simz), and it sheds light on many issues we are still facing today. Inspired by Sun Ra, Janelle Monae, and poets like Essex Hemphill, I’ll be delving trawling the world of art, music and poetry to collect artefacts for my own utopia. What will yours look like?