What is a Station?
During a debate with Theodor Adorno in 1964, Ernst Bloch, pushed to the wall to defend his position on utopia, stood firm. Adorno had begun things by reminding everyone present that certain utopian dreams had actually been fulfilled, that there was now television, the possibility of travelling to other planets and moving faster than sound. And yet these dreams had come shrouded, minds set in traction by a relentless positivism and then their own boredom. “One could perhaps say in general,” he noted, “that the fulfillment of utopia consists largely only in a repetition of the continually same ‘today.’”
Bloch countered. The word utopia had indeed been discredited, he noted, but utopian thinking had not. He pointed to other levels of mind, to removes that were less structured by Western capital. Utopia was passing less auspiciously under other names now , he remarked, for example, “science fiction” and the beginnings of sentences starting with “If only it were so…”
Adorno agreed with him there and went on. “Whatever utopia is,” he said, “whatever can be imagined as utopia, this is the transformation of the totality. And the imagination of such a transformation of the totality is basically very different in all the so-called utopian accomplishments –which, incidentally, are all really like you say: very modest, very narrow. It seems to me that what people have lost subjectively in regard to consciousness is very simply the capability to imagine the totality as something that could be completely different.” How to think utopia then? Adorno saw the only possibility to reside in the notion of an unfettered life freed from death. All at once the discussion of utopia expanded; it became not merely old, but ancient. It seemed to shed ideologies as if they were skins. Adorno declared that there could be no picture of utopia cast in a positive manner, there could be no positive picture of it at all, nor could any picture be complete. He went very far. Bloch only followed him part way. He summoned up a sentence from Brecht . He let it stand as the nutshell that held the incentive for utopia. Brecht had written “Something’s missing.”
“What is this ‘something’?” Bloch asked. “If it is not allowed to be cast in a picture, then I shall portray it as in the process of being. But one should not be allowed to eliminate it as if it really did not exist so that one could say the following about it: ‘It’s about the sausage.’ … I believe utopia cannot be removed from the world in spite of everything, and even the technological, which must definitely emerge and will be in the great realm of the utopian, will form only small sectors. That is a geometrical picture, which does not have any place here, but another picture can be found in the old peasant saying, there is no dance before the meal. People must first fill their stomachs, and then they can dance.”
"Something is Missing," the statement from Brecht. Typically when searching for utopia, one relies on the steps taken by others, for ever since its first formulation in 1516 in the book by Sir Thomas More, ever since its invention as the island of good social order, utopia has been a proposition to be debated, several speakers often pitching in at once. They bring thoughts, experience, the fruits of the past. For utopia is in many ways an ancient search for happiness, for freedom, for paradise. Sir Thomas More had had Plato’s Republic in mind as he wrote. By now however utopia itself has lost its much of its fire. The work done in the name of utopia has soured the concept, left it strangled by internal, seemingly fixed perspectives, the skeletons of old efforts which leave their bones on the surface of the body as if they belonged there. Has utopia been strung up? Or obscured by bad eyesight? Certainly it has gone missing. Utopia itself has become a conceptual no-place, empty rhetoric at best, more often than not an exotic vacation, the desert pleasure island of cliché. Abbas Kiarostami, when asked recently if he had any unrealized or utopian projects, refused the long perspectives of utopia altogether. He preferred to fix matters in the present, taking each day one hill at a time. We in turn have set our sights on the middle ground between the island and the hill. We will build a Station there and name it Utopia Station.
The Utopia Station is a way-station. As a conceptual structure it is flexible; the particular Station planned for the Venice Biennale is physical too. It will rise as a set of contributions by more than sixty artists and architects, writers and performers, the ensemble being coordinated into a flexible plan by Rirkrit Tiravanija and Liam Gillick. It has been important to all concerned that the plan not present itself as a finished picture. Let us therefore conjure up the Station by means of a few figures. It begins with a long low platform, part dance-floor, part stage, part quai. Along one side of this platform is a row of large circular benches sit, so that you can watch the movement on the platform or silently turn your back or treat the circle as a generous conversation pit. Each seats ten people. The circular benches are portable; as an option one could line them up like a row of big wheels. Along the other side of the platform a long wall with many doors rises up. Some of the doors take you to the other side of the wall. Some open into small rooms in which you will see installations and projections. The wall wraps around the rooms and binds the ensemble into a long irregular structure. Over it floats a roof suspended on cables from the ceiling of the cavernous room in the old warehouse at the far end of the Arsenale where the Station sits. Outside the warehouse lies a rough garden. Work from the Station will spill into it.
The Station itself will be filled with objects, part-objects, paintings, images, screens. Around them a variety of benches, tables and small structures take their place. It will be possible to bathe in the Station and powder one’s nose. The Station in other words becomes a place to stop, to contemplate, to listen and see, to rest and refresh, to talk and exchange. For it will be completed by the presence of people and a program of events. Performances, concerts, lectures, readings, film programs, parties, the events will multiply. They define the Station as much as its solid objects do. But all kinds of things will continue to be added to the Station over the course of the summer and fall. People will leave things behind, take some things with them, come back or never return again. There will always be people who want to leave too much and others who don’t know what to leave behind or what to say. These are the challenges for a Utopia Station being set up in the heart of an art exhibition. But in addition, there are the unpredictable effects, which Carsten Höller has been anticipating, the points where something missing turns to something that becomes too much. The doubt produced between these two somethings is just as meaningful as any idea of utopia, he believes. These tensions will be welcomed like a guest.
What does a Station produce? What might a Station produce in real time? In this produce lies an activity rather more complex than pure exhibition, for it contains many cycles of use, a mixing of use. It incorporates aesthetic material, aesthetic matters too, into another economy which does not regard art as fatally separate.
But what is its place? The discussion of this question has been opened again by Jacques Rancière, in his book Le partage du sensible, which in French has the advantage of having a partition and a sharing occupy the same word. What is sectioned off and exchanged? It is more than an idea. Rancière takes his departure from Plato, pointedly, in order to remind us of the inevitable relation between the arts and the rest of social activity, the inevitable relations, it should be said, that together distribute value and give hierarchy, that govern, that both materially and conceptually establish their politics. This theatre of relations wraps itself around visions of worlds, each of them islands, each of them forms, but all of them concrete realities replete with matter and force. This is a philosophical understanding of aesthetic activity; it extends materialist aesthetics into the conditions of our present; it is a book to bring to a Station. As we have. But, once released, a book too leaves its island.
The Utopia Station in Venice, the city of islands, is part of a larger project. Utopia Stations do not require architecture for their existence, only a meeting, a gathering. We have already had several in Paris, in Venice, in Frankfurt, in Poughkeepsie, in Berlin. As such the Stations can be large or small. There is no hierarchy of importance between the gatherings, meetings, seminars, exhibitions and books; all of them become equally good ways of working. There is no desire to formalize the Stations into an institution of any kind. For now we meet. Many ideas about utopia circulate. Once when we met with Jacques Rancière, it was in Paris last June, he spoke to the difficulties involved in putting the idea of utopia forward. He pointed to the line that says “There must be utopia,” meaning that there must not only be calculations but an elevation, a supplement rising in the soul, and said that this line of thought has never interested him. Indeed he has always found it unnerving, even irritating. That which does interest him, he explained, is the dissensus, the manner in which ruptures are concretely created—ruptures in speech, in perception, in sensibility. He turned to contemplate the means by which utopias can be used to produce these ruptures. Will it begin and end in talk?
On another occasion, in Poughkeepsie last winter, just as a blizzard was about to blow in, Lawrence Weiner reminded everyone present that the artist’s reality is no different from any other reality. Liam Gillick asked that we avoid utopian mirage, instead asking for utopia to become a functional step moving beyond itself. Martha Rosler told the story of going to see the space in Venice, arriving however as night fell to see only an interior of darkness, there being no lights. But utopia, she said, is what moves. Jonas Mekas warned of obsessions with ideas, since the dream, he said, could only succeed if we forget them. Leon Golub was apocalyptic. Allan Sekula, at our urging, showed the first five minutes of the tape he had made the day before during the peace demonstration in New York. Anri Sala showed us a tape of Tirana, where the mayor had painted apartment block walls into a geometric vision, a concrete hope. Edouard Glissant came. He spoke of the desire for the perfect shape, he spoke his language of landscapaes. Only by passing through the inextricable of the world, he told us, can we save our imaginaire. In that passing there would come the tremblement, the tremor being fundamental to the passage.
Nancy Spero sent a morphine dream. Agnes Varda sent us the song of the Cadet Rousselle. Together we read an article Etienne Balibar had written six years ago for Le Monde which proposed to take complete leave of utopia now, in order to return to the heart of the matter--to let the imagination free to accept the sudden emergence of subjectivity in the social field. Let us make a sudden rush, a place for the imagination to expand, a place of fiction, fiction in its fullest sense. Balibar sees fiction to be the production of the real, something stemming from experience itself, knowledge and action brought together so that they become indistinguishable, insurrection emptying into constitution. He used the thoughts to preface his Droit de cité. Another book for the Station.
It is simple. We use utopia as a catalyst, a concept most useful as fuel. We leave the complete definition of utopia to others. We meet to pool our efforts, motivated by a need to change the landscape outside and inside, a need to think, a need to integrate the work of the artist, the intellectual and manual laborers that we are into a larger kind of community, another kind of economy, a bigger conversation, another state of being. You could call this need a hunger.
Dare one rewrite a sentence by Brecht? Something we need is missing. Theman who, seventy years ago, wrote “Art follows reality” would surely not mind. Let us then take these words and press on. We need the words, old words and new words, we need the dance, we need the sausage, and still we need more. We have started, we meet in the Utopia Station, we start out again. The Station becomes a place to gather our starting points temporarily. It is primarily for this reason it resists capture and summary as a single image. Or is it the image of open possibility? The image of mixed use? Many things will happen there. And they will spark others.
Think of the Station as a field of starting points, many starting points being brought and offered by many different people. Some will bring objects now, others later. Each present and future contributor to the Station is being asked to do a poster for use in the Station and beyond: wherever it can hang, it can go. A paper trail for once goes forward. New posters continue to be added. In this way the Utopia Station produces images, even as it does not start with one. And a loose community assembles. It develops its own internal points of coherence, which shift with the times, as conversations and debates do.
Each person making a poster has been asked to make a statement of at least one and up to two hundred words. Independent of one another the statements collect. Stuart Hall and Zeigam Azizov elaborate upon a proposition: the world has to be made to mean. The bittersweet baked into hope, writes Nancy Spero. Pash Buzari sent a poem where darkness is dialed. Raqs Media Collective calls utopia a hearing aid. This probably will not work, Jimmie Durham cites the Cherokee, and adds that the “probably” keeps people active. There will be hundreds of statements like these in the end. They will branch out. As they do certain figures begin to repeat. Ships and songs and flags, two times potatoes, two times Sisyphus, figures familiar from the discussion of utopia forty years ago, but they have been assimilated rather than cited. Utopia becomes the secret garden whose doors can be opened again. Utopia becomes the catalyst that burns and returns. None of us can say we begin from scratch.
These actitivities imply an activism. For many who come to the Station, its invitation to self-organize speaks a political language already known to them and already being practiced. The proposal to build non-profit de-centralized units and make them become the underlying mode of production, fitting together through the real market (not the monopolistically controlled world market of the present system), has been made by Immanuel Wallerstein in his book Utopistics. It would eliminate the priority given to the endless accumulation of capital. Still another book for the Station.
As the catalyst burns, it fumes. For ours is not a time of continually same todays. When we met in Poughkeepsie in mid-February, around the world vast crowds marched for peace. Seven weeks later, when we met in Frankfurt, the Coalition forces were entering Baghdad. The days come like Kiarostami’s hills. It is not the continually same utopia. In the speech to the graduating West Point cadets in June 2002, President George Bush announced his policy of pre-emptive strikes and wars with the reassurance that “America has no empire to extend or utopia to establish.” The idea of empire has been receiving much scrutiny. But what about the other idea here, the refusal of utopia, the concept that presumes forward social vision? Is it not this refusal that gives us reason enough to revive the question of utopia now? Whether it comes as catalyst or fume, the word should be pronounced. And so we start.
Hans Ulrich Obrist
Utopia Station von Marina Abramovic, Carla Accardi, Vito Acconci Studio, Franz Ackermann, Doug Aitken, Pawel Althamer, Amicale des Témoins, Anonymous, Arcagrup, Asymptote Architecture, Yuri Avvakumov, Zeigam Azizov / Stuart Hall, John Baldessari, Matthew Barney, Thomas Bayrle, Dara Birnbaum, John Bock, Inaki Bonillas, Ingrid Book / Carina Heden, Ecke Bonk, Louise Bourgeois, Angela Bulloch, Bureau d´études, Pash Buzari, Yung Ho Chang, Jay Chung, Santiago Cirugeda, Tacita Dean, Luc Deleu, Jeremy Deller, Wilson Diaz / Marco Moretti, Diller & Scofidio, Nico Dockx, Trisha Donnelly, Jimmie Durham, Leif Elggren / Carl Michael von Hausswolff, Olafur Eliasson / Israel Rosenfield, Michael Elmgreen & Ingar Dragset, Jan Fabre, Hans-Peter Feldmann, Peter Fend, Fischli / Weiss, Vadim Fishkin, Didier Fiuza Faustino, Alicia Framis, Yona Friedman, Yang Fudong, Future Systems, Isa Genzken, Matteo Ghidoni / Avanguardie Permanenti, Liam Gillick, John Giorno, Leon Golub, Tomislav Gotovac, Joseph Grigely, gruppo A12, Henrik Håkansson, Mathew Hale, Nikolaus Hirsch / Markus Weisbeck, Thomas Hirschhorn, Karl Holmqvist, Marine Hugonnier, Initiative Haubrich-Forum, Arata Isozaki, Janus Magzine, Sture Johannesson, John M. Johansen, Isaac Julien, Jean-Paul Jungmann / Tamas Zanko, Ilya & Emilia Kabakov, Gülsün Karamustafa, Julius Koller, Jakob Kolding, Harmony Korine, Gyula Kosice, Lucien Kroll, Elke Krystufek, Gabriel Kuri, Bertrand Lavier, Kamin Lertchaiprasert, Simon Leung / Lincoln Tobier, Atelier van Lieshout, Loo Jia Wen / Wong Hoy Cheong, Enzo Mari, Bruce Mau Design / Institute without Boundaries, Steve McQueen, Jonas Mekas, Annette Messager, Gustav Metzger, Ayumi Minemura / Are You Meaning Company, M/M Paris / Phillipe Parreno, Jonathan Monk, Multiplicity-Border Device(s) Project, Deimantas Narkevicius, Carsten Nicolai, Henrik Olesen / Kirsten Pieroth, Olof Olsson, Roman Ondák, Yoko Ono, Anatoli Osmolovski, Lygia Pape, Claude Parent, Manfred Pernice, Elizabeth Peyton, Michelangelo Pistoletto, Paola Pivi, Florian Pumhösl, Ma Qingyun, Radek, Raqs Media Collective, Tobias Rehberger, Pedro Reyes, David Robbins, François Roche, Pia Rönicke, Fernando Romero, ROR Revolutions on Request, Martha Rosler, Martha Rosler with FLEAS Collective, Ed Ruscha, Natascha Sadr Haghighian, Anri Sala / Edi Rama, Tomas Saraceno, Markus Schinwald, Christoph Schlingensief, Carolee Schneemann, Allan Sekula, Thasnai Sethaseree, Shimabuku, Andreas Slominski, Patti Smith, Sean Snyder, Nancy Spero, Nedko Solakov, Yutaka Sone with Damon McCarthy, Eric Alloway, and Henry Clancy, Luc Steels, Superflex, Supermoderno, Javier Téllez, Rirkrit Tiravanija, Rosemarie Trockel / Thea Djordjadze / Bettina Pousttchi, Uglycute, Agnès Varda, Anton Vidokle, Jacques Villeglé, Luca Vitone, Immanuel Wallerstein / Rirkrit Tiravanija, Lawrence Weiner, Wang Jian-Wei, Eyal Weizman, Franz West, Stephen Willats, Pae White, Cerith Wyn Evans, Carey Young, Zerynthia (Association for Contemporary Art), Andrea Zittel.