Nowhereisland

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Art

Utopias

Utopia frontispiece

When in 1516, Sir Thomas More coined the name 'utopia' for his imaginary island society, he drew upon the Greek derivation of the words ou-topos (meaning 'no place' or 'nowhere') and eu-topos (meaning a ‘good place’). On discovering a newly revealed island in the archipelago of Svalbard, Alex Hartley set about naming the island – Nymark ("new ground" in Norwegian).[1] By 2012, the endeavor was transformed from an individual’s act of claiming sovereignty into a work of utopian promise. Hartley chose the name Nowhereisland, playing on the critical tension between the positive declaration of discovery ‘now-here-is-land’ and the undoing of that discovery ‘nowhere island’ – between the ideal of founding a new island society and the impossibility of that utopian act.

From Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis (1627) to Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1723), the imaginative charge of the utopian island has continued to fuel a genre of utopian and dystopian writing, art practices and filmmaking. Such works have proffered the utopian state as an impossible dream revealing the values and principles of the socio-political context of the times in which they were produced.

In his recent study of Utopia in the Whitechapel’s Documents of Contemporary Art series, Richard Noble has suggested that, “The utopian impulse is central to our most powerful works of art, literature and philosophy”, and continues to ‘inform and animate’ contemporary art. Noble includes this revealing conversation with sociologist Immanuel Wallerstein:

‘[Thomas] More imagines a society that exists on an island somewhere which is perfectly safe because no one can touch it and he imagines how that society could be constructed. So it is an act of his imagination as to what the good society could be like and in a sense that’s what utopias have been: acts of imagination about what a good society ought to look like and then some people have acted on these acts of imagination and they say, “Okay we have to do A, B and C in order to arrive politically at this perfect society”. I start with the premise, that first of all perfect societies not only do not exist, but in fact cannot exist. Secondly, I start with the old Marxian premise that maybe men make history, but they do not make it as they wish - there are constraints of social realities.”[2]

Yoko Ono and John Lennon Declaration of Nutopia, 1 April 1973. Copyright Yoko Ono. Photo: Bob Gruen, Courtesy of Yoko Ono

Noble suggests that, “for artworks to be utopian, they need to offer two things which seem to pull in rather different directions: on one hand a vision or intimation of a better place than the here and now we inhabit; and on the other some insight into what Bloch terms the ‘darkness, so near’ the contradictions and limitations that drive our will to escape the here and now in the first place. “[3] Nowhereisland, like John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s Nutopia before it, can be seem to embody this contradictory pull: between the dream of an ideal society and the conditions of the world in which we live. It draws upon the aesthetic strategy of ‘modeling’ – outlined by Noble as a process through which possible worlds are modeled or proposed and in doing so, draw out the failings of our society.

Where Nowhereisland is distinguished from the art manifestos of the Futurists, Vorticists or Surrealists in the 20th Century and the utopian participatory projects referenced under the participation section, however, is that the shape, values and principles of the Nowhereisland utopia, are in a constant state of flux.

The Nowhereisland constitution, unlike the format of the art manifesto, is not authored by the artist, but rather its structure is defined by the artist to allow for a diversity, and often conflicting, set of aspirations proposed by citizens of Nowhereisland. The Resident Thinkers programme holds within it the rhetoric of I have a dream… alongside the calls to action of environmentalists, political activists and economists. In this way, Nowhereisland can be seen to offer “the capacity for creative illusion - that is, the ability to think and act ‘as if’ things were different.“[4]

In his consideration of artistic practices which for him have demonstrated this capacity for creative illusion, Alex Hartley cites one particularly powerful influence – the work of Andrea Zittel. Zittel is best known for her ‘living systems’ that explore the fundamental elements of human survival.

A-Z Prototype for Pocket Property," floating off the coast of Denmark, 1999 Concrete, steel, wood, dirt, and vegetation, approximately 23 x 54 feet

Her A–Z Pocket Property, was a forty-four-ton floating fantasy island off the coast of Denmark, commissioned by the Danish government, which contrasted the extremes of a creative escape with the isolation that occurs when a person is removed from society. In 1999, Zittel moved to the Mojave Desert with the idea of leading an experimental life and established A-Z West, a site that encompasses all aspects of daily living as ‘an ongoing endeavor to better understand human nature and the social construction of needs.’ At A-Z West routine activities such as sleeping, eating, cooking and socialising become artistic actions. For over two decades Zittel’s experiments here have included living on an artificial island and living without measured time.

For an in-depth analysis of art and the politics of impossible futures, view this lecture by Professor Stephen Duncombe.

Further reading

Gregory Claeys ed., Searching for Utopia: The History of an Idea (London: Thames & Hudson) 2011

Richard Noble ed., Utopia (London: Whitechapel and Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2009)

Ruth Levitas, The Concept of Utopia (Syracuse Univ Press) 1990

Nicolas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics (Paris: Presses du Réel) 1998

 

References

[1] It was officially named Nyskjæret by the Name Committee for Norwegian Polar Regions (skjer = skerry).

[2] Immanuel Wallerstein quoted in conversation with Molly Nesbit, Hans Ulrich Obrist and Rirkrit Tiravanija in 2003, in Richard Noble ed., Utopia (London: Whitechapel and Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2009) p. 189.

[3] Richard Noble introduction, as above.

[4] Professor Lynn Froggett and her team at UCLAN recently published these emergent findings about the impact of socially engaged arts practice and the ways in which its value can be evaluated and articulated. Download the headline findings here.

 

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Nowhereisland is a Situations project led by artist Alex Hartley, one of 12 Artist Taking the Lead projects for the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad funded by Arts Council England. We also gratefully acknowledge the support of the University of the West of England, Bristol; Bloomberg; Nicky Wilson Jupiter Artland; the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs; the Royal Norwegian Embassy and Yellowbrick Tracking.

Identity designed by Fraser Muggeridge studio and Wolfram Wiedner, website by Wolfram Wiedner.