Housing Now, Utopia Later

Practical dreaming in CCAC's new show

Given the depressing state of current global affairs, I had high hopes for "Utopia Now!," an exhibition of international architecture and design currently on view at the California College of Arts and Crafts' Oliver Art Center. The exuberantly imperative title seemed to promise a powerful tonic to society's ills, an urgent call for large-scale social change. What the show presents, however, is not a dream, but a plan -- or rather, a cluster of plans, an assemblage of ideas that aim to change the world in tangible and immediate ways.

The premise of the show, curated by former CCAC Assistant Director of Programs Marina McDougall, is that contemporary visionaries reject the naive idealism that has characterized past attempts at global transformation. This century has seen the devastating aftermath of several of our most cherished schemes for cultural revolution. Socialism in the former U.S.S.R. and China quickly devolved into something more closely resembling fascism. The dreams of counterculture activists in the 1960s, both in the U.S. and abroad, were dimmed with the bloodshed of 1968. According to McDougall, such disastrous disappointments have led artists, designers, and philosophers to rethink the process of transforming society.

Today's dreamers, if the selection of work on view here is any indication, think small. Unlike past utopians, they acknowledge the human faults and foibles that have caused more monolithic experiments in social engineering to fail. Rather than attempt to suppress our tendency toward greed, quell our fierce individualism, and ignore our resistance to change, this generation of visionaries heeds such qualities and works with them. Change, they seem to argue, is most effective when brought about from within the existing paradigm.

Inflatable Walls: Michael Rakowitz's paraSite (Boston), part of "Utopia 
Now!" at CCAC.
Inflatable Walls: Michael Rakowitz's paraSite (Boston), part of "Utopia Now!" at CCAC.

The projects displayed in "Utopia Now!" are overwhelmingly pragmatic. Case in point: Superflex, a Danish art and design collective whose business model is that of a traditional corporation, complete with public stock offerings. Though the group's undertakings vary widely (ranging from an interactive Web television channel to an independent record label), it's represented in this show by a gigantic orange inflatable ball, an impressive device that transforms cattle dung into "biogas." The group has installed such units in Cambodia and Central Africa, allowing communities to produce enough gas to fuel cooking stoves and lamps. Such humane corporations might begin to transform capitalism from within -- or at least infuse it with a dose of social consciousness.

Other endeavors featured in the exhibition are more openly subversive. Spanish architect Santiago Cirugeda, for instance, noticed that when applying for a permit to erect scaffolding, one could simply leave blank the box that asks for the duration of construction. Cirugeda encourages cramped urban dwell-ers to use this discovery to their advantage by building permanent extensions onto their apartments, modular nests perched on metal branches outside their windows. A photograph of one such "scaffolding capsule" is on view, mounted beside a sheet of detailed instructions for carrying out such a project on one's own. Though Cirugeda, like Superflex, works within existing sociopolitical structures, he simultaneously undermines such structures by exploiting loopholes -- unarticulated ordinances, open spaces that are neither public nor private -- in order to infuse humanity into the increasingly inhuman systems that govern our world.

Less engaging are two video installations situated at the rear of the gallery. Amy Franceshini's rather bland video documents a mobile marketplace of plastic tents in Hong Kong that inspired her to design a second work, a series of modular backpacks that fold out into chairs. Her dream, as the explanatory text describes it, is to transform us into a nation of modern nomads, with all of our worldly possessions strapped to our backs. It's a bold vision, perhaps, but her project isn't convincing enough to persuade a populace of hard-core consumers to abandon their SUVs in favor of rucksacks.

Torolab's video, accompanied by an incessantly grating techno-schlock soundtrack, belabors the rather obvious comparison between San Diego's wealthy suburbs and the shantytowns of Tijuana. In a series of quick takes shot from the window of a moving car, Torolab first shows us the cookie-cutter communities north of the border, then the decrepit dwellings just south. These shacks are constructed from the resourcefully recycled garage doors and used tires of their residents' more affluent neighbors, detritus of a world that may be construed as utopian.

A more successful project is Shigeru Ban's perfectly proportioned Paper Log House, designed as a temporary shelter for victims of Japan's 1995 earthquake in Kobe. Ban, like the Tijuana home-builders featured in Torolab's video, transforms mundane material -- cardboard tubes, milk crates, canvas -- into affordable housing. His creation, though, is an elegant sanctuary that fuses socially responsible architecture with beauty and ingenuity.

Artist Michael Rakowitz similarly addresses the question of inexpensive shelter, presenting a one-person tent constructed of recycled plastic that inflates when connected by rubber hose to the exhaust ducts of industrial building exteriors. This ingenious dwelling is intended for use by homeless people; it meets stringent municipal codes prohibiting structures over 3 1/2 feet tall on city property. Obviously, the tents are not a permanent solution to the problem of homelessness, but rather a temporary intervention meant to raise public awareness of the issue. I have no doubt that Rakowitz's intentions are noble, but having seen a spate of similar projects in recent months (including a Rubbermaid-style "human storage unit" displayed at Southern Exposure), I find myself wary of such attention-grabbing devices.

Utopian fantasies have always been products of their times, revealing the imbalances and aspirations of the culture that conceives them. The partial, temporary solutions that dominate this show reflect our contemporary psyche in more ways than one: While our dreams are perhaps more sober and mature than those of past generations, we are also far more complacent. Several of the ideas articulated here are both imaginative and resourceful, and we can certainly use some practical antidotes to afflictions of modern society such as inadequate housing and poverty. But equally necessary are the unwieldy, impractical dreams, the ones that inspire faith that revolution is viable, that a more humane, more just, more peaceful world can be attained. What "Utopia Now!" fails to deliver is any hope that a more comprehensive utopia is still possible.

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