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.

“500 Years of Utopia” Opens

[Image: Thomas More’s Utopia].

There are two quick thing coming up this week that I wanted to post about:

1) At 7pm on Wednesday, November 9, I’ll be moderating a public conversation with an amazing group of Los Angeles-based designers, architects, and critics at USC’s Doheny Memorial Library. This is part of a larger evening, organized around the theme of “500 Years of Utopia.”

2016, after all, is the 500th anniversary of the publication of Thomas More’s book, and we’ll be launching a small exhibition looking back at More’s influence on political, urban, and even architectural thought—but more on that, below.

[Image: “500 Years of Utopia” title card; design by David Mellen].

Kicking things off at 7pm on Wednesday evening, Los Angeles Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne will be interviewing Alex Ross, music critic for the New Yorker and author of The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the 20th Century; they’ll be discussing the relationship between émigré composers in Southern California, the music of exile, and “utopian thought.”

This will be followed by a panel discussion featuring urbanist and landscape architect Mia Lehrer; games designer and critic Jeff Watson; architect and writer Victor Jones; and critic Christopher Hawthorne.

We’ll be looking at the role of utopia in contemporary design, with a specific focus on questions of access. We can talk about utopia all we like, in other words—but utopia for whom? In other words, if utopia is already here, who has access to it? Who has the right to design utopia? Who has the right to critique it?

[Image: Early type experiment for “500 Years of Utopia”; design by David Mellen].

Last but not least, we’ll hear from journalist and critic Claire Hoffman, who will introduce us to her newly published memoir Greetings from Utopia Park: Surviving a Transcendent Childhood.

The event is free and open to the public; however, please RSVP if you hope to attend. More information is available at that link, including parking, street address, and more.

[Image: Thomas More’s Utopia].

The second thing I wanted to mention, then, is in the same place and on the same evening, but at 5:30pm. We will be kicking off our brand new exhibition, in USC’s Doheny Memorial Library, called “500 Years of Utopia.”

For 500 years, utopia—a word coined by Sir Thomas More to describe the ideal city—has been used as popular shorthand for a perfect world and lies at the heart of the Western political imagination. But what does it really mean today in the context of 21st-century urbanism, especially in a megacity like Los Angeles that has been the setting for utopian and dystopian thinking almost since its founding? A new exhibition of materials from the USC Libraries’ collections explores these questions, the history of utopian thinking, and the fine line between utopia and dystopia.

In addition to a wealth of utopian/dystopian material taken directly from the USC Libraries, we’ve used an interesting graphic approach of overlaid, differently colored exhibition text, one (in red) offering a utopian interpretation of the media and objects on display, the other (in blue) offering a dystopian spin. Decoder glasses will be on hand to assist…

Please stop by for our opening reception at 5:30pm on Wednesday, November 9. It, too, is free and open to the public, and it segues directly into the event that kicks off at 7pm.

More information is available over at USC.

L.A.T.B.D.

[Image: L.A.T.B.D. by Smout Allen for USC Libraries; photo by Stonehouse Photographic].

I wanted to give a quick heads up that a new collaborative exhibition will be opening to the public later today in the Doheny Memorial Library at USC here in Los Angeles, featuring work by myself and Smout Allen.

Called L.A.T.B.D., the project looks at diverse narrative, scientific, architectural, and landscape futures of Los Angeles. It is a city always yet to be determined—or L.A., T.B.D.

The exhibition actually comes at the very end of the 2015 USC Libraries Discovery Fellowship, which I’ve had the honor of holding this year, the challenge of which was to use the archival holdings of USC as a springboard for looking forward toward whatever Los Angeles might become.

Like plotting a ballistic trajectory, if we know where L.A. has been—if we can see the ingredients of its past, from its prehuman landscapes to the 2012 procession of the Space Shuttle—can we determine where the city might be, 10, 20, 100 years from now?

[Image: L.A.T.B.D. by Smout Allen for USC Libraries; photo by Stonehouse Photographic].

The overall curatorial idea was that, hidden within USC’s impressive and seemingly endless archival holdings, there might be glimpses of an L.A. yet to come, and that a project such as this should find a way of bringing that future version of the city into focus.

However, not one for prediction or prescriptive visions of tomorrow, I wanted this to be far more open-ended than that. We thus developed several parallel lines of materials for the show.

[Image: L.A.T.B.D. by Smout Allen for USC Libraries; photo by Stonehouse Photographic].

One, of course, are a series of gorgeous models designed and fabricated by Smout Allen, showing various hypothetical scenarios for the future city. In one, huge pendulums have been installed beneath the streets to act as seismic counterweights, protecting the city from earthquakes.

In another, the titanic forces released by plate tectonics can be captured by a new kind of power station, converting those otherwise threatening movements of the earth into a source of renewable energy.

In yet another, the city’s freeway system has been converted into a kind of immersive astronomical device, to help train the eyes of this city of stars on an older and more important firmament above.

This work also served as a direct source for the related project we did for this year’s inaugural Chicago Architecture Biennial.

[Image: L.A.T.B.D. by Smout Allen for USC Libraries; photo by Stonehouse Photographic].

Another key part of the L.A.T.B.D. exhibition is an interactive text that allows visitors to, in a sense, choose their own future for the metropolis. This text combines a small-scale look at what sort of Los Angeles might yet greet our unborn descendants—complete with neighborhoods flooded by sea-level rise, widespread demographic shifts, and corrupt political machinations—with a subtext of noir or urban mystery.

Put another way, if this is a city known for its conspiracies and crimes—whether it’s Chinatown, O.J. Simpson, bank heists, or the novels of James Ellroy—can we use that same narrative register to explore the city’s future infrastructure?

[Images: L.A.T.B.D.‘s accompanying exhibition text, designed by David Mellen Design; terrible photos by Geoff Manaugh].

I started referring to this as a kind of architectural or infrastructural noir, and I’ve come to really like the phrase: the accompanying exhibition text is thus not at all what you’d expect to see in a typical gallery setting, but instead tells an endlessly branching “noir” about the next Los Angeles—by, in some ways, revealing what Los Angeles really was, all along.

[Image: L.A.T.B.D.‘s accompanying exhibition text, designed by David Mellen Design; terrible photo by Geoff Manaugh].

Finally, the exhibition includes a series of historical artifacts from the USC Libraries holdings, from old scientific reports to transportation policy papers, from obsolete urban predictions from the 1980s to board games set in a premodern L.A.

Here, working with designer David Mellen, we had a lot of fun, deliberately crossing and recrossing the line between fiction and reality: that is, not every artifact you see in the exhibition should be trusted, and things might not always be what they seem.

There’s much more to say about the exhibition, but I wanted to get a quick post up before the show opens later this afternoon. There is a reception tonight at 5:30pm in the library, or consider stopping by on Saturday, October 17, from noon to 1pm, to talk to myself and Smout Allen about the project. Saturday’s event is part of the “Archives Bazaar.”

L.A.T.B.D. was made possible by support from the USC Libraries Discovery Fellowship, the Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL, and the British Council. Special thanks are owed to Dean Catherine Quinlan; to Jeff Watson; to the USC Libraries staff; and to Harry Grocott, Doug Miller, and Sandra Youkhana.