Utopia School: Intentions
Utopia School is a nomadic free-school and social center. Its mission is developing open curricula on Utopian thought and practice while transforming itself and the spaces it encounters. The first Utopia School took place in the Queens-based collective Flux Factory, for the month of October, 2014.
The following text is a transcript from the first meeting of our Utopians in Residence. We had gathered to decide upon a specific list of intentions for the space, to be inscribed on the wall for the duration of the school.
JI: We’re talking about an experience of Utopia that we’ve had in our lives, or something that resembled Utopia. We’re teasing out from those experiences, elements we might want to bring into this project to explore as our intentions. And they’re going to be painted on the wall, in the center of the room. Who wants to go first?
R: I’m Rachel. I go by she, but I want to explore it more. The last time I felt a Utopia was at Zuccotti park. The park was filled with people with a very revolutionary spirit, and vulnerabilities, and love and support and courage, and then, we’re like singing all night long, dancing all night long, chanting, and then a lot of us shared the experience of morning together, and everyone was doing yoga in the park together, and then met people from all over the world. It definitely didn’t feel like it was in the world that I live in.
MB: I’m Matthias. And I’m generally called he, but I like we. When I felt Utopia last time, was while clubbing. And I have this feeling almost every time I’m clubbing. Dancing, and really into it, I had this kind of Utopian sense of being a big body…with a lot of other people that I don’t know.
SL: I’m Seth. I go by he. The last time I had an experience like that, would be at Shane and Alison’s wedding, which was in a tiny little town outside of San Antonio called Kingsbury. I had been with this group of about 7 writers and actors for quite a while and we did a show at their wedding one night around midnight and it was this whole messy, drunken, raining thing. After this show, we were just really out of it and so it was the first time we all took a shower together, the seven of us, just scrunched together in this tiny cold-ass shower. It was a kind of cap of how we had all grown together as artists. That was a very Utopian feeling.
SG: I’m Stephen and I go by he him and his. I think of a time when I lived in a pretty small town and had a big community of friends that all were nearby and at our house we would do a shabbat dinner that people would come to. Hearing these stories is evoking those memories – of the warm house and big pots of food and just a lot of love and a lot of good people around.
A: My name is Alexi. I use he as a pronoun, although I don’t always feel entirely male, but I want to stick with he pronoun, because I don’t want to take away from other people who use other pronouns. A Utopian moment, or experience, was when…I moved in with some people into an abandoned photo printing lab in London and that was the first time I was really involved with squatting a building from the beginning, like really opening a space. It was an amazing journey…exploring all of these places inside of myself that I either didn’t know were there to begin with or had lain abandoned for a long time – so I guess [it was] the process of moving into this building with this group of people that I didn’t know and then also moving in this space inside of myself.
AM: I’m Alisha. And the closest I’ve felt to being in a Utopia, was facilitating therapeutic arts groups and specifically a group of incarcerated women. I felt like we had an amazing rapport, where everyone felt safe and comfortable and authentic with each other. That environment was a very special enclave of people.
GL: My name is Gil. I think the closest has been probably the last two summers, for me – where I didn’t have an address, did not refer to myself as homeless. I lived with friends and I camped a lot. There was a hammock in my garden. And it was liberating, yet somehow deconstructive as well. I was breaking down a whole system of methods and beliefs for living life that I currently adhered to. This past summer I got to refine the process a little bit. I made a lot of mistakes and I made a lot of really good choices. So, it’s been a big learning experience over the last two years. Learning how to live, not in our accepted societal roles, and, at times, provoking others to confront their place in a society that we, as Americans, live in.
JI: Maybe we could tease out some of the aspects of these experiences, which made them Utopia for us. I’m hearing some themes come up like proximity…togetherness with other people…food, sharing food. In Alisha’s story, I heard a bit of overcoming what’s shitty about the world. Working with incarcerated women – working in an environment which I perceive is very difficult, and finding within that –something, a space for sharing.
SG: Something that spoke to me – something about common projects, where the project is something everyone is participating in in some way, and where everyone is connected around. Engagement towards building, or doing, or making something.
R: Overcoming common struggle together.
SL: Yeah. And the ability to grow as a person, in your own interests…while still focusing on a collective goal, along with your own pursuits. Allowing for you to grow in how you help people with their own pursuits.
MB: That you’re self-sufficient in some ways, but within a body of a lot of people.
JI: I was also hearing expression of joy – like in yours, with the dancing…
MB: There was also an element, like a feeling of – turn of power – in your squatting project, that you kind of turned something into a sense of empowerment.
LR: Another thing is personal commitment. For me it’s not only important, my personal commitment to something, but it’s that moment when you realize that all the other people in the room with you have the same degree of personal commitment, and so, even if you are all single people, there is something bigger than the single individual.
MB: A collective mind.
A: I think, at least in my experience, I felt like it was really fragile, and that there was something about these kind of Utopian experiments, something about how fragile they were, and that tension that was created between the people within the space and the outside world. There was something about that tension and that fragility that was important. So I think as well as being joyful and warm and this other stuff, there were times when it felt like we were walking on this very thin line.
SG: Can you say more about how that interacted with this experience of Utopia that you are talking about?
A: There was something…things being so fragile…there was something in that allowing for what felt like quite a constant movement of ideas and experiences. Whereas I’ve definitely visited more established spaces, and more established squats that have been around for a long time, and with that, they have a sort of safety and comfort, which I’d never want to take away from anyone. But you definitely felt it in the air, that kind of rigidness. [And you miss] movement, and experimentation, and it all being very teetering.
MB: I really like this fragile thought. Because a lot of these social situations could have so easily flipped to a bad side, but, because of that fragile moment, it managed to stay on the line. It makes quite good sense in my head and my body, when I hear you talking about fragility.
AM: I think fragility – being aware of it forces you to make the conscious decision – that “I need to make the most of this while it’s here, I have to work to maintain it, and keep this good.”
SG: [It requires] concentration…because I think that so much of non-Utopian experiences, is kind of a scattered attention, or boredom.
AM: I think, maybe being really alert and really aware, and really focused and present. Yeah.
JI: Which isn’t necessarily something that you can prescribe. Like, you can’t walk into one of these more established spaces and be like, “Be present! Be aware!” It’s a really special set of circumstances. And I’m wondering…what the ingredients are to that? How can you cultivate it?
R: I want to bring up another element, which is slow communication. I think generally in the default world, when we communicate, our intentions are [to simply] get our thoughts across. I think in Zuccotti, or I would call them my Utopian experiences, it’s so transparent, in the heart level, that you actually pay attention to the other person’s feelings. It’s really difficult to do, I think, in general communication. It’s slower communication, more mindful communication.
MB: Empathic, maybe?
AM: I agree. I think that we’re taught that communication is about the mind communicating, and connecting thoughts and intellect, and it kind of leaves out a whole other type of connection.
R: Yeah. And also, prioritizing the other person’s feelings. I think a lot of times, we just think about it in a very general sense, like whether I am saying something that is hurtful or not, but thinking about it in a more individual way. Like, is it hurtful to Jaime? Is it hurtful to Stephen? Given the kind of person they are. Building up a more personalized connection…
A: [What if we] consider something Utopian in destruction. Embracing something passionate within your anger, something spontaneous. For me at least, there is something Utopian, or at least the possibility of something Utopian, in a destructive act. I think, it’s obvious to talk about building communities, and this slowness and thoughtfulness…I think it’s worth exploring how the two can work together.
MB: I’ve actually had a notion of a lot of isolation, in some way, within a collective, Utopian feeling. When you are sharing this quite defined space or moment, there are definitely a lot of people not sharing it.
JI: I think that ties in with the fragility somehow. When I think about these spaces that I would describe as Utopian. Some of them, especially in Berlin, in the Hausprojekt, the former squatting scene, there’s very much a rhetoric of “us vs. them,” that comes from a very real place of being persecuted by the police, the state, more or less. So I always think about this outsider, insider thing, and how that is manifested down to the tiniest detail, in terms of aesthetics, and how that can manifest in distrust of people who dress or talk a certain way, and how that rupture ripples across various alter-utopian spaces in Berlin, where two spaces might not even know about each other because they have a different aesthetic, or view each other as outside of their periphery…but I think that the fragility, when we create a Utopian space or a space that’s kind of communizing resources in some way, it’s like a clearing. You have to clear this default normative structure that’s been created, and that’s like a weed growing everywhere, you can’t extract yourself from it. So when we create these spaces, it’s like we clear a space, and that periphery has to be somehow protected. Therefore necessitating an inside and an outside, and I don’t know the degree to which those are necessary.
GL: I sometimes conflate Utopia with euphoria, and one place that I can almost always find euphoria is on a dance floor. But that feeling of fragility and the idea of having to clear that space to allow the euphoria to happen is sometimes confronted when you are in that magical place of euphoria and you open your eyes and you notice that there’s people just like texting, or just standing against the wall, looking at you like you’re an ape wearing a clown uniform, and that can break that euphoria. And, I’m making an analogy that might not be exactly appropriate, but, the same thing, I think can happen when people try to create Utopia. And that clearing, like you were saying, whenever things that are not part of that Utopia are brought into that space, it can disrupt the feeling that is at least trying to be created, if not genuinely being felt by the individuals that are participating.
LR: But also, for Utopia as anarchist societies. I think, that you will never actually have a society that will be perfectly anarchist, but I think that what you can do, is apply in your every day life, some anarchist principles, some utopian principles, moving to that direction. The problem with communities that try to build up an anarchist approach or a Utopian one, is that if people don’t feel that they can pop in for a cup of coffee, even if they are on your side, if you lack this openness, it will become insular. You can’t keep control of everything and all the input that are coming, because we are living in this society and you will have people that want to watch TV. You will have people that want to go and vote for the referendum, and you will have people that don’t trust politicians anymore. But all these things, they can co-habitate, in the same place and stay together. And the thing is that you have to stay open to this, because if you stay open, then you have elderly women coming from the town and popping up, bringing you candles, because it’s winter. And this is something, where if you present yourself like a really hard core activist, and you don’t smile to anyone and you don’t talk to anyone, then you will never help. So, I think this is a Utopian approach – that I don’t want a perfect Utopia, or a perfect anarchist society, or the perfect anything – because I don’t believe in perfection. I want it to be honest, and really open to everyone. It’s like all these anarchist circles in Italy. You can’t go there, you just can’t join them, because they are so elitist. But the thing is, aren’t we supposed to be talking about anarchy that is for everyone? Cause like according to me, everyone has a different level of anarchy that they apply in their own life and that is what I find really interesting about anarchy – is that you can have everything in there and there is a place for everyone, but then you find this circle that doesn’t allow you to come and join them and have a cup of tea. And what’s the point in having this circle? Go stay in your house with your four friends. The longer a place is going on with the same people, the more complicated a place starts to be, because you always feel like, “Oh, these new people, what’s their intention? What do they want now?” It should not be like this.
MB: There’s actually some kind of paradox in the idea of writing these intentions on the wall. In putting up, or formulating, the intentions as writing on the wall, because, I think, the moments that we thought, or felt were Utopian, they were not written down.
LR: Actually, this morning, when there was just “Intentions” there on the white wall, I thought it was amazing. I thought that it was meant to be like that, then I remembered our conversation. That’s the clue though, because there’s no right or wrong. There’s no instructions to do it.
JI: We don’t have to write anything there.
LR: It might be interesting to leave it white.
The Utopia School is an ongoing project, and we are always open for ideas on where and how to take shape next. Feel free to contact us via our website: www.utopiaschool.org
Images courtesy of Utopia School.