Utopian Gestures

For some time I have been sensitive to the variety of utopias that I encounter here in China.

Of course, by utopias, I don’t mean the comprehensive, complete, all-encompassing social utopias of the type that national leaders or religious figures imagine and occasionally attempt to realize on a large scale—like the communist one featured in Chinese propaganda imagery from the 1940s through the 1970s. Rather, I have been attracted to much smaller utopias—the attempted everyday utopias that are intentionally modest in scope and highly localized. In fact they are often not even complete ideas, just movements in the direction of an ideal. In this sense, I think of them as utopian gestures.

By a utopian gesture I mean a bounded object, place, idea or representation of an ideal of action, response, affect, or social interaction that asserts in a modest way on whatever scale it can manage, the perfect dreams of its creator. It’s as if a social actor—a teacher, designer, organizer, manager or whoever—in carrying out the responsibilities of their local everyday life decided, “I’m going to get this perfect! I’m going to nail this one thing! This is going to be done Right!”

Often these utopian gestures are easiest to spot when they are new—when the dream of their design or creation has not yet been tarnished, damaged or begun to decay. Of course, they are also very visible when their promise is unrealized and they are contradicted, repurposed, damaged, destroyed or ignored. When the ideal of the design meets the harshness of everyday life the contrast can put the original utopian gesture into start relief.

I’ve been collecting photos of these utopian gestures or years—always with the intention of sharing them in some way. Now that I’m hoping to get back to blogging, my plan is to post these here on Museum Fatigue with small reflections or analysis attached. I’m hoping that I can at least collect these here, share them, and maybe get to thinking about them more as they grow in number. Of course I also hope that folks will enjoy them.

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