Screen Shot 2015-01-31 at 16.57.07http://www.anthropologies-of-art.net/articles
Ruy Blanes (University of Bergen)
Maïté Maskens (Université Libre de Bruxelles)

Figure 1: @ Vhils. Lisbon, 2012.

In 1998, Nicolas Bourriaud proposed the concept of “microtopias” (2002 [1998]: 13) to engage with art practices as collective, relational, contextualised endeavours, expressing the concrete inter-relations among artists and agents that inform artistic production. This proposal was later criticised by Claire Bishop (2004), who noted the absence of plurality and antagonistic politics in her seminal discussion of what has become known as ‘relational aesthetics’. She argued that these art practices do not produce democratic relations but instead build on mechanisms of exclusion that don’t address the antagonism and inequality in the process of art production pertinent to “the divided and incomplete subject of today” (2004: 79). Recently, Roger Sansi-Roca has addressed this debate in his book Art, Anthropology and the Gift (2014), seeing the artist as an active bricoleur, producer of small-scale models as utopian projections of the world, prototypes, experiments that are as political as any other collective movement. Sansi’s connection of art and anthropology through utopia is an ideal pretext for the exploratory notes we advance here, in the framework of our interest in developing a “anthropology of utopia”, which we see ultimately as a theory of social creativity.

We strongly feel that anthropology has a lot to gain from thinking through the kind of relational aesthetics under which microtopias emerge. Namely, in considering how utopia, more than a frame of mind that engages in ideals, actually works in practice, determining how people collectively relate, collaborate, create through experimentation and scaling models. This implies therefore a theory of creativity, perhaps akin to Alfred Gell’s theories of abduction and distribution (1998), at least in terms of thinking about how art objects become nexuses of social relations. However, here we are less concerned with the objects and artefacts per se, which may be an outcome of artistic agency, but instead (and again) with the people and the effects of the relationships they build in collective contexts. From this perspective, this theory of creativity refers to art and art making, but also to the creativity of social life, that which can be observed in the micro-politics of the everyday. Therefore, we detect microtopias occurring in several instances – from, say, local co-ops to micro-companies, collective music making, urban engineering, political organisations, technological innovations, open source movements, etc.

But we are also interested in a critical understanding of the utopian element of this formulation. Over the past months, we have engaged, through the concept of utopia, in a debate concerning the problem of the transition from imagination into materiality, from potentiality into actuality. This began as a reaction to a suggestion by Stevphen Shukaitis who, revising the genealogy of the concept of utopia in Western philosophical thought, framed its anthropological configuration as an “ethnography of nowhere” (2004), reminding us of the constant philosophical and political encapsulation of utopia within the sphere of the ideal, imaginary, perhaps even illusory. But in fact, we also observe ‘utopias in practice’, examples of what Shukaitis, David Graeber and Erika Biddle (2007) have called ‘constituent imagination’ in their inquiry on the practical translations of radical theory.

We can think for instance of the literary genre known as ‘utopian literature’, akin to fantasy and science fiction genres. Since the 19th century, it has simultaneously inherited and reproduced two major tropes associated with utopia inaugurated by Thomas More’s (2009 [1516]) centenary invitation: its de-territorialisation and de-temporalisation – utopia as simultaneously an ideal and non-existent place. These books have also actively shaped social imaginaries, either through the invocation of remote, quasi-eternal Shangri-las (From James Hilton’s Lost Horizon) or through anticipated totalitarian dystopias, such as in George Orwell’s famed 1984. From this perspective, utopian literature is, as in Charles Renouvier’s homonymous classic, ‘u-chronic’, in the sense that it re-writes alternate historicities but simultaneously suggests inflexions to our own (the readers’) temporal understandings.

We can also think of architecture as a case in point: how it is ideologically guided by a utopian ambition of engineering the social and physical landscape (Tafuri 1976). Here we are reminded again of Sansi’s invocation of small-scale models, this time to think about the importance of locality and micro-politics in the process, much in the same vein as has been recently proposed by Alberto Corsín-Jiménez (2013) in his suggestion to think of social relationships through processes of ‘prototyping’, i.e. the experimental quality of crafting and engineering in and through social relationships. The nineteenth century Fourier-inspired Phalanx projects in the US, the early twentieth century Garden City movements, or perhaps even the ‘Dubai paradigm’ of desert splendour architecture, are but snippets of this kind of materialisations throughout history.

But our project here does not end in the search of manifestations and consequences, as we are also interested in the process of imagination and materialisation. Take as illustration the work of the talented Portuguese graffiti/street artist Alexandre Farto, aka Vhils, known for his work on the public landscape of Lisbon in his first years.

Vhils’ technique is particularly interesting, as it works on public surfaces that are otherwise in the process of ruination, devising/carving out portrait figures that emerge when our gaze is set from a specific angle. We can observe, through a technique of redefinition of limit and surface, a process of materialisation of imagination, regardless of its ephemerality. It exemplifies a will to transform, inaugurate, as we find in other collective endeavours. As it emerges, the art form occupies the city, reclaiming new possibilities of meaning that become public (Corsín-Jiménez and Estalella 2011, Schacter 2014). From this perspective, the city becomes the context for microtopia (see Figure 2).

We thus see a connection between the kind of relationality, transformation and poetics of art, and wider social interactions as forms of correlation, vitality and creativity. From this perspective, if, as Ernst Bloch (1988) had suggested, art is indeed utopian, utopia in itself is a form of art. The question then becomes one of how to grasp such processes from an anthropological perspective. One such path could imply looking not so much into objects and materialities, but instead to the relationalities, intentional engagements and collaborations – the microtopias – that bind them and allow for those objects and materialities to be part of new productions, expressions, points of view.

Bishop, Claire. 2004. ‘Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics’, October 110: 51-79.

Bloch, Ernst. 1988. The Utopian Function of Art and Literature: Selected Essays. Cambridge MA: MIT Press.

Bourriaud, Nicolas. 1998. Esthétique Relationnelle. Dijon: Les Presses du Réel.

Corsín-Jiménez, Alberto. 2013. ‘Introduction: The Prototype: more than many and less than one’, Journal of Cultural Economy (online first).

Corsín-Jiménez, Alberto & Adolfo Estalella. 2011. ‘#spanishrevolution’, Anthropology Today 27 (4): 19-23.

Gell, Alfred. 1998. Art and Agency: An Anthropological Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

More, Thomas. 2009 [1516]. Utopia. In Three Early Modern Utopias. Ed. Susan Bruce. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Sansi, Roger. 2014. Art, Anthropology and the Gift. London: Bloomsbury Academic.

Schacter, Rafael. 2014. Ornament and Order: Graffiti, Street Art and the Parergon. Surrey/Burlington, VT: Ashgate.

Shukaitis, Stevphen. 2004. ‘An Ethnography of Nowhere: notes toward a re-envisioning of utopian thinking’, Social Anarchism 35: 5-13.

Shukaitis, Stevphen, David Graeber and Erika Biddle. 2007. Constituent Imagination. Militant Investigations // Collective Theorization. Oakland: AK Press.

Tafuri, Manfredo. 1976. Architecture and Utopia. Design and Capitalist Development. Cambridge MA: MIT Press.


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