Practical Utopias

Posted Oct. 6, 2013 by Maja Kuzmanović

It’s been a while since I worked in Istria, the region where I was born and lived until I was eighteen. Nik and I were invited by the people of Ykon to participate in Practical Utopias, a four-day summit held on the Brionian Islands off the west coast of the Istrian peninsula, in the northern Adriatic. Designed as a site-specific reality game inspired by Buckminster Fuller’s World Game simulation, Practical Utopias aimed to be a reflection of the desire to change our current society by developing more or less practical alternatives. Together with Tim Boykett and Tina Auer of Time’s Up (the coordinators of Future Fabulators), we embarked on the summit not quite knowing what to expect but excited to be collaborating with our fellow practical utopians amidst the amazing scents of wild thyme, musty mushrooms, sweet rosehip, salty brine, and the historical and mythical resonances imbued in these islands from Roman times through to Tito.

We began the summit in golf carts, getting to know each other and the landscape while racing (at 20 km/h) across the island and completing a few simple but useful tasks (writing down what we could teach in five minutes, or what we wanted to learn by the end of the summit). I saw an albino peacock for the first time in my life and thought it a good omen for our endeavours. We convened at the Roman Villa (the kick-off site for Practical Utopias) and received field notebooks. We had to pledge to use these and return them by the end of the summit – a great way to encourage participants to document the process (something we're always struggling with at FoAM's workshops).

We began the next day by writing down a question of our own, then finding someone else's question we'd want to “steward.” What ensued was an interesting series of conversations in which we got to know people’s opinions about other people’s questions. At the end we'd find the person whose question we stewarded and give them the answers. I asked “what happens when our utopia becomes impractical?” – and received answers that made me stop and reframe some of my current dilemmas from a different perspective. The steward of my question was Cecilia Carlsson, a wonderful woman behind (among other things) Nonviolent Money.

We spent most of our time at the summit in groups co-creating (practical) utopias emerging from common skills and interests. I became involved in a group that included Lauren Higgins, Lawrence McKeown, Avi Pitchon, Dinko Peracic, Noora Aaltonen and Maiju Suomi. Together we designed “Listen to the Voices,” a utopia where human and non-human Others find a new balance through reciprocal communication. This communication was initiated (as our story went) with the participatory design of an early warning system for mitigating natural disasters, which worked by listening to the as-yet unheard voices of deep sea creatures. This coincided with the design of a book on eco-cultural failures, and the rediscovery of preindustrial animist traditions that could be empirically tested. Our utopias emerged through a concoction of synchronicity and serendipity, somewhat akin to Borrowed Scenery – but instead of listening to plants and mushrooms, we had a group of young proto-scientists designing speculative interfaces to talk to crabs and other sea dwellers, and about forty other people listen to and report messages from various planetary Others, including a school of fish, a fly, a lump of grass and some seaweed.

Tina joined Cecilia Carlsson, Fuad Asfour, Debora Hustic and a few others in a group designing a garden for failures staged in an eerily abandoned zoo, where visitors could plant failed things they wanted to let go of and allow them to grow into something else. Nik and Tim (together with Juha Huuskonen, Emina Visnic, Miranda Veljacic, Zeljko Blace and others) were engaged in designing Origamia, a city-state described by Juha Huuskonen as a place where “each citizen would at some point have to participate in decision making related to public affairs. This duty could be similar to civil service which exists in some countries, as an alternative to the compulsory military service. The decision making process would be based on some kind of version control system, perhaps similar to Github. Origamia would also give more power to young people (under 18 years old), so it would a kind of ‘pedocracy.’” As well as the utopias we co-created, there were (among others) the “NO Utopia,” with so many prohibitions that you could not but ignore them; a group for perpetual protest on bycicles; and a group testing the collective temperature of different future visions.

After a period of intense utopic design and experimentation, we were happy to relax for a while in Tito's concrete outdoor cinema watching the wonderful Empire Me by Paul Poet, a movie well worth seeing for anyone interested in micro-nations or intentional communities. The movie ventured through Sealand, The Principality of Hutt River, and Damanhur, ending with a vignette about the Swimming Cities of Serenissima, very much reminiscent of my experiences in the Flotilla prehearsal.

By the end of the final evening we were still puzzled about how the idea of a World Game had actually been implemented over the previous four days of the summit, but even though this remained opaque it didn't matter. The great Ykon hosting team made us feel engaged and keen to participate from the moment we embarked on the boat to Brioni in bright sunshine to when we waved farewell from another boat, in the rain. We discovered alternative perspectives on a few of our burning questions. We met several very driven, quirky people who challenged the status quo – practically (or impractically) pursuing a range of utopian but also very critical and politically engaged visions just by being themselves and living their lives.

The summit ended with a visit to Vanga, a tiny island that boasts the former private residence of Tito (now occupied by the Croatian president and government) – a surreal leap into the past and another utopia that proved impractical. Yet, as Cecilia concluded: when a utopia becomes impractical all we can do is mourn and let it dissolve without ever pausing in our search for another loop, another bubble, that might this time be slightly closer to reality.