Representing Utopia, or Advertisements of a World to Come

[Image: Test-crash from “California Freeways: Planning For Progress,” courtesy Prelinger Archives].

For those of you here in Los Angeles, I’m thrilled to be hosting an event tomorrow evening at USC with “rogue librarianMegan Prelinger, on the subject of representing utopia.

Megan is cofounder of the San Francisco-based Prelinger Library, an independent media archive specializing “in material that is not commonly found in other public libraries.” Their collection has a strong focus on California history, science, and technology, from obscure technical publications to books on environmental politics, topics that can be tracked throughout Megan’s own work as a researcher and writer.

She is also the author of Another Science Fiction: Advertising the Space Race, 1957-1962 and Inside The Machine: Art and Invention in the Electronic Age. Both books reproduce beautifully designed promotional materials produced as part of an earlier era of science and technology; these include often-overlooked ephemera, such as corporate advertisements and business brochures, or what Alexis Madrigal has described as “the hyperbolic, whimsical world of the advertisements these early aerospace companies created to sell themselves.”

New satellite systems, microchip designs, space program components, electronic home appliances, from televisions to microwaves, to name only a few: all were the subject of visionary business models premised on utopian narratives of the world to come.

Taken as a whole, the Prelinger Library’s collection of these materials raises the interesting possibility that, in order to understand twentieth-century science fiction, we should not only read Octavia Butler, Arthur C. Clarke, or J. G. Ballard, but back-of-magazine ads for firms such as Frigidaire and General Electric. These are corporations, of course, applied futurism sought to create a new world—one in which their own products would be most useful.

[Image: From Another Science Fiction, via Wired].

At the event tomorrow night, we’ll be discussing both of these books, to be sure, but we’ll be doing so in the larger context of utopian representations of the state of California, treating California as a place of technical innovation, artificial control of the natural environment, and even perceived mastery over public health and the risk of disease transmission.

Megan will be showing a handful of short films about these themes, all taken from the Prelinger Archives, and we’ll round out our roughly 45-minute Q&A with open questions from the audience.

The event will cap off 500 Years of Utopia, our long look at the legacy of Sir Thomas More’s book, Utopia, timed for the 500th anniversary of its publication. The accompanying exhibition closes on February 28.

Things kick off at 5pm on Tuesday, February 7th; please RSVP.


Speaking of the accidental artistry of colorful street markings, artist Simon Rouby became fascinated by the ongoing painting and repainting of traffic lines on the freeways and streets of Los Angeles, like some vast and unacknowledged readymade art project.

[Images: Photos by Simon Rouby for “Yellow Line“].

Could this huge urban painting apparatus be temporarily repurposed, Rouby wondered—leading him to contact Caltrans directly and embark upon a project with the rather straightforward name of “Yellow Line.”

That project, Rouby explains, introduced him “to the California Transportation ‘Striping Crew.’ I followed them while they poured miles of yellow paint onto the concrete of Los Angeles. With them I got to know the biggest and most congested network of freeways in the United States, and built my understanding of Los Angeles, a gigantic city where people meet everyday, but at 60 miles per hour on the freeways. Millions of cars per day, from which 75% drive alone, despite traffic and smog.”

“We also did canvases,” Rouby adds, “painted directly with their trucks.”

[Image: From “Yellow Line” by Simon Rouby].

Nonetheless, it’s not those canvases but the project’s most basic conceptual move—putting the Caltrans striping crews into the same context as, say, Jackson Pollack or Marcel Duchamp—that interests me the most here, implying new possibilities for interpretation, even whole new futures for art history and landscape criticism, with this recognition of avant-garde projects going on disguised as the everyday environment.

[Image: From “Yellow Line” by Simon Rouby].

Pushing this further, the transportation system itself becomes an earthworks project that dwarfs the—by contrast—embarrassingly unambitious Michael Heizer or Robert Smithson, revealing Caltrans, not Field Operations or any other white-collar design firm, as one of the most high-stakes landscape practitioners—a parallel civilization of mound builders hidden in plain sight—at work in the world today.

In any case, Simon Rouby’s “Yellow Line” is on display at the Caltrans District 7 Building—100 South Main Street, Los Angeles—until 28 September 2012.