Micro-utopias are temporary manifestations of an ideal civic culture where participants test an aspirational political concept, process or social interaction.
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Problems and Purpose
Micro-utopias are temporary manifestations of an ideal civic culture where participants test an aspirational political concept, process or social interaction. In his book, Design for Micro-Utopias, John Wood suggest a network of micro-utopian projects ought to replace the single, monolithic utopias that we encounter in classical utopianism. As a method for participation, micro-utopias create experiences that shift taken-for-granted societal expectations by expanding ‘realm of the possible’. They take seriously Buckminster Fuller's important insight that "you never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete."
Closely linked to ideas of participatory art and the commons, micro-utopias have manifested as small-scale prototypes for ‘do-it-ourselves’ temporary community centers, micro-libraries, free schools, food gardens, free stores or digital platforms for collaborative political decision-making. They appear as artistic and political statements that result from interactions meant to provoke concrete political questions of the present. The purpose of micro-utopias is to stimulate public imagination by creating experiences in everyday life that bring an ethic of generosity, enjoyment and communalism. If well constructed, micro-utopias are spaces that people are attracted to, places that people want to visit, to live within and to help create.
According to Stephen Duncombe (forthcoming), small scale utopian projects should strive to:
- Inspire others by demonstrating another world is possible;
- Critique the existing dynamics of our current society;
- Generate new ideas for models for organizing society;
- Orient toward a shared direction;
- Motivate other toward collective and collaborative action.
Theory of Change
The theory of change behind micro-utopias is that if we offer a tangible glimpse or experience of a more desirable future, then people will be more likely to believe that such a future is possible and potentially participate in manifesting it. Further, if a critical mass of micro-utopias are created, then societies will be more capable of understanding and manifesting new societal structures, processes and relationships. Micro-utopias are by their nature temporary - they are not meant to be a definitive solution delivered by outsiders, but a model of what could be and a way to stimulate public imagination.
In her book Utopia as Method: The Imaginary Reconstitution of Society, Ruth Levitas posits that the concept of utopia helps stimulate “holistic thinking about the connections between economic, social, existential and ecological processes in an integrated way” which can support the development of “alternative possible scenarios for the future and open these up to public debate and democratic decision – insisting always on the ... contingency of what we are able to imagine” (2013: 19). By creating a different way of living and interacting, this approach also “entails refusal, the refusal to accept that what is given is enough” (2013: 17). Micro-utopias thus functions as a creative tool for defiance while also stimulating collective participatory prototyping and iteration.
Origins and Development
The concept of micro-utopias was originally proposed by curator Nicolas Bourriaud (Bourriaud, et,al. 2002) to describe art projects that create temporary and small-scale convivial moments and experiments in interpersonal relations. Bourriaud was interested in utopia as a “device” to move away from the abstract and locate the concrete, political component of the micro-dimension of social life, the structures and flows of power that conform our everyday lives (Blanes, et. al, 2016: 15). The concept of micro-utopia builds an approach to making art called “relational aesthetics” which Bourriaud defines as "a set of artistic practices which take as their theoretical and practical point of departure the whole of human relations and their social context" (Bourriaud, 2002: 113). This approach positions the artist as ‘facilitator’ or ‘catalyst and aims to offer a criteria to analyse the often opaque and open-ended works associated with participatory art (Finkelpearl, 2015:1).
Participant Recruitment and Selection
Participants recruiment depends on the nature and goals of the specific project. Typically, micro-utopias reach out to a wide audience, opening up participation to anyone interested in being involved in addressing the topic or process being explored. However, micro-utopias can also be targted at a specific group or community of people. Micro-utopias can aim to engage participants either spontaneously for a brief interaction or in on ongoing way, if an intervention remains in one location over an extended periode of time.
How it Works: Process, Interaction, and Decision-Making
Since the mid 1990s, the micro-utopia method has grown beyond art communities and been taken up by social movements that have combined the concept with communication technology in order to form ‘networked micro-utopias’ that use peer-to-peer digital media to test a concept or process that can be replicated or learned from. In his book Designing for Micro‐utopias: Thinking Beyond the Possible, design scholar John Wood suggests an independent network of interconnected “micro-utopias”, or, as he says, “brief, local utopias”, offers a more feasible alternative to the search for one single “utopia” (2007:12). Networked micro-utopias were used most notably the 15M Movement in Spain where a diversity of micro-utopias (such as popular assemblies, open wifi, guerilla theatre, public parties, free public transit, mobile applications to reach agreements and make collective decisions) were linked together and often coordinated (Gutierrez, 2013).
What micro-utopias look like:
- 'Free Stores' where all items are available at no cost;
- Community Long Table potlucks where neighbourhood contributions of food produce an abundance;
- Skill-share networks where participants can contribute their knowledge and learn new skills at no cost.
Case Example: Gramsci Monument (July - September, 2013)
The Gramsci Monument was a work by artist Thomas Hirschhorn that operated like a temporary community centre on the grounds of Forest Houses, a New York City Housing Authority development in the Morrisania neighborhood of the Bronx, New York. Named after the Italian thinker Antonio Gramsci, the project was interactive and collaborative in nature. The artist and the residents collaborated to build the temporary monument which included a library, an exhibition space, performance platform, workshop area, internet corner, lounge and bar, which were all run by local residents. The monument was an expansive installation constructed out of everyday materials like plywood, cardboard, duct tape and aluminum foil. For the duration of the project The Gramsci Monument was open daily, offering a daily program of lectures, workshops and open mic events coordinated by the community. A website provided live streaming and archives for documentation. The goal of the project was to establish a new term of monument, provoke encounters, create an event and consider the relevance of Gramsci to today’s society (Johnson, 2013).
Influence, Outcomes, and Effects
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Analysis and Lessons Learned
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Bourriaud, N., Pleasance, S., Woods, F., & Copeland, M. (2002). Relational aesthetics (p. 44). Dijon: Les presses du réel.
Blanes, R., Flynn, A., Maskens, M., & Tinius, J. (2016). Micro-utopias: anthropological perspectives on art, relationality, and creativity. Cadernos de Arte e Antropologia, 5(1), 5-20.
Duncombe, Stephen and Lambert, Steve. (in press) “Lessons from Utopia,” Journal of Visual Research, 6 (2) Dipti Desai, ed.
Finkelpearl, T. (2015). Participatory Art. Encyclopedia of Aesthetics.
Gutierrez, B. (2013). Spain’s Micro-Utopias: The 15M Movement and its Prototypes. Guerrilla Translation. Retrived March 1, 2017 from: http://www.guerrillatranslation.org/2013/05/16/spains-micro-utopias-the-...
Johnson, K. (2013). A Summer Place in the South Bronx: A Visit to Thomas Hirschhorn’s ‘Gramsci Monument.’. New York Times, 25. Retrived March 1, 2017 from: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/26/arts/design/a-visit-to-thomas-hirschhorns-gramsci-monument.html
Levitas, R. (2013). Utopia as method: The imaginary reconstitution of society. Springer.
Wood, J. (2007). Designing for Micro-utopias; thinking beyond the possible.