BY Helen Molesworth in Reviews | 07 JUN 97
Featured in
Issue 35

Nils Norman

BY Helen Molesworth in Reviews | 07 JUN 97

The two major instances of Utopianism in the 20th century stand in marked relation to one another: the Soviet revolution of 1917 and the civil rights and free speech movements, student uprisings and anti-war protests collectively referred to as 'The 60s' in the United States and Europe. The former was overtaken by dictatorship and the mammoth forces of totalitarianism, the latter has either been sucked into the ever more absorbent sponge of Capitalism, or it has retreated and retrenched into the narcissism of the ego. While the Soviet experiment in both art and politics now appears to be relegated, almost exclusively, to the realm of academic nostalgia, current attitudes to the struggles for social change of the 60s are manifested much more ambivalently.

Nils Norman's recent exhibition 'Social Surplus' was a particularly compelling instance of this ambivalence. Working within the context of the upcoming New York city Mayoral Election, Norman chose four New York City sites for fictional urban redevelopment. He proposed a monument to civil disobedience in Tompkins Square Park; the transformation of the Great Lawn in Central Park into an edible garden; a kiosk run by barter instead of money; and a Lower East Side tenement transformed into housing and garden space for the 'Underground Agrarians'. The proposals take the form of well-crafted HO-scale models. They are accompanied by computer-generated urban-planner style proposals, as if made by an architectural firm, which are pinned to the wall. The models are quite lovely, miniatures with an almost magical quality. Each model's companion text is funny in a barbed, tongue-in-cheek manner. The edible garden will enable 'city dwellers to cultivate their own produce, compost and commune with nature in the very heart of the city', and will be managed by a co-op whose participants will be answerable to a 'rigorous review program and tribunals'. Meanwhile, back at the ranch, the Underground Agrarians are experimenting with the development of prosthetic limbs in order to aid with their organic gardening efforts, the proceeds of which help to fund their organisation.

The models present the city as a potentially generative site for renewal, while the posters court means of exchange that could be potentially non-Capitalist. The effect is that these works marry the Modernist legacy of Utopian city planning (and the kiosk is perhaps a nod to the designs of the Soviets) with the alternative lifestyle ethos of the commune, in other words, the fallout of 60s activism. The work reads like Le Corbusier channelled through Jane Jacobs presented by the Whole Earth Catalogue. Yet these works are never purely humorous, cynical, or sincere. The tone of the pieces is generally hard to read, and this appears deliberate given the projects' overall use of ambivalence as a structuring device.

The exhibition seems to dramatise, albeit in a low-key fashion, the problem of how the post-60s generation thinks of social change when the terms of Utopia have ceased to be viable. Utopian thought now appears in a double guise, on one hand proven historically ineffective, its failures writ all too large; on the other hand, mildly embarrassing, riddled with a naiveté (about race, gender, class, and sexuality) that now appears problematic. This sense of failure and embarrassment is compounded by the fact that the residual effects of movements for social change have been manifested largely as lifestyles, however alternative, for the white and upper-middle class. And yet the question floats, however quietly, above these fanciful miniatures and wry posters: how do we think change, without some version of an ideal, an ideal that has historically been couched in the language of Utopia?

One of the problems appears to be that the post-60s generation came of age in a culture marked more by scarcity (the 70s oil crisis, inflation, over-population, accelerated environmental degradation) than the economic boom and sense of plenitude experienced by the generation born at the end of World War II; a plenitude demanded access to by the Civil Rights Movement. This may be the reason why Norman's proposals skate such a thin line not only between humour and sincerity, but also between the total fiction of the proposals and the need, nonetheless, that many of us feel to live 'alternatively', or at least to think about it. Thanks to the vagaries of history we know all too well the terms of the problem, so much so that even to ask 'what is to be done?' seems, frankly, to miss the point. It's a classic lose-lose scenario, which means that the ambivalence of Norman's works skirt the terrain of irony, and perhaps despite themselves, end up provoking melancholy.