Everyday utopias and artistic research
What kinds of perspectives can artistic research offer in seeking to cultivate political imagination and utopian thought? What kinds of tools and methods does it suggest for social action and thought? How do spaces, materiality and embodiment shape the practices of imagination? How can artistic research contribute to creating more ecologically and socially sustainable societies?
These were some of the questions we set out to explore with our invitation for submissions for the issue on everyday utopias and artistic research for RUUKKU. By everyday utopias, we refer to networks, communities and practices in which people imagine, construct and experiment with new ways of experiencing and organizing social and political life in the ‘here and now' (Cooper 2013). Everyday utopias strive for experiential detachment from existing reality and gesture towards something that cannot yet be known or achieved. They are ‘glimmers or anticipatory illuminations of other possible worlds' (Allen 2015, 525).
This issue approaches art as a site that produces utopian thought and imagination. It is driven by a curiosity about conceptions of utopia that are currently being proposed and developed in artistic research. The question of political alternatives seems particularly pertinent in our current conjuncture as the social and ecological unsustainability of our prevailing social formation has become glaringly apparent. There is an acute need for counter-images and counter-practices (Lakkala 2020) that could offer pointers towards more sustainable forms of life in the future.
All expositions in this issue sketch such counter-images and counter-practices from different angles and contexts. They suggest a variety of utopian gestures and practices for doing, experiencing, feeling and seeing things in different ways: wandering, looking, calling, touching, cycling, performance exercises and somatics. They explore practices that seek to animate imagination and gesture towards alternative worlds and how these practices are entwined with affect and embodiment. They also ponder how these practices may animate social change. Moreover, they illuminate the diverse ways in which imagination and utopia are entangled with and shaped by everyday materialities, such as railways, streets, fences, shopping centres, windows, cycle paths, curbs, stairs and towers. The expositions explore how different spaces enable or curtail utopian thought and how spaces can be taken over in order to enable and advance this thought.
All the expositions herein demonstrate, in one way or another, a certain ‘methodology of fumbling', a term coined by the philosopher Teppo Eskelinen in this issue. They probe and experiment with diverse practices that potentially enable both the animation of utopian practice and the production of knowledge about it for purposes of social change. As Vappu Susi aptly summarises this ‘fumbling' in her exposition, ‘This work shows inconsistencies that feel like slipping on a banana skin. It is about probing; instead of neatly stacked bananas, this work displays raw bananas'.
In the exposition ‘The Wild Cycling of Utopian Bodies', Vappu Susi explores cyclists' subjective and affective spheres of life and cycling as a utopian practice. The exposition asks, what kinds of bodies does cycling give rise to, and what kinds of subjects and futures are conjured through the experience of cycling? Cycling is grounded in locality, corporeal and affective experience and the potentiality prescribed by the environment and other agents. Susi categorises cyclists into four archetypes – Flower Dress, Pedant, Shuttle and Avant-gardist – which open up a window to different ways of experiencing and moving around in a city space. The exposition illustrates a contradiction in which longing for wild cycling and the pleasure it yields clashes with the doctrine of efficiency embodied in traffic planning.
‘The Utopia of Social Somatics – The Orientation of the Mouth in Space' by Ilmari Kortelainen addresses social somatics, especially the practice of the mouth. According to Kortelainen, somatics refer to a host of movement-based exercises and body therapies that draw on corporeal experiences and mind-body connections. The exposition asks the extent to which stimulating the social consciousness of the body can potentially open up new ways of experiencing. Social somatics capture utopian possibilities through a focus on corporeal experiences. Following Jill Green, Kortelainen explores bodily gestures and the transformation that follows from experience and bodily consciousness as a way of approaching political change. Social somatics make visible the habituated ways of acting, on one hand, but also opens up possibilities for doing things against the grain, on the other.
In the ‘Elisenvaara-Pieksämäki – Broken Machine', Jaakko Ruuska ponders the spatiality of decoupling in the context of artistic research. He examines an abandoned railroad in Eastern Finland through a range of participatory exercises and travelling with a pump trolley. Drawing on Gilles Deleuze's concept of movement image, he analyses how abandoned places can be re-activated and how this process may engender a certain space of possibility.
Posthumanist thought has called for moving beyond human-centred thought. ‘Calling for Zoe as a Utopian Gesture' by Annette Arlander engages with Rosi Braidotti's and Karen Barad's works. She approaches her performance entitled ‘Calling the Dragon' from a posthumanist-inspired conception of utopia. In this exposition, utopia operates on two levels: on one hand, calling for a dragon can be seen as a utopian practice (calling for an imaginary creature), and on the other hand, the process of calling can itself be seen as a utopian gesture that seeks to call into being something that does not exist (yet).
In the exposition ‘On the Potential of Exercises in Live Art Pedagogy', Kristina Junttila explores the potentiality of pedagogy. She presents different kinds of tasks and exercises that she has used in a classroom situation and considers how these exercises could be used as tools to create live art and new realities in the future. Writing the exercise itself works both as an exercise of documentation and a call to act it differently.
Ulvi Haagensen studies the boundaries between art and life by walking around in Tallinn during the pandemic. The exposition
‘Walking and Looking in a New Way: Utopian Dreams' 'Walking to Utopia and Thinking About Art Along the Way' is based on observations and photographs made while wandering in the city. The lockdown provided an opportunity to observe and approach the urban space in a new way and reflect on the significance of art as part of it. Wandering appears as a method to raise questions about art, the future and social change. In the essay, Haagensen considers where and how art can appear when its usual arenas of presentation are closed. Furthermore, the exposition also addresses Haagensen's own work ‘An Octopus Garden of Silly Delights', which was built into the gallery window in Tallinn.
We also invited three Voices on utopia for this issue. Performance artist Talvikki Eerola presents ‘Utopia Consultation', produced by the Reality Research Center, which is a performance based on encounters aimed at addressing the impossible. In her text ‘Utopia Consultation – Heading the Impossible', Eerola writes how the everyday environment opens possibilities for dialogue and doing things differently and how imagination can be practiced in surprising spaces and places. In his ‘The Return of Utopia and its Methodological Challenges', philosopher Teppo Eskelinen considers the importance of imagination for social change. He notes that thoughts of better societies are often glimpses – intermittent, changeable and difficult to verbalise – that require creative methods, not just words. In order to reach these glimpses, he proposes a methodology of fumbling that can also be utilised as a method in artistic research. In ‘Co-operation between Art and Research Increases Social Sustainability', Salome Tuomaala-Özdemir and Hanna Ylöstalo examine the interplay between science and the arts and the role of political imagination in creating a sustainable future. Through the Naapurijurtta project, they illustrate the importance of different spaces for imagination and envisaging alternatives.
This issue, Everyday Utopias and Artistic Research, was produced as part of the research project ‘Political Imagination and Alternative Futures' funded by the Academy of Finland (2020–2024). The project explores everyday utopias and efforts towards alternative social formations and sustainable futures.
Pilvi Porkola and Suvi Salmenniemi
Image: from Jaakko Ruuska's Elisenvaara-Pieksämäki - hajonnut kone
Photographer: Hanna Koikkalainen
Erratum 8.11.2022: The title of Ulvi Haagensen's exposition has been corrected. It is 'Walking to Utopia and Thinking About Art Along the Way'.
Allen, Amy (2015) Emancipation without utopia: Subjection, modernity, and the normative claims of feminist critical theory. Hypatia 30:3, 513–529.
Cooper, Davina (2014) Everyday Utopias: The Conceptual Life of Promising Spaces. Durham & London: Duke University Press.
Lakkala, Keijo (2020) Disruptive utopianism: Opening the present. In Eskelinen, Teppo (ed.) The Revival of Political Imagination: Utopia as Methodology. London: Zed Books, 20–36.