With our fondness for anything retro, the relics of dead utopias have today become a indispensable collector’s item for the postmodern connoisseur. In contrast, Nils Norman re-activates utopian thinking as an instrument to address political issues in relation to their specific contexts. The greater part of his work takes the form of proposals for the redevelopment of urban spaces or architectural sites. To visualize his plans Norman uses H0 scale models and computer-generated posters or diagrams. They have a peculiar aesthetic: all Norman’s work meets the standards of official presentation material employed by urban planners, yet the models testify to a playful DIY-spirit and are assembled with a love for minute detail. In a similar homemade fashion the diagrams are designed with the help of basic graphic software. As a result, Norman’s work looks like perfectly reasonable plans while at the same time suggesting the free play of an individual imagination.
In the course of the last five years Norman has repeatedly focussed on the problematic aspects of urban planning and gentrification schemes in New York. In the face of the mayoral election in 1997 he staged the exhibition ‘Social Surplus’ at American Fine Arts in New York. Here he presented models for the transformation of specific city sites: for example, airwalk-bridges (to protect people from police eviction) inserted between the trees of Tompkins Square Park, which Norman declared would be a monument to civil disobedience. He further proposed the conversion of the Great Lawn in Central Park into allotments and the installation of a solar-powered kiosk as the centre for a community bartering system. In 1999 the exhibition ‘The Cruel Dialectic: Opportunity and Decay’ (also at American Fine Arts) commented on the city’s development plans for the Hudson River Parks, which meant that the vast belt of green space on New York’s West Side would be turned over to private business interests. As an alternative Norman imagined the gardens to be taken over by activists and renamed ‘Protestation Park’. He envisioned the erection of a camp protected by collapsible bridges and supplied with ecological food from a Greenhouse Barge Atoll (19?? Is this a work?) floating freely on the Hudson river. Viewing moats would be excavated to expose the different layers of rubbish on which the park, a former landfill, is built.
In all these proposals Norman highlights a distinctive mode of utopian thinking: to invent a fiction that throws the shortcomings of reality into sharp relief. By laying out imaginary alternatives to the policies of capitalist urban planning he pinpoints the brutalism inherent in the privatization of public space and the increase of police surveillance as means to maximize the economic potential of urban environments. Norman has also published a collection of photographs, The Contemporary Picturesque (2001), which document the way privatized city space is cordoned off by security cameras, barriers or studs designed to render pavements free from the homeless. These were juxtaposed with images of the improvised structures of protest-culture: treehouses, platforms and barricades.
In many of Norman’s works the concepts of ‘permaculture’ figure large. In ‘The Generali Model Micro Farm and Socius / Psyche Urban Machine for Affirmative Alternative Practices’ or ‘The Generali Multiple Exchange Machine’ (1998 are these works or exhibitions?) he proposed to the E. A. Generali Foundation that it sell its art collection and grow mushrooms in their now empty storage space. To transform the insurance company’s building into a self-sustained ecosystem, he suggested (among other things) the construction of an edible roof with a chicken coop, solar panels and facilities for the cleaning of a rainwater and the composting of human waste. Critical of the capitalist growth economy and advocating the use of regenerative energy resources, Norman’s Generali model remains faithful to the principles of permaculture and adopts a technique known as ‘stacking’: the compost will not only fertilize the vegetable garden but also heat the chicken coop, while the scraps from the garden feed the chickens, which then produce more manure to add to the turf roof, and so on. It is part of the fun of Norman’s proposals to see how he always ‘stacks’ slightly too many multi-functional elements, resulting in something between an ecological utopia and a bricoleur’s paradise.
As in good science-fiction, utopian scenarios acquire their suggestiveness by drawing on extensive research and combining knowledge from diverse scientific sources in new and unexpected ways. Regardless of whether they are realizable or not, utopian projects operate as a vehicle for the condensation and distribution of information. Taking this aspect of utopian thought literally, Norman has built different vehicles for the proliferation of alternative forms of knowledge: The Gerrard Winstanley Radical Gardening, Space Reclamation Mobile Field Center and Weather Station Prototype (1999) is a bicycle with a custom trailer that carries a library in a wooden container, a photocopier powered by a solar panel and a meteorological device for 24 hour weather updates. The library brings together a heterogeneous mixture of academic books on urbanism and ecological design, grassroots publications on eco-activism and radical gardening, as well as satirical comics about life in New Age and Crusty subcultures.
Extending this idea, Norman designed Geocruiser. The Mother Coach. Zone: Earth. (2001) which holds a library, a reading room with computer and photocopier, and a greenhouse. Solar panels on the outside of the bus gather solar energy, while a reed bed water filtration system collects and cleans rain water. The project was initiated by Norman together with Stefan Kalmár at the Institute of Visual Culture in Cambridge, which exhibited plans and models of the proposal earlier this year. The coach is under construction and will travel to a series of art institutions in Europe in Autumn 2001. On its tour the coach will serve as a venue for a series of events, talks and conferences organized by the local host institutions. The Geocruiser picks up the tradition of utopian visions of mobile infrastructures – ranging from archigram’s Walking City (1964) to the psychedelic coach of the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour – but extends it into a decidedly more factual prototype for a contemporary critical discourse on wheels.
The main reason postmodernist critical theory dismissed utopianism was the latter’s propensity to conflate ethics and politics in precarious ways: it is the essence of historic utopian theory to first define the principle of happiness and then use this principle as the foundation for the constituency of the ‘perfect’ state. As a result, utopianism not only has a playful, speculative side but also a normative dimension. (For his Utopia (1516) Thomas More worked out a schedule to regulate every aspect of the citizen’s daily life – when to work, when to eat, when to play and procreate – as a way to increase their health and happiness). It is one of the merits of Norman’s work that he frees the speculative dimension of utopian thinking from the fallacies of defining the state of human ‘normality’. When he discusses ecology, Norman stays clear of any essentialist ‘mother earth’ ideology. By substituting ethics with humour his work makes political thinking seem attractive. Too many political moralists demand that the world listen to what they believe to be the best solution to the planet’s problems. Norman, on the contrary, courts the viewer with a seductive ‘what if …’. It is this difference in attitude that opens a space for thought and dialogue instead of closing the discussion with a list of what and what isn’t acceptable. Through his work Norman promotes utopianism – not as an ideological system of beliefs – but as mode of thinking that combines the precision of rational analysis with the speculative drive of the imagination.